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Val Crowder

In conversation with Roman Krznaric

Red Thunderbird

I was told that according to my birth date I am a Red Thunderbird for Native American mythology. For them, the thunderbird is a powerful spirit in the form of a bird. Lightning flashes from its beak, and the beating of its wings creates the thunder. I identify with the spirituality of it, what it represents, and always feel recharged of energy after a thunderstorm (which unfortunately are not common in the UK). I love it. It also represents my love for birds, specially raptors, and the symbolism of freedom they bring. This is one of many drawings I’ve done of what I think the mighty bird would look like.

I have one son and he’s at West Oxford Primary School. He’s seven years old and started at the school a year or so ago, so we’re quite new. When I first came I thought that there was potential for environmental projects, which I’m passionate about. I used to work in the United States teaching children environmental education in a nature reserve, and I know the kids really get into it if you have someone passionate doing it. I consider myself passionate in every way and I could never detach myself from the emotional interaction with everything I do. I could never do something without feeling for it. Working in outdoor education I realised – I was told and taught and then actually believed it – that you cannot protect and love what you don’t know and you cannot know until you learn about it. For me, if the kids don’t learn about nature they will never be able to love it enough to protect it. It’s a kind of vicious circle. I think it applies to everything: to art, other people and cultures.

The school asked if I was willing to help do fundraising for some of their environmental projects and we were lucky to get a substantial grant to redevelop the pond and create proper habitats. It will have insect boxes and renewable energy sources, using the wind to pump the pond pump. It will not only be a place for the kids to have a permanent quiet area in the playground, but also for the enjoyment of the public that uses the public path nearby. There’s an Eco Warriors Group at school that is formed by pupils, and now a Green Group, which I’ve become leader of. Together we will try to get a Green Flag (a prestigious European environmental prize) for the school.

Some of the parents got involved in this project as they heard about it. One said, ‘Oh, I know how to do willow weaving, so I can give you a hand with that.’ And now we have another parent, who is a professional landscape designer, who is helping us. The more people that get involved, the more it can help the school community become stronger. The attitude of the head teacher and governors and staff is also great: they’re open to new ideas and anything that will give the kids a more balanced education.

Where did your passion for nature and the environment come from?

I was born in Argentina. It’s a huge country so you’re more likely to be in touch with nature than in touch with cities. I’m 35 so when I was a kid there weren’t half as many buildings as there are now. I’m from the south-east of Buenos Aires province, from a city called Mar del Plata – Sea of Silver – which is right on the coast and I was always at the beach. My Dad’s family come from a farming background, so I used to go to the farms all the time. Both my grandfathers were passionate gardeners as well. One of my grandfathers died when I was three and I remember gardening with him. That’s how strong his influence was on me. Them plus the fact that both my parents were really keen amateur naturalists. We – my brothers and I – would come back with bugs and things we collected outdoors and they wouldn’t say, ‘Go away.’ They’d say, ‘Let’s look them up in the book and see what they do.’ Being a parent myself now, I realise how much patience they had, but also how great this teaching was: encouraging us from early age made my brothers and me nature lovers.

Since I was in primary school I knew that I wanted to study something related to nature. Because I had that early vocation, I finished high school and went to university and did agronomy. When I finished my first degree it was the early 90s, the time in Argentina you were just starting to hear about organic farming. I was interested in that part of farming rather than how many cows I could put in X number of hectares of land. In Argentina we were going through a really tough economic and political situation so there were not many chances for me to develop that sort of career there, so I started looking for scholarships to go abroad. I applied for hundreds and hundreds and I was really lucky to get an internship in the United States at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, which is the world’s most renowned place to study birds of prey. I spent almost a year there, studying and working at the same time. I was 24. That really showed me that this is where I should be, this was really ‘me’, I really wanted to do this. This was the time where I feel most myself.

Then I went to Ohio and worked in outdoor education and later got a job in California at the San Diego Wildlife Park, a very prestigious place to do research in wildlife. But because of the lovely immigration system that the United States has, I got my job but I didn’t get my visa on time so they wouldn’t let me start. That was really a major setback for me. I was very disappointed, because I was trying to do things right, follow the law. There were so many illegal people working there it was mad. But trying the right way proved unlucky. Still, I didn’t want to do things wrong. ‘Things happen for a reason,’ I thought.

