Countless books have been printed on the subject of nature, yet none can claim to have made as many naturalists from children as ‘The Amateur Naturalist’ by Gerald Durrell. Since it was first published in 1982 this landmark book has educated, excited, inspired and fascinated several generations of people both young and old, acting as a spark and starting point for careers in the diverse world of conservation and nature study.
The book itself covers a large number of subjects and is illustrated with many drawings, photographs and diagrams, the text is easy to read and well laid out which makes it suitable for anyone over the age of ten or eleven to read it without getting bored or confused. A particular highlight is the double-page spread photographs that grace the beginning of each chapter; they show a white table of ‘findings’ that were collected on a nature walk in a specific habitat. Each specimen – whether it be a plant, snakeskin, nest, beetle or droppings – is annotated with its name and short notes, as though it were a traditional Victorian nature-table that was essential to any upper-class naturalist back in the day. These are a joy to look at and inspire the reader to go outside themselves and collect their own well-labelled spread of interesting natural curios.
One aim of the book is to show ‘that the wonders of nature are not confined to exotic places… they are just as accessible in your own back garden’ as Durrell writes in the foreword, this is borne out by the chapters – seventeen of which are dedicated to covering individual habitats which can be found in much of Britain or Europe. The first of which covers what wildlife can be found within your home, so that the book has you searching for nature before you have even set a foot out of doors. Unlike in other books that describe habitats and what can be found in them, ‘The Amateur Naturalist’ goes the extra mile by including an occasional section within a chapter that describes how to actually record and study wildlife (for example, how to do a plant profile in a meadow to record the change in flora across its length). Cleverly, Durrell uses examples of wildlife from across the Earth to illustrate each habitat, so there is no direct focus or bias on European fauna and flora – providing a more holistic education to the reader.
Besides Durrell’s text, what really stands out about this book is its quality publishing and layout; the photographs are expert and well chosen, the illustrations are clear and informative without being dull, the actual font and colour scheme gives the whole book a suitably functional feel. Moving on, the arguably best and most useful section of the book, which no doubt has been instrumental in assisting budding naturalists; are the chapters ‘The naturalist at Home’ and ‘What’s What’. The 45-page long ‘At Home’ section is simply fantastic, it covers almost anything you would want to know about being a naturalist; mainly showing you how to preserve and prepare or keep specimens, dead and alive. It gives great detail about rearing various live creatures and plants, experiments to conduct, what equipment you need and how to use it – Durrell explains subjects as varied as mounting a skeleton to digging a pond to grafting plant stems. All this is accompanied by impressively detailed illustrations, diagrams and tables to highlight and expand on the text, there is even a diagram of what is inside a cut-open frog, with clear labels.
The next chapter is shorter but informative; ‘What’s what’ does exactly what it says on the tin by explaining scientific Linnaean classification and detailing all the different orders of beast and plant to assist in identifying and labeling your collection of dead or living organisms. Durrell ends the book with a short but intelligent chapter explaining the problems that humans cause to the natural world and the important role naturalists play in conserving it – as he writes ‘…in reality, the world and its future belong to all living things, not just to one species.’
In short this tome is, and always will be, a classic and essential for anyone interested in the natural world, it has not dated to this day (except perhaps in terms of what species are considered common or rare) and I doubt it ever will – this is surely one of the most useful and one of the most important books that you could own.