The Well-read Naturalist
The Natural History Book Review
Closest to Home
March 2, 2019
By Johannes E. Riutta
One of the most persistent challenges I’ve faced as a naturalist is in how to pursue my field interests while also fulfilling all my responsibilities as a husband, father, and most recently care-giving child to an elderly, dementia-afflicted parent. Then, of course, to all these as also daily added the constant and seemingly ever-increasing demands of the job I hold that helps make it possible for my family to survive. I rarely have much – if indeed any – time to get out into the field just for my own purposes. And even when I do find a hole in time through which I can crawl and steal a few hours away, the entire time I’m gone, I’m plagued with guilt that I should be giving that time back to my family, from whom I am already stealing other hours in order to tend to my job or care for my mother. Needless to say, it gets me down.
It also makes me feel very lonely and isolated. After all, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are chock-a-block with uncountable nature enthusiasts living, as they say, “their best lives.” Don’t they have families to care for; job responsibilities demanding their attention? I often find myself asking “Why am I the only one to be so overwhelmed by the demands of life; why can’t I even enjoy the time when I can finally go afield, even if only for a short while? ” Then I read Caroline Greville’s Badger Clan; My Badgers and Other Family, from which I most thankfully learned very clearly that I’m not alone.
Taking the form of a memoir, or perhaps more appropriately a portrait, of her life as a lover of the natural world, wife, devoted mother of four children, writing instructor at two different institutions, and manager of a small domestic menagerie of a chickens, ducks, guinea pigs, and a dog, Dr. Greville (to give her the respect due her in honor of her completion of the doctorate of which this book was a prominent part), recounts in her exquisitely familiar prose that being an avid nature lover is not incompatible with all the rest of life – indeed, it can, and in her own life is, the thing that makes it possible for “all the rest” to be kept in balance.
“Sometimes it feels like life is going wrong in every corner, as if you’ve had an unlucky throw of the dice and everything’s cascading down on your head. I do have a natural pessimism about me that probably isn’t helpful, always expecting the worst at every turn. […] I need to get over that everything-must-be-perfect-before-life-can-be-enjoyed thing, and learn to be happy in the muddle and confusion, trusting that all things work together for good – eventually.”
What makes such trust possible? For Dr. Greville, Badgers. Living in a small village in Kent, the Greville family resides, so the author discovers, in close proximity to quite a number of Badgers. For the benefit of my North American readers, this species of badger, Meles meles, is quite different than Taxidea taxus, the smaller and much less approachable species which inhabits the western portions of Canada, the United States, and much of Mexico. Far from the figures of ill-temper and aggressiveness that their North American distant cousins have come to be characterized as, the larger British Badgers are highly charismatic, heart-breakingly charming, and very much beloved by a substantial portion of the British populace – except of course those unfortunately as well as inappropriately convinced that they are the vectors for bovine tuberculosis.
As she engagingly recounts in Badger Clan, Dr. Greville becomes a volunteer with the East Kent Badger Group, a local outreach and rescue organization dedicated to helping the local humans and Badgers better co-exist with one another. Though the group, she – along with her family – come to learn about the lives of the local Badgers; where they live, what they eat, how they interact, and what threats they face.
They go on Badger walks, finding the burrows of their Badger neighbors and learning – often by trial and error – how best to observe them; not in furtherance of any scientific study but merely for the sheer joy of being able to witness their lives. They’re called out upon Badger missions by the group to rescue injured Badgers, or to help calm the nerves of villagers who find signs of one digging in locations where it is not convenient, or simply upsetting, to the property owner for them to be doing so. Slowly, gently, and with the enthusiasm for an activity that can only come from a sheer enjoyment of doing it, the entire Greville family come to know their local Badgers in a way few of us can say we know the wild creatures alongside whom we ourselves may live.
But why? After all, as Dr. Greville recounts, sometimes lovingly, sometimes in great frustration, occasionally in moments of heart-rending sorrow, the lives of she and her family, as well as the challenges presented by her own and her husband’s jobs, are constantly in motion, pulling different members in different directions, presenting at times moments of profound joy and celebration, and at others seemingly insurmountable barriers. Why add one more time-demanding activity to all this?
Scholars have written shelves of books explaining at great length the biological, psychological, and half dozen other “-ical”reasons why we modern humans are often drawn to nature; however I will put Caroline Greville’s beautifully down-to-earth explanation beside any of them for it’s breath-taking simplicity and accuracy, “Now that life is so comfortable, we feel we have lost something, though we’re not sure what. We sense we’re less in touch with ourselves than our ancestors ever were, and seek an encounter with nature, the wilder the better, to plug the deficit of experience.”
What Dr. Greville and her family discover, primarily right in their own back garden and rarely farther away than just outside their village, is that through simple curiosity about, devotion to, and love for the wild creatures around whom they live – not only the Badgers but the foxes, birds, mice and others with whom their home and its environs are shared – they themselves are made more whole, are bought closer to one another, are spiritually strengthened, and as we, her readers, finally come to learn at the conclusion of the book (which I will not spoil for you), discover they are stronger and more resilient than anyone should ever need to be.
I don’t simply recommend Caroline Greville’s Badger Clan to you, I most enthusiastically urge you to read it. While I read dozens of books each year, from many of which I can say that I come away with new knowledge about or better understanding of a subject, an interest in something of which was previously unknown to me, or a kindled enthusiasm to learn more about a topic of which I was already aware, I cannot recall recently – if indeed ever – having closed the back cover of a book and thinking that as the result of reading it I had learned something so vitally important about myself and the manner in which I need to live my own life. I can only hope that if you read it as well, that you may discover something as deeply personal in its pages as I did – and unless I miss my guess, I strongly suspect that you will.
Title: Badger Clan; My Badgers and Other Family
Author: Caroline Greville
Publisher: Caroline Greville
Pages; 382 pp.
Published: January 2019
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.
Johannes E. Riutta
Founder and publisher of The Well-read Naturalist.
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