Chris Packham speaks to Cause UK

Cause UK were proud to present an Evening with Chris Packham in Harrogate

Chris Packham

Ann, Director of Cause UK, interviewed Chris Packham for the event.

One of the traits of people with Asperger’s is a sensitivity to injustice. And boy, does Chris have a crusade on his hands.

Once upon a time, wildlife presenters – the likes of Terry Nutkins, who hosted The Really Wild Show with Packham in the ’80 – simply explored the wonders of nature.

But recently, the UN reported nature is declining at a speed never previously seen. One million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. As our natural world declines, Packham rises.

“I speak very candidly and frankly about whatever I do, I don’t hold back,” Chris said speaking from his garden in Hampshire, explaining what Harrogate can expect. “I’m a straight talking person and I know that people in Yorkshire are famed for being that, but perhaps I might trump them in terms of how candid I am.”

Packham has never toed the line. From upsetting TV execs with his shock of spiky blond hair at the start of his career to receiving ‘calculated’ death threats for campaigning to revoke shooting licences.

“If anything it just makes me more determined. They’re dealing with someone with a different sort of mind, my mind doesn’t work conventionally. I rail against injustice. It is part of a commonality in our trait, [Asperger’s] we don’t like it.”

He says he has an ‘internal anger’ that fuels his positivity.

“I’ve had a lifetime of being bullied and being told that I’m wrong.” His school days ‘got pretty hideous’ with his Asperger’s. “In terms of the mental thing, it’s been a process of pretty constant attrition. But you don’t need to get the violins out. It’s something that I’ve learnt to deal with. I learnt to make all of these things positive a long time ago.”

Packham won’t give an opinion on anything he hasn’t rigorously researched, backed by science. He cites cases from the use of carcinogenic Glyphosate (weed killer) in the countryside to raptor persecution, as provoking a backlash because of vested economic interests.

“When someone like myself jumps up and starts flagging up science that says these things are dangerous, both to ourselves and to the environment, they’re bound to push back aren’t they? I understand it, but it’s not going to stop me. They can say what they like, it doesn’t matter; it won’t sway me from my cause. I’m not being arrogant, but I have the moral, ethical and legal high ground. I campaign against things which are largely illegal and from a position of sound science.”

He will, if the science and facts prove it, change his mind.

“You can’t change the world if you can’t change your mind – and I will fiercely retain that capacity to change my mind throughout the course of my life. But a lot of the things I have thrown at me are just rude insults, you know sticks and stones, you know, words will never hurt me.”

His talk in Harrogate will cover his memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, which was voted the UK’s ‘Favourite Nature Book’ and inspired his TV documentary, Asperger’s and Me, alongside his photography. Ultimately, he wants to inspire people to fall in love with nature.

“It’s such an enormously valuable and inexhaustible resource, capable of bringing people benefits in terms of their quality of life, physical and mental health, and basically just joy, the sheer joy of connecting with it.”

His biggest advice on making a difference? Set your alarm clock 15 minutes early.

“Use those 15 minutes to make the world a better place. It’s simple. Do it on social media, do it in your garden, pick up litter in your street – there’s a multitude of things – bake a cake for the local community church fare, enhance the quality and health of your community. It’s just that extra 15 minutes…we’ve all got the power to make a difference in what we do and the choices that we make on a daily basis. So it’s not just about moaning about the government and this that or the other, it’s actually about doing something.”

He wants a mass movement, not just the ‘geeky insect counters’ to get involved in projects like the Wild Watch in Nidderdale AONB, which is conducting the biggest citizen science wildlife survey of the area.

“We now live with the idea that nature is something else, it’s like – what is it like – it’s like art, it’s like music – it’s something which we can pick up if we fancy it. But we’ve forgotten that we’re implicitly entwined with it, and our health as an individual and as a species, is directly related to its health. That’s why we need to reconnect people with it.”

He says his job is to ‘paradoxically’ get people off their sofas and switch off the TV.

“I’ve often said I’d rather spend ten minutes with a woodlouse in the palm of my hands than ten minutes watching a tiger on TV. Because I can connect with that woodlouse…I can’t do that with a tiger which is pre-recorded from some other far-flung part of the world. That personal connection, nothing beats it. And also the unpredictability of it. We like to imagine perfect little moments in our lives, but when it comes to natural history, I can go out nine days out of ten and I can look for something and can’t find it and on the day that I’m not looking for it, it pops up in front of me, and it tattoos itself there as a memory for the rest of my life as something which is very personal and valuable to me. It’s not something I see on TV and say, did you see that leopard jump out of a tree? This is something that can only happen to me, it’s a treasure. And we only have those things if we engage first hand.”

“Getting stung by stinging nettles, scratched by brambles, kneeling down and watching a butterfly uncurl its tongue and stick it into a flower, it’s those sorts of things that ignite that interest that lasts a lifetime.”

Packham talks passionately about his love of art, his boyhood heroes (his posters were of the Apollo space mission), and the joy of his current project – writing children’s books – “about a man called Captain Bozo and his troupe of remarkable performing poodles.”

Packham’s fire – for art, photography, nature, beauty and for justice – inspires.

“We didn’t ban slavery overnight, we didn’t stop burning witches overnight,” he says. “We are in a long and what will be a hard fought campaign to make the world a better place whilst there are still people out there doing it enormous damage.”

The state of the world leads him to say he “can’t see the capacity to be content in my lifetime,” but that doesn’t exclude moments of happiness.

“I’ve learned to sculpt my own simple forms of reward as it were. I don’t need a Bentley Continental and a super yacht – I just need a patch of wild flowers and some bumblebees.”

Photos by Chris Packham