It's time for another 13 Years Wilde blog and this one really shows the positive power nature can have on you. I got to know Douglas McFarlane through blogging and social media. He writes a great blog and takes really amazing pictures. He has always been very supportive and encouraging and I think I understand why now, after reading his very honest guest blog about being 13. His guest blog just shows the difference one person can make to your life and it's amazing just how much nature can change the way we see things. I am really glad that Douglas had Mrs Hapkiss and it's even more special that he was able to thank her all those years later. This blog really made me think a lot about things.
When Findlay asked me to write a blog about what nature meant to me at thirteen it’s with no exaggeration I laughed my head off. Why me? An over and often wrongly opinionated wildlife photographer/lorry driver but at two very important parts of my life nature meant without exaggeration FREEDOM and then later in my life it saved my life, let me explain.
By the time I was thirteen I had only been living in the UK for five years and had lived in Northamptonshire for about a year. I was a lucky kid if I’m honest. Prior to moving the UK and I had spent the first eight years of my life living in Concorde just outside San Francisco. My dad had worked his way from state school to Vice President of Bank of America. Part of his job was to go to new and emerging countries/economies and help set up banking systems, mostly in Africa as they seeked independence from their colonial masters. I was also fortunate that my dad was very keen on my two sisters and me to experience the outdoors. The great big National Parks was one of the reasons he wanted to work and live in America. He often when possible took the family with him on his business trips before the age of eight I was lucky enough to have visited Kenya, Gambia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Japan, South Korea, Egypt and weirdly Syria.
My earliest child hood memories were earthquakes (a lot of them), wildfires, huge Redwood trees, National Parks, bears,as kids trying to catch Terrapins and thanks to Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco I had to dodge Pelicans trying to steal my crab sandwiches my first encounter with birds and feeling somewhat sorry for the Sea Lions lazily lying around on the rafts. It was a great country in which to experience wildlife and the great outdoors.
We moved back to UK in 1986 to at the time a small village called East Grinstead in Sussex. Again my childhood was filled with nature but more by pure chance then deliberate engagement. Our school for example had us collect tadpoles which we placed in tanks and logged their progress from tadpole to frogs. We were taken on walks through nearby woods to see Bluebells. Our playing fields especially the football pitches were often home to Adders and Grass Snakes and before we actually played football we would have to go and pick them up and move them, do you think a school would allow students to do that these days? I had been bitten several times. And at an early age could tell the difference between Grass Snakes and Adders which given the amount of times I was bitten was important. As a family we would walk our dogs on Ashdown Forest and heard what I now know is a nightjar and were lucky enough to have both House martins and Swifts nesting on our house I could lean out by bedroom window and watch the coming and goings of what today is now one of my favourite birds.
My dad really hated us sitting down and watching TV we were actually limited to how much we were allowed to watch, if we didn’t go out and play we were forced to help and do some DIY around the house. East Grinstead was a brilliant place at the time to grow up. We would cycle to a small swamp behind the squash club and catch tadpoles and dragonflies, my friends dad, Nick Holby was a farmer and I learnt how sheep and cows were born and often had to help, I loved it.
When we visited my grandparents’ home in Northolt and other relatives homes in Harrow and Eastcote we would stand in the garden and feed House Sparrows from the hand. My other strongest memory was sitting in a Pizza Hut in Piccadilly Circus watching tens and thousands of Starlings roosting in the city centre, the noise was deafening the sheer numbers made most murmarations I see nowadays look tiny in comparison.
But I wasn’t a bird watcher I didn’t go collecting eggs or searching out bird nests. My real connection to nature at that time came from being like my dad and going fishing and trying to guess what birds we were seeing only happened if the fish weren't biting. My dad and I fished everywhere. We were obsessed to be honest we had gone to Ireland, watched in horror (well I laughed) as my dad watch an Osprey snatch his catch in Scotland, fished the Nile and gone on numerous sea fishing trips. My other connection to nature at the time came courtesy of the Boy Scout movement which sadly not many people get involved in with these days. But which had us camping outdoors, exploring woodland and just generally enjoying the outdoors.
We then moved to Northampton and a housing estate that’s called Rectory Farm, sadly it reflects where we are currently at with nature and concreting over the countryside as it was an actual farm that became a housing estate the community centre was the old barn and farmhouse, the pub at the top of my road was called the Barn Owl. My school's emblem had a Barn Owl on the front and we often would see Barn Owl's sadly their area is also now a housing estate. We had plenty of nature around us from bats in our lofts, again more House martins and at the bottom of the estate were two small lakes a small brook and then farmer’s field and the countryside. We would collect Sticklebacks, build a dam or two, make a rope swing over the brook, walk to a nearby country park and take our girlfriends for a quick snog in the cornfields....how romantic lol.
We’d only been living in Northampton for about a year when my dad returning from a business trip in Saudi Arabia contracted Deep Vein Thrombosis within twenty four hours of his arrival home he had died. My mum and sisters were at dog show in Leeds and it was just me and my mate Danny Pickford who was busy phoning for an ambulance as I held his hand and helplessly watch him take his last breath.