Being that my family background is half Italian, half English, I have an Italian passport, so at that time I thought I could go to Europe and work there and nobody’s going to tell me to go because I don’t have a proper visa and immigration papers. So I came to work with the RSPB, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in the UK, in 1997. That was doing volunteer work. I’ve done a lot of volunteering work. I’ve found that either I give up and just do an administrative job and that’s it or I do volunteer work, and I’ll always be poor but I’ll be really happy that I’m doing what I really love to do.


After I worked with the RSPB in Norfolk I came here to Oxford, and I really loved it for some reason. Don’t ask me why because I’m still trying to guess! I remember the first time I came it was February, it was a horrible day, I was coming on the bus through Summertown on Banbury Road, and I thought, ‘This place is amazing!’ I remember seeing the dark sky, and all these houses with sash windows with little squares of glass, with lights inside – it was like a fairytale I suppose. I thought, ‘I’m going to stay here.’ I had to find where to live, what to do. I was totally on my own, not knowing anyone here. So I took a job at the Youth Hostel Association, because I felt I could sympathize with international backpackers and visitors, and it also offered accommodation for staff. Later on, I met the man who later was my husband, and I was stuck here in a way, because his family is from Oxford, he was working here and we were raising our small baby. Argentina was out of the question at that time as I didn’t want to work while our son was very little and he could not speak Spanish. Even though a lot has changed since, I still am in Oxford. I’m starting to call it home.

I didn’t work for a couple of years while my son was a little baby. Then I took part-time work in Marks and Spencer’s doing something totally different to my background, which was visual merchandising, doing the window displays, in-store displays and things like that. I always did artistic things. I also kept doing some more work for the RSPB, from home, for the education department. And I had work experience at the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol. But they were brief windows opening to what my life should be…and was not. That was frustrating.

My marriage started going wrong and at the same time I finally won a scholarship to do a Master’s degree. What I thought my marriage was going to be was not. The person who I thought my husband was, was not either. And I knew I wasn’t going very far with my personal life. Something was wrong there but I couldn’t tell what it was. I was lucky that I got that scholarship, two years part-time at Brookes University in Environmental Assessment and Management. I finished it last December. That was one positive thing to keep me going through an otherwise exhausting time, physically and mentally. Now I was coping all on my own.

My last year at university was terrible because at the end of 2003 I went to visit my Dad for his birthday and I came back to realise my ex-husband hadn’t been loyal to our marriage vows. He started showing a side of him I did not know. I learned things I was totally unaware of during all that time we were married. My whole world changed. All of a sudden I was thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I don’t belong here,’ and all those questions. And I got depression, went bankrupt…all the things that can happen to you, they happened to me in less than six months. I had therapy, and obviously that helped. But I’m quite isolated here, all my family and good friends are still back home. That made it really hard, and still does. But I also had to learn to get out of my comfort suit and face reality. So I had to open up and ask for help, in many ways. If I was to be a good mum, and a happy, honest person to myself, I had to ‘face the music and dance’. Once again, nothing happens just because, everything has a reason, so I believe. So I know this time it will take a while until I find out what was the reason for this horrible, unwanted thing to happen, but I always trust that God chooses better than me, and so I believe that one day I will be saying ‘A-ha! So this is why I had to go through that!’


I find myself a lot more comfortable being around people from anywhere else but England and all the Nordic countries, I mean: all countries where weather is really cold and grey. I always blamed it on having Latin blood but I’m starting to realise how much the weather influences how people are. I have a lot of friends from Australia, for example, and even though they’re not Latin, I still consider them ‘on my side’ rather than from here. It seems like the lifestyles and priorities and ways people go about life in this country don’t really match with what I think life is. For example – a really shallow example – I wasn’t brought up to drink as a way of having fun. In my culture, or in my ‘nest’ – my close family, friends and relatives – you have fun and you might be drinking or eating or having a coffee at the same time. But your ultimate goal is not to go and get drunk and then socialise. If you’re so drunk, you can’t make sense of any conversation you’re having with anybody! Back home you might be going on the bus and you start chatting with the person next to you, whoever that is, and you may end up knowing that they just got divorced or their kid is sick. It might seem really nosy but it’s not done in a nosy way. You connect with people in a much deeper way.

