Chris Packham’s 18th birthday wasn’t like most people’s.
“It was one of the most miserable days of my life,” recalls the naturalist and TV presenter, who grew up in suburban Southampton, Hampshire. He took a bus out to the village of Fritham in the New Forest “and I just walked till it got dark. Then I got the last bus back. It was really, really cold, and I didn’t see any wildlife.
“And I didn’t understand why I was doing that,” he says with a frown, as if he’s troubled still. “Most people on their 18th birthday were probably having a party and a piss up. I was just wandering around on my own, avoiding my family and the world.”
Packham knew he was a loner, that he was different. In adulthood, that single-minded passion makes him a brilliantly persuasive and entertaining host of the BBC’s Springwatch. But in his childhood, as recounted in his magical 2016 memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, he was an isolated, largely friendless kid, mercilessly bullied for his hobbies (wildlife watching and collecting) and habits (keeping himself to himself).
He was happiest when roaming the fields and woods near the River Itchen. Adolescent Chris formed intense – very intense – attachments with the flora and fauna he caught or observed. At the age of 15, he lost the power of speech after the death of a kestrel he’d hand-reared. “I thought I’d had a stroke or some sort of brain damage. I couldn’t figure out that it was a psychological thing,” he once told me. These were very real mental health challenges, but he didn’t have the language to describe it as such.
“What I didn’t acknowledge at that point was that I was more comfortable in that environment than I was in my school, sixth form, university, home… Getting away from everything, sniffing about on my own, was not only fuelling that curiosity and funding that fascination for nature. It was also giving me that comfort zone.
“But on the bus home that night,” he continues of that long-gone non-birthday, “that was a real wake-up call. That’s when I started to really think about dealing with the issue, ’cause I didn’t really want my 19th birthday to be the same. Although it was pretty similar, actually!” he says with a laugh. “That day was so bleak. I realised something is wrong, broken, different, and I’ve got to address it.”
Was this the dawning of the realisation that he had Asperger’s?
“I suppose it was, really,” he replies. “Well, it wasn’t the Asperger’s, it was the manifestation of it, because I didn’t know anything about autism or Asperger’s, and nor did anyone else I knew.”
It would take another 26 years and several sessions with a therapist before Packham was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. By then, he’d become one of the most popular naturalists on television, a new generation’s David Attenborough, and a fearless campaigner for animal welfare and environmental protection.
Throughout it all, connecting with nature has been Chris Packham’s lifeline. It’s where he finds security and comfort, where he feels alive, where he feels himself. It’s his daily medicine.
He begins every morning with a 60 or 90-minute walk around the woodland surrounding his home in the New Forest, with his two miniature black poodles, Sid and Nancy (once a punk, always a punk).
“That’s an absolute therapy for me. But I focus the therapy now – I go out with a mission,” he says, meaning: rather than ramble aimlessly, he concentrates on different specifics on different days. “This is going to sound really whacko,” Packham acknowledges cheerfully, “but just feeling trees, listening to the wind in the branches, hearing the rain in the leaves. Or: listen to birdsong. Or only look at celandines – not wood anemone – one morning. Just look at that one species.
“It’s about totally engaging with that one aspect of the environment,” he continues, admitting that his partner teases him “because I poo-poo yoga, meditation and all that stuff”. But his walks also serve a meditative purpose. “It’s just shutting out the world and being in one space for one period of time, looking at one thing in as intense a way as you possibly can.”
Packham is the first to point out that you don’t have to be a qualified naturalist, eagle-eyed birder or even know what a celandine is to connect with nature in a way that’s good for your soul.
“I always say that to retain a really good ability as a naturalist, you’ve got to continue to be able to look at things in a child-like way,” he says. “We’re born as biophiliacs. Every child loves life. They want to stroke the rabbit, they want to pet the poodle. I know the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, but we have an enormous network of nature reserves, green spaces, urban parks – all these little diamonds studding our green but not-so-pleasant land which people can access.”
Over three lockdowns, the natural world – on TV, out of our windows, in the garden, in our parks – took on an even more powerful resonance.
“Nature lit us up. Collectively, psychologically, we were all in a really bad place, if you think back to the first lockdown. We had no idea what we were confronting or what the ramifications were going to be. People were dying. We were fearful, confused, frustrated. Watching the news was a constant headache.
“So people would turn off their TVs, go out and all of a sudden find something really simple and very beautiful in their garden or over the fence. It gave a break from all that death or potential death, and because it was spring, it was life – the complete antithesis.”
He’s hopeful this will make people, especially younger enthusiasts, feel more confident about watching wildlife – even as he acknowledges that the bullying he received for being a nature boy could still be an issue.
“It’s still not cool yet. But it’s going to get cooler when it becomes a lot more important to look after our natural world. Wildlife and the environment is going to have its day, and it’s coming ever-more quickly. There will be a seismic change in attitude, and that will happen whether we get there nicely or nastily – ‘nastily’ being forced to wake up because of catastrophes.
“At that point, if you’re into wildlife and you know how it works, firstly you’re going to be in a great employment position, because someone’s going to fix this ecological mess. When I left university, my job options within zoology were relatively limited. Give it 10 years and hopefully zoology graduates will be coining it in, because they’ll have the skill sets we need to fix everything. Everything from the soil up needs fixing and those people are gonna be at the vanguard of that.”
Connect with nature, then, to improve your mental health, save the planet and land a great job. What’s not to like?
Springwatch is back on BBC 2 later this month