Early autumn in south Louisiana this year started out sunny, dry and mild — the kind of days in which Gerald Durrell, in a different time and place, found his life’s calling.
Maybe you’ve heard of Durrell, whose English family moved to Corfu, an island off the coast of Greece, in the years shortly before World War II. A few things figured into the relocation, but one obvious benefit was that Durrell’s widowed mother, who didn’t have much money, could raise her children more cheaply abroad.
The Corfu weather was pretty agreeable, so Gerald Durrell, who was then a child, spent a lot of time outside doing what boys once commonly did: poking under rocks and leaves and logs, seeing what he could see. That curiosity led him into his work as a naturalist, a colorful career than ended with his death in 1995 at age 70.
Durrell’s legacy endures in the clever, funny books he wrote about his eccentric household, which often seemed odder than the creatures he found beyond his doorstep. This fall, PBS' “Masterpiece” has been airing the third season of “The Durrells in Corfu,” a popular dramatic series inspired by Durrell’s memoirs.
As often happens, the series, which seems well-meaning, doesn’t really capture what made Durrell’s autobiographical books, such as “My Family and Other Animals” and “Birds, Beasts, and Relatives,” so special. I recently wrote a magazine article urging fans of the show to check out Durrell’s writings for a better sense of who he was. Researching the piece meant revisiting Durrell’s stories — an especially neat thing to do at this time of year, when our comfortable Louisiana weather chimes neatly with Durrell’s little sketches of paradise.
While Durrell’s job isn’t something most of us will embrace as an occupation, another theme of his books — that we’re generally happier when we’re outdoors, connecting with woods, water and sky — points to a universal truth.
The kind of childhood Durrell describes — one in which youngsters often went outside and stayed there until it was time to eat or go to bed — is no longer the norm, as more than one recent commentator has pointed out. I got fresh evidence of that one recent Saturday, a flawlessly beautiful day in which I spotted only two children outside as I glanced down our long street. The rest were in their dens or bedrooms, presumably, parked in front of a screen.
It’s a trend that also touches us grown-ups, who really need to set a better example if we want kids to venture outdoors. Last weekend, over two days graced by picture-perfect forecasts, I cooked, caught up on family paperwork, scanned a backlog of newspapers and watched Netflix. Closing out the weekend with a walk, I regretted what I’d missed.
It will be up to me to get out more on clear autumn days, which will be gone before I know it.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.