Nature reading - a tool to open the mind
Updated: Oct 15, 2022
By Gethin Jenkins-Jones
Although I am only 23 years old, I’m sure even those that are younger than me can testify how much the behaviour of our society has changed over the last decade or so. Gone (to a large degree) are the days of memorizing maps before embarking long journeys, printing out photos for albums, cashing cheques, or even using cash at all! Everything is now at the tip of our fingers thanks to the rise of smart technology. There is one habit, however, that I hope will not fade as our technological capabilities stride in the years to come - reading.
Although we are encouraged to read early in life, and are even required to critique and evaluate works of literature through our GCSE’s, it seems that to many people, reading is increasingly put on the backburner as the years pass by. Work and family commitments no doubt contribute to this, though I'd wager that the lure of social media and easy-to-access entertainment on streaming platforms has played a large part in recent years too. I myself lapse into such periods. But we should never underestimate reading, especially nature reading, as in the best of circumstances it can not only boost our mood and mental wellbeing, but it can forever change the very way we act and think, to the benefit of everyone around us.
I remember going to Rutland’s ‘Bird Fair’ in 2009 and 2013 (my only visits there), and walking past the stands focusing on bumblebees and other insects feeling mostly disinterested. To my young, twitch-focused mind, only the birds were of interest. Back then my garden was much devoid of pollinator-friendly flowers, and the lawn was regularly mown. However, from 2019, after reading books on bees and other interesting creepy-crawlies from authors such as Dave Goulson, F.W.L Sladen and Jeff Ollerton, I have completely transformed my attitudes towards such creatures, and now view them with much fascination and appreciation. My garden is now a meadow filled with borage, lavenders, buttercups and other attractive plants, and I have created several bee hotels and have dug a pond. From such changes that all started from reading, I have seen a notable increase in biodiversity, and I get quite a kick seeing new and familiar species flying around. During walks, seeing bees, dragonflies or butterflies - each with their unique yet under-appreciated ecology - gives me much excitement, and I feel happier.
Another example of mine is my diet. Coming into uni in 2017 I would eat large amounts of tuna, cod, (presumably farmed) salmon, avocados, and cheese, all the while describing myself as a conservationist. Having since read books by Calum Roberts, Mark Kurlansky and Ray Hilborn, I have changed much of this, now only eating sustainably-caught mackerel and sardines, and cheese only on holidays as a treat. I feel like a better ancestor for future generations, and this also makes me feel happier.
Ecology is complex and everything is connected. Having a passion for only birds, as is the case for a lot of people, should go beyond the initial thrill of seeing them for the first time and to add to lists. Now there are more insects in my garden, there is more food for my garden birds, which can be crucial at the time they breed. Now I don’t eat salmon or cod means that our coastal and marine ecosystems might function ever-so-slightly better, leaving more food to our amazing waders and seabirds, and now that I don’t eat avocados might mean there won’t be such a demand to cut down the bird-rich forests of Central America. Of course I am only one person, but I’m sure that if we were all taught the draw-backs as well as the benefits of what we eat on a wider level, our conscience will lead us to a better and more sustainable way of life. The issue currently, is that education doesn’t focus on our long-term actions.
I have been a scholar of ecology and conservation for much of my life, and even though I have read many books since leaving university, I feel that I have barely scratched the surface of the wonderful and intriguing ecological and natural systems that exist on this planet. Considering the odds of being born are some 1 in 400 trillion, and that there is certainly no life for at least ten thousand billion kilometers from Earth, I think that we all owe it to ourselves to learn as much as we can about our world. I think that if we all truly came to appreciate nature and our luck to be a part of it - which can simply come from picking up a few books on wildlife - much of the conflict that is now so potent and entrenched in our divided nations will ease. So if you’re ever bored, pick up a book! It’s great fun, and you’ll feel much happier!