It’s only a photograph, but it’s one of my most treasured possessions. It shows a toddler – me, when I was maybe eighteen months old dressed in what can only be described as knickerbockers, and holding my hand out to a jackdaw. It’s in colour, but given its age – it was taken back in the early 1960s – it has faded into subtle, pastel shades. And it marks the first recorded moment in my life that I consciously connected with a bird.
I say ‘consciously’, but of course I can’t recall this incident at all. Nor can I remember the next tipping point that marked the beginning of my lifelong passion for birds and wildlife. As with so many childhood ‘memories’, I am only aware of this other key encounter through a second-hand source. My late mother used to tell me that one day, when I was about three years old, she took me down to the local river to feed the birds. Apparently I asked her what ‘the funny black ducks’ were. She didn’t know, but when we got home she dug out a copy of The Observer’s Book of Birds and identified them as coots.
I was hooked. From then on birds were my passion, one that has continued throughout my adult life, and will be with me until my dying day.
From such small beginnings, the course of a life is changed. In his groundbreaking book Fever Pitch, author Nick Hornby describes his own moment of epiphany, when his dad took him to watch his first football match at Arsenal. He muses on how that single moment shaped the rest of his life, and momentarily wonders what might have happened had his dad chosen to take him to the museum or the zoo rather than to watch football.
He also takes issue with the scorn of others, who berate him for ‘not having grown up’, as if continuing a child’s passion into adulthood is somehow wrong. As he rightly points out, it is those people who do not have a link between their childhood passions and their current lives who are missing out.
So when Hornby sees a penalty miss or a spectacular goal, or when Arsenal win the FA Cup (as they did yet again this year), the event leads to a rush of memories of similar triumphs and disasters from the past. Likewise, when I see a particular species, or notice some unusual behaviour, or simply visit a familiar place to watch birds, the memories come back – sometimes slowly, at other times in a dazzling rush of visions, sounds and emotions.
These are all the more vivid because I am one of that generation of children who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, whose lives were not documented by parents on a daily basis – indeed, were hardly documented at all. I have a few treasured possessions, a handful of photographs, but absolutely no moving images, either of my childhood or my family. The idea that my life could exist outside my memory, in an online storehouse of social media postings, stills and videos, is as foreign a concept to me as the notion that I could have walked on the moon.
But when I watch a great crested grebe chick calling plaintively to its mother, as I did the other day, I am transported back almost half a century to a visit to our local gravel pits on the edge of London, when my mother and I saw the same behaviour. When I hear a snatch of birdsong, or see a flock of birds cross a darkening sky, other memories are evoked ,sometimes so momentary they hardly deserve to be labelled as memories at all. But in the absence of more tangible evidence from my childhood, they will have to do.
I can – and do – recreate these memories when writing about nature. This began about twenty-five years ago, when I started my monthly ‘Birdwatch’ column in the Guardian. One month, when very little of note had happened in the bird world, I dredged up a memory from my childhood, and wrote about that. It seemed to work, and eventually I had so many of these that I compiled them into a book, This Birding Life. Since then I have written about the past more often, though always recalling the advice of my former editor Celia Locks, who warned that such reminiscences can end up reading like one of those dreadful Christmas round-robin letters.
But when I do conjure up another moment from the past, especially when it has been triggered by an incident in the present, I am always glad that I have. And when I wrote about my family’s first year living in Somerset in A Sky Full of Starlings, and then a few years later found my son Charlie reading it in bed, I can’t tell you how good that made me feel.
And now I am passing on my thoughts about memory and nature to a new cohort of budding nature writers, studying for an MA in Travel & Nature Writing at Bath Spa University. Watching my students doing a memory exercise, and then producing wonderful pieces of writing in which place and nature evoke their own childhood memories, is very rewarding. And it proves to me that this link between present-day encounters in the natural world, and those from long, long ago, is something worth nurturing.
Looking ahead, what are the special moments I experience in the natural world now, if not tomorrow’s memories? Perhaps that is why people who love nature always seem so contented; for they know that this continuity between their past, present and future lives can be evoked at any moment, simply through hearing a bird sing.
STEPHEN MOSS’S latest book, Wild Kingdom (Vintage, £9.99), has been shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for Travel and Nature Writing.