"When you stop looking for the logic in this world, and start finding the magic, it all begins to make sense...."
The moment my amazing primary school teacher, Mrs Slater, showed me a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, I realised I was learning one of the most important lessons of my life, to look for the magic in the world around me and to wonder at every new discovery.
The transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly defies logic. It is magic. The 'how's' and the 'why's', the universal mystery of life.
All of this was almost overwhelming to the mind of a five year old. And it still is fifty years on, but it's essential learning.
Mrs Slater's nature table was prominent in our classroom, and each week every member of our class would bring in something to display on the table. It might be a pine cone we had found, or an old bird's nest, and Mrs Slater would explain to us what is was, what it did, and especially why it was important in the bigger scheme of things.
She was way ahead of her time, instilling in our young minds the importance of respecting nature, and her enthusiasm was infectious and real.
One day, one of my classmates brought in something extra special for the nature table, a glass jar with a screw lid, something like an old Kilner jar as I recall, containing some twigs and a handful of tiny little caterpillars. This was an exciting event, before this nothing on our nature table, however fascinating, was ever actually alive and moving.
Over time, the whole class watched the little caterpillars grow, munching away on their nettle leaves, which we replenished regularly from the school garden. The caterpillars grew steadily and we peered into their jar each day, observing them closely as they interacted with one another.
Then one Monday morning we arrived at the classroom to find the caterpillar jar was strangely still. The previously animated inhabitants were nowhere to be seen. In their place were about eight lifeless cocoons. Mrs Slater had already prepared us for this, but we were all still a little deflated when we saw that the characterful caterpillars that we had carefully nurtured were no more.
During the next few weeks we continued to bring in exhibits for our cherished nature table; carefully wrapped dandelion clocks, perhaps some leaves collected on a walk in the local park, the sky blue fragments of a blackbird's egg.
Each item was explained to us by Mrs Slater with her usual enthusiasm but nothing could replace the excitement of raising our caterpillars.
So imagine our delight when one morning we arrived at school to find Mrs Slater beaming.
Holding the caterpillar jar firmly in both hands, she went round the whole class, and one by one, showed us the most beautiful vivid orange and red winged beings, Tortoiseshell butterflies, some carefully drying their delicate wings on the remains of the nettles in the glass jar, others emerging from their chrysalises before our wide eyes. They were otherworldly, beautiful, delicate and ethereal, like the fairies in the Enid Blyton books that Mrs Slater would read to us.
This was astonishing, it had to be magic. Indeed it was, as the wonderful Mrs Slater explained to us that day, in the most important lesson of my life, that the world is not logical, the world is magical; and the more we accept that, the more this world will make sense to us.
"Look up! Look to the sky..."
Everybody in the class followed Mrs Slater through the 'secret' door from our classroom which led out on to the fire escape staircase high up on the side of the old school building. She carried the precious cargo of butterflies, perhaps six or eight of the colourful creatures, which were by now fluttering inside the glass jar, ready to try their wings for the first time in their lives.
When everyone was safely gathered on the fire escape, with a clear view of the sky, Mrs Slater told us to "look up, look to the sky" and with a flourish she removed the lid of the jar and released the magical beings into the air, as we all gasped with delight and wonder at the miracle playing out before us. We watched the butterflies circle and grow ever smaller as they disappeared up up and away into the blue, to experience whatever adventures we could imagine for them. And we could imagine, for Mrs Slater had shown us that truly anything is possible with imagination when it is combined with a sense of discovery and awe.
Whether or not she knew it (and she almost certainly did), Mrs Slater inspired me to delight in nature, something that would stay with me always.
Even to this day, I believe that Mrs Slater taught the five-year old me pretty much everything I needed to know about life, through her imaginative and exciting lessons.
Little did I know then that I would never again encounter another teacher like her, she was truly an original.
"Two and two can equal whatever you want it to..."
Some years later, in my secondary school, I sat in a typically dull maths class that was being led by a typically dull teacher.
I asked her to please explain why exactly two and two equals four. Of course she couldn't. She looked confused and slightly annoyed. "Because it does" she said.
It was a light bulb moment for me, I realised that she knew nothing and I was wasting my time.
