Is Environmental Education Ruining Nature For Me?

Things have been a little quiet on Adventures in Conservation recently (I know, I know, this has obviously had a devastating impact on you all, for which I can only apologise. I can only hope your Christmas was not ruined pondering just what the hell had happened to me). For the last month or so, I’ve been getting to grips with some new nature reserves and areas of woodland to monitor and manage, so my hands have been a tad full. But it was while wandering one of these sites that I finally felt a surge of inspiration to propel another aimless missive into the void.

Recently I’ve been questioning whether an environmental education – or working in the sector – ruins one’s enjoyment of the nature. I’m beginning to suspect I was better of ignorant and happy. As such, this week my walk around one of the new (old), spangly (muddy) areas of woodland under my dominion followed a familiar pattern:

Ah, Compartment 1. Management plan says Ancient semi-natural woodland. Lot of cherry laurel in here, bit of bloody Rhododendron too – we’ll need to get that bugger cut, treated and cleared. Not sure we can afford that.

Rhodi

Bah!

Comp. 1a – Glade: Well, it might have been a glade once upon a time. When was this last cut? It’s scrubbed over. Bugger. Chalk it up as a volunteer task.

Comp. 2: Management plan says there is a excellent display of bluebells here in early summer. I bet they’re bloody Spanish.

Comp. 3: ‘Local volunteers have been working to cut back encroaching woodland into the meadow area’…Gods, need to teach them to cut back to ground-level. Place is a trip hazard!

Comp 4: Coppice. Lapsed. Do we have the man power/volunteer will to bring this back into rotation? Probably not.

Comp 5: Secondary woodland. Backs on to housing. Green waste over the garden fence. We’ll have to have a word.

Crassula

Gah!

Comp 5a – Pond: Shopping Trolley. Overhanging vegetation on all side. Is that Crassula? Oh bugger, that is crassula.

And on and on and on. It’s possible that learning more about nature – or perhaps more specifically, getting overwhelmed by management plans, habitat designations, schedule of works etc. etc. – has taken the joy out of it all for me. Or, to quote someone much better at this stuff than I: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

Or something like that. Perhaps I should just stop being such a curmudgeon. After all, this week I have been paid to – amongst other things – fall in a stream, plant trees, cut trees down, burn things, peer into hedgerows, and generally gad about making a nuisance of myself in a picturesque woodland. Things could be a lot worse. I once boxed cheese for a living.

Why We Must Keep Nature in Our Dictionaries – My favourite nature words and how they will save your children come the end times

It’s the latest harbinger of an apocalyptic future where machines become our overlords and we’re forced to communicate entirely in binary  – the Oxford Junior Dictionary are replacing ‘nature’ words with decidedly ‘unnatural’ counterparts. Is this a very audible bellweather of the inexorable move of the human race indoors and, ultimately, into the very machines themselves?

I do wonder, in my more pessimistic moments (generally, 75% of the day) just how this generation will turn out when they hit adulthood. It’s a virtual unknown. Yes, there were Video Games, before that TV, Radio and even books – all of which, if you listened with a gloomy disposition or with a miserabilist’s bent to the ear, would rot the brains of our youth, turning then into gurning simpletons with poor social skills. I’m pretty sure this hasn’t happened, though I often can’t quite tell when forced to interact with the service industry. Lamenting the ‘youth of today…’ is a universal right for anyone over the age of 30 (although I think I started at 21), it’s usually not particularly well-founded, though.

But the Internet, the many screens we are confronted with day to day – it’s all-pervasive in the modern world in a way that the others were not. They change the way we work, the way we think, even. What change, then, to a developing mind? I’m hardly covering new ground here though; Project Wild Thing (about which I was characteristically but perhaps unjustly mean about a while ago) is just the latest in a line of attempts to convince us to take our children out into the natural world and leave them to their own devices, may the strongest survive. A bit like the Hunger Games, or (more originally) Battle Royale. On second thoughts, maybe I misunderstood Project Wild Thing. Or maybe I’ve just been watching Battle Royale recently.

newts on facebook

I was doing a little research the other day – Wikipedia has really got it in for newts

Removing natural words from the dictionary is all very well, and I can see the point in an age where we’re teaching our kids coding, but where will it leave them come the Zombie Apocalypse*, eh? That’s the real question here. Knowing how to spell ‘algorithm’ ain’t going to help them when they’re scrabbling through the undergrowth, pursued by hordes of the undead, trying to work out if this strange nut thing they’ve found is edible or poisonous…if only they knew it’s name they could look it up on wikipedia and find out…except, wait, that Jimmy Wales chap has finally had to shut Wikipedia down due to lack of donations. Well, that and the Zombies eating every single online editor until its accuracy drops to an all-time low (I know, who’d notice, right?).

