Read more from Your Autism Magazine's interview with Chris Packham about his memoir, Fingers in the sparkle jar, treating depression and his favourite animal.  

Chris Packham

Your book is humming with sensory description – light, patterns, sounds and smells… Do you think part of your fascination with animals relates to their sensory qualities?

Whether it relates to theirs, or to my ability to engage with it more completely, I don’t know. What was apparent to me from quite a young age is that I could become an intense observer and see things which others couldn’t in nature. My mother used to tease me about my ability to recognise individual caterpillars, because she thought they looked the same. But of course every organism has its own characteristics and personality. I can tell the difference between my two dogs because they have different smells. 

Having a heightened awareness of all these things means I can engage with the natural world with a greater clarity and ease.

Those passages you mention in the book are deliberately intense. My purpose was to try and get the reader to visualise and feel that cascade of sensory in out that happens at a rapid pace. Too much information is one of your catchphrases; I think it’s actually too much information, too quickly. The ability to see things that others can’t see is a great asset to a naturalist. I am more visual, so my pattern recognition is good. It’s not that I conjure the image in my mind, because when I see something, it’s a matrix and everything is interconnected and forms a pattern. I can remember the pattern. If a branch falls off a tree, I can tell because I remember that pattern. When you take a piece out, it no longer fits. I tried to infuse the book with those things to get the reader to try and feel it too.

You describe the intenseness of the grieving process, and how your parents’ experiences of grief and horror themselves meant they weren’t able to help you. Looking back, what could have helped you at the point when your kestrel died?

I don’t know the answer because I’m not sure that, subsequent to that when I’ve had similar losses, there has been any prescriptive tool that would have been useful. Obviously that occurred in 1975 and my parents were entirely unfamiliar with autism and there was no real ability to diagnose or understand it. Now there is. 

The principle reason I went to the psychotherapy sessions that I did in the early 2000s following the death of my dog, was that my reaction was not good. I needed to be seen by myself to be trying to build a framework so that when it happened next time, I would be better placed to deal with it. I’d gone through any number of processes to try and understand that personally, but I’d come to the conclusion that I didn’t have the expertise so I needed to seek professional help. I was very fortunate that I could afford to do that, and that help was therefore forthcoming.

Obviously one of the problems that we face is that not everyone can access that kind of professional assistance and certainly in the contemporary world of UK mental health, there are all sorts of significant funding issues and lack of access to qualified staff that really concerns me.

Ultimately my life was saved by two black poodles, and what happens if there aren’t two black poodles there for someone?

That’s why we need to address these issues and why I’m keen to speak about it publically and by doing so I hope we can bring them into the forum of discussion. It’s only through that we can have some sort of creative challenge. 

We need to generate more awareness of the fact that peoples’ families and friends are not necessarily the best people to help. They may want to help, but they just may not be able to. Therefore we need access to people who can, and we have to make sure that’s freely available and not just for people who can afford it and that it’s accessible at the right time. 

The single most significant thing is picking up the phone and arranging the first session. That was something I couldn’t do before. I am very lucky that I was able to make that phone call. There are people who could have been in equally a darker corner unable to make that call because they are unable to engage at that level. 
Another thing that’s worth noting that it definitely wasn’t beneficial at the time. At the time it was traumatic, exhausting and demoralizing. It felt counter-productive at times. At times I felt like I’d turned a corner, then I went in for another session and I’d have another conversation and come out floored, and would have to pick myself up again. 

It was only in the aftermath, as much as 18 months to two years later, than the whole thing came together and starting falling into place, it then became a very positive experience because I could see what had been achieved. But in the mix and mess of it, at times it felt like a train had been driven through my head. I needed some distance from the depression, and then some distance from the process of addressing it to make something positive out of it. It was very positive in the end.

It’s not been tested yet – I’ve not been back to that place and the proof is in the pudding. We are able to tell ourselves that we are capable or able or prepared – but ultimately you don’t know that till you’re on the pitch and the whistle blows. My hope is that having gone through that process means that I won’t go back to that place again, because I have an understanding of how I got there and what it meant, and how to get out of it. 

What’s your favourite animal at the moment and why?

Always my dogs, but if we’re talking about specifics… Oh God, it’s so hard. There are so many. It’s invariably always the next one I’m going to get to see, and work with, and think about. I’m just about to embark on a programme I’ve been wanting to make for some time about T-Rex. I’m massively into T-Rex. I met an expert yesterday who didn’t disappoint. So I’m really fired up. I’ve just ordered some more books. It’s been a favourite animal on and off throughout my life. It’s not alive unfortunately, but you can’t have it all.

Sam Hayes, a Year 12 student at Robert Ogden School, had some questions for Chris.

I agree with you that it is a disgrace how I'm a Celebrity treats insects. But would you agree that the show is required so that the Western world will understand that we will inevitably have to eat insects in the future if the population keeps growing?

The simple answer to that is ‘no’. I think the programme is responsible for reinforcing stereotypes, which I do everything I can in my own programmes to dispel, that insects are not as valuable a form of life as other animals and ourselves. That they’re creepy and crawly and not physically attractive or behaviourally interesting. I’d say that the programme is destructive on that account because what we need to do is to engender an affinity and a respect for all life. Every single living organism plays a role on the functioning of this planet. So we can’t be choosy about which are good and bad. We have to tolerate all of them. In the wider answer, you’re right – we cannot continue to produce and harvest protein through meat and fish in the way that we’re doing at the moment. It’s wholly unsustainable and we will have to radically change the way we eat if we continue our tenure on the planet.

One of the things that’s being explored and seems to have a very positive outlook is eating insects.

Because they mature very quickly, they consume far less to produce more protein than, say, a cow. What we need to do is overcome peoples’ repulsion, because programmes like that only reinforce it. 

I’ve read your comments on pandas and how you think it might be best to allow them to die out.  But do you think that as humans we should be able to choose which species dies out? Shouldn't we strive to save them all?

Yes, of course we should. We should be doing everything that we can to preserve all life because we need it all. But the bottom line is that we can’t do that, because we don’t have an unlimited amount of time, energy and cash. So unfortunately we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of ‘playing God’. We have to make choices about what lives and dies. That is the horrible pragmatism of the mess that we’ve made for ourselves. My comments about the panda were exaggerated and confrontational because I wanted people to think about how we approach conservation, and it led to progress. So I’m pleased that I made those outrageous comments because they were a vehicle for something that was ultimately useful. 

Chris talked to Your Autism Magazine, which our members receive four times a year. Find out more about member benefits and subscribe.