Guest blog – A ‘Minor’ Encounter with Nature by Findlay Wilde

IMG_0213Findlay Wilde is a friend of mine. He blogged here in 2012 (Is the future in safe hands?), 2013 (Guests at Nature’s Table), 2014 (Wishing you a Harry Christmas) and now this is his 2015 blog!







Back in June this year, I posted a series of guest blogs on the theme of “13 Years Wilde” on my own blog WildeAboutBirds. I asked a selection of people that I know, and who have inspired me in some way, to write a blog about their relationships with nature when they were my age, 13. What started out as just a curious interest in what other people were doing at my age turned out to be something so much bigger. The 19 fantastic blogs were written with such honesty and feeling that it has been impossible not to be moved by them. I must just say a massive thank you to them all for taking the time to think back and put so much effort into their guest blogs.

There were some really clear themes that came out of the blogs and this is what I want to share in this guest blog, and also look at how it all compares to being 13 years wilde today.

Before I get into the themes that came out of the blogs, I just want to talk about the fact that only two of the blogs were written by females; Lucy McRobert and my head teacher Miss Brandreth. There has been quite a bit of interest in this and I never really thought about it when I was asking people to write the blogs. I didn’t deliberately choose to ask mainly males to write the blogs, it is just a fact that most of the people I have met throughout my natural world journey so far have been male. However, in the people I interact with about nature, who are about my age, there is quite an even split between males and females.

Reading back through the blogs, I found that there were 4 main themes that kept coming up; the “lost years”, the power of a single interaction with nature, the comforting, healing side of nature and the importance of having a great mentor or people willing to support and listen to you.

The Lost Years
Quite a few people wrote in their blogs about how they thought it would be easy to write about their relationships with nature at 13, but then realised when they looked back, that 13 was probably when they started to become the most disconnected with nature. Dr Rob Sheldon wrote “I can’t remember the specific timing, but it was when I was about 13, my interest in birds and wildlife waned.” Lucy McRobert wrote “In fact, thirteen was probably the turning point when I stopped caring as much about nature until I was in my second year of university.” This wasn’t the case across all the blogs of course, but it was a common theme.

13 seemed to have been a tricky age for a lot of the guest bloggers. In fact, most of their years at high school were full of intense choices, or at least choices that felt intense at the time. Any hobbies you had were no longer accepted and seen as normal, the education system didn’t (and still doesn’t) do much to encourage engaging with the natural world and you became more worried about what your friends were thinking, or what they said.

I see this as a big issue if we are ever going to change peoples’ attitudes about how to safeguard the future of the natural world. All of the guest bloggers who suffered the lost years did come back to nature in some way later in life, but sadly this is not the case for so many others. The lost years are some of the most important learning years of our lives, but so few people my age understand the extent of the damage the human race is doing. For me, it needs and has to be a core subject across secondary schools and room can be made for it in the national curriculum. Let’s all start thinking 500 years ahead not just 5 years ahead. But that’s a blog post for another day.

The Power of a Single Encounter
There were so many great examples in the guest blogs of how a single interaction with nature has stayed in people’s memories. Jules Howard wrote “I remember only a single really meaningful encounter with nature at 13 and it was quite short and simple.” It was migrating frogs that did it for him. Miss Brandreth wrote “I remember sitting one night by the back door and, in the light of a full moon, Shep and I held the gaze of a beautiful fox which stared at us motionless for a few moments.” Chris Packham wrote “I remember my first Whitethroat, Grasshopper Warbler and nearly bursting when I saw my first roding Woodcock.” And Martin Harper’s guest blog starts with the opening line “It was a dandelion seed that did it.”

I am sure most people reading Mark’s blog have a wildlife encounter that stands out in their minds. That was one of the great things about the guest blogs, the open sharing of experiences that so many of us can relate to in some way. I bet most of you have some strong pictures in your mind of a simple, but amazing engagement with nature.

Nature – a safe place to turn to.
There were some very dark times in quite a few of the blogs which I found quite hard to read and have thought about quite a lot. In all these examples it was shown that the natural world helped give people somewhere to escape to or a way pick themselves back up again.

Stephen Le Quense wrote “I look back when I was 13 and I see a troubled, fragile 13 year old, who was determined to do well at school but who sought out the outdoors as a place of safety, a place of refugee, where I could escape and feel free.” Lucy McRobert wrote about her mum dying “If I’d been connected with wildlife throughout my teens, it would have brought me such comfort.”

