Save the planet, read Gerald Durrell
When one looks back at Gerald Durrell’s wildlife writing, it makes one wonder why the author himself did not think much of it at all. In fact, the naturalist and conservationist, who would have turned 94 on January 7, constantly compared himself to his brother, Lawrence — the author of the Alexandria Quartet novels — because “the subtle difference between us is that he loves writing and I don’t”. This is almost impossible to believe, especially if you have been reduced to helpless laughter by his literary masterpieces.
I, like many others, started reading Durrell not only because he wrote about animals but also because I was told he was hilarious. ‘Hilarious’ is putting it mildly, for days passed by in a blur as The Bafut Beagles, The Aye-Aye and I, Catch Me A Colobus and, of course, My Family and Other Animals were devoured and the laughter would not stop. Durrell not only brought literary genres such as the memoir and the naturalist’s diary together but was also as funny as Wodehouse, something that cannot be said about many natural history writers. Is it possible to forget Achilles — the tortoise who hurtled off “at top speed” to eat wild strawberries alone — Margo’s run-in with a fake clairvoyant or Larry comparing his mother’s new swimsuit to “a badly skinned whale”?
Humour and joy were the pillars on which Durrell’s works stood; he rejoiced in the natural world in a way few have. There is nothing whimsical about his lifelong love for natural history. It is both funny and deeply serious, and only an unfortunate person will think that humour dilutes seriousness.
But what makes Durrell’s books — based on his experiences on the famed island of Corfu and extending to places like Madagascar, Patagonia and Cameroon — even more compelling is the childlike fascination of discovering the original beauty of the planet. Corfu was Durrell’s paradise; he made it one, however, not through folklore, but through the reality of its plants, mammals, birds and insects. Durrell made them all come alive as if they were human; who else could render the toil of two dung beetles rolling a dung ball into their burrow so moving?
Durrell, in fact, pioneered the vision of zoos as centres for introducing species back into the wild. He predicted the dreadful loss of the planet’s biodiversity before most; today, with Earth’s sixth mass extinction under way, one remembers how he believed that the wiping out of an animal species “is a criminal offence, in the same way as the destruction of anything we cannot recreate or replace, such as a Rembrandt or the Acropolis”. In a letter to future generations, he wrote, “We hope that there will be fireflies and glow-worms at night to guide you... that your dawns will have an orchestra of birdsong... that there will still be the extraordinary varieties of creatures sharing the land of the planet with you to enchant you and enrich your lives... that you will be grateful for having been born into such a magical world.” Might young people still have a chance to see — and save — that world if they read his books?