The Way We Were

Bo's kids and bins. @Ashley Beolens  Views From an Urban Lake"

Boys, Bo and bins: Bo Beolens’s grandsons and granddaughter, Bo. @Ashley Beolens Views From an Urban Lake”

My local birding email group has been quite vocal of late. It’s probably the time of year, too many leaves on the trees to see the birds and they are too intent on avian family life to show well. It makes it a slow time of year for birders.

The latest topic must be one all of us have shared with a fellow birder or two over the years: “How did you get the birding bug?”

What strikes me is how much things have changed over the past couple of generations. While it is true that some new doors have opened, many, many others have closed. The love of the wild and birding lore has gone from something absorbed naturally during childhood to something more formerly learned, or discovered in later life.

There is greater recent concern for the environment. The ever changing focus of teaching will mean lots of youngsters are being made aware of the world of nature in general and birds in particular. Campaigns wage war on poorly sited wind farms. Consciousness is being raised about window strikes. Green warriors have taken up arms against the indiscriminate and virtually ubiquitous use of chemicals to kill “weeds’” and “pests” that threaten the extinction of bees and the death of grass engendering a silent spring.

But I’m sure there is still a net loss of sensitivity. Internalising of inter-connectedness of things is not the same as being taught about the environment.

It’s true that the immediacy of media, whether it be movies, TV, or video games, is glorifying violence and glossing over its impact in a dangerous way. Half the population either seems bent on making money illegally, or by prosecuting those who do. Consequence is ever more greatly divorced from action. Since John Wayne used his righteous fists on the wearers of black hats we have gown steadily less aware. In real life people often never get up from the floor and ride out of town; in reality they may fight for their lives in an emergency room. Nor are there any lovable rogues harmlessly robbing trains with a smile on their lips while tipping their Stetsons to the ladies. There are no ‘fun-loving criminals’ just evil people or sad losers feeding a habit.

But that is not what I mean. Those things just make us less likely to believe in hard work and that right always triumphs. There is at least one generation now out there mouthing along to rap lyrics that would scare Attila the Hun, and believing that they are going to win the lottery or become famous overnight despite being talentless.

What I mean is that since I was a lad the wild world has retreated beyond the suburbs while we have become ever more urban. What I mean is that most kids would turn their noses up at a hike through the woods. Most would fail to see the fascination of an hour or two lying on your belly while watching ants take home the bacon, or seeing a dragonfly lava eating a fish. The X-box would win out every time against an hour in a bird blind.

I’m not suggesting we should rush out and drag the kids or grandkids to the park, force a book into their hands and binoculars around their necks while pulling the plug from the TV. Frying their X-Box and iPad or barbecuing their earphones. It’s far too late for that.

What we need is to look at what we are doing wrong.

Pond dipping. @Ashley Beolens  Views From an Urban Lake"

Pond dipping. @Ashley Beolens Views From an Urban Lake”

There is no doubt that the streets are a more dangerous place than they were 50 or 60 years ago. Pedophiles do seem more prevalent, organised and predatory. The sort of people we were told to trust half a century ago have lost their shine. Father Brown turns out to have been an abuser, and Jo Friday has been caught on CCTV beating up a suspect. No doubt either that there are some bad people out there waiting to steal your iPhone 6 or Galaxy s5 or stab you as soon as look at you, but we have let them claim the streets by leaving them to be claimed.

In the UK we are rapidly following the U.S. down the road where every one walks by car. In my day kids “played out.” In the long school summer holidays, when I was nine years old, I would be up and out of the house before my parents were awake. I’d be across the fields with Geoff and Dick and Jean and Carol, damming a stream or building a camp in the woods, then defending it with a bow and arrow I made myself. When it was too dark to see or I was too hungry to play I’d go home. Ten or twelve hours missing from the house and no one was in the least concerned.

I didn’t know about birds because I had done a project on them in class. I didn’t discover a love of trees from watching the Discovery channel, but from climbing them or hiding among them. I knew which plants could be harvested for an autumn lunch and which would get your stomach pumped.

Sure, our kids are being kept safe, but how long will it be until those kids follow the Japanese example and become Hikikomori, isolated and confined to their rooms, never breathing fresh air or seeing blue skies except as background to Grand Theft Auto or in a cartoon.

As we all scramble to make a living we spend more time with work colleagues than we do with family. When we are all at home at the same time we each tend to be “doing our own thing.”

I didn’t learn about birds behind a desk or via a screen but by osmosis as I sat with fishing pole in hand by a tranquil lake on a summer evening. Doves cooed, coots called, flycatchers caught flies, and if you were very lucky, a kingfisher would flash by faster than a speeding bullet, displaying more vibrant colours than Superman’s suit. I learned patience and calm and to appreciate beauty and to want to preserve it for my children and theirs in turn.

Dad’s quiet voice told me about the swallows’ long journey, and together we discovered a cuckoo in the nest of a warbler. His love of the woods and wildflowers, his naming of every newt and shrew seeped into me with the summer sun. He showed me how to stalk a fish, bring it to the bank without harm and respectfully return it to the water.


About the Author
 Bo Beolens is best known in birding circles for his extensive web presence, Fatbirder - one of the world’s biggest and most-used on-line resources for birders and Birding Top 1000 lists the top birding websites by their popularity. He also has a monthly column in a UK birding magazine as ‘The Grumpy Old Birder’ and has written articles in BWD and other magazines. He has had five books published and two others are in final edit… ‘The Eponym Dictionary of Birds’ should be out in time for the British Bird Fair in August 2014. He is also champions birders with mobility problems setting up the charity ‘Birding For All’ in 2001. Having birded on six continents he also organises trips for others via his ‘Anytime Tours’ website… if he ever gets time he goes birding! His wife Maggie and son Ash are keen birders but the rest of their children and five grandchildren (21, 14, 12, 10, 5) have yet to be convinced.


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