"Friending" nature

by Sharman Apt Russell

As someone who writes about nature and the West, I’ve been urged to get more involved with social media. “Search out your readers” I am told; don’t just sit back like a wallflower too shy or too proud to dance. But as a writer in rural Silver City, N.M., I have to wonder: Who wants to dance with me -- posting photos of the charismatic western red-bellied tiger beetle with its scissor-like mandibles and bulging eyes? Who wants to twitter the nesting habits of a willow flycatcher, or talk about the role of fire in the Gila National Forest?

When I plug key words into Facebook’s search engine, I get 7.8 million “likes” for the TV show Animal Planet and 5 million likes for a spectacular photo of a waterfall. When I type in “birds,” I end up briefly at Angry Bird Friends, with 14.2 million monthly users, though “ornithology” takes me to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with 96,447 Likes. Clearly, nature and Facebook mix just fine because people love animals, as well as waterfalls, beauty, diversity and “otherness.”

What I’m drawn to write about these days is a field called “citizen science,” which has experienced a renaissance thanks to the Internet. Just as amateur naturalists once used the penny post to mail their insights to men like Charles Darwin, citizen scientists join online programs that track the natural history of plants and animals. We’ve exchanged the pen for the login, and people everywhere are now watching the flowering of backyard trees, measuring snowfall and entering data on everything from butterflies to pikas.

My own citizen-science project is the study of a tiger beetle found in the United States only in New Mexico and Arizona, and I’m guided by the emails of two kindly entomologists, Barry Knisley and David Pearson, who are world experts on tiger beetles. I’m also in contact with a high school biology teacher, Kristi Ellingsen, who first discovered that tiger beetles lived in Tasmania, where it was thought none existed. 

Kristi began by using the photo-sharing site Flickr to post detailed shots of insects she found. At night, she’d post a photo of some obscure fly, and the next morning wake to an Internet conversation that had narrowed down its identity by focusing on the insect’s wings. Soon, someone would identify the species. But when she photographed a large beetle with intimidating jaws on a sand dune in Tasmania, she didn’t bother with Flickr, because her new friends had already given her the conventional wisdom: Tiger beetles don’t exist in Tasmania. Through a broader Web search, she found David Pearson, emailed him her best pictures, and went to bed. The next morning, she had a reply and later a confirmation.

“Now we have a living Tasmanian Tiger,” Kristi marveled – courtesy of one person who ventured outside, took some photos, and was aided by far-off experts sitting in front of computers.

At the small New Mexico university where I have taught for 30 years, I now work online with students from Maine to California, and nature writing has become one of my most popular classes. I add my name to email petitions about environmental concerns. I marvel at how convenient it is to use high-tech Smartphone apps -- just Google the Noah Project -- to help track global warming and catalog biological diversity.

It is true that going online has environmental costs. In 2011, Google reported that it emits 1.5 million metric tons of carbon annually and estimated that all Internet data centers account for 1 percent of the world’s electricity use. Everything we do consumes the world.

Today, I’m going to step away from the computer and “like” nature by walking down to the Gila River, looking for the larval burrow holes of tiger beetles and probably startling a raft of green-headed mallards who will fly away quacking. I feel a giggle, like the small child always amused by peek-a-boo, never getting tired of the joke: ducks actually quack, complaining and petulant. There’s the delight of onomatopoeia, the delight of being in the physical moment.

Nature, of course, doesn’t count her “friends.” But while it might seem counter-intuitive, we can now explore the natural world virtually, monitor climate change, educate ourselves and others, or rally political will, all by using the new mediums of social connection. Can Web-centered technology help us sustain the original web of life? As someone relatively new to this dance, I’m saying yes.

Sharman Apt Russell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Silver City, New Mexico, where she is working on a book about citizen science.

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