It seems that our true colours shine through, no matter how heavy the disguise. Inside, I suspect, I will always be that boy from down the road that collects snails in a bucket. And not only snails. Everyone -- neighbours, schoolfriends, relatives -- knew that I was mad about "nature". No-one minded if I strayed into their gardens in pursuit of caterpillars -- we kids were like cats, anyway, liable to turn up anywhere -- and a steady procession of moribund bits of the natural world found their way to our front door. "Dad found this and wondered if your Michael would like it!"
Among the prizes donated by neighbours was a Privet Hawk-Moth, a magnificent creature, wonderfully large compared to even the biggest moths that settled on our windows on a summer night, with a pink and dark chocolate hooped body, white cabled antennae, and business-like wings swept back like a fighter plane. Even dead, it looked like it might zoom across the room if carefully launched like a balsawood glider. I kept mine in a polythene bag sellotaped to the wall. I used to love comparing its numinous reality with its picture in the Observer's Book of Larger Moths. To be its custodian gave me an enormous sense of privilege.
I also had a terrifying black and yellow wasp, about 1.5" long, with a sting almost as long as its body. Luckily, like the hawk-moth, it had been found dead, or else someone would surely have smacked it flat with a rolled-up newspaper. Again, I had the deep satisfaction of matching it, unmistakably, against its image in an identification book. It was a Wood Wasp, which -- despite the name -- is not a wasp but a sawfly, and uses its preposterous "sting" to lay eggs deep in rotten tree trunks. As a user of protective mimicry, you can't help but feel the Wood Wasp has gone over the top, being waspier than the waspiest wasp. I used to keep it in the matchbox it arrived in.
For years I wanted to be a naturalist, until it gradually dawned on me that I would never make it as a scientist. Not just because "science" was too hard (which it was) but because I clearly didn't get any science which didn't involve using coloured pencils to draw things. I'm sure you have heard the cliché, "I must have been away from school the day X was explained." Well, cliché or not, I'm pretty sure I was off sick the day they explained the point and purpose of chemistry, at least as taught in my school (and assuming the point wasn't to try and secretly fill another boy's blazer pocket with water from a lab squeeze bottle). I also found that I lack the component in the human brain that enables mathematics to take place there.
Still, there was always one sort-of science in which an ability with coloured pencils was an asset. One of the themes that has developed in this blog is "paths not taken", and this is yet another one: I might once easily have become a geographer. Even at 6th form level, entire geography lessons could be taken up happily copying elaborate coloured chalk drawings from the blackboard, which explained climate patterns, mountain formation or population distribution in graphical form.
Even better, there were field trips into the landscape, where terminal moraines and hanging valleys could be rambled over, fossils collected, and the strike and dip of strata pondered. There is no question that my two years studying geography enhanced my later life just as much as studying literature or languages. I think there are few greater pleasures than being out in a striking landscape on a bright, frosty winter's day, properly dressed and in good company, with a pub meal or even just a good hot cup of tea in prospect.
Unless it is, on such a walk, to come across a freshly dug quarry yielding museum-quality fossils to stuff your pockets with, like the one we found in mid-Wales a couple of years ago. Once a collector, always a collector. Or even just to see something, some perfect alignment of landscape and light, and to photograph it, hoping as always that what you've got will not just be a pale reflection of what you saw, but a transmutation of it into something rich and strange that will convey something of the depth of what you felt to others; the magical reverse of the pretty pebble collected on the beach that turns into a dull stone as it dries.