My life was intensely happy until I was six. I was completely clear about what I loved most: being outside with plants and animals.
At six and a half, suitcase in hand, I was sent to a boarding school run by Irish nuns. This was the early sixties, so no child-centred nurturing of an individual’s interests, but rather a focus on sin. Going to school was a life changing shock. For the next eight years (I moved to a freer school when I was fifteen) I spent over two thirds of each year feeling restricted. I longed for the holidays and half term weekends just to be back in savannah expanses, miles away from that dreaded barren place.
On arriving home, as soon as I was out of the car, I changed into comfortable shorts and a T shirt and set about hardening my feet with no shoes. I would rush outside and just listen, soaking in the singing insects and birds, especially the different doves filling the warm midday air with unhurried tunes. It would be no time before I found a chongololo or an ant lion.
Looking back through the long lens of time and my temperate northern home, I only now grasp the diversity of wildlife surrounding my earlier self. It was not unusual to spot a reedbuck or a duiker, a kudu or a mongoose.
We would picnic in granite kopjes, and there, rock rabbits roamed and porcupines hid, and in winter sprigs of seemingly dead resurrection plant greened up in a glass of water. We often saw chameleons, watching them change colour. Once, I found a tortoise with a broken shell on a road, and I nurtured it back into the wild. There were civet cats and night apes that came out in the dark. Our dogs occasionally went hunting at night, and came back stinking of polecat (a skunk) and or with porcupine quills in their cheeks. Once a bush pig mauled one of the dogs. There were aardvark too, in burrows near trees and termite heaps. And, one year, the day before Christmas, an Egyptian cobra wrapped itself around the engine of a new car. At night, I sometimes switched off my reading light when too many moths and beetles were dive bombing my book. Then if I listened carefully, I might hear nightjars, or jackals with pups in the distance. Thus the savannah woodland became my haven and fed my soul.
As I grew older, drawing and water colour painting became an important part of my love of nature because I discovered that they were powerful observation tools. I mainly painted wild flowers, grasses and trees, because they would keep still.
I tried to draw animals but only put down fleeting lines, managing better with small creatures that I caught and put in a large jar for a short while. Being the youngest in the family, I was on my own in the last few years, and feeling lonely or free from squabbles, I began to really ‘see’ what was around me. And it thrilled me.
Return to the Savannah Woodland Environment Print.