When I was little, my father would read to me, and one of his favourites was Romany and Raq — a series of wildlife books (and radio series) written and presented by the Rev. George Bramwell Evens (1884–1943). Evens was born to a gypsy father and Roma mother. He presented himself as Romany, and spent his summers in a caravan with his spaniel Raq. The books, published between 1929 and 1944 (plus Walks with Romany?), showcased his detailed and warmly narrated forays into nature, with Raq and two girls, Muriel and Doris. An iPlayer BBC Witness programme produced just after his death in 1943 can still be heard.
I still have the books, although I’ve yet to read them with the children. However, they’ve informed their childhood already. One of my clearest recollections of his books (40 years later) was the description of the hedgehog, snuffling through the undergrowth, climbing walls and using its spines as shock-absorbers after a fall – and the details of how a badger might eat a hedgehog when a fox may not. (Also the recipe where you roll the hog in clay and cook it in an open fire – not something I’ve tried.)
I remember reading on my dad’s knee, snuggled tired and warm by the fire with my pyjamas, milk and biscuit, letting his voice carry me back out into the fields and woods where I’d spent my day. That I knew the woods and the creatures that lived there meant that the read was almost immersive: I could feel the peaty ground and knotted roots beneath my feet and smell the autumn leaves. I knew the feel of an earthworm on my fingers and the waving rhythm of a snail. But do my own children, now, know these things? We want our children to be literate and we concentrate so hard on getting them not only to read, but to enjoy reading – and yet how different is it, to read a book that is pure imagination, compared to reading a book that takes us through our own experiences and then BEYOND, into a land of imagination? How much more can we draw from a story, if we can feel the world in which it’s set?
And thousands of children’s books draw on, or allude to, the natural world.
The other night, I was driving my child home from an evening event when I spotted a hedgehog sprinting across the road. I only saw him for a few fleeting seconds, but this is exciting for us: hedgehog numbers have been in alarming decline over the last few years. They were such a familiar and regular sight in my own childhood, I can’t imagine their childhoods without them – crunching snails, scratching their fleas and rolling into balls — yet the last time my children saw one close-up was in 2008. Since then, fences have been erected, a badger has been living locally, and traffic has increased, all of which put hedgehogs at risk. I leapt out of my car to have a look but failed to get a clear photo (managed a very blurry one…). And I decided to take the children out night-walking, to see if we could find him again.
The hedgehog reminded me of all the old children’s books that I used to read, that referenced elements of the natural world as a matter of course. For example, the names of the rabbits in Watership Down: Campion, Vervain, Buckthorn, Woundwort, Hazel and Holly, just to name six of many. Do my children even know they are named after plants, let alone what they look like and whether they are edible or have uses? I don’t know them all – I can stumble through dandelion, dock, brambles, groundsel, and plantain but my grandmother would have been able to produce a paragraph on every plant in the field as a matter of course. She would not only have known the plants that the rabbits were named after, she would have known why.
And what about all the many, many animal books that they read? I sometimes wonder how my children experience these, when for example they’ve never held an owl pellet, and rarely seen a wild owl? I sit by my desk when everyone’s asleep, hearing the local tawny owl, but I struggle to remember whether my children know its soft whoo-hoo? (Tawny male: whoo-hoo, tawny male and female: kewick, barn owl: inhuman shriek.) I can tell you the magpie’s call, and the cuckoo, but struggle with the difference between robin and blackbird. I’ve lived in the countryside for most of my life, and yet my knowledge is limited in ways that my grandmother would find incomprehensible. I can hear her voice, ‘Well, you must have heard them?’ Of course I have.
(Here are the calls of the nightingale, blackcap, blackbird, woodlark, mistle thrush, skylark, robin, song thrush, wren, and marsh warbler.)
Earlier in the day, I took my youngest out for a day-time walk and we kicked leaves as we wandered through the lanes. We found sweet chestnut shells lying opened, with fat squirrels clinging to the trees above. I showed him how… well, OK, I showed him how to stab yourself in the finger with a chestnut husk, and warned him to watch for the shape of the husk and not to confuse them with the more accessible but poisonous horse chestnuts. These differences are part of my childhood lexicon, but he could barely picture them (he’s seen conkers, of course, but he’s still young). We took some of the nuts back home for our little field mouse, Fizz, and it surprised me that my son didn’t want to put them in his pocket. He did, however, find dock and plantain, to decorate her tank. I’ve said to the children, always when you have an animal you can’t release, at least recreate their natural environment.
As we walked through the fields, I showed him where the animals would live: rabbits and possibly hares, foxes, badgers, field mice, bank and field voles, shrews, rats, and grey squirrels. (And in the past, harvest mice in the crops and water voles in the stream.) We saw wood pigeons and talked about falcons. Herring gulls and buzzards soared overhead; we found soft feathers on the ground and we talked about the fluffy inner feathers and the outer, smooth ones. We spoke of small birds in winter and the volume-to-surface-area benefits of huddling together to keep warm.
We found blackberries and ate until our fingers were purple, and I also showed him St John’s Wort and cautioned him not to eat it, or snap the stems, because the sap is an irritant. We saw rosehips and I explained that these are, in some way, edible (syrup?) but that I didn’t know how or what to do with them and that some things need cooking: so leave them for now. (Do the seeds contain cyanide? But I’ve heard the same said of apple seeds? All these things I’ve never checked… and again my grandmother would have known. I should ask my mother and father.) We saw celandines, thistles, bracken, and those little pink flowers in hedgerows… and a whole host of others that I couldn’t name. We went home with pockets full of leaves and nuts.
It seemed an obvious day to do a night walk. I’d seen the hedgehog about 9pm the previous day, and although it was probably a long-shot, I thought I’d try to find it again. So at 8:30pm, when my children were starting to snuggle into pyjamas and consider supper and bed, I said, ‘Let’s go looking for hedgehogs!’ They stared at the wild, windy night, shuddered with a mixture of panic and glee – and pulled on their jumpers.
We didn’t find our hedgehog (or haven’t yet) and the local wildlife doesn’t all come out at the same time, so to see them all is likely to require multiple trips — the bats fly at dusk (7:30-8pm), the badger is variable, and the fox doesn’t surface until about 10:30pm – but we did hear a rat (plus cat?) shrieking in a bush, and we saw Jupiter and some shooting stars. Still, the children were excited. They’ve yet to learn how to move without making a noise, and they’re frightened enough of the dark to be very alert, so they crashed around looking startled. Instead of arguing about bedtime or picking a book or movie, they were jumping at a creaking bough or an ankle-height rustle. When they got home, about 9:30pm, they were cold and barely stayed awake long enough to swallow hot chocolates and snuggle under warm duvets.
We’ll do it all again, and also at dawn (rabbits and herons). They need to know the names of plants and animals, be able to not just identify the moths, butterflies, mammals, fish and birds around us, but also to track them, feel them, and know them. To know the colour of the buzzard’s eyes (brown but quite golden in some lights) and the feel of a rabbit’s fur behind its ears (so smooth as to be difficult to feel), to stroke a mole backwards and forwards (same) and to pick up a shrew (proper shrieky, twisty and bitey).
And to know that the edible mushrooms that would fill you up look exactly the same as the poisonous mushrooms that will kill you, because mushrooms are buggers. Still, the poisonous, red, spotty toadstools (Fly agaric) are very pretty and, just like everything else we saw and didn’t see today, totally magic.