At that point, aged about twelve, I began to skip school lessons and I embarked on my own journey of self education, viewing the world around me with that same sense of wonder I had learnt in Mrs Slater's class.
I had already found that two and two could equal whatever you wanted it to, it was a matter of perception, and having an understanding that not everything in life is as it appears to be.
And now, at the age of 55, I realise that my twelve-year old self made the right decision and I should thank that dull maths teacher really for showing me the ultimate futility of so much received knowledge.
I wasn't contrary about everything, that would be ignorant and smug, but I didn't blithely accept what I was told.
And I still don't.
Sometimes it's correct to adopt a logical(ish) approach to important matters, such as environmental protection, but it must not be the type of cold received logic that got us into the catastrophic mess we're in. Where there is no appreciation of nature's logic-defying magic, then any attempt at repairing the damage we've already done will surely fail.
We need to be in awe of nature.
Felling trees and killing wildlife, sometimes ironically in the very name of 'conservation', is the worst kind of violation.
An infinitely bigger view
It's hard to put into words, the importance and obligation to question received information. The truth will out.
We are conditioned from an early age to behave a certain way and accept what we are taught.
I was lucky indeed to have a wonderful teacher in Mrs Slater. She taught me to see a bigger picture, an infinitely bigger view.
And I'll be forever thankful.
This way of looking at the world has left me socially isolated for much of my life, I don't always 'fit in' or conform. But that's okay, it really is, because no animal apart from human beings has ever judged me for being the way I am.
I rejoice that I encountered Mrs Slater in my very early and most formative years.
I think of her when I see a Tortoiseshell butterfly (I think she would love that) and I have carried her lessons in life with me throughout the years.
Thank you Mrs Slater for teaching me that "When you stop looking for the logic in this world, and start finding the magic, it all begins to make sense...."
That really is the truth. And it's wonderful.
A quick update regarding the campaign, it's been a while since I have blogged about it but these are strange times where time itself seems to mean little....
Anyway, the main event, that is the publication of Natural England's 2020 licensing data, is supposed to be scheduled for next month.
As you know, as a result of our campaign Natural England has vowed to publish its licensing stats in full each and every March for public perusal.
I've already been in touch with them to check when exactly we can can expect to see the figures, but I've yet to receive a reply.... If I were cynical then I'd wonder whether they plan to use the pandemic as an excuse to delay.... but I'm not cynical so let's wait and see.
Meanwhile we are still seeing the direct results of our campaign, benefitting bird life in this country.
In a Natural England blog on 10th Februrary, David Slater, NE's Director for wildlife licensing, tells us that the agency has been issuing far fewer licences to cull lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls than in previous years.
Last year, I reported that Natural England had decided to reduce the number of licences they issued to control rural gulls, while still apparently considering the ongoing culls of urban populations, suggesting that they would be "prioritising applications related to health and safety, public health and air safety."
I questioned this at the time, explaining that it made no sense to offer this kind of half cocked protection for the birds, populations of which were in steep decline.
Again perhaps they listened, for it seems that they subsequently decided to restrict the issuing of licences across all areas.
In his post, Dave Slater says "While we did grant some licences, most applications did not provide enough evidence that suitable alternatives had been properly considered before seeking a licence for lethal control and frequently, evidence provided fell short of our legal tests. "
He went on to say that "We want to support the continued recovery of these large gulls and will improve further the evidence that informs licensing in future years."
Finally they are getting the message.
But we must not forget that it was only a couple of years ago, between 2017 and 2019 that the same organisation issued licences to slaughter up to 7000 red-listed Herring gulls.
It's really appalling that Natural England's epiphany took so long and that they were complicit in decimating the same gull species that they now strive to protect.
The news that gull licences are now harder to obtain will no doubt anger those so called 'pest controllers' who make a living from culling gull populations in urban settings, but as happened with the Dodo and countless other species, some people can't stop the killing until the last one has gone forever; then they will find something else to 'control' or 'manage'.
So pay them no heed.
I am aware that gulls are a contentious bird, polarising opinions (albeit between the ignorant and the enlightened), but I also know the vast majority of us will celebrate this win for our campaigning - and that it will spur us on to continue our work.
Meanwhile I'll let you know when Natural England's licensing data emerges.
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