On this Sunday afternoon, staring out the window of Beerwolf Books as I procrastinate off doing uni work, odd thoughts drift in an out. For some reason, one of those is life after death.
I’ve never really been overly concerned with the concept since I was very young – ironically, it was perhaps when Auntie Barbara, one of my earliest mentors in introducing me to the wonders of wildlife, died when I was 12 years old that I was happy to accept death was death, and it was what someone achieved in a life that mattered. I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife, and equally I don’t believe in nothing. I just accept we don’t know, and it’s best to worry about the here and now, like whether we could see pine martens translocated into English woodlands by the end of the year and whether to drink tea or coffee depending on the time of the day.
But our mind is a door any thought can walk into, and so life after death did today. To which I was reminded of one of the most fascinating passages I’ve read on the idea, in one of my favourite books about my favourite conservationist. The excerpt I was pleased to discover is copied word for word on wikiquote, which to spare you the search I will post here. It relates to the experience of the author of Gerald Durrell’s biography, Douglas Blotting, who while researching the book several years after Durrell’s death in 1995 witnessed something very curious indeed. Make of it what you will.
“I returned to Corfu, staying with friends at the small coastal village of Kaminaki, not far from Kalami, while I researched the life and times, haunts and homes of the young Gerald and his family on the island. The season of the festival of the fireflies – that fantastic insect spectacle so vividly described in My Family and Other Animals – was long over. What happened at Kaminaki one stifling moonless night was therefore doubly odd.
I had been dining at the taverna on the beach with my friends, and stayed on after they left, engaged in a desultory conversation with strangers. By the time I started for home it was pitch-black, and I could not find the gap at the head of the beach that led to the ancient paved track to the house. As I wandered up and down, uncertain where to go, a tiny winking light, a curious, incessant, electric neon flash, suddenly appeared at chest height about three feet in front of me. I took a step towards it, and it backed away by the same distance, then hovered, winking steadily.
It was a firefly, I knew. But it was odd that it was around so late in the year, and so alone; and odder still that it should appear to be relating, or at least reacting, to a human being in this uncharacteristic way. I moved towards it again, and again it backed away by the same distance. And so we proceeded, the firefly always at chest height and three feet in front of me. I realised I had been led through the gap in the beach that I could not find, and that we were at the foot of the ancient track. Guided by the firefly I walked slowly up the invisible path, step by step in the total darkness.
Halfway up, the firefly stopped and hovered, winking vigorously, until I was almost abreast of it. Then it made a sharp turn of ninety degrees to the left and proceeded up another, shorter but steeper path, with me trustingly trudging behind. It stopped again, and I realised I was at the garden gate of the house where I was staying. The firefly went over the gate, and I followed it across the unlit patio. The kitchen door was somewhere there in the dark, and the firefly flickered unerringly towards it. As I reached for the doorknob the firefly fluttered up and settled on the back of my hand, winking the while. I was home.
Was this normal? I asked myself. Were fireflies known to behave in this way towards people? I lifted my hand up to my face and peered closely at the wildly signalling minuscule organism. As I did so, I heard the voice of one of my friends, who, sitting silently in the dark, had witnessed everything: “Good … God!” I blew gently on the firefly, and it rose, turned once in a flickering circle, flew off into the tops of the overhanging olive trees and vanished into the night.
“You realise what that was, don’t you?” my friend said. He was a distinguished political journalist, and an eminently sane and sensible man. “Gerald Durrell keeping an eye on you, lending a hand, helping you home. No question about it. I think I’d better have another Metaxa after that!”
Every Corfiot Greek I told the story to nodded dryly and said matter-of-factly, without a hint of surprise, “Gerald Durrell.”
Gerald always believed that if he survived in a life after death it would be in some form of animal reincarnation. He had hoped it would be something fun – a soaring eagle, or a leaping dolphin – but perhaps a firefly would do at a pinch.
Make of this visitation what you will, there is no doubt that Gerald Durrell’s spirit does live on in one way or another – in his books, in his zoo, in his ongoing mission, in the natural world he has left behind.”