Book review: Adventures of a Young Naturalist by David Attenborough

(cover image courtesy Hatchette Australia)

When you come to know someone later in their life, it is all too easy to assume, and we often do, that they have always been exactly like the person you see before you.

We do it with parents and grandparents, teachers and authority figures of all kinds, even new friends, the assumption being that they arrived somehow fully formed at the point at which you came to know them.

But that is, of course, far from the truth, with everyone being the sum total of their life experiences, shaped and changed by experiences large and small, the bedrock of who they are, both of nurture and nature, largely unchanged but its expression always, welcomingly, in flux.

David Attenborough, now known for a lifetime of dedication to the cause of animal conservation and a celebration of the wild majesty and diversity of the natural world, is, like everyone vastly different now from who he was decades before.

As Adventures of a Young Naturalist, released in 2017, brings charmingly and illuminatingly to life, Attenborough has changed a great deal since his early days in television though the essence of who he is, a man committed to celebrating and bringing the natural world, has very much remained the same.

Beginning in 1954 with he and his team’s first Zoo Quest expedition to Guyana where they were charged with collecting animal specimens for London Zoo while filming their exploits for a new style of BBC nature program, through to 1958 with their trip to Paraguay, with a trip to Indonesia slipped in in-between, David Attenborough regales us with a life that has always been fascinated with the animals and plants of this most wondrous of planets.

“These days zoos don’t send out animal collectors on quests to bring ’em back alive. And quite right too. The natural world is under more than enough pressure as it is, without being robbed of its most beautiful, charismatic and rarest inhabitants … ” (P. vii)

He is the first to admit, on the first page of Adventures of a Young Naturalist no less, that the world has changed greatly since these days.

No longer do zoos send expeditions to take specimens from the environments in which they live, concentrating instead on breeding them within a complex network of carefully-calibrated programs which ensure all the animals that routinely attract people to zoos, such as tigers, lions, giraffes and rhinoceros, have not been plucked off savannahs and out of jungles.

But back in the 1950s, as the enthralling books of Gerald Durrell also document, things were different and Attenborough was different and it was seen as perfectly acceptable to send out expeditions to capture various animals such as armadillos and Komodo Dragons and to film the natural world from that perspective.

We are now far more accustomed to seeing the jungles and seas and grasslands of the world from a far more naturalistic perspective, but these types of wildlife documentaries were in their infancy at this time, and in fact, the capturing and filming expeditions Attenborough recounts with his trademark enthusiasm and passion were a new thing, a way of bringing nature into the living rooms of people who had largely never seen these animals or their home environments before.

Sir David Attenborough (image courtesy Hatchette Australia)

In giving us an insight into his experiences during this formative period of his career as a documenter of the natural world, Attenborough permits us a chance to see who he is before he becomes the man of considerable myth and legend.

He is rightly viewed as having been one of the key people instrumental in helping people to see how incredibly diverse and endlessly fascinating the animals and plants we share the world with are, and it all began in many ways on these expeditions which see him venturing into regions which were, at the time, only beginning to comprehensively shape nature into man’s far less attractive and far more utilitarian image.

What we see in Adventures of a Young Naturalist is a man who is much as we know him now, passionate about animals, consumed with seeing and experiencing as much as he can of rare and impressive animals, and committed to helping people see the world as he sees it.

That part of him, the part we have to know through an extensive catalogue of programs is very much in place and as enchantingly in place, his reverence and care for the natural world and the impelling need to protect it in evidence on every immersively interesting page.

Reading like a fast-paced travelogue where he encounters idiosyncratic characters, animals that at the time were the height of exotic novelty, and environments still largely in their ancestral estates, though under increasing threat, Attenborough regales us with tales of animals lost, and found, worlds alive with an endless biodiversity and the way in which humanity was beginning to alter them, often not for the better.

“With a final jump, I landed on the ground, seized the sack and ran after the snake which was now within three yards of the bamboo. If we were going to catch it, I should have to tackle it myself. Fortunately, it was so intent on reaching the bamboo that it paid no regard whatsoever to me as I ran after it but continued wriggling onwards with surprising rapidity for so large a snake.” (P. 153)

In a sense, Adventures of a Young Naturalist is a snapshot of a man who is grappling with how you bring the natural world to people without destroying it in the first place.

As the books’ dust jacket eloquently admits – “The methods may be outdated now, but the fascination and respect for the wildlife, the people and the environment – and the importance of protecting these wild places – is not” – and time and again we see the Attenborough we know and love extolling the thrilling beauty and wonder of a world that offers so much to those who are prepared to look and listen properly.

Attenborough is naturally a man who approaches things wholly differently now in terms of how to promote the important message of protecting the natural world, but a book like Adventures of a Young Naturalist helps us see how he came to be that person, offering us a chance to get to know him better and to see him at the very start of what has been, and thankfully continues to be even in his mid-nineties, a remarkable life dedicated to championing the vitality of people and places that bear no heed to our far more pragmatic modern concerns.

Things may have changed, and rightly so as Attenborough notes, but what we see in this beautiful book is a man on the cusp of a remarkable career, one which owes to its roots to someone who, from the very start, was prepared to upend the status quo even as he worked within it, and who, thanks to the experiences detailed in Adventures of a Young Naturalist came to be the man we know and love today, someone to whom we, and the diversity of nature, owe a great debt.

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