As one of the only AFON members who isn’t a qualified zoologist, I reached the conclusion long ago that a career in practical conservation probably isn’t for me. I can identify mammal turds and craft a tasty dead hedge, but when it’s hard enough for ecology graduates to find jobs in the field, what chance do I have?
So like all twenty-somethings entering the horrible adult world, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about which career to choose. If not field-based work, how else could I contribute to the protection of our natural world? Fortunately for me, I have two great passions in my life. One is the study, care and conservation of wildlife, while the other is the written word. And unlike librarians who love motor sports, or deep-sea-divers with a passion for origami, it’s very easy for me to combine these passions and hopefully forge them into an exciting career.
Most of my favourite stories as a child were those about animals. From The Animals of Farthing Wood to the kingdom of Narnia and Lucy Daniels’ Animal Ark series, I always felt much more empathy with animal characters than humans, and I remember Watership Down being the first book to make me cry. At college I read Wuthering Heights for the first time, which captured the immense power of nature and our inescapable relationship with it. In my undergraduate degree we were introduced to the Romantic poets – Wordsworth, Byron, Keats – who are undoubtedly some of the finest poets in the literary canon. One of the most moving epic poems written by Wordsworth is called The Prelude; one section describes the speaker’s childhood friend, who used to go out to the lakes at night and call to the owls across the water:
‘There was a Boy: ye knew him well, ye cliffs
And islands of Winander! – many a time
At evening, when the earliest stars began
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting, would he stand alone
Beneath the trees or by the glimmering lake,
And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands
Pressed closely palm to palm, and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls,
That they might answer him; and they would shout
Across the watery vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call, with quivering peals,
And long halloos and screams, and echoes loud,
Redoubled and redoubled, concourse wild
Of jocund din…’
It’s very easy for us to discuss the plight of nature and rally together to save it – we already value the natural world for its own sake and instinctively want it protected (I believe the phrase is ‘preaching to the choir’). But I think the key to engaging ‘new’ people with nature is through art, literature, photography and film. You can reel off a hundred facts about hedgehog declines and harrier persecutions to someone, but unfortunately there’s a high chance it will simply wash over them, another depressing statistic in a world of gloom.
Schemes like NHM’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year are fantastic. Skilled photographers capture the natural world and make it accessible to new people, bringing it to life for those who might not have bothered to look. Writers like Patrick Barkham, Robert Macfarlane and Laline Paull can often be found in the centre displays of Waterstones, and I know at least one person who read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk because, like her, she had lost her father. Although she chose the book for a more human perspective, the natural element then introduced her to the healing power of nurturing relationships with wild creatures. Even David Attenborough’s heavenly documentaries aren’t just a scientific report of different species. They are handcrafted stories carefully unfolded before our eyes – how else can we be made to care about the mating ritual of an Amazonian centipede?
My ambition is to become a published nature writer, and work in communications for the Wildlife Trusts or someone equally fabulous; I’m studying for my MA in English to help develop my writing, and volunteering as much as possible to find precious inspiration. But it doesn’t really matter what our individual skills are as long as we all do our best to help keep our ecosystems healthy. Whether it’s writing, drawing, podcasting, photographing, monitoring, filming, researching, recording, ringing, fundraising or building bird boxes with artistically-challenged toddlers, the value of what we do is inconceivable. For as Mr Molesley remarked in Downton Abbey last autumn, ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’.