There’s been quite a bit lately about wild animals roaming residential streets and business areas alongside many sharing photos of what’s happening in their gardens or what they discover on walks. Bottom line – nature is important to us, it provides an out from our hectic and chaotic environments, a place of solace and peace. And, it’s nothing new…
Reading John Master’s Loss of Eden trilogy, there is quite a bit about poaching and animal tracking. One young man, the son of the local squire, Lawrence Cate, should never have been sent to the front and in book 3 he is eventually shot for cowardice and deserting his post during an attack. However, all in his regiment, including his CO, saw his actions as shell shock – in the period before it was recognised. This provides food for thought in other directions, but young Lawrence faces his friends who volunteered to form the shooting party unblindfolded telling them about the song of the blackbird and how sweet it is compared to other birds. His retreat to mental bird watching was his escape from the horrors of what he was to face causing him to become paralysed at a time he most needed to be active. In contrast, the unit’s ace sniper was another young man, Fletcher Gorse, whose grandfather had taught him to poach, Fletcher in turn having taught Lawrence all he knew about the wilds of Kent.
Birds feature too in the famous Sebastian Faulks war novel – Birdsong – while a butterfly provides a poignant moment towards the end of Erich Maria Marque’s All quiet on the Western Front. But what about in Africa?
There are all the accounts of big game hunters turned soldier and intelligence agent such as Frederick Selous, Arnold Wienholt etc, while others such as Cherry Kearton were renowned wildlife photographers and authors. More telling though are the letters, memoirs and diaries men wrote – there are sometimes long descriptions of the fauna and flora passed, Bruce Cairnie’s diary in particular giving observations of the landscape. WW Campbell (East Africa by Motor Lorry) describes the various bugs he and other mechanical/motor transport drivers encountered. Richard Meinertzhagen whose diaries (and published versions) have raised many questions about their validity provide a rich insight into the wildlife of Africa through the drawings and sketches he populated the text with. No doubt these descriptions of nature when compared with descriptions of mud and other horrors from the Western Front gave the idea that the men serving in Africa were on safari, having an easy time. But for the men themselves it was an outlet, a way to deflect attention from the horrors they did not want to concern family with. For many, in Africa, nature was both a solace and the source of their greatest fear – it had more stealth and impact than the human enemy; it had no allegiance to any superpower other than itself and the laws of nature.