New Networks for Nature event inspires reflective thoughts on nature in the digital age

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Over the weekend I attended the annual meeting of New Networks for Nature; a collaboration of  individuals who are all inspired by the natural world, including field naturalists, scientists, nature writers, artists and poets.  The event was a brilliant opportunity to hear from a variety of speakers, admire an exhibition of wildlife art, listen to environmental poetry and prose, and to network. I was a little bit star struck by such attendees as Mark Avery and Professor Tim Birkhead, but everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming. It was a wonderful thing to witness, and be part of, younger and aspiring naturalists and communicators rubbing shoulders with legends of the trade.

New Networks for Nature

Some interesting topics were discussed!

New Networks for Nature Event 2013

Topical open floor discussions took place

A discussion topic of the second day was “Virtual Nature”; how can modern technology be used to connect people with nature, instead of distancing them from it? Nick Moran from BirdTrack spoke about using technology to improve bird records and engage with bird recorders in new ways, such as using an app to alert recorders when they are in an area which is currently under recorded. Paul Morton from Birds of Poole Harbour talked about the power of the webcam for witnessing wildlife, and the first online twitch! Lucy McRobert spoke on behalf of A Focus On Nature, which provides networks, support, mentoring and opportunities for young conservationists. She highlighted the importance of social media for connecting young people with an interest in nature, both with one-another and with established experts, from whom they can learn and be inspired.

Comments and questions from the audience brought to light other advantages of modern technology, and also highlighted concerns. The major concern of course is that in a world of increasing technological distractions, the great outdoors struggles to compete in appeal to the younger generation.

The discussion prompted me to examine my own experiences of wildlife guiding and environmental teaching, in a technological world. I summarise two very different experiences here.

Since starting Wild Capital in London, social media has taken on a whole new meaning to me. No longer simply a window into the drunk escapades, holiday experiences or sporting successes of friends, and frequently acquaintances. Social media suddenly became a way to contact the world. Whilst listening to the speakers at the debate, it occurred to me that whilst the technologies they were discussing were  brilliant for  nature enthusiasts, and could be used extremely positively as tools for recording, watching, learning and sharing, what about the people out there who aren’t convinced or aware of the wonder of wildlife?  How would they know to tune in to a webcam, download an app or join a network, and what would attract them towards such a thing? One of my major goals, through Wild Capital, is to introduce new audiences to wildlife. I want to spread the word that natural history is amazing, beautiful, super cool, good for you and accessible to all. London, as the most densely populated part of the UK, is the prime spot to take on this challenge. When I first dreamt up this idea, after the initial excitement, I felt a bit hopeless; how would I ever reach the large proportion of Londoners who aren’t interested in nature in order to tell them about it? Those who really have no connection with nature won’t come to the parks and green spaces to see my posters, and they won’t search the internet for wildlife websites.  Arise the power of Twitter! Social networking is exactly that, a medium to interact with others to exchange information and develop contacts. If I organise a free wildlife walk in London and I advertise this on my website or Facebook page, I know it will be seen only by those who already care about nature enough to want to look. But, if I spread the word that a free event is taking place in London through other Twitter users with a large London following, such as The Londonist, and London Events or Skint London, suddenly the message reaches a much larger and more diverse audience than I could ever hope to contact alone. Hence social media plays a large part in my campaign to introduce the enjoyment of the natural world to new audiences.

To contrast with this positive use of modern technology, I would like to share a second example of my experiences with nature in the digital age. For several years I worked in a wonderful job as a wildlife guide in the Scottish Highlands. The visitors who came to stay and explore the environment and wildlife of Scotland were nature fans, as you might expect. Many were inspiring in their knowledge and experience of the natural world, others were perhaps less experienced but a joy to guide because of their enthusiasm and appreciation for what they saw. There was one occasion, when a young couple came to stay and seemed frequently disappointed by what they saw. Whilst the rest of my group were enjoying coastal views and spotting the Redshank hidden between the Knot, Lapwing and Godwit, I heard the couple grumble about “little brown specks”. The happiest I saw them all week was on the dolphin viewing boat trip, when they received wonderful close up views of a large pod. Through conversation it transpired that they had booked their trip after watching nature documentaries and viewing professional wildlife photographs. Whilst it is a great thing that new technology is clearing inspiring people to get outdoors themselves, managing their expectations  can be difficult.  Here is the problem; in a world of breath taking wildlife film making and awe inspiring photographs, how do we convey to those new to the world of wildlife watching that it isn’t all looking into the eye of a Golden Eagle or seeing individual water droplets evaporate from the coat of a rutting deer stag? Yes, hopefully all of us will experience wildlife moments so brilliant and personal that we have to pinch ourselves to convince us that it’s real. But, those moments require much patience and time in the field, during which time I hope people can enjoy all the opportunities that nature presents, even the less spectacular. I do think that modern wildlife documentaries are doing their bit to show the audience that it isn’t all a thrill a minute. The “Behind the Scenes” and “The Making of” features at the end of BBC documentaries, such as the Great British Year, show viewers that time and effort is spent to get the best shots.

So where lies the balance? Yes, we want people to feel drawn to experiencing nature, and this can and is, being done by beautiful images and film. But, we want them not to be disappointed if their own experiences aren’t quite as spectacular. I can think of little worse than someone returning indoors after viewing wildlife thinking “well that was a waste of time”, or “clearly I can’t do it”.

So where does all this leave me? I want to attract people to coming on a Wild Capital programme and experiencing the wildlife of London. To do this I showcase some of my best photographs on the website and social media pages, including a close up of a Stag Beetle and an intimate clash of antlers between rutting Fallow Deer. Not everyone who comes on a programme will have these exact experiences. What they will definitely have, however, is a real life experience of discovering nature, with their eyes, ears, noses and curious fingers.

What I really hope is that the thrill of seeing an animal with your own eyes, witnessing the moment and forming a unique personal memory, compensate for HD clarity.  This was summed up beautifully by a member of the audience in the New Networks for Nature event who commented that she had seen huge shoals of colourful fish on the TV. The first time she dived down herself and saw what was visually less spectacular, but real, she surfaced and said to her dad “better than the tele!”. In several years of wildlife guiding in Scotland, it was extremely rare that anyone had a disappointing experience, in fact the example I mention is the only one I can bring to mind, even though certainly many people had chosen to book their wildlife watching trip based on nature documentaries and photography. So it seems that there really is truth in the fact that the experience is worth more than the image.

I fervently embrace the communication, learning and visual advancements of the digital age, and celebrate the audiences that they have inspired. A wonderful modern achievement. And, at the same time, I take comfort in the thought that there is no way anything digital, no matter how stunning, could ever replace the crunch of autumn leaves under your feet as you sneak closer to a flock of Redwings feeding in a rowan tree, or the pleasure you get from peeping under a log and revealing an entire community of secretive slumbering invertebrates.  Lets get out there and make some memories!

Autumn evening on the Thames

Autumn evening on the Thames. A beautiful picture, but it can’t capture the smell of the autumn leaves, the tingle of the cool air on your finger tips, or the sound of squabbling blackbirds in the bushes.

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