The Greek island of Corfu might be the perfect place for young Gerald Durrell (1925 – 1995) to grow up, were it not for the intrusion of his rather absurd family. Thus, My Family and Other Animals.
Of their “accurate and unexaggerated” presence, Durrell warns the reader immediately:
This is the story of a five-year sojourn that I and my family made on the Greek island of Corfu. It was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters.
The Durrell family includes an overwhelmed yet resigned mother, the moody and intellectual writer Larry, the impatient Margo, and I’m not sure but anywhere from one to seven other children scampering about.
Not to mention a pet pigeon who sleeps indoors, a physically affectionate turtle, and a donkey that brays at all hours depriving future generations of Larry’s work because, in Larry’s words, some “horny-handed idiot has tied that stinking beast of burden near my window. (Fear not, Larry becomes a famous author anyway.)
At first I was so bewildered by this profusion of life on our very doorstep that I could only move about the garden in a daze, watching now this creature, now that, constantly, having my attention distracted by the flights of brilliant butterflies that drifted over the hedge. Gradually, as I became more used to the bustle of insect life among the flowers, I found I could concentrate more. I would spend hours squatting on my heels or lying on my stomach watching the private lives of creatures.
The young Durrell gathers all manners of things during his amateur study and ends up with most of the fauna in the house: “All these discoveries filled me with a tremendous delight, so they had to be shared,” he remonstrates.
From the vantage point of an eight-year-old, accompanied by his dog, it is natural that the Lilliputian world of insects would hold particular delight.1
This doll’s house garden was a magic land, a forest of flowers through which roamed creatures I had never seen before. Among the thick silky petals of each rose-bloom lived tiny, crab-like spiders that scuttled sideways when disturbed. Their small, translucent bodies were coloured to match the flowers they inhabited: pink, ivory, wine-red, or buttery-yellow. On the rose-stems, encrusted with green flies, lady-birds moved like newly painted toys. […] Carpenter bees, like furry, electric-blue ears, zigzagged among the flowers, growling fatly and busily. Humming-bird hawk-moths, sleek and neat, whipped up and down the paths with fussy efficiency…
“I have just learned to see praying mantis eggs” wrote Annie Dillard in her soul-clarifying observation of nature. Have you ever seen insects like this?
Durrell soon moves on to amphibians, birds, and even a few mammals, and, of course, he grew up to become a famous conservationist, zoologist, and naturalist. He also wrote many books, being that character of a person who engages in something he loves and also happens to write beautifully.
The narrative sings with the delights of discovery and joys at life—life anchored by very real acts of birth, sickness, death. One of the loveliest moments of Durrell’s observations:
This was the last miracle I was lucky enough to witness. I found a lacewing-fly on the roses and watched her as she climbed about the leaves, admiring her beautiful, fragile wings like green glass, and her enormous liquid golden eyes. Presently she stopped on the surface of a rose-leaf and lowered the tip of her abdomen. She remained like that for a moment and then released her tail, and from it to my astonishment, rose a slender thread like a pale hair. Then, on the very tip of this stalk, appeared the egg.
I grow nasturtiums that attract Britain’s Small White butterfly. (A horrible name but true. The Large White is mostly yellow.) One late-August afternoon, I watched a set of them feed, mate, and lay eggs.
The female grips the leaf with pin-thin legs, positions herself, dips her abdomen down to the leaf’s surface as if taking its temperature, holds it down, and then springs back flat to reveal a small, yellow cone. Fifteen seconds later, she does it again. Anywhere from a dozen to two dozen times. It is all done in tremendous precision, the eggs like little soldiers. When finished, she flutters off.
The eggs stay positioned for days, fixed to the leaf. Slowly, larvae emerge. Over the next few days, they devour the leaves leaving small white trails until eventually they turn into caterpillars and search out protected areas to form a cocoon.
Behold life at that scale, the love and value of things small and otherwise meaningless. It is, as Gerald Durrell writes, “miraculous.”
Read together with Rachel Carson’s in-depth appreciation of nature’s smallest components. Or pick up Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See, a captivating odyssey to wonder at creatures that could (and have since the book was published) become extinct. I have found the writing of both Roald Dahl and Laurie Lee to be the same wonderfully crystallised vessel of childhood as Durrell’s. Clear, detailed, empathetic, and wonderfully interesting.