Nurture a passion for nature

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
An account of a naturalist who encourages his child's fledgling interest in his life's work is pure magic for Gerald Haigh

Nature's Child: encounters with wonders of the natural world By John Lister-Kaye Little, Brown pound;16.99

One of the true joys of teaching is that you get to guide children through the same discoveries - first encounters with everything from familiar songs and nursery rhymes to the intricacies of planetary motion - that have shaped your own world of understanding and enjoyment. So when the teacher says: "It keeps me young," it's a truth that's rather more literal than you might think.

The process is much the same for a parent of course, except that without the discipline that keeps teacher and child focused, a lot is left to chance. You're working and worrying, counting money and writing job applications while, behind your back, your children are passing through the years you should be giving them. And in any case, they aren't much interested in what turns you on. The violin never comes out of its case, and you end up feeding the rabbits yourself before rushing off to work.

For Sir John Lister-Kaye, though, for one golden period in his life, in the late 1990s, everything came out right. His youngest child, Hermione, turned out to have an unbounded interest in the natural world at the same time he was running the Aigas Field Centre in the Scottish Highlands, and reinforcing his reputation as one of the UK's most distinguished naturalists and environmental educators.

So finding Hermione, then aged six, collecting caterpillars from the garden was the start of a wonderful period in which Lister-Kaye shared his talent and deep knowledge with a daughter eager to learn.

"That afternoon I glimpsed in this late child a rare opportunity: not only a second go at parenthood within the exciting possibilities of my own subject, but also, if she really was to become even a short-term amateur naturalist, the chance to gain a companion with whom I could revisit my own country childhood."

The book tells the story - actually many stories - of the journey they made together over about six years, not only in Scotland but across Britain and Europe and into Africa. As they travel, Hermione learns about nature, her father gains in wisdom, and we, the readers, are enlightened and enriched.

The book has many memorable passages. There is, for example, Lister-Kaye's account of how Hermione reared four newly hatched starlings, abandoned when the beech tree bearing their nest fell down. One of the birds, which she called Raymond, was undersized and inadequate.

"Raymond was singled out for intensive care. Beetles were crushed and dismembered so that he could better cope with them: caterpillars of scrambled egg were delicately oozed into his gullet through a plastic syringe."

But there is no happy ending here, and Raymond begins eventually to fade.

"The signals were grim. I had known all along that he was out of the race.

Raymond was her favourite and he was closing down; just fizzling out."

It was, of course, part of the business of learning, and Lister-Kaye movingly describes the process of coming to terms with Raymond's fate. In the end, Hermione shows sad acceptance. "There was a pause and then she said, 'I think we've done our best, Daddy, don't you?'"

Hermione's journey is filled with contrasts. At one end of the scale is that gentle cupping in the palm of a frail nestling, while at the other is an encounter on a wild Hebridean shore with a huge bull seal, panicked into charging towards her because she seems to be blocking his escape route to the sea.

"She was out of my reach and I could only stand and watch this colossal beast weighing well over half a ton charge straight at my nine-year-old daughter. It brushed past her at a few inches' range and plunged over the rock's end. All she could say was, 'He had bad breath!'"

Hermione is, without doubt, a privileged child. Few of us can take our children to see the desert sky, or to watch a polar bear with her cubs.

Hand on heart, though, we know that within our own range of interests and resources, we could always do more than we do, so the lesson of this book is a familiar and recurring one. It says that if, as teacher, parent or grandparent, you seize upon a child's natural urge to discover and learn, and if you follow his or her interests, nudging here, prodding there, leading when it seems right, and always feeding in your own wisdom and knowledge, that's when you'll see - and experience - real learning. And in the process, of course, you'll discover a great deal about yourself.

Aigas Field Centre:

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