herdy2How to bring nature into your digital world 3. Use Twitter to follow people who work outdoors with animals.

He’s grumbling as he works in the snow. “Big. Fat. Soft. Snowflakes. Yuck. Hate it.” he tweets. Then, tersely, “Sledging. Better in theory than practice.”

herdyshepherd1 is keeping us updated on how things are going up in the Cumbrian Fells of the English Lake District. He’s both funny and thoughtful. Earlier the same day, he posted a silly photo titled “Daft dogs”. Sometimes he thinks aloud about tasks a million miles from our imaginings “Clock ticking down now to lambs arriving. Sort ewes with twins off to look after them better, singles can manage.”

We follow his day as we drift in our personal Twitter streams in the office, on the bus, in the park, on the sofa, soaking up messages from a world most of us can barely imagine. His life is the object of our fantasies and it’s great to know that he’s right here,  amongst the trending banalities, global horrors, and intimate confidences. herdyshepherd1, his trusty dog, and his flock of Herdwicks.

herdyshepherdAs I write this they’re all sandwiched between Glenn Greenwald‘s update on the Snowden affair and entrepreneur Anil Dash‘s friendly banter with blogger Jason Kottke. Herdy Shepherd is showing us how pregnant ewes are counted through a veterinary scanner so we can forget just for a moment that we’re in the city. We can gaze across our paleo lunch plate of grass-produced meats to peer into a screen and feel the chill of those snowy peaks, shudder at the cold slush trampled by ungulate hooves, see the visible breath of panting dogs in the icy air. “Roads a bit slape” mumbles Herdy Shepherd. ‘Slape’? What does that mean? We have no idea, but it sounds deeply real.

Herdy Shepherd (who, by the way, chooses to remain anonymous) is just one of many people who work outdoors with animals and share what they do online. We can’t live their lives, but we can shadow their daily routines and get some vicarious sense of their physical worlds.

Animals play an important role in our imaginative lives, and this is also true online. In Technobiophilia I explain how the human/ animal connection is at the heart of biophilia. For example, researchers Katcher and Wilkins* worked with groups of children and found that an intense interest in animals ‘was common across the board’, even down to whether the children were cruel to them or took care of them. ‘Children who throw stones at birds and children who feed birds are both responding to what may be an innate tendency to focus their attention on living things,’ they wrote. Working with a group of boys aged 9 to 15 who had a range of attention-deficit and hyperactive disorders and lived in a residential home, they noted powerful positive effects among the children who participated in a nature education which included access to a collection of small animals they called the ‘zoo’. After 6 months’ exposure to the zoo the researchers found positive improvements in the children’s behaviour and interpersonal relationships. They concluded that ‘If biophilia exists, then it most probably exists as a disposition to attend to the form and motion of living things and, for animals at least, incorporate them into the social environment.’ Not all kids can have regular contact with animals, but perhaps people like Herdy Shepherd can at least give them a window into a very different universe.

*Katcher and Gregory Wilkins. ‘Dialogue with animals: Its nature and culture’. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, by Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, 173– 200. Washington DC: Island Press, 1993, 175.