This is something I’m still trying to find out: what really my position is on this. I know a lot of people who experienced this feeling of not belonging. There is a Spanish song that goes: ‘I’m not from here, nor from there…’ and I think this happens to a lot of people who emigrate on their own. Couples of the same culture that move together don’t seem to go through a lot of the deep sense of ‘uprooting’ that lone emigrants go through. And this is why I sympathize a lot with what people call here ethnic minorities…you don’t have to have a different colour of skin, or different ways of dressing to feel a minority here. I am white, and have British blood in me, but I know what it feels like to be an outsider at all levels from being treated as ‘foreign’ and so be treated in a totally patronizing way, really to miss the sunshine, or a hug from family. It is very hard, but I guess it’s ‘character forming’. You have more time to think, to analyse, to compare, and this brings great philosophical debates within my head. Values, what really matters, etc.…I constantly have these fights in my head. But also this position gives me an advantage, I feel. I can understand the behaviors of foreigners easier, because I experience it first hand too. And this makes me richer. Because I am not afraid of asking questions, I learn from others and their experiences fill me with knowledge. And once again, knowing about different cultures makes me understand and care for them.

I still think that the average British person is quite closed, you can see that with the average Brit tourist abroad: not trying local foods, not learning the language. I have a feeling it is like this because people are afraid. Afraid of being ridiculed, afraid of not understanding, afraid of being taken out of the tidy, ‘I know what to expect’ way of living here.

At the same time as I am somehow criticising (positively), I believe that anybody wanting to live here should know English, should respect British traditions and its history and culture; Britons should also try harder at integrating with foreign cultures. It should be a win win situation. But nowadays in the name of ‘integrating’ and not being ‘unfair’ Britain is losing a lot of what made Great Britain great. It sounds like a political statement, but I’m not trying to be political!

My family is middle class, so we were never really poor. But we weren’t rich either. Material things have never been my ultimate goal. For me, real life is connecting with people and having fun and learning and appreciating every single moment you have, and being able to connect with nature I think provides a great channel to connect with what makes us human.

I believe everyone can express themselves artistically. Talent shows in different ways and developing those kinds of qualities is, for me, a goal. Not everybody can paint well, or do gymnastics, but we all have something we can do, or we like doing, and I think we should really cultivate our talents. Gardening, constructing cars, biking, birdwatching, whatever.

In this country you can find people all over doing things, pursuing hobbies, courses, exhibitions, etc., it is fantastic. But then you go out on the street and you’re not expected to talk about any of those personal things with people because you’re being either nosy or rude. I mean, not just a mere question on ‘How are your clematis doing?’ – that is the expected question. But more like personal, deeper questions. I haven’t had the chance to meet anyone yet that has that kind of conversations with family or friends in the streets or pubs. Back home those subjects are more common to hear around.

One of the things I’m learning, observing as time goes by, is that older generations in England seem emotionally blocked or undeveloped. They seem to find it really difficult to open up. I sometimes blame it on the war years, and the fact that probably they had to go through horrendous, emotionally ripping times, and they had to become harder, block the pain and keep on going. I think this because I find myself being like that sometimes, blocking the pain of missing loved ones, and keep on going. And there are no wars here now! So I can imagine that in that situation it must have been a necessity to block emotions and plod on. For me, my generation and the younger ones, that is really worrying. How can we grow as people if we don’t include emotional growth in our daily lives?

I feel lucky that in my family, dialogue has always been part of the daily routine, sitting at the table, at meals, etc. People here eat on trays, watching TV. Surely that has an impact on how the next generations will be. I live in quite a deprived area of Oxford, in Greater Leys, and I look at my neighbours and you can see that people cannot sit down and say, ‘I’m really hurt about this, can we talk about it?’ People pretend nothing has happened and they keep going. And I know those people inside are hurting. And then, as it happens to me, you end up having nothing in common with your neighbours, no middle-way, and simply you live next to each other but that is all. No sense of community. No sense of ‘today for you, tomorrow for me’. Is this a problem of cities? Or a cultural thing? I still have to find out.

