One of the course assignments on the MSc I just finished (that’s right, suicidal woodpigeons on the road – I’m now officially a master of wildlife so step into line or, preferably, out of the way!) was to keep a wildlife diary. Or journal, or log book, or whatever you prefer to call it really – full of notes, sketches, pictures, clippings, again, whatever you wanted – emphasis very much on ‘you’. Which is always good. Anyway, the suggestion was that if one of us, by some miracle, reaches the promised land known as ‘interview’ we should take this artifact with us. When asked how much we value wildlife, we’ll slap it down on the desk and say ‘There! There’s hard evidence – I love it. I can’t get enough of it!’
Well, if the winner of the ‘best journal’ prize, awarded at the annual student symposium on Thursday, tried that, she’d probably break the desk in two: it consisted of no less than three books. Absolutely crammed full of remarkable observations, close-up photographs of fantastic creatures like scorpion flies, sketches, intriguing little research projects. Quite brilliant. In comparison, my diary was a little, thin, merely half-full volume, although I’m still quite pleased with it. And I couldn’t possibly begrudge the prize or envy such a lovely piece of work – no, indeed, I find myself inspired to try and step up the whole ‘log book’ experience to another level, and see what more I could learn from it over the next year. So far I’ve merely shown myself to be a bit lukewarm on wildlife; if I really cared I’d have spent an hour popping things in the book every time I came back from the outside world. With tea and biscuits, perhaps.
What I did do a lot of was sketching things I noticed about the birds I saw, in order to better identify them next time. I know that in this digital age sketching is going out of fashion, but I still find it heartening to see people out with a pencil and paper. I’m not convinced we learn a lot by taking a photo with a single click, and then barely looking at it again (unless you really are taking a picture of something specific, and following it up after the event – see above), but when you take time to notice something and start drawing what you see, that feature lodges in your brain a little better. It’s the first stage of noticing, I think – properly paying attention, which is something largely missing from society (a good case study is to walk around Reading and see how many people entirely don’t notice the red kite soaring about ten feet above their head). Even from us wildlife lovers, who can sometimes just let it wash over us in a vaguely lovely way without ever really learning anything. What was that kite doing? If it was much further away, how would you know it was a kite?
So, what would happen if I spent just about all day every day finding out interesting things about nature, and writing them down? I mean, there’s an almost infinite amount of things I don’t know. For example, I only learned last week that songbirds enter the dawn chorus roughly in the order of the size of their eyes. Biggest first. Did you know that? Perhaps I should already have done so after a blissful spring’s worth of dawn choruses – clearly, I’ve only scratched the surface of ornithological knowledge, having barely started on the rest of the animal kingdom. Let alone plants! It sounds like a nice life: a bit like my imaginary alter ego, the Victorian country parson naturalist, perhaps, tramping around the lanes and byways, swooping on butterflies, watching cuckoo chicks being fed, identifying bumble bees and hoverflies, accidentally swallowing beetle specimens. Then back for high tea on the lawn before arranging the day’s haul carefully in a fine mahogany cabinet.
I suppose today I’d have to leave out all the wanton killing and tropical hardwood furniture, but my point stands. I reckon I’d at last have everything in perspective. After all, what’s the point, really, in doing anything else? What’s the point in politics, economics, history, philosophy, accounting, sociology? What have they ever done for us? Besides being both vital to a functioning society and quite interesting….absolutely nothing! Imaginary human constructs, all of them, especially ‘the economy’. Sometimes I’m suspicious as to whether such a thing really exists at all. Why do we all spend so much time fretting about the whole benighted enterprise? But wildlife – wildlife is real. Nothing could be more real: it’s not something you have to go to a third-hand source to hear about; you don’t need that master’s degree, even, to begin to interact with it. It’s simply out there, doing its thing; to begin to know it better is as simple as paying just slightly more attention.
And if we did, everybody, all of the time: if we just went out for long walks, or even just short walks, and really, really noticed everything, and with a curious mind; just wanted to know what, and where, and why, and how, more and more, deeper and further into an ever-expanding world of knowledge – well, perhaps the economy would crash over night. Maybe our ‘living standards’ would plummet. But Osborne & Co. can keep their precious growth. Surely there’s a simpler way of at least making sure we all have food and shelter to sustain us on our adventures, and then wouldn’t you and I be happier?