When the phone call came I was sitting at the communal table drinking a beer to celebrate getting the last of our visas for central Asia. My mother very matter of factly informed me that my father had died earlier that day. That beer swiftly mutated into a commemorative one.
It was not unexpected. He was 83 and his health had been failing rapidly over the past few years. His memory was gone. So frustrating for someone who had used his great intellect all his life, conducting research, writing books and captivating audiences with his lectures. His strength had declined too and he’d recently been forced to use a wheelchair. Such a contrast to the man who would stride up mountains, ride a bicycle 50 miles to work and back or swim in the sea off Scotland in February. In short he was a shell of his former self and he hated it. He wanted to die. And he did so as he wanted to, peacefully at home next to the woman he had spent nearly all his life with.
It would have been nice to have seen him one more time, but that is just me being selfish. In truth he had achieved in those 83 years what most people still wouldn’t have achieved in 3 lifetimes. He was a world authority on gannets and boobies and played a key role in saving one of them (Abbots Booby) from extinction. His research led him all over the world to exotic tropical Islands. Sadly these trips changed after my twin sister and I were born and we were dragged instead to cold wet miserable windswept islands off the coast in Scotland. To this day whenever I hear a herring gull I’m immediately transported back to the Hut on the bass rock where we spent many a family trip. The smell of fishy bird poo and vomit and the raucous cries of the birds and hours of tedious waiting around whilst my parents stared avidly through binoculars and wrote endless notes in hard backed notebooks.
As well as being a brilliant naturalist he was also a brilliant father. We grew up surrounded with love but also with the freedom to explore and follow our own path in life. I remember rather nervously telling my Dad I’d dropped out of university. He replied “I thought you might”. He knew my decision to study chemistry was totally the wrong choice but wanted me to find out for myself rather than trying to lecture a headstrong youth who thought he knew everything.
And of course my parents kindled my love of nature and travel. From an early age they had me at the top of mountains and were educating me on the difference between the greater and the lesser spotted flycatcher. My love of mountains endures my bird identification skills do not. So without the influence of my parents I probably wouldn’t be undertaking this trip.
One of the things my father was very insistent of before he died was that he didn’t want me to attend his funeral. He understood my reluctance to fly for environmental reasons but he was also proud of what we are doing. He wanted me to finish this ride. So Dad this is for you. My small contribution to the struggle to ensure that future generations can enjoy this beautiful planet that you devoted your life to trying to understand and preserve. I know that ever the optimist you didn’t have much hope that humanity would avert the ecological catastrophe that we are hurtling towards. I hope that on this one we can prove you wrong.