Mavericks and Spirituality: Why the Urban Birder is less about the Birding and more about the Connection.

I got the incredible opportunity to interview an icon of wildlife broadcasting and ornithology a while back; David Lindo, aka The Urban Birder, for Bloom in Doom Magazine, it was a fascinating interview, and a remarkable opportunity. We discussed everything from spirituality and diversity to birdwatching, you can have a read here on their website: https://www.bloomindoom.com/interviews/the-urban-birder

I often find that growing up in a city, in a flat in London more specifically, I find myself looking closer than others to find the little nuggets of nature I crave. You see, in the great, bustling mess of steel and glass playgrounds, wildlife has become a subtle art. The members blend in, the camouflage a testament to evolution and adaptation. Space becomes efficiently managed, and interaction avoided. In order to sate the craving, one has for wildlife observation, you must first develop a deep love for searching. Your treasures are there if you are willing to look hard enough, and if you understand why it is you are looking in the first place.

I was lucky enough to get the chance to speak to a man who, on the coveted screen of Springwatch no less, managed to fan the flames of this fire I had, to search this world however out of reach it seemed to me, a man who made famous the term “urban birding” itself – Britain’s very own David Lindo, aka, The Urban Birder.

David was there a major point in time that you decided nature was going to be a big part of your life?

I had prepared myself for data, parents, wildlife picture books, and maybe the odd pair of hand-me-down binoculars, but what I got instead was…spirituality.

David spoke of a previous life. A life where he existed as a Puma and not a man. He spoke of running through the forest, chasing a nameless species of bird, the chase strong and willful, ultimately concluding in not only his demise, but a spark of curiosity, and the need to chase after this dream of birding, rather than the bird itself, was born. I was surprised by the importance he placed upon spirituality, not because I did not believe it has a place in this world of animal observation – on the contrary – but because I had not really come across this pathway before in highly acclaimed experts of ornithology and was intrigued to know more.

David remarked that birding was “mostly spiritual” to him, that the connection that he felt to the earth and to its life, was intimate, whenever he steps outside his door, he feels as if he is being “swallowed in”, and experiencing this almost visceral climate, whereupon you are totally enveloped in the protection and security of nature. This connection to Mother Nature is something primal, something we feel deep down in our roots. The words he used; “protection”, “love”, and “inviting”, spoke of a higher power, a sense of pure elation, and a return to the land we grew from.

As we talked more of this, David made the point that as a society, people tend to believe that to experience nature and to love it or show any sort of interest in it, you must have some sort of expertise in this area, an ology, or some sort of title, whereas he flips it, and states that this is not the case at all. As a society, we need to understand that the connection comes first, and the experience comes afterwards. The beauty of this connection is anyone can have it.

“Urban Birding is more about getting people to learn to love their environment, their local environment, what’s next to you, and then, by extrapolation, how it fits in with the rest of the world”.

RACE & REPRESENTATION

These experiences spent in connection with nature are obviously what made David the incredibly knowledgeable man he is today, but I wanted to know if there were any hurdles he had faced and had to overcome as he got more involved with the natural world, and we touched upon a historically topical, but also more recently raised subject, the subject of Race.

When I had spoken to David first about how he found a passion for nature, he not only spoke of spirituality, but he also spoke of more vocational and professional reasoning; he had been invited to explore his local patch on television as part of the landmark series Springwatch, an episode I remember well because it was the first time I saw a person of colour in the field of wildlife television. He saw this as a chance to raise awareness of his values and his work, and to make a career out of something he had a knack for, as a presenter and someone who fronted this world he had grown to love.

Of course, this comes with its own obstacles, and flash forward to this question, we spoke about the effects of racism in the industry, and how David used birding and wildlife observation as a form of escape from the demanding atmosphere of society. However, the effects of discrimination appeared to be far more subtle in these cases, and we spoke of a topic I have touched on a lot previously, accessibility. “There is a stereotypical view”, David said, “and I think, what’s held me back, is this view…the BBC…they value an ology or a degree, but you can have all the degrees and masters you wish, but if you can’t communicate, then what’s the point?”, He spoke of the difference between life experience and academic experience, and how the difference between these two can give some people the edge in the workplace. We also spoke about how this very much draws upon the elitist ideologies of what natural history is in a societal context.

