Our children were growing, and my husband were looking for an activity we could all do, as a family. We had enjoyed several activities run by the RSPB and other conservation organisations during holidays: pond-dipping, visiting an Osprey nest nearby, a Ranger-led night walk listening out for bats.
‘Why don’t you volunteer for the RSPB’ one of the activity leaders suggested. ‘We’re looking to establish a new group for Wildlife Explorers in this area. Are you in?’
We thought it through. A monthly commitment did not feel too burdensome, and it gave us the chance to ring birds, make our local area more wildlife friendly and to meet like-minded people who felt as strongly about the environment and our natural world as we did. As members, we could also access reserves ( a fantastic perk which we made full use of).
It was a balance – as a teacher I am used to planning and structuring and being in control of my environment. As wildlife explorer leaders, however, we were outside a lot, waiting for wildlife to show up, so my whole control-freak mindset had to go – it was about working as a team, keeping young people safe, but retaining the flexibility to go with whatever happened.
Family holidays were the same. All parents have agendas when it comes to bringing up their young people. We wanted ours to be considerate, have morals, have manners, be readers – and to connect with the wild world around them.
We headed to places like Harris, Islay, Iona and, most often, Skye. We camped in Sutherland and self-catered up and down the west coast, throwing in the odd hill amongst hours of paddling and rock-pooling. And it was on one of these holidays that we saw our first eyrie – a Golden Eagle soaring and plummeting, and then feeding a chick – it was a faraway ledge, but thanks to a fellow enthusiast’s telescope we saw it. Our children saw it too - and were hooked. Peregrine falcon hunting off the rock cliffs a few hundred yards along the path, seals bobbing in the bay, a waterfall gushing onto the beach: this is where we wanted to be. Wild places are good for the soul! Puffins, burrowing into the soft machair, huge numbers of migrating geese soar into the sky as one, the thrill of spotting a lone seal and, from an elevated place, watching its graceful dance beneath the surface against the reflected golden sand of the seabed as we did in Assynt. I remember being in the company of youngsters for all of these.
Positive though these memories are, the wilderness also inspires a healthy respect. There is a certain mind-menace to an untamed landscape in the darkness, the unpredictable power of the sea and to rivers in spate. Being divebombed by gulls for inadvertently getting too close to their nests (this happened on Islay, but also most scarily on Handa Island where Artic Skuas made the lot of us run for cover).
Every single experience and memory mentioned has fed into Wilderness Wars.
Of course, it is a story first and foremost, not designed primarily to educate or inform (although I hope that, too, is one of its strengths). There are plenty of ‘learn about nature’ books for children, and many of them fill the shelves in our home.
No, Wilderness Wars is a dramatic life and death showdown, imagining a natural world able to wage war when defending itself against invasion by thoughtless profiteering developers. It’s not a book about plastic waste or climate change – you can’t cover it all, I realised – but it challenges young readers to value our wild places for what they are, and to think twice about thoughtlessly imposing our will on them. On the surface, it would feel as if nature itself is the enemy, but of course this is not the case – nature in Wilderness Wars only rises up in defence, not in needless aggression. Even my young 12-year-old heroine realises the tension: the grandeur of the wilderness which we appreciate in awestruck wonder, and the danger of disrespecting or underestimating the power of it. The book questions the arrogance and short-sightedness with which we do damage, without thinking about the long-term consequences for other species than ourselves.
What if nature fights back?
Tell a young person you are going to teach them something? Cue resistance, or yawns at best.
But invite them to lose themselves in a tale of life and death, a battle against a formidable adversary, flashes of the supernatural and an epic, brave adventure in a race against time?
My hope is that they’ll be in.