A Focus On Nature

Issues in conservation

Glass. By Chris Foster.

Chris is a birder who is slowly evolving into an amateur naturalist, one increasingly keen on finding, learning about and promoting more ‘obscure’ wildlife. Through his writing he tries to get across the sheer beauty of nature, but also wants to highlight just how much fun – for want of a better word – wildlife can be. He is employed by Reading University as a Teaching Associate in the School of Biological Sciences, focussing primarily on engaging students with species identification, biological recording and conservation philosophy. He is in the early stages of a PhD in invertebrate landscape ecology, through which he ultimately hopes to make a contribution to conserving the sorts of bird and insect rich landscapes he loves to spend time in.

A man that looks on glass

On it may stay his eye

Or if he pleaseth, through it pass

And then the heav’n espy.

(“The Elixir,” George Herbert)


Glass is a seductive material, smooth, solid and classy. It possesses a certain magic: marketers for the latest top-end mobile phones certainly understand this, encouraging us to ogle and swoon over their vast, shiny, shatter-proof expansive screens. Little wonder that so many mobile users seem to be fixated on gadgetry to the extent that they’ve almost forgotten what phones are for in the first place.

Might the same sometimes be true for the nature enthusiast? I mean, just look at us! Traipsing into the field laden with hundreds if not thousands of pounds worth of D-SLRs, binoculars, spotting scopes and tripods, spare lenses, magnifiers, nets and collecting vessels, even entire portable hides. Is it possible that in pursuit of the perfect photograph we might in effect pass a day fixed on a viewfinder, without ever actually being alive to our surroundings?

The funny thing is, when I think about my most memorable encounters with wildlife, many of them passed so quickly or captivated me so completely that I was incapable of so much as moving one hand towards my camera, let alone taking a picture. I’m sure many others would say the same. And in a way this enables them to live on in a more interesting way. No concrete record of the moment dictates how it should be recounted and remembered. Or, sometimes it’s either impractical or even unnecessary to document a moment. The languorous descending song of a woodlark in flight might be pleasant, heard on an audio recording, but nothing beats the live performance. If capturing something becomes the whole point of going out in the first place, we might as well stay at home and leave it to Sir David.

That doesn’t mean I’m not often scrabbling for a camera when I see something incredible. After all, this is the age of social media: if we don’t put a picture on Facebook within a few hours, it didn’t actually happen, right? More seriously, I am at heart a natural historian, and history is hard to document without evidence. If I’m too caught up in the moment to take a photograph or spend time collecting a specimen, an opportunity to make a contribution to knowledge (my own or perhaps even the scientific community’s) might be lost along the way.

So in this way I find the average wildlife expedition has a tension at its heart: between being present to the full wonder of what is around me on the one hand, and grasping opportunities to learn on the other. This reminds me of a discussion around the theme ‘What is a naturalist?’ at last year’s New Networks For Nature conference, in which – and I hope they would forgive me for pigeonholing their contributions in this way – Matthew Oates (who shared the quote I use as an epigraph above) spoke to the first half of the equation – attention and wonder – whilst Brett Westwood was an enthusiastic advocate for the latter, knowledge and discovery.

I like to think both speakers would agree with me: I believe the well-rounded naturalist successfully holds the two in balance, and it’s these people who produce the best work. For example, I’m struck that much of the photography produced by A Focus On Nature members is clearly born out of this equilibrium. The images have character of a kind not always possessed even by other objectively ‘good’ pictures that are sharply focused, well lit and colourful, but somehow leave the viewer empty. Not being one, I’m guessing on their behalf, but the aim of the contemporary wildlife photographer must be to capture images which will not ‘stay our eye’, but pass through towards the ‘heaven’ a richer, deeper relationship with nature. An impressive number of young photographers seem to be succeeding in this mission.

As a writer my quest is broadly the same, in that I trust my readers will not stop at what I hope are pleasing combinations of words; or indeed as a research student, where my aim is not to produce science for science’s sake but to in some small way make a genuine contribution to conservation. I’d be interested to know what others think, whether photographer, writer, poet, artist, scientist, campaigner, historian or otherwise. How do you balance wonder and knowledge in your life and work? And what, if anything, is your ‘glass’: a tool you use that risks coming between us and nature?