“What does the lizard know? Imagine knowing that these things might happen, and letting go, closing one’s eyes, dozing off, leaving everything to hazard.”
Cold Blood is a book with a warm heart. Blending recollections of a lifetime’s obsession with reptiles and reflections on their place in today’s world, Richard Kerridge makes an original and likeable contribution to the seemingly ever-expanding (and increasingly hard to define) nature writing genre. At heart, conservation is about the meeting point between the needs of what Kerridge affectionately refers to throughout as ‘wild nature’ and the needs of those in human society who are besotted with it. As such, I’d go so far as to call this essential reading for those who want to understand contemporary nature conservation, especially in the UK.
Among the most entertaining passages of this book are those describing the capture and maintenance of a herpetological menagerie. As a child, the author’s dream was to collect examples of all the British reptiles and amphibians. Today, of course, it’s hard to imagine any child attempting something similar, nor would we encourage them to. But whilst I’m certain it’s right to discourage unnecessary disturbance and handling of the rarer species, I am led to wonder whether always encouraging a dispassionate, hands-off approach to nature serves to stamp out any nascent sparks of wild passion in children at too young an age. That wouldn’t just be bad for nature, but bad for the many people who find in the wild a kind of meditative release from the pressures of modern life, as Kerridge describes in this beautiful excerpt:
“What makes me happy, in thinking about reptiles and amphibians now, is still what excited me at the age of eight. They make the world around me seem wild. I still feel this, driving or going by train through strange cities. Looking out at an overgrown bank or green ditch, or across puddled fields, I wonder what lives there. What would I see if I went close? I imagine it – the sensation that always comes when I am out looking for reptiles, running my eyes across a bank. Everything goes quiet. Background noises disappear. Winds no longer mutter at my ears. Thoughts cease to clamour. I feel, in my chest and my back, small sensations of falling.”
Perhaps there is a real danger in the nature-as-museum paradigm. I wonder how many children will start a life-long relationship with nature without getting in amongst it, without feeling, somehow, that they are part of the wild, and that the wild is part of them. One way or another, the world needs Richard Kerridges – people who unashamedly and openly know what they love, and have the gifts to express it. If even conservationists are facilitating nature-disconnection, where are future champions of wild nature to come from? Here’s another key passage from Cold Blood on this phenomenon:
“The odd thing, the paradox, is that in protecting these newts so fiercely, we have barred them from having the presence in our lives that would bring them into our imaginations. Children catching them now would be breaking the law quite seriously. Some conservationists argue, for example, that shining a torch on these creatures in their breeding ponds at night – the only reliable way to observe them and certainly the only way to see their spectacular breeding displays – might count as disturbance and thus be illegal. It is a hotly contested view. Three years ago I saw the dance of the Great Crested Newts. I am glad that I did not know then that watching by torchlight might not be allowed. … I switched off my torch. I had rain in my hair. A car went past. Houses were all around. Did people here know about these newts? Did they throng the bank when the season started, crisscrossing the pond with their torch beams, whispering, pointing. Why didn’t they? It could be like the cranes in Nebraska.”
This is a touching and thought-provoking book throughout, above all one likely to ensure I pay a little more attention to our native reptiles and amphibians – creatures that, if I’m honest, I tend to overlook in my rush for easier to find and more ‘species tick rich’ delights. Reptiles and amphibians are often painted as aliens, but Cold Blood restores them to their rightful place as friends and neighbours – without robbing them of their wildness along the way.