Early connections to nature

As I began researching the ways digital tech helps us discover our world, I considered nature’s influence on my formative years and wondered what I might’ve lost.

Aged sixteen, and trying to look cool on a family hike around Kinderscout.

As a boy living on the grey edge of Nottingham Urban Area, I was drawn to any available green spaces, even the scruffy outshifts so easily overlooked. For some reason I felt a strong pull towards hills, mountains, and truly wild landscapes. I read studiously about our national parks; places of wonder that appealed to me the way Disneyland appealed to other kids.

We didn’t own a car and money was tight, so these regions were more readily available in library books, easier explored in my imagination. I made my first visit to the Peak District with my parents during a long day packed into Uncle Bill and Auntie Gladys’s Nissan Micra. That day we saw Winnats Pass, Mam Tor, Kinderscout, The Snake Road. These places and their mysterious names thrilled me.

We graduated to coach trips, whizzing around The Yorkshire Dales, Lake District, Snowdonia: rainy days on damp buses full of pensioners, 30-minutes at each hotspot. The journeys interested me the most, moving through shifting landscapes, below and around mountains. Rugged peaks and precarious passes, brooding landscapes — all glimpsed through panes of condensation, wiping frantically with a wet sleeve for a clearer view. I carried maps and guidebooks to help interpret what I saw. I’d ask the coach drivers about their routes — “Will you be going over the Kirkstone Pass to Ullswater?” — only for them to make jokes at my expense. I recall a shaming by microphone, described for everyone’s amusement as “the little smart-arse at the back”. That hurt, but I got over it.

On ordinary days, away from those magical national parks, I’d be outdoors. I thought about mountains but appreciated what I found closer to home. Being in these places put me in contact with wildlife. This exposure, combined with the engaging nature projects of my primary school teacher, Mrs Rush, led me to embrace birdwatching as my hobby — perhaps a logical evolution considering I already loved dinosaurs.

My own Young Ornithologists’ Club membership card.

I saved up and became a card-carrying member of the RSPB’s popular Young Ornithologists’ Club. Birdwatching gave me license to be more tactile with my surroundings. It seemed a valid reason to go off the beaten track and explore. Sometimes an adult would accuse me of being “up to no good”, and I’d flash my membership card like some pint-sized wildlife cop. “YOC!”, I’d shout. Thinking back, maybe I was a weird kid.

I was incredibly devoted to my hobby: I had a letter published in a national magazine about an albino blackbird. I reported sightings to the British Trust for Ornithology. I made audio recordings in a hushed, pre-adolescent David Attenborough voice. I was particularly fastidious with my logbooks and journals, recording everything I saw in great detail. It was in these journals that I learned to organise and display data, map journeys, illustrate stories, and write creatively about the world around me.

Pages from my 1987 birdwatching logbook.

In secondary school, I’d spend lunchtimes birdwatching in Bramcote woods, but received a few suspicious looks. I started a weekend bird club that I soon dissolved after a notorious bully demanded membership. Shortly afterwards some big kids mugged me at knifepoint, taking my binoculars. My hobby suddenly seemed dangerous. Most significantly I was growing up. As interests shifted towards weighty teenage matters, I was more concerned with listening to subversive music and imagining relationships with other humans than wandering alone in undergrowth looking for migratory Chiffchaffs.

I bought an old car and drove around the UK’s wild areas. I still hiked. At art school, I wallowed in landscape art, in works about place. I adored Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, Julie Brook, Andy Goldsworthy, Roni Horn. It was revelatory to see artists producing work about and of the land, and I adopted their principles wholesale. But even with such thought for the wild places and a need for its experiences in my work, I was usually indoors. In the studio. Or the pub.

In my mid-twenties I made many working trips to Iceland, at the time mercifully free of tourists, where I pushed myself to embrace the elements, directly interacting with incredible landscapes and responding with artworks. Here I was perhaps at my most tuned-in to the world around me: deeply analytical, increasingly knowledgeable, and determined to find my livelihood in this love of landscape.

I needed a computer to self-promote: design posters, write, research, make one of those new website things. But I also needed to earn a real living, and in a few moves, I became a web designer. I realise now that my computer was a gateway drug to a sedentary life indoors.

In my late twenties and throughout my thirties as my career evolved, I largely disconnected from that wonderment of nature, save for infrequent hikes. I continued to love the wilderness and the national parks, but I explored predominantly through my computer. The rot had set in, and screens were to inform my daily habits for almost two decades. I began to travel extensively, but I’d stopped exploring.

I recently arrived at a pivotal moment in my life, reorganising my priorities. Through this, I became driven to look closely at the role digital technology can play in enhancing our lives, how it might better connect us to the natural world, and improve our well-being.

My eyes have been wide open this last few years, and designing digital products for humans has afforded me a unique insight. I’ve long been aware of the ways big tech companies manipulate our attention, their use of dark patterns, and how we often serve their needs at our own expense. That said, I increasingly see positivity, and my experience gives me the belief that we can be smarter about how we use technology, and how we, in turn, can manipulate it to serve our needs.

We need the natural world in our lives more than ever. We’re addicted to glowing rectangles. We despair at our political systems. We witness daily injustices. We find it hard to cope, to find our place. We’re eager for escape yet still we stare into the rectangles, and the cycle continues. In my case, it was rediscovering that latent love of birds that helped me manage my anxiety, and find an escape mechanism and a regular source of joy.

Running several times a week, I’m out in the edgelands, in the green spaces, often by the river. At these times my mind is empty, open. I see and hear the birds. They sing, they chirp, they flit about doing whatever their particular genus does. They know not of Brexit or Trump, they don’t despair at our world. If they’re under threat, they’re unknowing. I was thinking about all of this one day, and I realised: I’m so much happier because of the birds. It can seem that they balance the world’s ills with a sweet innocence.

It’s surprising how many obscure species I can still identify, and yet I’ve also forgotten so much. I now have a field guide on my phone. I was always weak at identifying birds by their calls, but that’s ok now as I can “shazam” birdsong. I recently tracked down a rare bird of prey with a migration databank and uploaded my sighting to a research project. I began using my phone to broaden my understanding of nature, and this has reignited my connection to birds in ways I could never have imagined as a boy.

My happiest and healthiest times have been when in sync with the world outside my door, and it’s thrilling when the computer in my pocket enhances that relationship. Soon I’ll share a few fascinating examples of digital technology making nature more accessible to us. I’ll delve deeper into the hardware and software that make this possible, and I’ll consider how we might each play a role in an increasingly optimistic connected world.

Yours,
The little smart-arse at the back,
Nottingham Urban Area.


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