So here are my favourite nature words that you should go out and teach your children immediately – failing to do so is basically condemning your offspring to a real-life shuffle-on part in a George A Romero film:

Osprey – Os-prey, os-prey. For some reason I find something very agreeable about the two separate parts of the word when they come together. Plus, it’s an awesome, awesome raptor and who knows what role falconry will play in a dystopian future?

Hemlock Water Dropwort – There’s something about the way the successive syllables rise and fall…plus, in an apocalyptic society, you can disguise it as celery and poison your rivals.

osprey

Osprey Post-Armageddon fish delivery system

Juniper – Gin will be essential when society collapses (Who am I kidding, Gin is already essential).

Coppice – maybe it’s because I’ve done so much coppicing, but the word always brings on a warm feeling. Plus, if you want to make those hurdles for tripping undead pursuers or spears to stab them right in the face, then long, straight poles will need to be cultivated.

Tawny Grisette – Roles off the tongue, doesn’t it? Plus good to know the difference between this edible mushroom and some very similar, poisonous ones that you can then use to poison your rivals on the way to the top of the rudimentary feudal system that will evolve once the zombies have been dealt with.

Others on the shortlist were – Glanville Fritillary, Bird’s-foot trefoil, Ribwort plantain and Teasel. So what’s your favourite ‘nature’ word, and just how will it help us survive an uprising of hyper-intelligent Tesco automated check-out bays?

*I appear to have switched my end-of-human-race scenario from AI run wild to Zombie epidemic, lord knows why. Again, I may have been watching too many films over the holidays. Coming Soon: I write a piece where I explain that both are merely more cinematic stand-ins for environmental collapse, Zombies are in fact a metaphor for climate change and AI represents our own attempts to control a natural environment that will, inevitably, rebel and kill us all.

Catch It, Kill It, Eat It – Is It So Wrong to Enjoy Hunting?

The man who does not like to see, hunt, photograph or otherwise outwit birds or animals is hardly normal. He is supercivilized, and I for one do not know how to deal with him.’ Aldo Leopold

The disconnect between plate and animal for the average consumer in the modern industrialised nations is huge. How can we appreciate where our food is coming from when for the most part we only see it in its final form, sterile and packaged? Is the art of hunting, killing and eating your own food an essential part of what makes us human, or have we civilized beyond this point? It is undeniable that the majority of people around me have never had the visceral experience of killing ones own food; many would undoubtedly be repulsed by the act. Is this civilization, or is it shirking of responsibility? By ignoring the source of our food, do we seek to abnegate ourselves from any moral guilt or squeamishness around the intensive farming and iffy welfare, which comes as part of the cost for our cheap and readily available meat? Do we owe our food the moral responsibility of at least having some knowledge and first hand experience of their conversion from living beast to dead meat?

That’s a lot of questions and there is always the possibility that I’m getting on my high-horse after reading too much Leopold and Walden, Maybe I’m feeling a regression towards my rural upbringing, but I can’t help but feel I am missing out on something, some kind of hereditary hunting fever.

I'll say anything just to be on the opposite side of an argument to Morissey

I’ll say anything just to be on the opposite side of an argument to Morissey

My own feelings on hunting are varied dependent on form, target and other, perhaps less definable qualities. For reasons not worth expanding on here, I am pro-deer, anti-grouse, fox-largely-pro-with-caveats, and badger-largely-anti-with-caveats. I have an understandable vocational tolerance of hunting for conservation measures but have developed an abhorrence of farmed hunting, again largely on conservation grounds. Hunting as a tourist pursuit I dislike, hunting for subsistence (in a first world country) I can tolerate, but I have no first-hand experience of either, so speak from a position of ignorance (something you must be familiar with, I hear you cry). One issue riles up my peers more than most, and one that has particularly been applied to fox hunting but would be relevant to all forms – the enjoyment of hunting for hunting’s sake. It is seen as immoral and uncivilized, an outdated and redundant primal instinct. I’d argue that this innate response is not a regressive one, but an intrinsic part of our future. Why shouldn’t we enjoy hunting and killing things? We’re hardwired to divine a sense of achievement, satisfaction and maybe even enjoyment from a hunt well concluded. We are at a point in our development where our level of civilisation has (for the most part) advanced beyond our innate primitive drivers and desires. Like trying to incorporate digital software into analog hardware, conciliating the atavistic part of our psyche with our enlightened social structure is prone to breaking down and may require occasional release of our internal ‘monkey brain’.

