I’ve had a note on my phone for months now called ‘Dangerous nature post‘. It was a reminder to me to attempt to get some coherent thoughts down about nature, danger and the unknown.
In February I read a fascinating article in Inkcap Journal. ‘A dark miracle in the Forest of Dean‘ shows how the presence of wild boar has led to a quite remarkable fact (and subtitle) ‘For the first time in centuries, people in Britain are afraid of wild animals’.
This was the missing link I needed to help me organise my thoughts. Some months ago I watched an excellent chat between David Lindo (The Urban Birder) and Melissa Harrison in the ‘In Conservation With…’ series, which set me off thinking about my relationship with nature and nature writing (more on that here).
At one point Melissa Harrison commented that in her experience, one of the reasons that teenagers weren’t actively engaging with nature (at a community garden level) was the perceived danger and dirtiness of the activity.
As someone who also grew up in a rural environment in the UK and created imaginary worlds set in woods and fields, I can understand her frustration.
Having now lived in an environment where nature can hold numerous hidden dangers for the wary and unwary, and seeing how (a few) teenagers engage with nature here, I feel I have gained a better understanding of some of the factors that prevent people of all ages engaging with the natural environment.
I have tried (unsuccessfully) to keep this post short so I will summarise my reasoning here and then respond in another post with some experiences of danger in Brazil.
1. Worldview sets the scene for our interactions with the natural world
We absorb messages about our environment and how we should interact with it from those around us unless there is some other sort of intervention.
2. The unknown and the link with fear
The unknown, the unfamiliar and the other is very often linked (either explicitly or implicitly) with fear at all levels in human society from the global to the individual.
3. Ignorance and accessibility of knowledge
If the messages we absorb about nature are cultural, at what point do we become aware enough to challenge, test and either affirm or discredit these assumptions? Can we trust our sources of information
4. Learning requires time, investment and proximity
Active learning about our environment requires time, effort and proximity to wildlife (as well as reliable sources of information). Even the most curious young person will find it difficult to learn without these things. Nurturing an interest in the environment is not downloadable and requires encouragement, interest and curiosity on the part of any adults too.
5. Assessing danger is a challenge
A good level of knowledge and experience is needed to be able to make fast and accurate assessments about danger in nature. Mistakes may have fatal consequences.
6. Passing on that knowledge requires time and effort
Passing on that knowledge requires time, effort and opportunities to assess risk. I would suggest that this is part of an ongoing approach to engaging with the natural world.
7. Lifelong learning
There is always more to learn about familiar and unfamiliar environments and wildlife. Questioning is helpful and can lead to new discoveries. With access to reliable sources of information and an ‘I don’t know, let’s find out’ attitude, adults can model a helpful approach for younger learners. Asking those who are more knowledgeable and being free with help for those who ask is one way to challenge the idea that knowledge about the natural world is only for experts.
I hope that our engagement with the world around us fosters curiousity in our daughter as well as equipping her to interact with nature with confidence and respect. I will write about some of what I have learned about life in Brazil and my approach to lifelong nature learning with my daughter here.
I would suggest that there are many reasons for children and teenagers to be apathetic about the environment they live in, and the (perceived or otherwise) presence of danger is one of them.
In a hypothetical family in which adult family members do not have an interest in the natural environment, the family culture created and the message absorbed by the children will be that the natural environment is not valuable or interesting. If adults overtly complain about the natural environment the children will absorb this negative perception. Their own ignorance due to lack of interaction with their natural environment leaves them open to accepting any negative (sensationalist) information without question (deadly foreign hornets, foxes eating children, poisonous spider attacks etc). Adults who have no interest in nature will not take time to teach their children or nurture any interest the child may show. Their own ignorance and assumptions picked up during childhood will determine how they assess danger, and if they believe there to be an element of risk around interacting with farm animals (for example), their own implicit and explicit language will likely produce fear in the child who will then avoid interaction.
I would love to hear your thoughts! Does any of this resonate with your experiences? Do you have any tips for encouraging engagement with the natural world?