Growing-Up a Naturalist; When Did Nature Become Uncool?

Foreword. I have toyed with the idea of posting this here for some time, mainly due to the fact that it does not relate directly to wildlife. Well, and perhaps because many people may not agree with me. This is however and issue I feel very strongly about and as such I have opted to do so. The below post is a mixture of personal experiences and wishful thinking, all of which relate  to Britain’s apparent disconnection from nature. Wildlife it seems is uncool at present and particularly for young people developing into a nature lover and be a taxing and disheartening process.

If you define yourself as a young nature lover and are reading this article, there is a chance you will agree to a certain extent with what I am about to say. That, at a young age, those who enjoy the natural world are rarely viewed as cool or indeed, normal (I hate that word), by their peers. And on occasion, face stigmatization and cruel jibes because of their chosen hobby. Whether you are a budding entomologist, ecologist, conservationist or birder, your favored pastimes are often scoffed at by other young people. Those who prefer to spend their time drinking, playing sports or sat in front of the TV watching the latest episode of The Only Way Is Essex. A shameful fact but a true one nonetheless.

Whereas 40 years ago playing outside and enjoying nature was viewed as the norm, now the life of a young naturalist can be an entirely disheartening affair. Full of questions, isolation and distasteful looks. For me this was particularly true at school where simple taunts quickly reached epidemic proportions, and young people were forced to try and conform with the “norm” in order to fit in or, like me, glide undetected under the radar. Wildlife, was not fashionable. And for me, memories of my childhood are tarnished somewhat by uncomfortable recollections. Indeed, I remember all to well my tendency to hide my growing collection of natural history books when friends visited; to claim illness when refusing company so to watch the latest episode of Springwatch ,and tucking my binoculars into my coat when passing people, strangers and acquaintances alike, in the street. Things which now, years later, appear trivial which, at the time, were done to cast an impression of normality.

Looking back a few years it is safe to say I did not enjoy school, with my love of wildlife forging a clear divide between myself and my peers. Whilst others engaged in more run of the mill pursuits such as football and gaming, I instead opted for a more natural setting and spent the majority of my time combing the local woodland or estuary, observing birds and soaking up all the natural world had to offer. Why this alienated me from the student body I will never know, but by my own admission there were many times during my early academic career that I felt almost ashamed to feel the way I did.

Looking back now this was silly, tragic even, but at the time when school seemed like the be all and end all the whole issue proved thoroughly depressing. Often to such an extent that I wound up hiding my “wild side” and disguising my love of nature entirely. Indeed by the time I finally left high school I had developed a near split personality; “sneaking out birding” and rarely broaching the subject with even my closest friends. Maybe I am alone in this regard? Maybe others transition into a naturalist with greater ease? Who knows, I do feel however that the stigma associated with being a young and wild has to potential to greatly impact the life of that person. Being branded weird, odd and unusual as a result of you passion is far from comforting and can lead to a great deal of personal anguish.

For me the days listed above are thankfully over but to this day it saddens me whenever I hear of young people claiming embarrassment at their chosen hobby. People who like me lead a double life, disguising their passion and conforming to the misplaced norm that prevails within our schools and society. Only last week I bumped into a young lad birding on my local patch. Upon catching sight of me this person quickly set about disguising his binoculars beneath his coat. When asked about it (only after highlighting our shared interests) he later admitted that he felt embarrassed to be seen with binoculars and didn’t want others to notice them. A familiar sight but still, nothing short of heartbreaking.

The labels attached to young naturalists can on occasion be attributed to a dislike of individualism and as anyone who has ever dyed their hair a funny colour may attest, kids do not always take kindly to those who stand out. For me however, this stereotyping is a sign of a much wider problem, a population that has become increasingly disconnected from nature. No longer is it the norm for children to play outside, catch insects, get dirty and observe animals. Now children find themselves glued to a TV screen, rarely stepping foot outdoors and many it seems could not identify a Blue Tit or Bumblebee if it landed on their face or stung them. This both saddens and frustrates me though given the lack of knowledge is it any wonder than anyone who bucks the trend is looked upon as an outsider, enjoying something wholly incomprehensible to the vast majority of young people? This needs to change. Soon.

What would I would I like to see change? A hard question! At present I dream of wider education relating to the natural world. I wish for a generation of young people that once again embrace the charms of Mother Nature, and once again immerse themselves in the thrills and spills of an outdoor life. Should this occur; whether through a change to the curriculum or a change in attitude maybe then people like me and so many others I know will stop being looked upon with suspicion and distaste. As I said at the beginning; wildlife is not cool but it should be and those who dedicate their life to studying, observing and above all else enjoying it should not be off put by the misguided animosity of others. I wish for a generation of young people who wear their binoculars with pride, a generation that openly talks about last night’s episode of Springwatch and is not ashamed to post related photos, stories and experiences to social media.

The education system must change to accommodate natural history too: increasing understanding and above all else reconnecting Britain’s misguided youth with their natural heritage. The life of a young naturalist in modern Britain can be a hard one but thankfully things may finally be looking up. A few years ago I would never have dreamed of finding a place to share my interests with like minded young people. Now however groups such as A Focus on Nature (Found Here) are leading the way and helping to dispel the myths surrounding young nature lovers. Such groups provide a warm, safe and above all else engaging place for youths to socialize absent threat of disapproval and I would advise any young person reading this to visit the site.

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James Common
James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at commonbynature.co.uk, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.

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6 Responses

  1. Bradley Matthews says:

    Great article James! I wish I had the strength to stick to it as you did, it’s one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t.

    I grew up with a love for nature, spending most of our family holidays camping. Unfortunately I found out it wasn’t “cool” when I got to high school, I got made fun of for knowing and talking too much about plants and animals. So I quickly dropped it and conformed, I stuck to sports and music which was much more accepted among my peers. It’s one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t maintain that active interest in nature and while it’s always been there to some degree, its only in recent years that I’ve begun to take an active role in conservation and studying as a mature age student to gain work in the sector.

    • James Common James Common says:

      Hi Bradley,

      Thank you for your kind comments on the article! Glad you enjoyed it. I experienced exactly the same thing at high school, wildlife just wasn’t seen as the “in thing”. Looking back now it was silly to even care what others thought of it but at school, the opinions and of others seem like the be all and end all.

      James.

  2. Geoff Rogers says:

    Reminds me of a long, long time ago (1965)I was out after dark one Saturday after watching curlews. I was 18 or so. Police car pulled up and I was “abducted” and driven back to town. Arguing with the officers, one said “Can’t you do something bloody normal on a Saturday like going to the pub”. Things don’t change, but dare to be different.

    • James Common James Common says:

      Thats bloody horrible Geoff! Can’t imagine them getting away with that these days. But yes, dare to be different. Very nice way of putting it. Different will pay off eventually I am sure! :)

      James.

  3. john clarkson says:

    Hi James,
    I haven’t checked – are you a member of VINE – Values in the Natural Environment?
    http://www.vineproject.org.uk/

    I hope you don’t mind if I post a link to this on the Facebook page that I run for the students on my wildlife course.
    All the best
    John

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