A couple of days ago I was enjoying some downtime in the company of a longstanding good friend, deep in conversation putting the world to rights, as you do. We were walking alongside the Embankment in central London and we came across three carrion crows tucking into some human throwaway that was wedged between two workmen’s barriers at the side of the road.
We stopped and in the dusky shimmering half-light we could differentiate between the various blacks of their lustrous coats. There were wondrous and deep azures, maroons and sea greens emanating from their feathers and their deep indigo black bills were so shiny you could see the reflection of the roadside puddle. We were lucky they had been especially confiding – crows do not usually let you get to within twelve inches – but they eventually had enough of our gaze and proudly strutted away, effortlessly took off, flew over the River Thames and were eventually lost in the autumnal greys.
As we resumed walking the first thing my friend said was, ‘Now what were we talking about?’ We had been lost in another world for thirty seconds, we had switched off – not only our conversation, but also that universal and ubiquitous human condition, our internal discourse – and been engaged with nature. This engagement had been simple, free, intoxicating and natural. We both still have the image of those crows and the moments we had with them etched in our mind. I smile at this mutual memory, which has added another tiny bit of cement to our already fond personal relationship.
Engagement is a topical buzzword within the green, environmental, conservation movement and, although it can be overused, is an intrinsic key to solving the greatest issue facing us today: our ever decreasing natural world. The Sixth Extinction, Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Petrochemocene – no matter the nomenclature of the era we are living in, the degradation of nature and our environment has been placed sharply in focus by the WWF’s recent report and David Attenborough's emotional ‘Time is running out’ speech at the COP24 Climate Change Conference in Poland.
Nature is us and the environment is the bit we live in – in other words, nature is not a peripheral, an adjunct, an add-on, neither is it a deluxe part of life that we can discard at will. At our bigoted worst, we treat nature as a minority group, plants and animals transgressing into our kingdom. How should we term that? Being anti-nature? Natist? Elementist? Essentialist?
It is true that many of us are doing our bit in trying to save the environment, reducing our plastic consumption and our food waste, recycling responsibly, turning off our lights, shutting off the tap between tooth brushes, using low-energy rated devices – the list goes on and on. These measures are all very well and honourable, but they are rather prescriptive and sometimes dictatorial – they are chores, require effort for little obvious reward and, let’s face it, not all that sexy.
And indeed, in the face of monumental species and ecosystem collapse, the Titanic and deckchairs comes to mind. More importantly these measures are external devices in so much as they are not necessarily internal motivators that touch us in a more profoundly essential way. Engagement, on the other hand, allows us to access much deeper relationships with nature and the environment providing us with multiple benefits.
Let’s split the term engagement into two: passive and active. Passive engagement takes no effort, it is happenstance: seeing the red kites on the M40 motorway, the sparrowhawk in the garden, the dolphins off the coast or watching that nature documentary. It often involves ‘big’ nature or environmental events and large iconic species. All, hopefully, enjoyable and uplifting. However, you cannot rely on passive engagement, by itself, as you just don’t know when it will happen or indeed if it will and you may not have a garden, a car, a TV or even get time to go on holiday.
Active engagement, on the other hand, requires a modicum of effort, but does not necessarily need money or even time out of our busy lives, just our senses. At the simplest level, it requires us to look, listen and learn. It could be as straightforward as going for a walk without the unnecessary peripheral distractions, leaving the phone, the headphones, even the dog at home, for once. It could be buying that book on butterflies you always promised yourself, planting those flowers on the windowsill, putting up a bird feeder; it’s not prescriptive, it’s whatever floats your boat.
Start to engage and if you feel you’re already ‘there’ then up your levels: start naming that plant, flower, bird, recognising their songs and calls, join the local Wildlife Trust or similar green organisation and share your enjoyment with others. Then over time engagement becomes, well, more natural.
What does nature get out of this? It's simple: the more we engage, the more we care about our environment and the more chance it has a priority place in our personal as well as national decision making. There are no excuses; access is easy, nature is all around us. It’s here in the city, out there in the suburbs, in our hills and lakes and coast, not limited to special places or nature reserves.
A few days ago my friend and I could have walked past those crows. I’m so glad we didn’t.
Dave Clark is an ornithologist and environmental campaigner with a particular interest in the interactions between birds and humans. With an MSC in Ornithology from the University of Birmingham, he is awaiting publication in the academic press of a study into our motivations for feeding wild birds.