Probably why I like living in the UK is because I like people being respectful of each other. Still, I don’t know if it is a cultural thing or just happens, but if I don’t want to talk about it I don’t have to talk about it. If I want to wear a yellow hat and flip flops nobody is going to tell me ‘No’ or laugh at me – at least not in my face! I think British people are excellent at minding their own business and everybody can do whatever they like. In a sense, it’s really strange that they can achieve that level of freedom in this way and yet still be so repressed in other ways. Maybe this is one of the great things of a pro-individualist society.

What I like about Oxford is perhaps that nothing is permanent, it’s ephemeral. You have these beautiful buildings that are absolutely permanent, been there for hundreds of years. But most people I know in Oxford are people who come and study or work for a couple of years and go. Tourists also come and go. I think it gives the city a good flavour. There’s no one day that I take the bus and sit there and cannot count all the different cultures that are on this bus. In my country you could never have that. I think that richness is amazing.

My son used to go to a much larger school in Oxford and what I found when he started at West Oxford Primary School is that there are quite a lot of people from different cultural backgrounds and from abroad. Maybe this school is a mini version of Oxford. For me that’s really interesting. At home me and my son speak quite a lot of Spanish. For a time, in the other school especially, where they were all English, if I spoke to him in Spanish in front of them he wouldn’t go with it, he would try to speak back in English. I asked quite a few people about it and they said kids don’t want to be different from the rest. When we came to this school some of his friends were speaking French or Spanish with their parents, and now he thinks it’s cool to speak something that nobody else understands! Being with other people that come from other countries made him realise that having me as a foreign parent could be quite good. That encourages me as a parent to try and show him things from my culture, and I guess he has learned to appreciate the differences. I hope this approach, together with the school’s one, helps my son and all the kids be tolerant and enjoy their differences, and become richer with the diversity.

On the first day when I went to his new school you say hello to everybody. And the second day some say hello back and some don’t. I don’t know why this happens, if it is a reaction to what you are wearing or how you look or speak. I find it difficult to talk with the Asian mums in the sense that if you look them in the eye and say hello they say hello and look away. I still don’t know if that’s a cultural thing. Of course this is not always, but it is in most cases. We also invited them to my son’s birthday but none of their kids came to the party or said why not. It left me guessing if it was just me or if it happens to everybody. One day while helping out I started talking with one of the school assistants, who is a young Asian woman, about how similar the vision of family was for both of our cultures. For example, being friends with her parents and caring for her parents’ friends or neighbours though they are quite old, is given, it is obvious, like in Argentina. You are part of your parents’ life in every way. There are not many situations where it is ‘kids only’ or ‘parents only’. But here in England for most people when they reach 16 it seems all they want to do is get away from your house as soon as possible. ‘Escape’ the parents. She was talking about this neighbour she has, who is a lonely lady, and they go and help her…I could relate a lot more to her than perhaps to the average English family where people are much more independent, where parents get on with their lives and the kids get on with theirs. So it makes me sad that I cannot get to know the Asian mums. I am genuinely interested in their culture, their points of view, understanding them. I wish they were interested in mine, too.


Since my marriage broke up it’s been a period of constant re-evaluation of what’s important to me, what do I really want out of this life and what am I going to do to get it.

I’m not working at the moment and I’m looking for a job. It is proving a very tricky, difficult thing to do, and I’m getting somehow upset about it. And I’m thinking, do I want to live here forever? I’m overly-optimistic, I think. I tend to think that my next job is going to be my job forever. I always think like that, like my next relationship will be forever. I know that that helps me overcome a lot of things, setbacks in my career, in my personal life. Sometimes I wish I could be more realistic. No job is for a lifetime. No partner is forever. You are not going to be here forever. I’d like to be more right here right now, and not plan so much ahead. This is a personal battle. Try to be more casual, and not put so much pressure on myself. I still don’t understand that whole thing that ‘If you have to fight for it, if it is a struggle, it is not meant to be’. My whole life has been a struggle in the professional sense. Both my parents, friends and my life have been a struggle in the economical sense. I was born in South America! Struggling is part of life. So I guess once you are used to expecting to struggle for everything, for any advance in your life, it really seems odd not to be struggling. I’m working on this one.

