Naomi Racz

Writing & reading

The Thunder Tree by Robert Michael Pyle

High Line Canal, Mouth of South Platte River to confluence with Second Creek, Denver

This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.

The Thunder Tree: Lessons From An Urban Wildland tells the story of the High Line Canal, a diversion of the South Platte River in Colorado, which was originally intended for irrigation. It is the story of the settlement of the Great Plains. But it is also a book about connection to place and the way in which people bring their own experiences to bare on a place.

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Is conservation too cute?

Awwwww. Image by George Lu. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Recently, a colleague sent me a link to a campaign by BirdLife to save the Spoon-billed sandpiper. The campaign uses the hashtag #SaveSpoonie and there are pictures of cute, fluffy chicks. Whilst I aww-ed at the pictures I also couldn’t help but wonder, are cute animals being saved at the expense of less cuddly, fluffy animals? Is conservation too cute?

An article in Biodiversity argues it is. In the abstract for the paper the author, Ernest Small, summarises his argument thus: Aesthetic and commercial standards have become the primary determinant of which species in the natural world deserve conservation. Accordingly, the world’s biodiversity is being beautified by selective conservation of attractive species, while the plight of the overwhelming majority of species is receiving limited attention.

The reasons behind this are varied and complex, but one reason is that most humans are: (1) … indifferent to almost all of the species on the planet: (2) ‘biophobic’ … and (3) extremely positive towards certain species that are valuable or simply have characteristics valued by the human psyche.

Why does this matter? During the 3.5 billion years of life on Earth there have been five episodes of ‘mass extinction’ and it is believed that the current rate of human-induced extinction is of the same magnitude. What’s more, most species do not survive these periods of mass extinction, so us humans could well be on the road to extinction ourselves. Clearly conserving the planet’s biodiversity is an important issue. Small refers to it as one of the most important existential issues of modern times. Yet, the world’s richest countries only allocate a tiny percentage of funding to environmental issues.

Democratic governments reflect the priorities of the public, and accordingly the most pressing need for addressing the world’s declining biodiversity is to persuade the public that the issue deserves a higher priority.

So, how do we (conservation  organisations, environmental NGOs, researchers, concerned individuals etc) do that? Small describes two sets of values that have been used to shape PR and fundraising campaigns: rational, economic considerations based on utility … and relatively subjective satisfaction based on human values, prejudices, instincts, or sensations. This first set of objective values includes the role of ecosystems as a source of materials, such as food and medicine, and ecosystem services, such as pollination and protection from erosion. However, although economic arguments are important, since the goal of campaigning is to raise money, at least as important is: the emotional attachment people have for certain species that have characteristics that appeal to the heart, not the head.

George Monbiot makes a similar point in an article for The Guardian:

I have asked meetings of green-minded people to raise their hands if they became defenders of nature because they were worried about the state of their bank accounts. Never has one hand appeared. Yet I see the same people base their appeal to others on the argument that they will lose money if we don’t protect the natural world.

Such claims are factual, but they are also dishonest: we pretend that this is what animates us, when in most cases it does not. The reality is that we care because we love. Nature appealed to our hearts, when we were children, long before it appealed to our heads, let alone our pockets. Yet we seem to believe we can persuade people to change their lives through the cold, mechanical power of reason, supported by statistics.

And yet, if what Small argues is true, most of us are either indifferent to most species on the planet or biophobic: slightly to extremely negative towards the majority of species we encounter.

I spend a lot of time writing about nature and I work for an environmental NGO, yet I’m willing to admit I’m not always a friend to the house spider, or the pantry moth, or the pigeons on my balcony. So what exactly is it that appeals to our hearts? What animates us? According to Small, we are animated by charismatic species: whales, lions, tigers, pandas, monkeys, and penguins, to name a few.

I wonder though, how our personal experiences and perception of the natural world feed into which species we consider charismatic. I’ve written elsewhere about my encounter with the wild horses of the Oostvaardersplassen. Now, I realise horses are fairly charismatic  animals – think scenes of wild horses galloping across a plain – but most of my experiences with horses up until my visit to the Oostvaardersplassen had involved one lonely horse (probably wearing a blanket), stood in the corner of rain-sodden field. My experience at the Oostvaardersplassen completely transformed my opinion of horses – or rather, those wild horses did something to my heart. As a result I’d probably be far more likely to act (or give money) on behalf of those and other wild horses.

Or, there’s the time I watched a greylag goose through my binoculars – the image of it’s eye is still burned into my brain. That encounter is part of the rich world I discovered in the wetlands of Attenborough Nature Reserve, which in turn inspired me to want to work for an organisation that protects wetlands.

Recently the organisation I work for took part in a Valentine’s Day campaign to raise awareness of and money for ugly and forgotten species. There were six Valentine’s Day cards, each showing a different ugly animal and each affiliated with a different nature conservation organisation. Our ugly animal was the Greater Adjutant – a balding stork with a skin pouch hanging from its neck. It’s seriously ugly. Did people buy those cards out of love or pity? And does it matter when the fate of humanity is at stake?

