This month I have a short essay, ‘Another Ocean’, in Orion, a long-established and beautifully-produced American magazine about nature and the environment. I’m very grateful to the editors for taking a chance on a piece about the internet and the sea because I realize that it’s a synergy which may not sit comfortably with some readers. I do hope they like it though.
Unfortunately ‘Another Ocean’ is in the paid-for section of the magazine but perhaps that’s a good opportunity to sign up for a free trial issue! I’ve been reading it for years and always enjoy the great writing and gorgeous images.
Webcam bird rescue shows how quickly our attraction to nature can turn sour
The proliferation of webcams streaming live feeds has brought wild animals directly onto our screens, sometimes from thousands of miles away. Watching on the web in real time, we can peer into nests, hover over watering-holes, and gaze into zoos. But when something bad happens – an intrinsic part of the wild nature we’re watching – is there anything more going on behind our emotional reactions to end the suffering?
In a recent article in the New York Times, Jon Mooallem reported on a painful drama concerning a family of bald eagles nesting in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has a live webcam feed to enable nature lovers across the world to lurk unseen as the chicks are raised. But this is real life and prettiness cannot be guaranteed. The DNR made this very clear in two disclaimers on its home page. Viewer discretion is advised and content may not be suitable for younger viewers, it said. The warning was made even more explicit:
This is live video of wild birds in the natural process of raising their young. Life and death struggles occur all the time in the natural world. DNR staff will monitor this camera and will evaluate incidents as they occur, but we do not plan to, nor do we condone, any interference with this nest or its occupants.
The DNR soon found itself in a difficult position: increasing anxiety about the failing health of one of the eagle chicks (nicknamed Snap by its adoring viewers) led to an outpouring of concern until eventually the DNR gave in and went to the rescue. “It was badly injured — most likely trampled accidentally by one of its parents,” Mooallem reported. “It had a severely fractured wing and a systemic infection. There was no chance of recovery. Snap had to be euthanised.”
A webcam set up to bring pleasure to its audience and attract donations to support the programme had opened a ghastly window to the real red-in-tooth-and-claw world of nature, where creatures get hurt and die.
As one woman put it, she wasn’t “up for that learning experience”. But if we’re so keen on nature and how it makes us feel, why did all the webcam watchers feel so distressed when it started to go wrong? Beyond one explanation of anthropomorphism, another could be biophobia – a fear of the natural world.
Natural turn offs
In most cases, images of animals have a beneficial effect on us, says Stephen Kellert, a social ecologist at Yale University. He believes images of animals often provoke satisfaction, pleasure, stimulation and emotional interest. For philosopher Paul Shepard, seeing animals in ornamentation, decoration and art, may lead us to experience “the tug of attention to animals as the curved mirror of ourselves”.
But sometimes we respond fearfully not only to certain living things (most notably spiders, snakes and bugs) but also to some natural situations which might contain hidden dangers and be difficult to escape from, says psychologist Roger Ulrich, writing inThe Biophilia Hypothesis. It is this that he describes as biophobia.
Just as positive encounters with nature can have calming effects,argues Ulrich, it follows that the opposite should result in negative effects such as anxiety – something that the many nature centres and wildlife reserves that manage live webcam feeds will be aware of.
Webcams allow us to watch real animals with an unprecedented level of intimacy. But the unrealistic empathy they can create has the potential to provoke real distress when it goes wrong. And this is where it seems we’re only human.
I’ve been reading Roger Deakin’s wonderful book ‘Wildwood: a journey through trees‘, and was thrilled by his descriptions of Walnut Tree Farm, the moated farmhouse where he lived for many years before his untimely death in 2006. He bought the house in 1969 after spotting it nestling in neglected woodland, its ruined chimney rising above the trees. In the years that followed he slowly and lovingly renovated it piece by piece. He slept in every part of the property, including its fields. He swam joyously in its weed-filled moat.
Deakin was a nature geek and a craftsman. We can learn from him and combine his sensibilities with our online lives to create workspaces with his world in mind. And of all the things he made, it is his desk which most fascinates and inspires me. He wrote in his journal:
Building the new desk under the window in the study, looking south across the garden to the moat. Perfectionism kicks in and all the same self-critical criteria that go into a piece of writing. I make a yew bracket to peg to the oak wall post and support the top, a slab of fine-grained Oregon pine, and a careful wooden sub-frame or chassis. I fill some open cracks in the grain with plaster, smooth it down and carefully stain it pale blue using a delicate watercolour brush. I hollow out one of the old bolt-holes in the top to accommodate a smooth, round flattened pebble from the Hebrides, like a tiny curling stone. It is a sort of worry-bead. (p17)
Make some space on your desk for stone, wood, or shells that you have cleaned and shaped yourself.
Set aside a few minutes each day to enjoy the feel of them in your hands – the surface, the weight, the coolness, the warmth.
You may even choose to work colours and materials into the surface of the desk, as he describes above.
A treat, perhaps, for fingers more accustomed to keyboards and screens.