Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Guest Blogger: Dr Amy Jane Beer on Noticing Nature

In the first of what I hope will become a regular occurrence, I'd like to introduce a guest blogger whose work I admire. Today it's Dr Amy-Jane Beer, who lives in North Yorkshire. Dr Beer is a biologist, writer and editor. She has authored and co-authored over 30 books on natural history, is a regular contributor to BBC Wildlife magazine and edits Wildlife World magazine for the People's Trust for Endangered Species. She runs occasional courses in nature writing and is working on her first novel. Below is her contribution:

 Read more from Dr Amy-Jane Beer at  @AmyJaneBeer

Noticing Nature

Anyone that spends a significant part of their time in nature knows that it is powerfully addictive stuff, and even those who never stray from city life welcome images of nature – in the art they hang on their walls, the TV they watch, the plants they grow in garden or pot. And if they’re not admiring nature, they’re often choosing something with similar ability to captivate, like music. To me the appeals of music and nature have much in common – complexity, pattern recognition, and a requirement for emotional and observational focus. And these are things we seem to need.

Our fascination with nature stems with a natural human gift for noticing. At the age of two, well before he could read or recognise numbers my son could identify the seemingly endless multitude of tedious engine characters in Thomas and Friends and would correct me when I got them mixed up. I had particular block over Gordon and Edward – both big, blue, and both, well, engines. Not my thing, I’ll admit.  One day I asked him how he knew the difference. He gave me a pitying look and said, ‘It’s easy Mummy. Edward has round buffers, Gordon’s are a long shape.’ What he was describing perfectly was a search image – the key feature he naturally homed in on in order to sort and classify. Our brains use search images as a short cut to recognition. Now, aged five, he uses the same technique to organise his knowledge of cars, birds, dinosaurs, bugs and so on. It’s not cleverness. It’s an instinctive human ability.

I know some exceptional naturalists. People who have filed away so many search images they can identify species almost without conscious thought. In some cases their abilities seem supernatural. They might distinguish ten different speedwells without needing a book. Or name 400 moths at a glance. There are others who will pause midsentence because they’ve heard amid background woodland chatter a snatch of an early migrant song, or recognise the flickering outline of a distant bird I can barely even see. People like Robert Fuller, who makes a living out of noticing and recording the kind of details that entrance us. Believe me, he doesn’t just paint! Back track a few thousand years and finely honed powers of noticing like these would have been commonplace but a matter of life and death. In some places they still are. In truth they are no more remarkable than your ability to glean meaning from the letter characters I’m typing now. But like many such innate skills, they need practice.

It’s one thing to say we have an inborn appreciation of nature, but another to explain why. The American biologist Edward O Wilson explored the idea that humans have an innate bond with nature – a special form of love for other living things. He called it Biophilia. It’s not a new idea, in fact it’s been recycled many times – even Aristotle discussed biophilia as a specific type of human love. It’s not the romantic, passionate, or even the caring or nurturing kind of love, although it is often couched in those terms. It’s an affinity, which Wilson and his colleagues set out to explain in evolutionary terms. For example he suggested that we are attracted to flowers because they mean food, and we like cute animal faces because they stimulate the nurturing behaviour we need to exhibit in order to rear our phenomenally demanding and dependent young.

I’m oversimplifying hugely of course. But I wonder how much our love of nature is bolstered by our powers of observation and discernment, which are perhaps greater than those of any other animal on the planet. This is not to say our senses are more acute than those other species – our eyesight is pretty good, but in smell, touch and hearing we’re pretty poor, and the electrical and magnetic senses of sharks and birds senses are completely lost on us. Where we excel is our ability to identify tiny differences and remember them. There appears to be no other animal that matches us for powers of discernment. Perhaps for most other species there is no need for discrimination of other life forms beyond identifying potential food, potential mates or potential threats. So why do we bother? For me, noticing and appreciating nature’s endless diversity is an important component of biophilia.

Another thing about noticing nature is that it appears to be good for us. It’s well documented that hospital patients recover faster with a view of trees. In Japan there’s a practice known as Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing – therapeutic trips to forests are found to reduce stress and used to treat depression, anxiety, anger, insomnia, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Our need to connect with nature is so great that we suffer when we don’t do it. Noticing nature is what our brains are for, and if we stop using them for that, it’s not so surprising that we find ourselves in trouble.

The condition known as nature deficiency disorder is especially prevalent and worrying in children. Concerns about safety, and litigation as well as relentless urbanisation and the advance of technology into every aspect of life have distanced each generation of children a little further from nature and robbed them of time to just sit and notice.  There are various schemes designed to address this – the National Trust’s 50 Things to do before you’re 11¾, Project Wild Thing, Forest Schools. All doing great work, no doubt, but they also depress me. That they are needed depresses me, because we are all wild things. How can we have forgotten?

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