I was raised Catholic but I really admire Taoist philosophy because it goes with nature cycles. In Taoism there are good and bad things but you don’t reject the bad things, it’s a wheel that all makes sense eventually. I took that from it. When I was 20 I thought, ‘I’ve broken with this boyfriend, everything’s going to end.’ But no, probably a better one is going to come along. Or ‘I lost this job…’ Funnily enough, I don’t know if it’s because I decided in my head that’s what’s going to happen, everything has always been for the better. There’s my optimism again. It works for me. And the belief in God, again, that he chooses better for me, even if I don’t realise at the time. I think that faith in something is vital. For me, religions are the same story told in different languages, so people can understand it better. We don’t all speak the same language, but we all believe in the same story. I don’t understand why nowadays there are so many conflicts between religions. I guess when people are extremists, and shut themselves to other ways, points of view, it creates intolerance and that’s the reason for fighting, not the religious beliefs. I wish more people learned to be tolerant. And that more people tried to learn the reasons why they believe their truth is the absolute one, and that there is no space for anything else. An open mind is a very difficult thing to get. Or as they say ‘Common sense is the least common of all senses!’

How do I make decisions? I’m not rational at all. It gets me in trouble! I probably have a gut instinct about things. If I’m in a state of shock or if my head’s going to explode I normally take some time alone and go for a walk, then what I should do will eventually come to me. I try to never force myself to take a quick decision because that never works. If I have to make a decision right now I’ll have to go with my gut instinct.

Right now I’m finding it quite hard to manage being on my own and being in charge of me and my son. I know if I didn’t have a child, given my personal circumstances right now, I’d be traveling because that’s for me the best therapy ever. But I can’t do that now because my son has to go to school. And I don’t have the money either! I feel like quite a responsible person – maybe being the older sister gives you that. I wish I had the money to say, ‘Let’s sail around the world!’ But that’s totally utopian. Deep inside I am an endless explorer, traveler, an observer.

When I became a mother it was a change of direction…as if you were rolling pasta and you made a tube of it: when my son was born it was like somebody chopped it in half. One part is before, and one part is after. It was a life changing experience, which I know for every woman and man it is. But I think it was particularly hard for me because the same year my son was born I had moved to England for good, I had married, my grandfather died, I was away from all my family and I didn’t have a job, because my employer breached my contract while on maternity leave, which left me homeless. What used to be my life was not there any more. It was totally a new page. That changed all my priorities. Before, my priorities were to travel as much as possible before you settle down. After my son was born that priority went to the bottom of the list. Now the priority is my son. That’s why I stayed in Oxford – because I knew in this society I could have a lot of support, I could give him a good school, food and a house, while back home in Argentina the country was going through the worst time, people were losing everything, especially from the middle class. But being a mother is definitely the best experience I could have ever asked for. I would not change a minute of it. It makes me sad to think I won’t be able to have another child, since I am single now. But I don’t lose my hopes. Who knows what life will bring next.

I try not to have preconceptions about things. My experience in England has taught me that. I would have never thought that I’d be homeless, but I was. I would never have thought that I would get divorced, and I was – nobody in my family was ever divorced. I never thought I’d claim benefits but I had to otherwise my son would be living in the streets.

I never thought ten years ago I would be living in England and going through all these things on my own, far from my loved ones. But this is life. And I embrace it. I read once on a T-shirt: ‘Don’t fight it, embrace it’. It was funny in the T-shirt, but also a really serious attitude to life. I’m trying to embrace life as it comes. And it is proving really good advice.

