Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | August 8, 2009

Gerald Durrell

A recent chance discussion with a friend led me to a book very beloved to my childhood but one I have not read in a long time. My Family and Other Animals, and its author, Gerald Durrell. Gerald Durrell was one of my first post Enid Blyton authors and one I found immensely enjoyable. His books are about minute descriptions of the lives of all kinds of animals that range from cicadas to pandas. In My Family and Other Animals he gives an account of his life with his family (one would imagine from the title of the book that they were the actual animals and “other” animals were, well, just other animals) on the Greek island of Corfu. The book has many descriptions that I find remarkable in their richness, language, empathy and sheer joy. It was as if the five year old boy, which the author was at that time, was living the lives of the dogs, worms, insects and birds and narrating their points of view processed through the mind of a experienced adult.

A passage that had particularly struck me then from the book “Bafut Beagles” was (I rummaged through my mother’s cupboard where she keeps our old stuff and found it handwritten in “Dear Diary” fashion from years ago):

Now I have always liked toads, for I have found them to be quiet, well-behaved creatures with a charm of their own; they have not the wildly excitable and rather oafish character of the frog, nor his gulping and moist appearance. But, until I met these two, I had always imagined that all toads were pretty much the same, and that having met one you had met them all as far as personality was concerned, though they might differ much in colour and appearance. But I very soon found out that these two amphibians had personalities so striking that they might almost have been mammals.

These creatures are called Brow-leaf Toads, because the curious cream-coloured marking on the back is, in shape and colour, exactly like a dead and withered leaf. If the toad crouches down on the floor of the forest it merges into its background perfectly. Hence its English title; its scientific title is ‘ Eyebrow Toad’, which in Latin sounds even more apt:Bufo superciliarus, for the Brow-leaf, on first acquaintance, gives the impression of being overwhelmingly supercilious. Above its large eyes the skin is hitched up intotwo little points, so that the creature has its eyebrows raised at the world in a markedly sardonic manner. The immensely wide mouth adds to this impression of aristocratic conceit by drooping gently at the corners, thus giving the toad a faintly sneering expression that can only be achieved by one other animal that I know of, the camel. Add to this the slow, swaggering walk, and the fact that the creature squats down every two or three steps and gazes at-you with a sort of pitying disdain, and you begin to feel that superciliousness could not go much farther.”

He wrote a bunch of other books and in each he gave in his incredibly fun way, accounts of his encounters with animals on various expeditions.  As a 12 year old, I remember thinking, after reading, “This is great. I want to do this”. He established, among many other things, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which has been widely recognized for its work in animal husbandry and for preserving many different species. By the time he passed away in 1995, he had received honors from many different countries including an Order of the British Emprire. Gerald Durrell, to me, will always be the one and perhaps only person who actually made it fun to be an ant or a worm. He got inside the heads of his animal friends and told their stories in first person, to a human specie that was otherwise too opaque or callous to either notice or understand. In today’s world where the fragility of the balance that comes from the co-existence of different forms of life is often overlooked, his patient, wise, humor-filled and compelling voice reminds us of the need to look at life as the sum total of all that is living, not just our own specie.

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