August 04, 2015

In praise of enthusiastic amateurs – like me

After my Times column, the Nature Notebook, was published last month, an email was forwarded to me by the Letters Editor in which it was pointed out that I had made an error of taxonomy. I checked, and the letter-writer, a retired entomology professor, was quite right (as well he might be); going back through my notes for the piece I couldn't even work out how it had come about in order to ensure I didn't make the same mistake again. Obviously, I was completely mortified. A correction was printed a few days later.

While writing this month's copy I wanted to check I had my facts right about water voles. I contacted Jo Cartmell (@WaterVole), a wildlife photographer and blogger I know via Twitter who has a special interest in water vole conservation. Despite sharing a slew of facts and recent research with me she was keen to stress that she was only an amateur ecologist, and not 'an expert' – despite many years' experience of watching them, and an impressive and longstanding ability to engage the wider public. It got me thinking about knowledge, experience, and how completely relative it all is.

There isn't a set of qualifications that mean you can call yourself 'a naturalist', but even with the loosest possible definition I am a long way from making the grade, preferring the term 'nature geek' in my Twitter bio. I have no particular area of expertise, and not a lot of experience compared to many of the conservationists, writers, bloggers and photographers I know and admire. Like many passionate amateurs I'm completely self-taught when it comes to nature: some in childhood, but more so in recent years, as an adult. Yet among my 'normal' friends, and to loose acquaintances on social media, I'm the person who can identify wildflowers or birdsong for them, or know whether their local council cutting back a roadside verge is good habitat management or not. They come to me because they think I can give them answers – and usually, I can.

But here's the thing: much of the time (though not always), I go and look it up. I have an excellent collection of field guides and books about the natural world, and I read very widely. I know where to find the right information, whether in print or online, and years of print journalism mean that I can usually tell when the answer I've found is partial, out of date or ideologically driven; I have a good sense of the landscape within which much of the current debates about nature take place. What's more, over the last few years I've made a lot of friends, both in real life and online, who know a lot more than I do, and I ask questions of them constantly. And I'm far from alone in that. When you read articles, blogs or even books about nature, don't assume the writer had all that knowledge at their fingertips; don't assume they are an expert. Often, like me, they had to go and find it out – and that's completely OK.

I could obscure this, and assume some kind of expert status. But what good would it do? I'd soon be found out by those more knowledgeable than me, while among my friends and acquaintances I'd be furthering the impression that nature is something difficult that requires much single-minded study, instead of something that any of us can get into. When, on a boozy picnic with friends, I am distracted by the sound of a willow warbler, the value in the conversation that springs from that moment doesn't lie, to me, in showing off my arcane knowledge, but in revealing that two years ago I might not have known it from a chaffinch. I'm not an expert, and I wasn't born being able to tell, I taught myself to – and I think being candid about that is inspiring.

I've always been driven by curiosity, and I'm accruing more knowledge about the natural world with every article, column, blog and book I write – something I hope I continue to do for the rest of my life. Despite trying my best to get everything correct I may well make another mistake, taxonomic or otherwise; but given the size of the subject area and the fact that I've never pretended to be anything other than an autodidact, I don't think there's any shame in that.

I even think my non-expert status puts me at an advantage, allowing me to function as a 'bridge' between those who are deep inside their chosen area, and those with just a passing interest. I know of 'proper' naturalists who find it hard to communicate their passion because they can't leave behind terminology that's perfectly clear to them, but clear as mud to the rest of us. Some experts forget that fostering a love of nature doesn't start with facts and statistics, but stories and experience: things that engage our hearts and bodies as well as our minds. But I have a foot in both camps, and can use my skill as a writer to engage and inspire people who don't eat, sleep and breathe wildlife.

There's another plus-point, too: by remaining an outsider I can avoid the 'focus bubble' effect that can narrow the horizons of those who work only in one particular field so that their pet conservation issues loom large, and other, competing concerns dwindle into insignificance. More than once I've seen key ecological messages lost because of an obliviousness to the fact that people might be on tight budgets or have other practical considerations that committed conservationists are blind to. Being able to see an issue from the point of view of ordinary people, as well as experts, can be vital in finding the best way to communicate.

We are living through a period in which knowledge is being devolved. The media is becoming democratised and is no longer solely in the hands of an elite; universities are posting free courses online for anyone to take; hackathons bring groups of people together to solve software and even civic problems; crowdfunding gets projects off the ground without the sanction of big business. When it comes to wildlife, as well as knowledge being handed down by experts through traditional channels like professional jobs and academic courses, it is being opened up to all comers, shared horizontally and built upon in a variety of networks, real and virtual. It's an exciting time, with opportunities for people with many different skills to make a contribution. And one thing is certain: you don't have to be an 'expert' to be part of it.

Addendum: since writing this it has come to my attention that worse errors have been made in The Times than my wrongly classified insect. Perhaps my next Nature Notebook should tackle bears, and their toilet habits.