One of my priorities that has never changed is to always do what I think is right. So when I was having problems with my marriage I thought, let’s take some time to think about it, is this right for me being here with this guy in this place? And I thought, ‘Yes’, I’d be really disappointed with myself if I didn’t try. So let’s try. Then I won’t regret not having tried. I don’t mind regretting things but don’t like being a coward. Fear is your worst enemy. I aim to not let fear in my way and strive not to be a coward. I could never forgive myself for that.

So many times when I’m in my most difficult moments I think, What would my Dad have done? What would my Mum or my grandparents have done here? For me they are my role models. I feel extremely grateful for them. I know I am really lucky in that sense. My parents told me that you can learn something from everybody, regardless of what they do, where they live, who they are, if they’re kings or poor people. Somebody always has something to teach you and you can always teach somebody something else. I took that as one of my mantras. And I try to pass that on to my son.

I feel when you achieve something it comes with a responsibility. When you acquire something – a skill or knowledge – there comes a responsibility to pass it on. I don’t know if it’s my Catholic background, but I feel it’s my duty to help others. I consider myself really lucky that I have obtained lots of things, not material things, but nevertheless achievements: that I have studied and worked in other countries, especially because people from Argentina struggle a lot to follow their vocation and often have to give it up because there’s no option. By no means do I feel I’ve reached where I should be, I still think there’s a lot more for me. But I feel the responsibility that I should give back or help other people.

I always thought that my dream job would be developing a place in Argentina that would bring people from abroad to teach local people environmental education, and those local people would pass it on to other people, and so on. My role would be as a communicator and as a connection between people. My other dream I thought would be to work for the United Nations. But most of their jobs are not in England. Would I go and live in Italy or Paris? Or would I like to have a little job in Devon by the beach? But then I probably wouldn’t have enough money to send my son to university. At this time in my life I’m trying to decide what to do. What is life to me, really? Where is my place? Where I am going to be me? These are really deep, important questions and I’m concentrating on them now. I am taking my setbacks as a chance to explore these questions. How long will it take? I hope not much.


I always have to be doing something, otherwise I feel I’m wasting my time. I’m taking a creative writing course and also an art course at Ruskin College. I will start learning French soon and try to get a driving licence. Most of the people in these courses at Ruskin are older people, 60 plus, and most never had a chance to do anything like that in their lives, so they tell us. When they start opening up through writing or painting, and they start talking about their childhood and things, you can see how much they suffered in their childhoods and how many people wish they could have said something. Through all these artistic and creative experiences most people say at the end how lucky they feel to be there because they never felt judged. And I thought, ‘Who’s going to judge you?’ But obviously feeling judged is something that repeats throughout their lives, feeling that they were foolish or whatever. There I realised I was brought up in a different way, because I feel that even if I am nobody it doesn’t mean that what I have to say is not important. And the question of why older people here are so closed comes back. I believe it is a fundamental, interesting fact that I am sure a lot of academics are studying now.

I did a portrait of myself in my art class. I did it smiling and I didn’t realise until the teacher said, ‘Wow, you did yourself smiling, that’s really difficult.’ And I thought, I would have never posed serious because I’d feel like a dead person! And then I looked at the other twenty people and their self-portraits were all really serious! I guess this says something about me, although I am not sure what it means. I guess smiling is an international language, right? I believe in giving the chance of a smile before a serious look, that shows you are open to others. I don’t do it consciously, but people have mentioned it. I’m glad I do smile, and frankly, I wish a lot more people smiled more.

If I had a portrait of myself in the National Portrait Gallery I’d probably be on my own…and I would be in the middle of a forest and have an owl on my arm, and I’m standing there and smiling! You can tell I’m really happy to be there and you can see the sun shining through the canopy so you can see the shape of all the leaves. But also I need the sea around, I need water, to be walking on the beach…I don’t know…it is really difficult to choose one place, one moment to define yourself. Would it be passing on the responsibility to others if I said I’d rather ask somebody that knows me well how do they picture me in a portrait in the National Gallery? I feel it is like choosing what to write on your epitaph: do we define ourselves for what we think of ourselves? Or can those who know us, love us, accompany us through life give a real image of what we are, a better definition?

