Born to Bird / Mya-Rose Craig
I love birds. I cannot remember when it started; they have just always been part of my life. Birds have always just been what I did, what I watched and what I loved. My memory has no start date.
Sometimes, photographs implant a scene in your brain, and many of my early birding memories are like this. I have an album with a few old photos. The first is a landmark in my life, an old crumpled photograph of me as a tiny, nine-day-old baby peering into a telescope, propped up by my older sister, Ayesha. It was taken on the Isles of Scilly at a twitch to see a lesser kestrel that had arrived from Europe. My mum had insisted on going to see this rarity, even though she was recovering from a caesarian section.
Although I have later discovered that since it is quite impossible for a baby of that age to see through a telescope and therefore probable that I didn’t actually see the bird, it was a sign of how the rest of my life was going to pan out: looking for birds and winking through telescopes.
I live and grew up in a tiny village in the Chew Valley, South of Bristol, on the edge of the Mendip Hills with views of green, rolling fields, and the beautiful Chew Valley Lake. Our cottage is in a deserted lane, halfway up a dead-end road that breaks into woodland with densely-packed trees and a sea of garlic. From an early age, I was free to roam with friends or adventure solo to explore the badger setts, the old, craggy ochre mine, the carpet of bluebells in the spring, and the perfect tobogganing slope in the winter.
I watched the birds as they flew into our garden to the feeders or flapped their wings in the birdbath, shaking the water from their feathers. I would stick my hands into the wildlife pond, poking around for interesting creatures, removing them rapidly with a shriek when I discovered them. I followed the butterflies and bees about the garden, watched the moths flutter around our lights, and listened for the vague flap of bats wings above my head in the dark. In the warm afternoons, I heard the calls of buzzard and raven overhead, and at night, as I lay in bed, the tawny owl calls echoing down through the woods.
Birding was what I knew. Every weekend we were out somewhere, whether it was locally to see what had arrived, or further afield, travelling to see whatever scarce bird had landed on the cold shores of the UK. This would take us all to the far-flung corners of Britain. Driving to Orkney and back over a weekend was normal, while somewhere like Spurn Point near Hull was easy. A five-hour drive was nothing to me. One of my favouriteplaces to visit was the beach, no matter how grim and cold. I loved to climb rocks, throw stones into the sea and dig up the sand. I would rush to roll up my trousers, wade in, and feel the icy water rush over my feet.
When I was eight years old, my mum suffered from serious episode of mental illness that was to remain with us. This resulted in both my parents leaving work and my dad caring for her full time. This was also the time when our love of wildlife really kicked in, more so than ever before, helping us cope and relax from daily stresses and spend time together as a family. That summer we went to Ecuador for three weeks. A pre-booked trip that we probably wouldn’t have dared to arrange at that point in our lives, we went anyway, and it was amazing. It was then that my passion for birds turned into something more. All the obnoxious parrots, delicate hummingbirds and timid antpittas struck a chord in me like nothing had ever managed to before.
On our first night we stayed in a small lodge in the Andes with open fires and thick blankets. It seemed strange for snow to be falling in South America. One of the birds that I had most wanted to see was the sword-billed hummingbird. I had known nothing about it—simply picked it out from the bird field guide—except that it had a ridiculously long bill. Hummingbird feeders dotted the grounds. The birds feeding on them were complacent, undisturbed by our guide stroking their jewel-toned backs, and so suffered the attempted stroking from a little girl for the several days we stayed there. But, on the last day, a sword-billed hummingbird appeared on one of the feeders near our room and it was even better than I had imagined. Its tiny wings moved so quickly they appeared to be a single blur of green. Its bill was so long and fragile it seemed absurd that its body could even support it, and it gave off the impression of something that just shouldn’t be able to fly. In that moment I decided that hummingbirds were my favourite birds, and I wanted to see all of them, every single species. A rather bold statement for an eight-year-old, but I am still working on it and now, quite literally a lifetime later, I have seen just over half of them and still love them.
The Amazon was obviously like nowhere that I had ever been before and it absolutely captured my imagination, sometimes teeming with life and sometimes eerily silent. I was enthralled by the endless lines of leafcutter ants all around the forest, carrying pieces of leaves much bigger than them back to their nest. I would follow the trails of them around for hours, determined to find the nest, but it was rarely meant to be.
On returning to my tiny rural primary school I felt even more distinctly different from the other children than before, alienated and alone. This was compounded by racist bullying. My dad is white British, my mum British Bangladeshi, and my sister and I are dual heritage. Spending time with them in the tranquil countryside was the diametric opposite to spending time with my Bangladeshi family. With them we would attend huge weddings with a thousand guests. Everything was bright, loud, and brilliant for me. I would spend my time running about and ruining my salwar kameez as I got into trouble with my cousins. But as I got older, I started to feel slightly separate, different from the rest of my Bangladeshi family. I eventually realised that it wasn’t because I was dual heritage, but because they felt that I was disconnected to my culture. I loved something none of them seemed to: nature and birds.
This realisation triggered an even larger one. It was about the time that my niece was born and my sister could no longer go out birding with us very often. It was then that I realised that when I went out into the countryside, there were no other faces that looked like mine, no-one else who was visibly a minority. It felt completely strange for me when birding was so familiar and so much a part of who I was. Why did my close family seem to be unique?
I didn’t really think about it for years. It was just part of how things were and I didn’t question it much, but just after I had joined secondary school I started thinking about it again. No one else like me seemed to want to go outdoors. But my understanding of why didn’t go much further than this.
As my Bangladeshi family did not understand my love of nature, I avoided being too vocal about it when we all met up. I already felt my identity was a little too ambiguous for my liking, so why would I risk not being seen as Bangla by my cousins, making it feel all the more precarious? Retrospectively, I realise that there was less alienation than I thought, just gentle teasing, but it was more the internalised idea that I could not have both sides of myself. I have since learned that I am multifaceted, that I can have different sides of me that form into a singular identity. I felt better about myself. And I started work to help others engage with nature.
In the summer of 2015, when I was thirteen, I organised a camp for teenagers to join together and enjoy nature, copying a similar format that I had heard about from America. But, a month before it was due to take place, I realised that,other than me, the participants were going to be completely white. I had a brainwave. I would invite kids of colour from Bristol. It was a simple concept that was very difficult to carry out, but I somehow persuaded five boys, aged fourteen to sixteen years, to come. The results from the camp were amazing. I felt I had really proved that in the right environment, anyone could enjoy nature.
The next summer in 2016 I organised another camp, this time bigger and better. But fourteen-year-old me wanted to know why I felt able to engage people of colour but conservation organisations didn’t seem to. I wanted to know what they were doing to improve, so that more people like me could enjoy nature too. I organised a conference called Race Equality in Nature to learn and share ideas and stories.
I interviewed four elders about their childhoods, how much they connected with the outdoors and how. All had come to Britain in the 1950s or early 1960s and each had a really interesting story to tell. As they remembered the past, they started laughing and smiling, thinking about the times they had growing up in the Caribbean or Bangladesh, swimming in the sea, rivers or lakes after school and helping on the family small-holding with the animals. It became clear to me that my heritage is rural.
Since I began writing my blog and talking about my connection with nature, I have found that my Bangladeshi family have a better understanding of my motivation and what drives me to get outside into nature. Their pride in me has also led to an interest in the outdoors. This summer my Bangladeshi cousins—who I never took for the outdoor type—braved Mount Snowdon in a sponsored walk for Syrian refugees. Things are happening, and I couldn't be happier for it.