It would be fair to say his death hit me hard sending me into a very destructive circle of violence and petty crime, my mum and sisters weren’t as keen as my dad and I were of the great outdoors I had subsequently lost all interest in fishing, the Scouts seemed somewhat irrelevant and at the age of thirteen I was at a serious crossroads in my life…at thirteen! Looking back it was obvious I had no outlet and at the time no common interests with my mum. I had gone off the rails in a big way, in serious trouble both at school and out of school. I am ashamed to say I had even been arrested, more than once and was close to going into care or worse a Young Offenders Institute as my mother simply couldn’t control me. In a last ditch meeting/intervention involving my school teachers, social services, my mum and the police one teacher agreed to try and change my behaviour Mrs Hapkiss agreed to mentor me if she failed I was off into care or jail! Mrs Hapkiss was a true eccentric, a proper oddball. Once a flower power teenager of the 70's She taught history, English and taught sixth formers GCSE Government, Law and Politics she was a keen naturalist/birder and socialist, whatever that was; to me at the time a birder was like a train spotter something to be mocked and sadly bullied....Rather then be inspired by. We’d go out at weekends, her with her binoculars/scope me kicking my heels and a serious attitude problem. She’d point out this bird, that bird, this butterfly but none of it was sinking in to be honest or so I thought. Mrs Hapkiss perseverance, character and ability to make a subject come to life slowly sunk in a very subtle manner, which is important, you can't/shouldn't force it on people.
Eventually certain birds did start to be recognisable like Stonechats and thanks to the nearby Scout ground Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. The same area had Barn Owls which really did make an impact on me. We’d explore the nearby Lings Wood which is now the headquarters of our local wildlife trust. We visited Snettisham and nature shocked me and left a gobby teenager silent and awe struck at the sheer numbers of birds (Knots) flying in formation, something I hadn't seen since the Starlings at Pizza Hut in London, it must've triggered some sort of subtle memories as I actually for the first time since my dad's death broke down in tears, 14 months after his death I was finally and properly grieving.
By the time I was fifteen I had calmed down and hadn’t been in too much serious trouble for a couple of years. I left school at 16 and with the help of Mrs Hapkiss had avoided getting slung into prison and the loss of my FREEDOM. I did from the age of 16-28 sadly have no further connection with wildlife it was all about football, raves, work and women. I refer to this part of my life as 'the lost years'. I so wished I hadn't forgotten about nature.
I look back at what Mrs Hapkiss had done and wonder if schools or even teachers could possibly do what she did in todays modern schools, probably not. Too much time focussed on exam results and overly protective parents making sure kids only contact with adults is with relatives or stick them in front of the TV or laptop . It seems nature these days is not important enough and not worthy of being taught until if you are lucky you get to university. But she definitely had an impact on me. How? If I am honest I would struggle to explain exactly how she managed to turn my life around. I personally believe that it was multiple reasons: unstructured learning in the form of recognising and naming of species of birds, reading the text associated with the birds etc, socialising with people I wouldn't normally mix with, maybe it was just getting away from my usual surrondings and being back outdoors in fresh air again which was a massive part of my childhood prior to my dad’s death and having someone just listen to me and my problems and her character did make me laugh too. How she put up with my attitude and kept smiling and plugging away I never found out, sadly.
But undeniably my birding excursions with Mrs Hapkiss did have an impact as when I was thirty I had a big accident which left me with multiple injuries including a bleed on my brain which in turn effected my health mentally and amongst other issues left me battling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and to this day depression. I was treated with a new technique called Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing (EDMR) basically it's like hypnosis. It's now used extensively in treating our troops returning from conflict zones with PTSD. Weirdly nature weaved it's way into my subconscious after every session we talked about what I had been thinking of etc again those Knots, Barn Owl's and Housemartins featured heavily and my subsequent treatment had structured visits to nature reserves and volunteering at a falconry centre.
Again wildlife and enjoying nature helped me massively to deal with depression and once again played a vitally important role in saving my life, I had prior to treatment had tried to take my life on more then one occasion. I love the outdoors and enjoying whatever nature decides to show me. If I have a bad day at work or just feel the cloud of depression setting in just spending even just an hour completely relaxes me and slowly helps the depression ebb away.
In 2009 in Mrs Hapkiss passed away, I had spoken to her quite a bit before her passing and had seen her up at my local nature reserve a few times and once at Birdfair. I did thank her every time I bumped into her and we both wondered where I would be now if she hadn’t introduced me into bird watching. I looked at the people I used to hang around with some are dead, some are in and out of prison and I realised if it hadn’t been for nature I too could’ve ended up in prison or worse.
She truly believed the root to tackling some (not all) troublesome kids is with nature and creating an interest in learning using nature as tool rather than the accepted text books/revision/exam method currently used and by removing and not including nature in the curriculum would exclude/alienate so many so called problem children from the education system, I too strongly believe this too…I am living proof of that.