As such might it not be good for everyone to kill (and eat) something at least once in their life? I remember visiting an abattoir as a child, it was not traumatic in the slightest, as I was always aware of the journey taken by the food on my plate having grown up in a farming community, but this experience certainly drove it home. If every child of 10 were taken on a similar visit, well, there’d probably be a few more vegetarians, but if every teenager was offered the opportunity to learn how to catch, kill and eat their own food, the sense of entitlement many feel towards their protein may dissipate. I know from the inner-city groups I have worked with that many would jump at the chance (a fair few more would run a mile, mind). Radical (and likely to draw the wrath of many a parent), but the act of killing their own food could be an important lesson for our children. I will stop well short of claiming it as a release valve for pent-up barbaric inner desires and a cure for social ills such as gang violence, but engagement with the environment at such a crude level would promote conscientious shopping at the very least.

A requirement to understand the origin of the bacon in your sandwich may have absolutely no relevance to your enjoyment of it, and you may view it as an unnecessary burden to subject yourself and your children to. And in the 21st century, you may be right, but I would consider the renunciation of this knowledge, and further than this, the denial of the instinct to hunt, to be a denial of what has made us the human race we are today. But enjoying it? Maybe this is a taboo too far in a supposedly civilised society.

Ten ‘Other’ Tips for Getting a Job in Conservation

This week I found a guest article on Mark Avery’s great blog giving ten tips for getting a job in conservation. I reasoned: I’ve studied Conservation, I’ve volunteered for environmental organisations, I now have a job vaguely in the sector, therefore I’m equally as qualified to offer advice. Either that or I’ve run out of ideas and have started plagiarising.

There’s a lot of ‘traditional’ advice you will probably have heard a hundred times if you’re an aspiring ecologist or environmental educator, but I’m going to assume you’re not a complete numpty and forgo advising you to check your spelling, tailor your CV, research your employer, practice your interview questions – if you’re reading my most excellent blog and have stuck with it this far, then you’re obviously an intelligent bird. Obviously. So here I’m offering some tips you perhaps won’t find elsewhere. You can take it or leave it. It’s a competitive market, perhaps I’m sabotaging you?:

1. Volunteer – Education is great, experience is better

No brainer, this one. Yes, many of us could have stupid letters after our name if we chose (vanity is not a common trait amongst conservationists – see point 7), but it’s the hands-on experience that really counts in the sector.

2. Put thought into the course you choose

That said, if you’re going down the further education route, have a serious think about the course content and how it will help you get a job. Think specific skills. An MSc in Conservation has earned me a broad tick mark in many application processes, but a chainsaw license has got me interviews. Lots of little, focused, courses are often a better investment than one large one.

3. Diversify

Try everything once except incest and morris dancing – even things you think you won’t be good at or have no interest in. My first breaks came through volunteering on projects with young people who were not thriving in a classroom environment (one of my favourite euphemisms, that). This was something I didn’t really think I’d have an interest in or be good at, but my volunteer coordinator twisted my arm. Create yourself a solid and broad base of general skills, you never know when they might come up in an interview or an application. Sticking your hands up gets you noticed, too.

4. Specify

Why do you keep following me and stealing my poo?

Want an interview? Get a Wallaby

Contradictory so and so, aren’t I? I promise I’m not just confused (well, generally I am, but not about this). It’s always good to have a ‘thing’ (this coming from a man who chased Wallabies around the Isle of Man – I swear I’ve been invited into interviews just for that). Ecology, for example, is a huge school – perhaps start with one group to develop some serious skills in.

5. Input into your volunteering experience

I’ve written about the changes to volunteering offers before, and I think people are becoming more turned on to the idea that it’s a two-way process. Ask to see and input into volunteer policies, suggest setting up a volunteer council, ask for representation at meetings. All environmental charities worth their salt should realise the importance of their volunteers and the work they do and should make efforts to involve their input in the process.

6. Go to the Pub

Trying to get noticed? Build up your alcohol tolerance

Trying to get noticed? Build up your alcohol tolerance

Now there’s some advice I can get behind. I’d hate to perpetuate a myth that we’re all a well-oiled bunch, but a lot of networking does seem to happen in a venue with access to copious amounts of social lubricant. It’s also a place where you can keep educating yourself – conservation always has a new ‘issue’ to get your head around. Don’t be afraid to discuss what you don’t understand, (a life lesson in general, there) ask questions – something you might find easier after a pint of mood enhancer.

7. Don’t be too pushy

Ok, I’m going to get all psychoanalytical about the sector here. This is a counterpoint to the usual advice about networking – and believe me there are few sectors where making contacts is as important. But it’s also about making the right impression. You’re working in a pretty small pool – I bump into someone I’ve worked with before seemingly everyday. Use these contacts, but don’t abuse them. Conservation is not like, say, marketing – by all means be assertive, but as a group of people (sweeping generalisation) overt and continual self-promotion tends to rub us up the wrong way.

