We all have stories that shape us. Tales of triumph, or tragedy — or both — which serve to remind us why we do what we do, or why we’ve chosen to walk down the paths that we find ourselves on.
I have been influenced and my decisions inspired by gentle nature. More than once on this blog I’ve listed the story of Suffolk photographer Julie Ward as the inspiring figure behind my decision to volunteer at Shamwari Game Reserve in 2008.
Exactly a decade on from my gap year trip, and two decades since Julie was murdered in the Maasai Mara in 1988, I find myself in the most unexpected situation. I always believe in ‘reading the signs’ and serendipity seems to follow me. But this feels like a perfect nod of encouragement at a time when such things are needed.
This week started with ‘Blue Monday‘, the so-called most depressing day of the year. I must admit, every year it does indeed creep up on me. Last year I took the bull by the horns and wrote a blog post; “Top 5 Ways To Beat Blue Monday” and felt suitably inspired. This year, my partner and I booked an impromptu hotel stay in Canterbury — one of my favourite cities — and packed up the car, bundled up the baby and took ourselves off.
Now, most people know I’m a massive book nerd. I read, admire and pore over as many wildlife and conservation books as possible (I’ve even started a hashtag of my recommended reads on Instagram; check out #kateonconservationreads). So it was only natural that I would go book hunting in the charity shops and secondhand bookshops of Canterbury.
My first purchase of the day was Audubon’s Elephant, a book that explores John James Audubon’s struggle to publish The Birds of America. This felt particularly exciting, given that I’d just written a blog post about the Audubon Society and my time with Audubon Sarasota for National Bird Day and my latest guest post came from a brilliant and enthusiastic birder.
The next book to catch my eye was Zarafa, the tale of the first giraffe to arrive in France. Much like the wonderful book; Jumbo by W.P. Jolly, this book promises an in-depth study of captivity management and animal transportation in the 1800s through the real life story of a much-loved, significant ‘celebrity’ animal.
Having written about Jumbo the London Zoo elephant and his shipment to America just recently, the promise of an equivalent tale of a giraffe being transported from Africa to Europe — and the trials and public reactions en route — was too good to leave sitting on the shelf.
The most incredible find of the trip however, and what feels like the crown jewel in my visit was walking into one of the most incredible Oxfam bookshops and casting my eyes through the ‘collectibles’ section, only to see sitting on the shelf, a hardback copy of gentle nature!
I treasure my paperback re-print from the year 2000, complete with an additional preface written by Born Free star and Co-Founder of the Born Free Foundation, Virginia McKenna. It was, after all, this copy that I won in raffle by the charity, and here that I first read about Shamwari Game Reserve‘s big cat rescue centre (including the Julie Ward Education Centre), which I would go on to volunteer at 8 years later.
But sitting on the shelf in front of me was an entirely different cover design that I was sure must be from the original 1998 print run.
“This has got to be a 1st edition” I told my partner, excitement dancing inside.
“It’s not that it’s particularly old, it’s just that you never see this kind of thing in secondhand shops. People buy these books because they care.”
I leafed through the front pages to see whether it was an original 1998 print, knowing that regardless, it would have a story attached.
It would have belonged to someone who cared about wildlife, about conservation; someone wanted to see wildlife free and not behind bars.
Someone who wanted to support the family of a young female photographer who grew up in the county next to me, and whose unsolved murder in the Masaai Mara must have touched them.
“No way!” my heart raced faster. This book has been signed!
Sitting there on the page in front of my was an message from Virginia, signed off with ‘Every good wish, Virginia McKenna‘.
To think that back in 1998, when I was eight years old, one of my biggest role models was holding this very book, sharing a special moment with its former owner. I suddenly felt a part of something.
“This is incredible.”
There were more messages and signatures inside the book, most poignantly from Julie Ward’s parents. As a new mum myself, I ran my fingers over the words penned by Julie’s mother, Jan. For Julie.
Needless to say, I purchased the book and it is instantly one of my most treasured possessions.
I have never met Julie’s parents, I wrote a letter to them once as a child; after following Julie’s story in the news. It was a letter writing task at school, and I chose to write to them, to tell them I wanted to go to Africa when I was older and take pictures, because I loved the wildlife photography I’d seen of Julie’s and because she was the only woman I’d heard of at the time who was from the part of England I was, and who had been brave enough to go on an adventure to Africa alone.
Despite her tragic story, she had shown me that young women could be brave and go on adventures, even if they’re from a rural county, rather than a big exciting city.
It was a piece of school work, so the letter was submitted to my teacher and never sent.
But to know that there’s a little bit of the spirit of Jan, and her love for Julie in this wonderful book — it feels like the message has been transferred the other way. From her pen to my eyes.
I said that my goal this year was to reacquaint with my passion for photography as a way to tell the stories of wildlife, to highlight the difference between freedom and captivity, and to share the tales of conservation efforts — and I feel like my spontaneous decision to get in the car and do something different this week was a well-timed reminder that I’m walking the right path.
Learn more about Julie Ward
Want to know more about the Suffolk wildlife photographer and her legacy?
- Read my reflections on how Julie Ward’s story inspired me
- Discover how I came to own the book of her photography
- News update on the Julie Ward case
Want to know more about the Julie Ward Education Centre at Shamwari Game Reserve?
- Read about my time volunteering at Shamwari
- See my photos of Shamwari’s big cat centre & Julie Ward Education Centre
- Why volunteer at Shamwari?
- Conservation volunteer experiences with Worldwide Experience
- Watch some of my Shamwari home videos
- Discover the Shamwari experience on Facebook
- Discover iShamwari and the Voice of Conservation
- What happened to the Voice of Conservation project?
- Call to bring back Voice of Conservation
Want to know more about Born Free Foundation?