Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Escape into the unknown

15 September, 2014 - 09:49 -- John Burton

I have been pondering a recent conversation I had with Bill Oddie, a Council member of World Land Trust. We were discussing how parents influence their children. Or don’t, as the case may be.

Too often parents want to ‘encourage’ their kids, by interfering, taking over and controlling.

When I was about 14 or 15 years old, without telling me, my father wrote to Peter Scott to ask if he would meet me because I was interested in birds. (My father had met him briefly some 20 years earlier when they were both portrait painters.) I was absolutely mortified, kicked up no end of fuss and refused to go. It was nearly 20 years later that I actually met Peter (and got on with him incredibly well), but this type of parental ‘guidance’ (manipulation) often has that effect on stroppy teenagers.

Looking back on it, Bill and I agreed that a wish to escape parental control motivated much of what we both did as youngsters. One of the main reasons we went birdwatching and looking at nature, for example, was that it was a sure-fire way of escaping parental influence. From about age 10 or 11 years old, for me birdwatching was a way of going off with a friend to explore the woods and commons of suburban London.

Chased by park keepers when we tried to catch newts in the ponds, collecting empty lemonade bottles to get the deposit money, we roamed free. We caught grasshoppers, found puss moth caterpillars and, later, when we could afford binoculars, we watched birds.

But our enthusiasm, I am sure, was heightened by the fact that we had ‘escaped’, and were enjoying a relative freedom.

Bill was convinced of this: he had a bicycle at an earlier age than I did, and that also gave a freedom. I didn’t get a bike until I was 16, but a year or so later, I was cycling the 80 odd miles to Dungeness Bird Observatory for the weekend, and then the 320 miles to the Isles of Scilly.

Clearly the roads were far less busy with cars, but even so, it was a great adventure, to be beyond the reach of parents (remember there were no mobile phones in those days).

Later, aged 19, I hitch-hiked to Greece. On arriving in Salonica, I thought I would phone home. That is, until I found out it would cost nearly £5 – 20% of the entire budget for my travels. So my parents had to wait another three weeks until I got back.

Parents today actively encourage their children to engage with nature but, ironically, the efforts of various wildlife bodies to create totally protected environments to enable people to get close to nature might be counterproductive.

To create enthusiasts, you need something that little bit extra, and that comes with the really wild, experience, not from having wildlife in an environment that is health and safety conscious. You need to be able cycle into the (relatively) unknown, and nature needs to be a little off-limits.


Submitted by John on

Thanks for the feedback. And yes more than happy for you to share.

Submitted by fiona parkes on

I love your article! It took me on a trip down "memory lane" to my own childhood, and I can honestly say, that things WERE better then! Today, most children, sadly, do not experience raw nature, which is largely due, I feel, to the fear of what "might" happen to them by "bad" people. This is now so instilled into parents' minds from the media, which has done a wonderful job of implying that if you let your children loose in the countryside, they will be attacked, not by a bird, or an animal, but a HUMAN!

Submitted by John on

Thanks for this feedback too. I shall think of writing more about this when I next go to the Chaco -- it's a place where even now one can still experience that same sense of freedom and adventure. Where if you get lost (as two Italians apparently did a couple of years ago), you might not get found until too late. Temperatures getting on for 50 degrees, dirt roads with no traffic. But the Chaco forests are disappearing at a rate of an acre a MINUTE. So soon there will very few really wild places left.

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