It’s not every day that people are overcome with emotion whilst reading a children’s book, but this happened to me yesterday. My son (16 months) and I were flicking through one of his favourite books, One Gorilla. This book is full of stunning illustrations of the author and illustrator’s favourite animals, always with her favourite animal the gorilla present somewhere in the drawing. As with many books at this stage of development, my son has a page which he likes to stay on and has me read over and over again (in his case, the one with cats in the garden) but it was whilst we were counting the five pandas in the snow that I had my ‘epiphany’. For a moment, I saw the world through my son’s eyes. All the beauty that surrounds us in nature and the many animals and ecosystems contained within our extraordinary planet that he has yet to discover.
I imagined the first time he joins me to see Barbary macaques in the Cedar forests of Morocco or perhaps, when a bit older, a sighting of a critically endangered woolly monkey emerging from its rainforest hideout in the Peruvian Amazon (I am a volunteer and trustee for the charities Moroccan and Neotropical Primate Conservation). I imagined taking him snorkelling and seeing the cacophony of colours that the ocean floor has to offer. For now even just a trip to the pond at the bottom of the garden to see frogs in their natural environment must feel for him like the first sighting of a dodo.
With a background in conservation and having spent much of my 20s seeing some fairly rare animals in the wild, I sometimes forget how lucky I am to have had this opportunity to travel and see flora and fauna which, by the time my son is at university, may not even be there. As usual for someone who dedicates their life both to the joys of knowing these incredible creatures exist and to helping fellow conservationists at the frontline of a battle that we are not necessarily winning, my feeling of elation at reading this book with Wilf was simultaneously tinged by the sadness of knowing that my role as a grants fundraiser and education programme writer of two conservation charities will always be essential if future generations are to share the planet with other amazing species.
But of course the choices that we make in our daily lives are just as important. Deciding to buy local and organic, declining the decimation of water supplies and the rainforest for soya feed, land waste and the sheer mass cruelty involved in slaughtering the billions of animals needed to sustain our addiction to meat, eggs and dairy, taking the bike instead of the car, the train instead of a plane, putting a jumper on instead of turning the heating up…..these are all small decisions that those living in the developed world (indeed those who are primarily responsible for heating up our planet) have the privilege and indeed the responsibility to try to take. A shocking statistic was revealed by WWF (World Wide Fund For Nature) two years ago that in the last 40 years, half of the world’s wildlife that has ever existed, went extinct. This has a huge impact on me as this happened pretty much during the entire time of my presence on this earth.
We can and must use new technology to protect the planet and prevent further such extinctions, but it has undeniably allowed us to speed up its decline at a massive rate. I became an unwitting conservationist age 11 when I finally persuaded my family to let me turn vegetarian, however it was not until later in life that I made the link between our lifestyle habits and Earth’s survival, when I decided to make further changes in my lifestyle including going vegan, eating only local and organic and limiting my fuel consumption. Whilst many fear these sorts of changes will impact upon their quality of life, I actually feel the opposite is true because I feel like I am actively preserving the planet and making a difference to future generations. I hope that as my son grows he will feel happy that I decided to bring him up in this way, meaning that no matter how much rainforest is razed or the planet heats up or animals go extinct in the first 40 years of his life, he will have had very little responsibility in this (and be a healthier person with a closer relationship to food and its origins as a result).
One day I will have to explain to him why I’m not keen on the page in his book ‘One Gorilla’ that has pet budgerigars in it, and why I change the words to the song Old MacDonald Had a Farm (or maybe he will work it out for himself) and why the books we read at home are slightly different to ones other children read (about animals in the wild and stories of kindness and love rather than the unrealistic images portrayed of happy animals growing up playing in the fields on farms). ‘One Gorilla’ made a difference to my day and one book can shape the way children are programmed to think in our society, either banalising the idea that nature and animals are our minions, or allowing children to see that we can live in symbiosis with the life around us. So here’s to a future of beautiful books and reading experiences and guardianship of the natural world around us alongside our children.