Deputy CEO of Natural England and WWT Trustee Alan Law recalls the day that transformed his life.
Seminal moments in life often reveal themselves gradually. My early childhood, as the younger son in a family that moved around different cities of the world with the navy, was happily varied, filled with colour, different landscapes, contrasting sounds and languages, with no place that I would then identify as home. Friends were transitory too as each new place meant starting over.
Home, when it arrived, turned out to be rural West Suffolk, in a small working village that swelled each summer when tourists flocked in to look at the old timber buildings. Settling in one place was quite an adjustment for me, a shy nine-year-old suddenly placed in a very sleepy backwater and part of the only non-white family in the village. I found myself first exploring every nook and cranny within the village and then, gradually, looking beyond into the nearby fields.
What transpired to be a significant moment for me was finding and sitting down by a small pond, sat at the end of a field ditch and no more than 20x10 feet in total. The water was clear, there was bright green weed in much of the pond and at the edge. What drew me to sit down were shoals of sticklebacks. I would later come back to try and catch these little fish, but on this day I was just exploring and so I simply sat and watched them as they darted about in the sun.
I don’t remember how long I watched them for, perhaps half an hour, and then I discovered I wasn’t alone in being interested in them. A brilliantly-coloured bird that I had neither heard of nor seen before, arrived to perch on a branch just over my head. It started diving into the water and catching the little fish, then returning to the same branch to eat them right in front of me. This took place no more than six feet away while I sat watching, enthralled.
The bird fished for a while and then, in due course, flew off. “There are some lovely things in the countryside” I thought to myself after I had returned home and looked up the kingfisher, “perhaps I might go and watch it again another time”. And so I did. Or at least I tried. I went back umpteen times and never again saw even a glimpse of it. Indeed, over 40 years on I’ve never again been anything like as close as that to a kingfisher while it was fishing. Why such a shy bird ignored me in that way I will never know; it was almost as if it knew I was out of place, unaware and utterly harmless.
Though I didn’t know it then, that day changed me profoundly; it got me actively looking further afield for new things I could find in the countryside. And as my childhood days moved on I found that time in the countryside, roaming the fields, woods and streams, became the way I kept myself grounded, relaxed and happy with the world. In turn that led to the study of zoology and a career in nature conservation. More importantly I’m still never happier than when taking a walk in the countryside and taking a peek into a pond or stream to see what’s moving around in there. Maybe one day I will even see my kingfisher up close again, shaking droplets of water on me from its perch overhead.