8. Have rich backers

Ok, so I may not be entirely serious there, but there is probably a reason the sector tends to draw from such a narrow demographic. You’ll be unemployed for periods, and you’ll want to go on courses to improve your employability – it’s not a sector to get into if you aren’t prepared to work elsewhere to fund your start (see point 10).

9. Interviewers are sometimes crap, accept it

Gods, I have given some awful interviews, but I’ve also been subject to some awful interviewers. I will try and limit my tales of interview woe, but here are a few examples:

  • – An interview which for an hour concentrated on one sentence under the ‘desirable’ section of the person specification, and not the other page and a half of ‘essentials’
  • – An interview for which the job title had changed that morning.
  • – An interview in which the previous candidate walked out, and sat back at his desk in the office.
  • – Feedback which suggested a lack of experience (default feedback position), though I later discovered they had employed a cheaper intern with limited experience.

The truth is – Interviews are an absolutely terrible concept for picking the ideal candidate. But we are rather lumbered with them.

10. Give up

Yes, really. Ok, maybe not really, really. But be open to the idea that you may need to think again about your dream job. The sector is really, really, really competitive and in the immediate future there isn’t the prospect for a great many more jobs coming on the market (though I’m more hopeful for the near future). You may have to consider developing alternative skills that will allow you to move sideways –this is why I believe environmental education and outreach is an important transferable skill to work on. Or, like I am now, work in a post that is perhaps half ecology, half something else. You may have to accept, for the sake of your sanity and your bank balance, that you take a non-related post and continue to volunteer on the side. Don’t see it as a failure; everyone in the sector has had to do this at one time or another.

Quantity vs Quality – The Error in Target-Driven Outreach

Working in environmental outreach, I am frequently asked by colleagues for figures and statistics. Number of events run, number of volunteers and hours volunteered, percentage of minority visitors, number of disabled users etc. etc.

Numbers are a useful tool for monitoring, and our minds are certainly geared towards valuing numbers and statistics in a work setting much higher than abstract themes such as enjoyment, happiness or health. Objective data makes it far easier to rank, categorise and measure. The perceived wisdom is that it is essential when measuring progress towards a desired target. But in outreach, it is the subjective that matters, the impact on those reached, not their number, ethnicity or age. picture feedbackWe’ve tried to get round this by quantifying happiness and engagement. I’m sure you have at one time or another filled out or asked a parent or child to fill out an evaluation form rating happiness on a scale of 1 – 10, or ticking one of a set of incrementally happier faces. What does this really reflect? Do these types of evaluation ever supply accurate responses? I would argue that by their very definition they can’t. They are too generalised, too rigid and prescriptive to capture the range of emotions a child may experience when, for example, pond dipping for the first time. Additionally, forms handed out and collected personally are more likely to garner generally positive reviews, as people do not wish to offend face to face, as it were. We might like this aspect of paper feedback, but it is doing ourselves a disservice.

To some extent we have been backed into this process, through funders who see the quantitative rather than qualitative as an expedient way to gauge the ‘value for money’ they are getting for their investment. Many of us in the sector are now working in a position that is externally funded and the quantitative are seen as an essential component of justifying our continued employment in a competitive industry. So how can we improve the way we determine ‘success’? It may create a further paperwork headache when involving children, but recording on film, or taking photographs at events offers an opportunity to more accurately assess impacts on an emotional level. Taking written testimonies, using case studies and collecting quotes from attendees would provide a better, fuller picture of how an event was received, particularly as with the ubiquitous smart phone, these can now be done blindly through a host website such as surveymonkey.

Graphs - lovely, lovely graphs

Graphs – lovely, lovely graphs

Gathering information and data is invaluable in understanding public use of green space and using this to proactively manage a site. However, using quantitative data to evaluate the success, or otherwise, of an outreach project is largely and irrelevance. This extends not just to outreach, but to the world of ecology also, where ‘good’, ‘poor’, ‘recovering’ etc. is frequently judged in terms of numbers and percentage cover. This is again a function of the need to report back to others, the need to stand up and say ‘yes, we are delivering, you are getting your moneys worth.’ Often the people we are ultimately reporting to, particularly in the world of ecology, have little knowledge in the area and thrive on this kind of empirically measured stat. For a number of our sites, habitats, reserves and natural areas, someone with knowledge in the sector and with some background knowledge of the site would be able to judge ‘this is good’ or ‘this is better’ after a walk round.

But can we change this? Are we now stuck in a loop of using statistics to back up and compare with newer statistics as we look to judge a project or site by looking at a long stream of data? Without the greater contexts that those on the ground are aware of, these statistics can become overly abstract. We need to work to reduce our reliance on these and take the time to flesh out the bigger picture when promoting our work to the public and to funders. Only by increasing the knowledge and understanding of our audience can we break the hegemony of quantitative evaluation and begin to appraise our outreach and ecological projects in real terms.