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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Do we care about pink flamingos?

A couple months ago I mentioned briefly the demise of the plastic pink flamingo. I can't think of these plastic waifs without thinking of an essay about these guys written by Jennifer Price. Price has written about some of the quirky off-beat ways that we Americans experience nature at the dawning of the 21st Century. Now, she has an article in Grist magazine asking why more nature writers aren't writing about nature in cities, where most of us live and experience nature.

While she makes some interesting points, its not like there isn't a lot of people writing about nature in cities. John points out that there are lots of bloggers writing about urban nature. There are lots of academic articles about urban birds and nature, a good number of books about the subject, and every year there are several books on the topic out by nature writers. Besides Over the Hedge and Hoot this year, we've seen several actual documentaries about birds in urban areas in the last few years, including Pale Male and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. There's lots of media attention to birds and nature in cities.

I still have a question, though. With all the media attention to birds and nature in cities, do these stories and films really help people connect with nature in a meaningful way, or do they just re-enforce the distances that most people have between their daily lived experiences and the animals and natural processes around them? Does nature writing really bring people to nature? Or merely to a blog, an article, a book, or a film?


John said...

Good questions...I don't think there is any substitute for actual experience with nature. Over the Hedge, Hoot, televised nature programs, etc., are about entertainment. We watch them indoors, in comfy chairs, completely lacking the sensations, exertion, and stimuli that we experience when outdoors in nature.

To entertain us they go for the dramatic, the cute, and the spectacular. Without any effort, in a matter of minutes, we see the highlights of what may have taken a film crew many days to record. Real nature can be dramatic, cute, and thrilling, but is more often subtle, and requires us to be participants, not just spectators. You have to get out there, use your senses, observe closely, be patient. Pay attention to little things.

Because the media focuses on action (Steve Irwin wrestling a croc, lions taking down prey, etc.) I think it presents an unrealisticly dramaticized vision of nature and wildlife, compared to which the reality may seem dull & uneventful. So no, I don't think the media helps people who have no connection to nature connect with it, only being in nature does that. The rest is mostly infotainment.

About nature writing, we live in an uncreasingly post-literate world. I think literature about nature appeals primarily to those who have experienced nature personally, and are looking to learn more and put that experience in greater context. To those who understand nature only from a Disney/Animal Planet perspective it's not a correct starting point. First you have to get them to put down the remote and go outdoors...

By the way, great blog!

Anonymous said...

I have the same question about "shows" given by nature centers and rehabbers displaying wild birds and animals that cannot be released. I hear over and over again that this fosters an appreciation of nature, etc. etc. but is there any data to back that up? What I see is people who ooh and ahh and take pictures. Are they impacted to the point of pursuing more knowledge about the animals they saw? Donating to conservation organizations? Making lifestyle changes that benefit the environment or the wildlife in their own backyards? I'd love to see some follow-up studies.

John B. said...

I tried to answer to this on my blog, as well. I think that it depends on how the subject matter is handled. If nature is treated as a curiosity, I think it will not have much lasting influence. If it is treated as an integral part of the urban landscape - with some suggestion of why it is important to the reader - I think that it can make a difference.

Anonymous said...

You can also add all those Peregrine Falcon webcams and 99.9% of the rare bird reports come from the cities!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to the Grist Article. When I read the line about Chihuahuas, the book "Torilla Curtian" , came to mind. I've linked to an on line synopsis of the book.

The book weaves together the lives of two families. One family is concerned with "nature" and the father writes a column called "a Pilgrim at Topanga Canyon" - he is "connected" to nature in the way that, I seem to understand Birdchaser's idea of "connected".

The other family are day laborers from Mexico - they are not, nor do they aspire to be connected to nature. They aspire to have a better life.

To me the book is a very thoughtful reflection on the assumption that "being connected" to nature is a virtue at all. If anything it seems that it is nothing but a particular form of passive consumption.

As I've thought about this, the question, is what does it mean to be "connected to nature" keeps comming up in a way that causes me to question the basic assumptions and to question the virtue of promoting "nature connectedness" as a "cause" connected with the objective of "conservation" itself -

I would argue that while we can and should measure conservation (e.g. - acres of forest, CFM in a river, TDO in the bay, annual lbs. of salmon harvested, songbird diversity, etc ... ) - the effort to "connect" people to nature, and to make the parallel argument that "connected" people are more useful to the cause of conservation is a dubious proposition. It would also point out that "raising awareness" or "increasing connectedness" to nature seems to be at the very center of the current purpose of the Audubon Society.

Don't get me wrong, I think that education is a good thing, and I think that basic understanding of ecology, earth science, geology, organic chemistry etc ... are all things that define "education" - but I have come to see the promotion of "nature connectedness" as nothing but a kind of interest that has the same intellectual trappings of a religious dogma - and is best understood as such.

I don't mean to say this as an insult, rather to stimulate discussion on this point - but let me give you an example of why I'm struggling to come to grips with this - here is the close of birdchaser's posting: these stories and films really help people connect with nature in a meaningful way, or do they just re-enforce the distances that most people have between their daily lived experiences and the animals and natural processes around them? Does nature writing really bring people to nature? ...

The meaning (or my ability to understand how you would answer) of the questions proposed by this paragraph don't really change if one replaces the word "nature" and "natural" with "God" or "Jesus" - it has the same kind of moral intent - and the same total lack of scientific context.

John argues that one must "put down the remote and go outdoors" - only he doesn't really mean this what he means it is to come to the state of believing certian propositions about the world - people in cities tend to actually be outdoors quite a bit, the problem seems to be that they are not thinking "nature" thoughts while they are outside - just as we don't tend to think of agriculural workers or construction workers as "naturalists" because their "outdoorsedness" is not "nature oriented" - they are merely "outdoors" they are not "connected" - by this idea it seems what is proposed is a way of thinking that is seen as "good" and which will lead to certian behavioral outcomes (conserving natural resources).

So to echo nuthatch, where is the data to support this idea?

Now I think that it is fine to ask nature writers why they don't evolve to write about the natural history of Manolo Blahniks, but isn't asking Thoreau to "get on the bus" a bit like critiquing Norman Rockwell to paint the way Mark Rothko does? Didn't Thoreau intentionally "get off the bus" so that he could tell us that there is something "wrong" with being on the bus in the first place?

birdchaser said...

"Connecting people to nature" can be a hollow saying, but it doesn't have to be. Unlike "connecting people to God" we can actually measure nature, and come up with some way of quantifying what we mean by different kinds of connection.

Surely for some, being connected to nature is like being a really happy passive consumer. But that isn't everything. If that is all it is, then that would be a problem for me.

As a full-time bird conservationist, I am nervous about all the "feel good" kind of talk we sometimes hear. As if the answer to the world environmental crisis was just getting more kids to go out and touch a toad.

When I was a kid, I loved catching snakes and salamanders. I could say that helped me become who I am today and that my connection to nature, a connection that feels a deep kinship and shared experience with animals that leads me to want to see them thrive.

But what about all the other kids that were out there catching salamanders with me? They didn't get the same connection or decide to spend the rest of their lives working for the good of other species.

We do need some better follow up and studies. Its been a couple years since I was into the literature on this. Sounds like there would be some interest in kicking around some ideas here.

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