The Jay, The Beech and the Limpetshell - finding wild things with my kids by Richard Smyth. A review by Laura Parker
If we are going to save nature, and rescue the planet, we need to inspire the next generation. Those of us in the older age group haven’t exactly got a great track record ourselves, having managed to wipe out 60% of global animal populations since 1970.
Maybe the young ones will give us all hope. But that starts with us inspiring and educating them. Richard Smyth's book is a good place to begin. Looking at nature through the eyes of his two young children, Danny and Genevieve, he shows us how he engages their natural curiosity. Through the different objects they discover on their wanderings through woods, around rockpools in Whitley Bay and on the Yorkshire moors, including the beech leaf, jay feather and limpet shell of the title – he also recalls his own early explorations and notices how the world has changed.
His children are fortunate in having a nature writer as a father, who can instantly spot tadpoles, notice how a song thrush has used an ash tree stump as an anvil to crack open snail shells, hear woodpeckers and know if they are allowed to pick wood anemones. He observes their natural reactions: how they and all children love to run, spin, fall on the beach, touch holly prickles and go ‘ew’ at slugs. This causes him to reflect on his own childhood and that of his grandfather, stretching back to days of impossible-to-imagine abundance, when taking and collecting birds’ eggs was normal.
Interwoven with the wanderings is a fascinating chronicle of nature writing, from the earliest natural historians such as the Victorian writer Charles Waterton, to the authors (and talented illustrator) of the Reader’s Digest Book of Birds or the Collins Guide to Birdwatching – books which will make birders of a certain age mist up with nostalgia. He also dips in references to children’s classics such as The Wind in the Willows (not a fan: “a widely-loved childhood classic that I cordially loathe for a number of reasons”), considers the real fauna and flora of Winnie-the-Pooh’s 100 Aker wood (Wols and Rabbits but no Kangas or bears) and muses on how the Gruffalo’s illustrated habitat cannot possibly be a deep, dark, wood. This is lots of fun but there is learning here too – on what constitutes the mosaic habitat of the real 100 Aker wood, Ashdown Forest, with its birds-nest orchids and silver-studded blue butterflies, and why we have an enduring fascination with forests.
Richard Smyth (pictured right) has turned some easy strolls with children into a lesson for us all, told lightly and with humour. We can breeze through this book like a gold-ringed dragonfly, effortlessly picking up knowledge and insight, and, I think, hope, along the way.