This became apparent in the way David described his schooling and growing up, they were experienced in a rougher area, experiences of low-quality schooling, meaning that even if he had wanted to pursue a degree in an ology or something similar, his options were limited, and so, therefore, were his chances in the workplace. “You should be a bricklayer or a carpenter”, was the response he received upon exposing a dream of becoming a vet, all attached to constant barrages of “you’re not good enough” and “you won’t add up to much”, a sad and very regular occurrence unfortunately in many communities, as kids are told they can’t have the dream they so desperately reach for, just because they aren’t schooled in a particular district, or born into a particular family.

“Never take no for an answer, you are in control of your own destiny…” these struck me as the words of a pioneer, a man who was told to sit back down and instead chose to not only stand up but walk away from the people who tried to hold him back. One thing that I’ve noticed when speaking to people whose path it seems is carved out differently than others is that they often approach the problems they face from entirely different angles, and this became very evident as David spoke again of spirituality, and of culture, music, and art being underlying impactors of his love for nature. He was told to get a degree if he wanted to continue in television. Told that these marks on a piece of paper would decide his future despite the proof that he was not only an excellent storyteller, but a passionate birder and conservationist, and fully qualified for the job, aside from a societal expectation.

The great influencers of this world are often told they should turn back, but what makes them the pioneers is that they do not say no, and I think David takes this and makes it his own.

“…Dawood, can you name one species of animal, that’s been named by, or after a person of colour…?”.

I could not name one.

INDUSTRY ACCESSIBILITY

The lack of diversity and representation in the wildlife industry is something that is only recently coming to light, and something we had spoken about in-depth, but that question still hit me out of the blue. “The lack of diversity stems from two places, lack of education and in many families, lack of support…kids aren’t taught that we are part of this whole ecosystem and this ecosystem is our life support, and we are slashing away at it, till it’s gone…we need to really understand from an early age that this is important…climate change, ecological disasters, these are all linked.”

This was particularly poignant to me, as someone who grew up homeschooled, my educational environment was one that differed very much from others, and it was one that instilled in me a love of the natural world that did not, and still does not exist in mainstream curriculums.

The need to remind children of nature is something that must be consistent, and David talked in length about the issues surrounding this; such as a need to have kids understand that they’re within nature at all times, and cannot simply be “taken on one field trip”, they must be reminded of its wonders and more needs to be done to remind their families of this because it is not enough for one child to know, the support system they lean on must understand too.

NATURE IN THE CITY

We also talked more of the issue of nature being a commodity, and the way that this commodity is sold back to us by our media, and David made a very important point I thought about the links between connection and the wildlife films that we see today; that whilst films that highlight the beauty and intricacy of the natural world in other continents and habitats around the world are good, they present us with a “romanticised” idea of what nature is. We are being shown images that pertain to a natural world that is glorious and not in trouble. They are not shown the links between this “otherworldly” planet and the one right outside our doorstep, and so the rift between us and our nature grows ever wider. The point is “more needs to be done in terms of urban wildlife planning, to show people, living in the middle of Leicester, Birmingham, Glasgow, that there is wildlife outside their front door…and there is a connection between that and the congo, and the Antarctic, and the amazon…”.


He then went on to talk of the pandemic and we discussed how, in this time of crisis, and being locked down at home, people in cities would have benefited from watching television about urban wildlife. A lot of these kinds of stories are just never told. I recognised that an underlying point in this conversation was the idea of connection. The disappointment around the lack of it, the missing programs that connect us with our wildlife in mass media, and the use of “urban birding” in our connection to nature. Connection to our world and our urban wildlife is about more than just wildlife watching, it is about our deeper understanding of nature that we can only really achieve if we see that we are part of it.

