Earth Matters: Whose nature is it? Opening the door to the outdoors

  • The community of birders is just one group of nature lovers that can be seen as insular and difficult to join. PETER MILLER/VIA FLICKR

For the Gazette
Monday, July 19, 2021

Growing up in the woods of Maine, abundant critters would cross our fields, feed on apples from the orchard, and snack on crayfish from the shores of our pond. Birds nested in every nook and cranny of our property. Nature was everywhere, and I couldn’t miss it.

When I moved to a third-floor apartment in an urban setting, I was sure that I’d have to work for my nature fix. After all, even outside of bustling city centers, carefully manicured neighborhoods occupy substantial acreage in the United States. However, within a few weeks of putting a feeder on my window, I had a steady stream of hungry birds lining up in the nearby trees.

After that, I couldn’t help but notice the diversity and abundance of the urban landscape’s inhabitants.

When it comes to an appreciation for nature, we tend to revere the grandest settings — the majestic parks, towering mountains, expansive Arctic or vibrant reefs — and overlook the beauty close to home. However, cultivating an appreciation for our local nature is a vital step toward conscious environmental stewardship. Strong connections between a community and the local environment — whether it’s an Amherst meadow or a Holyoke park — can ensure that environmental appreciation relates to cultural values and social equity.

One of the ways we can all help folks to experience the natural world around them is to share knowledge widely and without agenda.

The stereotypical — and sometimes accurate — picture of the American nature lover is white, wealthy and wielding the most suitable gear. Although some are working to diversify this image, many are irked by or even downright unfriendly to users who do not necessarily fit their own demographic.

There are too many stories of newcomers facing condescension or ridicule from more experienced and self-appointed elite members of the outdoor community, leading those newcomers to feel they don’t belong or, worse, abandon their efforts.

Through this behavior, and lack of effective response by more welcoming individuals, we are left with individuals or small groups acting as if they are the gatekeepers of local nature knowledge, giving out the secrets of prime locations, sightings or opportunities only to those somehow deemed worthy.

These behaviors frustrate efforts to increase diversity in membership and inclusion of marginalized or “unconventional” members.

Even dedicated outreach efforts, virtuous as they may be, often fail to ask how historically excluded folks wish to experience the outdoors. Do they want to be eaten alive by mosquitoes? Or wake up at the crack of dawn? Or climb a mountain?

Do they want to be told that they need the best (read: expensive) gear to truly appreciate the outdoors? Or that they must pay for educational programs for their outdoor education to be legitimate?

Being in the outdoors doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and that’s OK. Instead of telling people how to experience the outdoors, let’s start listening. What does nature look like in rural Chesterfield versus bustling Springfield? What does it mean to these communities? How do folks want to experience nature, and what are the barriers in their way?

Rather than imposing a conventional structure on new users, we can all help to foster an appreciation of nature simply by sharing the information that is tightly held by the in-groups of traditional organizations. Longtime users and nature clubs hold a wealth of information about safe and accessible local natural areas, but this information may only be available in sources that are hard to find or obtained through fee-based educational programming.

Without easy access to these details, inspired explorers may falter when they can’t figure out where to go or where they’ll be safe. Here’s where involvement from members of local communities can make a big difference.

For instance, a common way for birders to get started is by searching for top hotspots on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s popular eBird site and app. Here, users can see lists of bird sightings and recent visits by other birders. But vital details about terrain, accessibility, or safety may only be available through hard-to-find resources or within the community of active birders.

The Murmuration Project  is one example of how to address this. An open-access crowdsourcing resource, it collects local knowledge about top eBird hotspots so that information about safety and accessibility in Massachusetts is readily available for new and veteran birders alike.

There are many changes needed to make outdoor culture more inclusive, but it’s important to consider whether we’re encouraging folks to assimilate into the dominant culture or empowering them to explore on their own. With tools like The Murmuration Project, we can provide a space for people with a wide variety of perspectives to share experiences that are relevant to a diversity of identities, so communities are empowered to take the reins on their own exploration of local natural areas.

It’s a small, but important, step toward a more equitable experience in nature.

Corey Elowe is a Ph.D. candidate in organismic and evolutionary biology at UMass Amherst, where he is researching the physiology and evolution of long-distance migration in birds. Visit the Murmuration Project at bit.ly/murmurationproject. Ebird is at ebird.org/home/

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 12 years. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Hitchcock Center has adapted its programming and launched a new sliding-scale fee structure for families facing financial challenges.