When I was asked this question it really got me thinking. One thinks it is very easy to define ourselves, or so I thought. Better still: I have never thought of such definition, but somehow I guessed it was clear, obvious. Well, it really isn’t. At least at this moment, but then, it is quite a turbulent time for me, so maybe when the storm settles, I’ll be able to define myself easier.

When I was six or seven years old my Dad and I were at the beach and we went in the water. My Dad was holding me because I was so little and didn’t know how to swim. We were going in and I was scared, because the water was getting to my Dad’s shoulders. And to my fearsome reaction, I remember him saying, ‘I would never do anything to hurt you.’ That phrase stuck in my head. I always remembered that. I extended it to my Mum and I knew I could always trust my parents. That was really good for me. I was never a rebellious kid. I knew they would always love me and would never hurt me and that set the tone for the rest of my life. And because I knew this, I never tried to hurt them; on the contrary, I was always really conscious of their efforts and sacrifices, and always tried to make them proud, as my way of thanking them for that. Of course I did some things that didn’t make them specially proud, but never in a conscious way to hurt them, or not caring about them. Sometimes things happen, that you did not try to do, but I think it is the attitude, or intention that counts.

Another conversation I remember as defining in my approach to life, was with one of my grandfathers. One day he said – it’s a saying in Spanish – ‘In this traitorous world in which nothing is true and nothing is a lie, everything depends on the colour of the crystal through which you look at it.’ When I die I think I’d like to have that written on my headstone. It set the way I relate to people. I am never the one judging (or at least not consciously). You can’t really judge things. For example, in the Iraq war. I’m ignorant of Muslim culture so I couldn’t say, as some people did, ‘We should kill them all.’ You don’t have the knowledge to talk authoritatively, especially if you don’t make the effort to learn and appreciate others. You could be a Muslim. Your son could fall in love with a Muslim girl. Would you think that way then?

A third conversation was with a man in the United States who became my mentor. He was the one who gave me my first ever internship. He is an amazing character, a world-renowned naturalist. His outlook in life is always that you can have fun at the same time that you’re a grown-up. You can behave professionally but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, being a scientist or a researcher or something ‘serious’ doesn’t have to be boring. He is such a great inspiration.


Partly because I work with nature I have been to amazing places that nobody has ever been, or experienced unique moments and you can never translate into words for other people what you have experienced. I have a friend, for example, who studies whales and he goes to the middle of the ocean and he sees hundreds of whales passing by him and he swims with dolphins but there is no way you can tell somebody how that feels. So the more amazing or extraordinary things you do, the more detached you feel from ‘common people’ who have not had these extraordinary moments. They will never understand. So slowly by slowly, I stopped talking to people about these experiences. You could be telling someone, ‘A hawk flew off my hand and then it looked straight at me…’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, how nice.’ But deep inside you know they don’t’ really get it. You can’t blame them because they haven’t been there. For many people who work with nature you have a lot of those intimate moments where only you were there. Nobody else can understand and you cannot articulate it. I wish you could.

I’m quite an open person, I’m curious, and I really like to learn as much possible about everything, really! I love going to museums and learning about culture and art. I’m really interested in history and people and why they do the things they do. I’m really curious about what moves other people. I’d like to travel around the world to know more about these things. I know it can sound quite boring, but maybe that’s why I don’t enjoy reading fiction as much as factual, non-fiction. For me reading something that is not going to teach me something is like wasting time. But I take this as a personal challenge and one of the reasons I’m taking a creative writing course now: I need to learn about it and see if I can appreciate it then!

I would have liked to talk to Leonardo Da Vinci. I think he was an absolute genius, the fact that he was so curious about everything I find totally inspiring. The fact that he pursued his interests even though they were odd or uncommon. And that he mixed different areas of work, painting, science, for his personal pursuits. It’s such a legacy. And also teaching that everything has to do with everything, nothing occurs isolated in this world. We could all be so much richer as people if we had that curiosity to learn and explore.

Signature flower

I always sign my personal letters with a flower. It’s a little gift to whomever is receiving the letter. I love flowers and they always make me happy, and that feeling is what I try to send when I draw it.

April 2005