COMMUNICATING NATURE


As we moved on, David spoke of his experience raising awareness about wildlife and again hit upon the point of accessibility. He talked about giving talks on birding and nature without the fancy language, without the bar charts and graphs, but instead with a valued sense of connection to the listener. “My thing has always been the same, which is to engage with people living in urban areas, not just in the UK but around the world and to get them to notice, and to get involved with their environment and nature through birds…I used the fact that I came from a commercial background, in sales…The Urban Birder, it wasn’t even so much about watching birds in urban areas, it was about repackaging the idea that watching birds in urban environments is a lifestyle choice, up there with yoga and meditation…my main target was the media, to get them to step back and to make this idea of birding a mainstream engagement”, we talked about how this makes nature more accessible to everyday people, who may have been scared off by the idea of nonqualified birding before. Nature is a part of all of us, and to be scared away or deflected from this is surely one of the greatest woes of the modern age.

It’s about waking people up, and creating what David described as “an army of birders”, people who would have such a passion for nature and such a connection that they wouldn’t have to be convinced so strongly that saving the environment was the right thing to do.

“We need more green, we need more blue, and we need less grey…”


Part of this connection and part of this increase in accessibility is bringing nature closer to people as well; David spoke about a company that styled themselves as “Master Developers”, they buy strips of lands to turn into affordable housing estates, and would purposely intertwine the natural environment that exists in these areas into the housing estates, like hedgehogs and badger setts, and would further encourage and ask the people who moved into these houses to maintain these habitats, he stated that not only does this help the environment but it helps us too, it helps our health, it helps our wellbeing and it helps to raise the economy as people have housing satisfaction.

“Do you think that this increase in urban birding has upped the number of people getting into nature and birding?”

“I think there are more people getting involved, I’ve noticed it more…globally…I think this whole pandemic has provided a good breeding ground for people to become interested, but I think more needs to be done to help people grow this newfound passion, 82% of us live in cities and urban areas, but the majority of wildlife programming and media does not reflect where people live, and if it does it portrays this wildlife as being out of place…”.

“People are waking up to their urban wildlife, they are more interested than before…I don’t know why we still produce so many programs that are directed towards the 18% that live in the countryside…when 82% of our populations live in cities…”, we must change our direction. There is a sense that we must learn to appreciate the now and the close, rather than the far and the away. “The countryside in England…I wouldn’t even call countryside, it’s pesticide!…you compare a stretch of countryside in the UK to say somewhere in Eastern Europe, it just feels barren…”.

But, there is hope; “We can minimize our losses, by becoming a bit more…sensitive to the needs of our wildlife, we need them more than they need us, we have to think about how we can change our farming practices, about how we can change the ways in which we produce food…”, David spoke in length about the Knepp Estate, and about how they are using sustainable farming practices that don’t use pesticides and don’t use chemicals, and still produce healthy amounts of food, proving it can be done, and he also touched upon a conservation success story; the Oriental White Stork in Japan, and about how, even though this animal went close to extinction after the 2nd World War, it was brought back from the brink simply by changing farming practices to an organic fashion, and regrowing their ecosystem over time. The Storks are widespread across the country now.

ALL HAIL THE MAVERICKS…

“It’s up to people like you…”, a reality check, that one. “I see a lot of young people coming through in my world, but they’re being mentored by NGOs, who in my view are quite…conservative…the world needs more mavericks, like Chris Packham…he’s a maverick. But there aren’t many people in that mold really…people who don’t just talk the talk…but walk the walk…”, the world needs people who are willing to swim against the tide and work against the grain, because otherwise how can change occur at all?

“I’ve been fighting from day one, all the stuff I’ve been doing, people never really understood…it’s not about getting people to be urban birders; think about the bigger picture, the bigger picture is CONNECTING people, getting people to THINK differently”.

I understood then. It is not just about a small world on your sill, and it’s not just about seeing this picture close up. It is about understanding that as a human race, as a generation, and as people, we are all part of nature, we are all connected, and we are responsible for uprooting this plant that is our way of living, and really changing that soil.

Let’s wake up the mavericks, and connect with who we are inside, in order to save our outside world.

Thank you to Nathalie Dickson for her beautiful illustration. You can find more of her work on Instagram @nathalied_art

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