I think it’s time I apologised to all those creatures I accidentally killed or merely annoyed during my childhood explorations of nature in the countryside of my youth, during the 1960s. I was just being an amateur scientist, honest…
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.
That’s from Shakespeare’s King Lear, although I first saw the quote at the beginning of a 1967 scif-fi short story called Flies, by the superb Robert Silverberg .
But OK, I wasn’t a boy and I wasn’t wanton and I didn’t mean to hurt them – all those creatures I collected as a child. I was just being inquisitive…
Today children in the UK are protected (perhaps overprotected?) from wandering off by themselves to explore.
And nature itself is mostly protected from theft, which is probably a good thing. Not that I accept total personal responsibility for the destruction of the British countryside over the past 50 years.
I’ll start with probably my worst offence. Like most children of the time, my friends and I fished with a jam-jar on a piece of string for minnows and sticklebacks in our local brook, about half a mile from home.
Sometimes I would bring the innocent little fish home. I remember one occasion when I put a couple of them in water in a big sweet-jar of the sort my mother used for pickling onions. I left it outside and fed them with chickweed, which was apparently the best thing to give them.
But it was a hot summer and I forgot all about the fish. I started to suspect they weren’t doing very well and didn’t go near. Finally my mother insisted I sorted it out and I found the poor things dead and white and bloated on the surface of the warm water in the jar.
The memory abides, although I don’t recall how I disposed of the evidence of my poor care for nature’s creatures. I would like to think I buried the fish with some reverence, but I doubt it.
One thing is sure though. I didn’t bring tiddlers home from the brook again.
Then there was the time we went to the seaside and I brought back a plastic bag I had filled with shells from the beach – probably mussel shells or slipper limpets – not thinking about the fact that some of their owners were still inside.
I forgot all about them. You can imagine the smell a week later when I opened the bag…
Then there was that poor frog I found in the garden. I put it in an old plastic bucket and brought it into the living room to show my mummy. But as frogs do, it leaped to a great height and disappeared somewhere. We couldn’t find it.
Until about a year later when we moved the settee and found a very flat, dry shape like one of those origami frogs before you blow through its tail end to inflate it. Except it was black and mummified. Poor thing…
There were also the red ants, but at least I didn’t kill those, just annoyed them a lot, I guess. Not understanding nest organisation and the importance of queen ants, I simply took a light purple silk-fringed coolie hat I had bought at the seaside and tried to convince the ants to live under it.
I did this by picking up any red ants I saw and simply placing them under the hat, on a patch of soil. I hope they all found their way home safely…
At times I had something of a matchbox menagerie, keeping for a while ladybirds and any other insect I came across, until I got bored and released them again.
You must watch Melanie Safka singing Alexander Beetle…
I also caught butterflies in a net – but released them again, rather than pinning them to a page as many children (mostly little boys) did in those days.
I am reminded of William Wordsworth’s To a Butterfly, which we studied at school:
My sister Emmeline and I
Together chased the butterfly!
… But she, God love her, feared to brush
The dust from off its wings.
And I didn’t collect little blue birds’ eggs from the hedges and blow their contents out after making a little hole at one end and a bigger one at the other. I remember my mother once catching my brother doing that and being very upset.
My mother wouldn’t hurt a fly, or even a spider. “If you want to live and thrive, let the spider run alive”, she would say.
Today I don’t see that many butterflies or frogs around. And the little brooks everywhere are drying up.
It wasn’t my fault, was it?
See more of my nostalgia blog posts here