I’m not exactly sure why nature can be such a comfort to people, but I think it is because everything just fits together and works together and goes on about its business with such a focus that you sort of just get lost in it. That’s how it is for me anyway.

The Mentors
Many of the guest bloggers wrote about the difference having a mentor made in their teens. Andy Clements (Director of the BTO) wrote “So, how did I get from those shaky first steps to here? Like so many others it was the influence of an important mentor, mine in the shape of my biology teacher Barry Goater.”

For me though, the blog that most summed up the importance of a mentor was the one written by Douglas McFarlane. Nature had been a big part of his life until the sudden and unexpected death of his dad. Douglas wrote “his death hit me hard sending me into a very destructive circle of violence and petty crime”. But fortunately for him Mrs Hapkiss at his school came along and didn’t give up on him. One of the most moving lines in his post was “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.”

Imagine if we all had a Mrs Hapkiss in our lives; imagine if you could be a Mrs Hapkiss! There are so many youngsters out there, me included, who need supportive mentors and people that can help, guide and sometimes just listen.

So What’s It Like Being 13 Today
Well quite a few things haven’t changed. Adolescence still seems to be difficult (I know I am finding it tough at times), and whatever your interests are, they are still viewed by some peers to be unpopular. Matt Shardlow put it brilliantly in his guest blog by saying “Adolescence is our own metamorphism”. Any part of any interest can get judged unfairly by your peers; have you got the right brand and colour of footy boots, have you got the latest gadgets.

But I do think there are easier ways to find other people that do share your interests these days. Social media has introduced me to a massive group of like minded people that constantly reassure me that I am quite normal in what I am choosing to do. Having said that, as much as we are free to roam the internet, we don’t get the true freedom to roam the countryside as others did back then.

Mentors are just as important now as they were back then, but from my experience I don’t think there are as many of the traditional types of mentor as there were seen in the guest blogs, such as the ones in school. I have also been unfortunate to encounter mentors that have discouraged rather than encourage me, by having very strong opinions on how I should be engaging with nature, rather than guiding and letting me find my own way. But I do meet a lot of great people when I am out and about who are more than happy to share their experience, knowledge, scopes and biscuits!

Mentors are so important. The natural world has a better chance of becoming important to 13 year olds when those with the power to have an influence make it a priority and explode its possibilities. You don’t get into or out of nature. You’re surrounded by it all the time, but too many people “choose” to bypass it or other people remove it for them.

But I think the one big thing that hasn’t changed, and I hope won’t ever change, is the power of nature to pull you in when you really aren’t expecting it. Those moments that make all your senses come alive and you know that you have just experienced something so special, that you will still remember it years and years later, as all the guest blogs proved.

So what was “ 13 years Wilde” like for you?


12 Replies to “Guest blog – A ‘Minor’ Encounter with Nature by Findlay Wilde”

  1. A powerful blog Findlay, and so important when considering the challenges that our teen years present. I’ve not long retired having spent my working life trying to give young people opportunities to engage with the wild world. Your blog and Mark’s ‘behind the binoculars’ have caused me to reflect and I only wish I could have done more for more young people with more powerful experiences. But then I think it is inevitable that life draws us away from ‘nature’ as a hobby with other activities to experience and other demands at this stage of life. Our return however must, as you suggest, depend on that early connection and experience as well as finding a social setting in which we are comfortable and have fun, so we’ll done and good luck with making opportunities for yourself and others – we know it’s a fantastic wild world and what we get by being part of it!

  2. One of the most eloquent and moving blogs I’ve read on here. Thank you Findlay.

    And thanks Mark for giving this young man the space and encouragement to allow his passion to develop.

  3. It’s about time Findlay started to do some mentoring of his own. He could start with all politicians.
    Every teacher should be made to read this, understand what is being said and then act on it. Every day of their lives!
    How can he be so adult whilst adults are being so juvenile?

  4. Thank you Findlay,

    You have touched on so many things here. I think the passion, energy and vigour of a new generation is required to turn the direction of our culture around.

  5. An excellent blog Findley. Really interesting to read that “lost years” & loosing a connection with nature is so common. My disconnection around the age of 12 had far reaching consequences throughout my teens & twenties, impacting my education & mental health. Returning & reconnecting in my late twenties, as I started to enjoy walks with my young son has lead to countless incredible experiences, gaining a degree & becoming involved with a number of conservation issues.
    yourself & other young nature enthusiasts who are passionate, knowledgeable & very accessible via social media could well be an inspirational antidote to other teens disconnecting & loosing interest.

