Welcome to The Nature Gatherer! This is a newsletter about the ancient and deep connection between people and nature. I'm going to use it to explore how human culture is a thing that can help us protect wildlife, enrich our own lives and, maybe, save the world.
Allow me to explain.
Who are you and why did you launch this newsletter?
I'm a freelance science journalist based in Northern Ireland. For nearly a decade, I’ve written about how human culture and nature intersect. Take this recent article, about a little-known species of octopus that was rediscovered with the help of local fishers in Brazil. Their knowledge and livelihoods shaped the outcome of the research, which the scientists gladly acknowledged. It's a perfect case study of how local people can be the conduit through which we gain knowledge about nature.
I’ve covered stories about rewilding and how it rests on human attitudes and activities. And I’m particularly interested in how nature ends up being represented in culture. There are millions of examples but what about this: how real-life multi-headed (polycephalic) creatures could have inspired monsters in myths, such as Hydra.
And then there are the weird, unpredictable effects our culture has in the Anthropocene. The bus shelter graffiti that ends up saving birds, because it makes the shelters less transparent and harder to mistakenly fly into. Or what about the animals evolving to thrive in the urban habitats we’ve created.
Finally, consider the changed behaviours we can adopt today that benefit wildlife. Where I live, in Ireland, extracting peat from bogs to burn as a fuel was once ubiquitous, but there is a movement afoot to restore these bogs today. In some ways that's not unlike this initiative in Namibia, in which women use old hose pipes to make streamers for fishing boats. The hose pipes scare birds away, saving thousands of them every year from getting entangled in fishing gear.
There are many more stories out there like this and, through this newsletter, I’m going to tell you about them.
Human relationships with nature – unpack that a bit more.
It’s common these days to hear people talk about nature as though it existed in a vacuum. As if it were a thing totally distinct from us. Well, practically all our ways of knowing, relating to and interacting with nature are hugely shaped by the sort of people we are and whatever culture we happen to be part of, no matter where we are in the world.
At the same time, humans are drastically reshaping the natural world. That’s why many people describe our present epoch as the “Anthropocene” – the period in Earth’s history when human activity has begun to have a significant effect on the planet, largely for the worse.
All of this gets especially interesting when you think about the fact that the nature-culture binary is itself a human construct – and, really, a false dichotomy. As the anthropologist Philippe Descola points out, there are plenty of indigenous cultures that don’t consider Earth’s natural biodiversity at arm’s length the way we Westerners do.
But no matter where you are, or how intertwined with nature you feel, your culture undoubtedly plays a big role in that relationship.
Isn’t human culture the root of all nature’s problems?
You could argue that! But I’m saying that, as far as humanity is to blame for so many of nature’s problems, we also have the potential to be the source of some great solutions.
That’s obvious when you think about it. If humanity is the dominant force influencing Earth’s ecosystems and climate, well then it's up to us to deliver remedies to that.
Just to get us started, think about how culture can help people engage with nature. Funding for conservation projects is wonderful. But let’s not forget folklore, art, history—all of these things can offer routes towards understanding and appreciation of the natural world. This newsletter is about exactly that: cultural opportunities to engage.
And one other point. I’d argue that, in order for us to actually commit to any measures for cherishing or protecting biodiversity, those measures are going to have to be culturally sustainable. In other words, they’re going to have to be things that people want to do. Practices linked to our sense of identity and self that we successfully transmit across communities and generations. Otherwise, any good intentions will just peter out.
Who is this newsletter for?
Anyone who’s thinking about the significance of our human relationship to nature. You ought to enjoy reading this newsletter if you have a passing interest in the birds that visit your garden. Or, if you like poetry about nature but wouldn’t call yourself a naturalist. Or maybe you are someone who is discovering nature local to you for the first time, thanks to the pandemic.
But equally, if you are a conservationist, ecologist or someone who thinks a lot about climate change, biodiversity collapse and so on, I’m hoping you’ll find intriguing ideas here and discussions that could perhaps bring your knowledge and expertise to new audiences.
I speak to ecologists all the time and they often remark that, while we have plenty of information about shrinking habitats or endangered species, the thing that’s difficult is getting non-scientists or non-activists to care about these things and act on them.
What are you going to charge?
Nothing, for now. The Nature Gatherer is currently 100% free, though if it gets a good response then I might consider developing the format and monetising it, since producing more content would require doing less paid work of other kinds (my usual freelance writing).
My goal for the moment is just to explore this theme, start some conversations and make some connections. I want to know what you think about these stories and ideas, too! So if you do subscribe, feel free to reply to my posts via email with your thoughts and comments. Or, message me on Twitter.
What will I get in each edition?
At the moment, I'm publishing a new story every week. I aim to keep that schedule in place, with occasional breaks, for now.
These stories often take the form of short, feature-style articles with plenty of analysis – feature-essays, if you will. I’m also including some links to other people's writing and research that I think would interest my subscribers. If you send me your ideas, comments and feedback, maybe I’ll include some of that, too!
All right, I’m gonna sign up!
Last updated: 9th June 2021.
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