"Friending" nature

 

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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]