  6. What a great blog Findlay. I think you’ve picked out some really important points, in particular the importance of mentors guiding their mentees but also allowing them to find their own way to develop their interest in nature.

    In answer to your question, for me, being 13 seemed bloomin awful at the time (though in hindsight it wasn’t so bad!). I was an awkward, un-confident, teenager with the wrong shoes, the wrong hair and braces on my teeth, so being interested in birds was just one more thing for my peers to taunt me about (teenagers can be very cruel to each other!).

    But I was also very lucky. I was lucky to be a member of a really brilliant local YOC group (that’s what Wildlife Explorers was called in the old days) with a really supportive group of like-minded people my age, and brilliant mentors. Our group leader, Derek Bolton, was inspirational. Derek set up a teenagers’ sub-group, recognising a need to develop separate activities for the older YOC members long before RSPB had thought of RSPB Phoenix. He also got us to develop our own mentoring skills by helping the younger kids in the regular group, and arranged a really wide variety of activities for us. We went birdwatching, on bat walks, moth trapping, built nestboxes, did a whole load of conservation tasks (nothing like a bit of hedge laying, scrub bashing or pond digging to get rid of some teenage angst!), did all sorts of fundraising events and he and his wife Margaret even led the very first YOC visits to Russia (meeting up with Russian and American young people interested in wildlife). What great opportunities we had because of him! But your blog has made me realise that the thing he was really, REALLY, brilliant at was fostering everyone’s individual interest by playing to our strengths and allowing us to develop our own paths. 25 years later I’m still in touch with quite a few of my peers from that group, who include a couple of RSPB and Wildlife Trust wardens, a TCV volunteer coordinator, environmental consultants, research scientists (including me – I work for the BTO), conservation fundraisers, and some people who don’t have environmental careers but still have a great interest in the natural world. And now we’re all passing that interest on to our own kids. I wonder how different all our lives would be if we hadn’t been inspired by Derek.

    Derek sadly died earlier this year and will be greatly missed, but what a legacy he has left.

    Now you’ve got me thinking very hard about how I can do more to help to mentor young people, and inspire the next generation. Well done!

  7. Jumping in the nettles and catching that fox. Running back to me dad and asking if I could keep it. No it is too big. Not the start I wanted!!

  8. Thanks Findlay. I was reminded of a trip to Farlington Marsh via the mini of one Hazel Bidmead nearly forty years ago. I googled her and it seems that others also fondly remembered her generosity and knowledge, some of whom are now professional birders/tourguides

  9. Brilliant stuff as always Findlay. I remember chatting to you about many of these things at Hen Harrier Eve. I myself developed a love of nature as soon as I was old enough to realise it existed, 3, maybe 4 years old. When I was 13 a band called the Sex Pistols burst onto the scene and by the time I was 14 I had multi-coloured spikey hair and all the mad clothes (a bit like Chris Packham). Most of my evenings were spent in grotty clubs in London watching punk bands and my Saturdays were spent in the raucous environment of football stadia, usually watching my beloved QPR lose. But my love of the natural world never waned. Every chance I got I was out enjoying the peace and tranquility of the countryside. You’d expect my peers ie The London Punks and a load of footy herberts to frown upon my passion but amazingly I found the opposite to be true. I’d turned my very tolerant parent’s front room into a public aquarium/reptile and amphibian centre. You should see a room full of spikey zip clad punk rockers absolutely spellbound by a collection of animals. So fascinated were they by my axolotl breeding program that I ended up setting up aquariums for some of them and supplying them with their own breeding stock. I even took some of them into the woods at night to look for badgers, foxes and deer. They enjoyed it so much they wanted to do it again and did.

    So I suppose the point I’m making is that everyone has the capacity to connect with nature at any age and with a bit of the right encouragement can get great pleasure from it. I guess I’ve just blown the myth of the ‘ferocious’ 70s punk scene but it proves a point. So teenage nature lovers – you don’t have to buckle to peer pressure to stay one of the boys or girls. Share the joy you get from nature to influence them. Trust me you can, and if anyone can Findlay can.

  10. An excellent guest blog Findlay, and I echo Roger Pannell’s comment about Mark giving you the space and encouragement to develop your passion.
    Keep up the good work; nature needs more people like yourself.

  11. Findlay,you are simply amazing and it is natural for Mark,Chris and many others to be pleased to mentor you also you are so lucky that your Mum and Dad really encourage you as I realise from what you said at the Quarry you were the one who encouraged them to be more into nature but they certainly take part and travel you around.
    Think they are your most important mentors.

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