My parents got me some silk worms to keep as pets. I don’t know if it was as an educational project or just to try and stop me from tormenting the creatures that lived outside. I do know that I absolutely loved them. They lived in a box with holes cut out in the top for air. Every evening on our way back from the nursery my mother worked at we’d find a mulberry tree and pick some leaves off. I’d replenish their leaf supply and feed them the next day. I found them fascinating. I would spend ages watching their soft white bodies crawl over the leaves in the box. They finally made cocoons and I learnt about how they will emerge as moths. My father told me that it’s at this point they would be thrown into boiling water in order for the cocoons to be used for silk making. The idea of this really upset me. How could anyone do that to the helpless silkworms? I was even more upset when they emerged from their cocoons and died soon after. I now know that this is normal, but I was convinced that the box just wasn’t big enough for them, that they needed to be set free and I’d been selfish to keep them the way I had. Even though it ended up in upset, it was a wonderful gift to have and I learnt so much more from watching it all enfold in front of me than I ever could in class.
There was no animal, it seems, that I didn’t want as a pet. I was particularly fond of frogs. We had a paddling pool in the back garden of our house and it had stayed up all summer. At some point Alistair threw a spade load of soil into the pool before my mother could stop him. The next day we looked into the pool to discover earthworms swimming in the corner that the soil had been thrown into and a frog floating around in circles. Initially we thought it was dead, but it turns out it was just doing laps around the paddling pool. My eyes light up. I grabbed a Tupperware container, filled it with all sorts of things I decided a frog would need. Things like stones and soil to sit on and a water area for it to swim in. I then carefully placed my new friend into the container and put it on our dining room table. A few days later the frog was gone. My parents told me he must have escaped. I know now that they actually set it free. It’s probably the only time that they’ve lied to me about our animals. It was probably easier for us all than the truth: that they’d let the poor captive creature free to where it belonged.
My school was just down the road from my mother’s work, so every evening I’d walk up there and wait for her to finish work and for us to be picked up by my father. One of these afternoons I heard one of the teachers shrieking and saw her throw something in the bin. It was another frog. I couldn’t have that happen, and so I whipped out my lunchbox and in the frog went. I proceeded to take it home with me. As we drove up to the house I decided to take a look at it and out it jumped in the car and down the side of the seat. My parents at this point had had enough of my insect capturing, frog keeping ways and told me I had better find it and then put it in the canal behind out house. It took a while, but I eventually found the poor thing cowering under the seat. I rescued it for a second time and reluctantly set it free in the less than sanitary looking canal behind our house. I think if I’d had my way a pond would have been built for it and it would have remained with us forever.
By not discouraging myself or my brother from exploring the natural world, we learnt so much about the creatures that lived around us. My father was an encyclopaedia of information, telling us facts about the creatures we’d captured. When he finally ran out of knowledge, I had actual encyclopaedias to read from. I learnt about pray mantises and how they would bite the heads of their mates off after mating. I learnt about crickets, and how they made the sound they did by rubbing their legs together. I was thirsty for knowledge and my explorations allowed me to learn so much. My grandmother had a chameleon that lived at the bottom of her garden, my mother would take me to feed it whenever we went to visit. They also had tortoises as pets that just ambled about freely, only taken inside when the weather got cold and they went into hibernation. It was a wonderful environment to grow up in. I don’t know that I would have had the same sort of experiences growing up in England. I mean, for sure there aren’t the same sort of insects and creatures living over here, but at the same time there just isn’t as much of an outdoor life. It’s a shame, because I honestly believe a child learning about its environment in the way I did, through discovery and then questions, is the best possible way to learn about it. It instils a sort of respect for the creatures that we live amongst, and definitely reduces our fear of them. It also creates more of a curiosity. I still love learning about the natural world, and I’m at my happiest when I can go outside and muck about in the garden. While I care for the plants or plant new ones, I’m constantly trying to find the creatures that live amongst them. I have since learnt that aphids are bastards and snails are the biggest pains in a gardener’s backside, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find them interesting. Although I wish they could be interesting in someone else’s garden.
The only time I came close to being absolutely terrified of a spider came when I was staying with my grandmother. As part of my degree I chose to do a year abroad and chose to go to South Africa, to get to know the country of my birth a bit more as well as spend time with the family I hardly ever see. During the university holidays I spent a lot of time staying with my grandmother. She lived in a caravan park, where the caravans could be built around, as long as the structure was temporary and the caravan could be moved. So no foundations and lots of wood. When my grandparents retired they moved there, this place very close to where we would always go on holiday as a family around Christmas. My grandfather built the property for them, they both planted the garden that surrounded it. Granddad died far too soon after completing it, right when they should have been enjoying their retirement together.
I spent a lot of my time with my grandmother as she was lonely and after my grandfather died I became more aware of how little time you often have with those you care about. One of the days when I was with her she was on the phone to my uncle Allan. My uncle is the tallest one of the family. He’s both tall and big. He’s not really someone you would think to mess with, although he is the stereotypical gentle giant and wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s also absolutely terrified of spiders. I’ve never seen a funnier sight than him jumping onto a stool, shrieking in fright as a spider scuttled across the living room.
As my grandmother spoke to my uncle, we noticed that there was a pretty big spider on the walls. No, I don’t mean big by English terms. The spider was bigger than my hand. I measured it and without its legs being spread out properly it measured at about 4 inches long. It was probably at least twice that spread out. It was easily the size of my face. My grandmother said it was a baboon spider. Whatever it was, it was definitely a tarantula of sorts. She usually used the hoover to suck it up, then set it free outside. I couldn’t bear the thought that the spider might get hurt and so, as she described in great detail to my uncle, I went and got an empty 2 litre ice cream container. I picked up a piece of paper, put the container over the spider and slipped the paper underneath.
The paper wasn’t thick enough and the spider escaped. I ran screaming across the room, jumped on the sofa and turned back, convinced it was after me. I could hear my uncle, panic in his voice, asking my grandmother what happened. By this time she was bent over double on her chair, laughing so much that she had tears in her eyes. Not to be defeated I went back and picked up a piece of thick cardboard. I slipped over the ice cream tub, slipped under the cardboard and carefully lifted everything up, holding tight to the tub and cardboard. I don’t quite know what I would have done had it escaped from that. I carefully put everything down and set it free, backing off pretty quickly. After I watched the spider crawl under the fence, I went outside and took the cardboard and ice cream tub inside. I was quite proud that, even though I’d freaked out and felt a bit panicky after that I’d managed to go back and rescue the poor thing.
Spiders and insects were replaced with normal household pets when we moved to England. One of the first things my parents did, once we had a place to live and once our stuff had arrived was to get two cats. My mother loves cats. My father pretends not to care, yet when no one is looking he’ll be the first to encourage the cat onto his lap. Alistair and I came home from school to find two kittens running about the place. He didn’t realise what they were and screamed “BUNNY!” in excitement as he chased the first cat under a piece of furniture. He was still as excited when he realised it was a cat and not a bunny after all.
The kittens were to be our first real pets. Yes we’d had pets before, but they’d been more household pets and we’d had no responsibility for them. This time it was different. I had one cat, who I called Mischief after he kept me awake several nights in a row, Alistair had the other, who he called Tom, because that’s what male cats are called. They were adorable, even though they got in the way a fair bit, particularly on the stairs. Tom was lean and liked to hunt, Mischief was chubbier and, while he liked to play, he also just liked to sit and be petted. Strangely enough, every time we’ve gotten cats that seems to be the way they pan out: Alistair gets the active hunter, I get the chubbier one that prefers to stay at home.