Imagine someone turning the sound down on a David Attenborough documentary, then describing what they see over the phone. If you ended up with a transcript of this you’re somewhere in the ballpark of ‘Encounters’. We’re so spoiled these days for high quality nature footage that there’s really little need for what, in its time, may have been an enjoyable and informative book. While Durrell puts an individual stamp on his recollections, the meat of it is describing creatures that we’re far better off seeing (and now able to). Durrell produced these chapters for radio’s dying years (the book is a transcript) – when it was still king for more than music and talkback. Pictures of his subjects were still relatively rare, so words had to do. The black and white sketches in my edition help a little, but they’re like bikes against jets when you compare them to some of the incredible film now available.
It is still possible to validly use the medium of text in relating interactions with nature, such as Adams’ Last Chance to See, Flannery’s Throwim Way Leg, and Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. However all these books were written when television documentaries were well established, so unlike Durrell their authors knew not to set themselves up to compete in areas they couldn’t hope to. Instead they focussed on individual experiences and interpretations. He was (is?) an able enough writer who had some amazing experiences to recount (cf. the beloved ‘My Family and Other Animals’), and where the book is more biographical it’s still enjoyable. I suspect, for example, I’d find a searching interview with Durrell fascinating. However anecdotes are incidental, descriptions of invisible animals core. Or, at least, they were until I bailed about half way through this small book. Glancing through some amazon references for Durrell I see he, of course, moved with the times and in 1994, for example, took a BBC crew with him when he went searching for the rare aye-aye lemur.
It is interesting to note the shift in attitude from his anthropocentric generation to this one. There’s nothing of the careful ‘hands off’ approach of Attenborough – much of Durrell’s delight is in trapping. An inexhaustible supply of animals still seems to largely be there for our amusement. He thinks nothing of taking sides in judging nature – as when he’s grabbing a gun to save some ducklings he’s grown fond of from a caiman simply about its own survival business. Some readers might find his constant personification hard to take: everything seems like a grumpy old fellow, or an excitable kid, or a vain young man in his first suit – there’s little awareness of these as separate species with entirely different thought processes and agendas.