I know you don’t like being called a national treasure. Neither you should – you’re an international treasure.
Seriously, you are. How much influence can a superb teacher have? And what if that teacher can reach kids all over the world, the way you did? You’ve inspired a lot of future scientists, but you’ve had an effect on many more who didn’t go on to a career in science.
I didn’t – maths defeated me. But damn it, I WANTED to. Instead, I did philosophy of science (no maths there) and ended up as a science communicator. So I got there in a way.
But about the effect your programs and books and everything else had, even on people who weren’t scientifically-inclined. You showed us wonder – the little worlds in ponds, the life that goes on at the small scale, that most of us never give a moment’s thought to. You showed us horror – I’ll never forget the footage of the killer whales playing Frisbee with the seal pup, or of the slowly-dying buffalo shadowed by the waiting Komodo dragons. But then again, I’ll never forget the famous gorilla footage either. That was purely joyful. You showed us the natural world in all its gore and glory.
But most importantly, you showed us how to LOOK. That’s really important: it may be the greatest of all your achievements. Just staying still and looking at what’s around you – really looking – is a wonderful thing to learn.
I live in the country, so I get the opportunity to see a bit of wildlife, particularly after I turn off the highway. Unfortunately, most of it’s dead beside the road – not everybody bothers to look, in any sense of the word. But sometimes, you get an exquisite moment. One night, I was driving down the back road at about 3am. There was a group of wombats – unusual enough, they’re not real sociable – milling around on the road. I suppose it would have been twenty minutes before they decided to move out of the way. It was wonderful. They were totally oblivious to the car’s lights, just carrying on with wombatty things – a bit of butting heads against each other’s sides, bit of nuzzling, lots of scratching. I was so close I could hear their claws clicking on the tarmac, and it was the most extraordinary privilege to be allowed to eavesdrop on their lives, even briefly.
Or watching a group of wood ducks eating the maggots growing in some road kill. Incredible stuff, and I don’t know if I’d have been as entranced – or even sanguine about it – if I hadn’t learned the incredible lesson of just watching a part of the world that isn’t like one’s own day to day life.
I’d like to thank you, too, for your conservation work, for your stance on climate change, and your opposition to teaching creationism in schools.
But there’s one other thank you. I’d like to say thanks on behalf of my grandfather. He had a hard-scrabble life, working at whatever jobs he could get. And he’d only gone to school for a year. It’s pretty hard to educate yourself when you can barely read to start with and you’re working all the hours you can to support your wife and kids. He was enraptured by your programs. When Life on Earth and its successors came on, he concentrated on the TV with all his might. Nobody was allowed to talk – he was a bit deaf and he didn’t want to miss a word. (I did wish at those times that you would speak just a little louder.) You made an old man who wanted to learn but had never had the chance very happy. And for that, I can’t thank you enough.