Well, yes, it might matter. It matters when scientists and conservationists cannot agree on a solution to ‘the Noah’s Ark problem’ – the question of which species to conserve. It matters when [t]he several dozen wild species that naturally dominate public attention … are to a considerable extent the same ones that attract many scientists. It matters when those same species tend to live in the developed world, yet more species: inhabit the tropics and are both poorly known and uncharismatic.

Small considers whether the concept of triage might offer a way to decide which species should should be allowed onto Noah’s Ark. Species triage borrows from the world of medicine where triage is used to decide which patients should get access to limit resources. Patients are grouped according to how severe their injuries are: those who are too injured to waste resources on, those with minor injuries and those in the middle, who receive treatment first.

Inherent in medical triage is recognition that scarce resources should not be wasted on those who are so severely injured that they are unlikely to recover.

However, Small argues that the analogy between the world of medicine and species conservation falls short:

[W]hen a medical patient cannot be saved, the issue is simply that technology is not available for the purpose. By contrast, technology is available to save virtually every species at risk.

I found this claim astonishing. I had previously heard and took as gospel that a species must maintain a ‘minimum viable population size’ in order to avoid extinction, and that below the threshold of 5000 adult individuals it has passed the point of no return. But researchers have questioned the validity of this concept: In other words, where there’s life there’s hope.

What if there’s room for everyone on the Ark? What is we just need a bigger boat or a less strict entry policy? What would that look like? There would be lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), but also the Purple Pig-nosed Frog, the Blobfish and the Bald Uakari . And there would be people too, lots of people. Not just those in the rich, western world – everyone would be welcome.

N.B. If you feel like giving to the save the Spoon-billed sandpiper campaign, a very worthy cause, you can do so here. For an interesting article about cuteness check out: The emerging field of cute studies can help us understand the dark side of adorableness. And for a fascinating podcast about medical triage have a listen to: Playing God.

All the world’s a theme park

Urban explorer

My favourite weekend activity is to go for a long walk through the city, admiring Amsterdam’s beautiful architecture, looking in shop windows and, best of all, walking down new streets I’ve never walked down before.

In fact, this kind of wandering is my favourite activity to do anywhere. I’ve travelled a fair bit now, though I’d hesitate to call myself a seasoned traveller, but I’ve travelled enough that I’ve come to feel wary of the things you’re supposed to do when you visit a place.

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My Writer’s Manifesto

Image by shira gal. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

I was recently listening to an episode of the podcast Happier, my not-so-guilty guilty pleasure. Every week the hosts of the podcast, Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft, offer a “try this at home” and in this particular episode their “try this at home” was to write a manifesto. Gretchen Rubin has written a number of manifestos, including a happiness manifesto, a habits manifesto and a podcast manifesto.

The podcast episode inspired me to look at other manifestos and to start developing my own manifesto.

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Top survival tips for urban nature

Image by Steven Gregory. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.

Steven D. Garber’s The Urban Naturalist provides an introduction to nature in the urban environment, with chapters on grasses, trees, insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Although it was published in 1987, I think Garber’s book has much to teach any species thinking about moving to the city.  So, inspired by The Urban Naturalist, here’s the top 5 survival tips for would-be urbanites.

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The Granite Garden by Anne Whiston Spirn


Image by Davide D’Amico. Used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.

Firstly, the observant among you may have noticed I’ve skipped over a book – Wildlife in the City by Alan C. Jenkins. Wildlife in the City gives a great overview of urban nature and I’d recommended it for anyone new to the topic. Jenkins makes some interesting points, but perhaps my favourite quote from the book comes after Jenkins has quoted a passage from W.H. Hudson’s A Hind in Richmond Park. The narrator of the novel encounters a hind in the park and notes how the hind responds to inaudible sounds and how those reactions are evidence of the animal’s once wild state. Jenkins writes:

Nature remains true to herself, even in the city, and Hudson’s London hind is an example of how sometimes, albeit only tenuously, the townsman can recreate himself by contact with the wild, even the ghosts of the wild.

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Birds of Town and Suburb by Eric Simms (or nature, class and town planning)

Diagram No.2 from To-morrow, A Peaceful Path to Reform showing a plan for a Garden City

Diagram No.2 from To-morrow, A Peaceful Path to Reform showing a plan for a Garden City

This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.

Birds of Town and Suburb focuses, as the name would suggest, specifically on nature in suburbia. Simms travels chapter by chapter from the inner suburbs outwards to the green belt and the edges of the countryside. Along the way he describes the bird life of various suburban habitats, such as factories, rubbish dumps, cemeteries, parks and allotments. Simms also dedicates chapters to watery habitats such as reservoirs, sewage farms and gravel pits.

However, I wanted to focus in on an issue that Simms touches on – the role of class and nature in town planning.

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The Public Life of the Street Pigeon by Eric Simms

This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.

img_20161128_204353-2I bought The Public Life of the Street Pigeon long before I decided to read my way through the history of urban nature writing because the title sounded intriguing. It didn’t disappoint. It is filled with interesting stories, observations and facts about pigeons. Did you know: pigeons produce milk to feed their young; unlike other birds pigeons are able to suck up water, using their beak as a straw; and they are highly social and affectionate birds? However, the most interesting insight I gleaned from Simms’s book is just how important pigeons have been for human society and how closely linked with humans they now are.

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The week before last I took part in #dearwritersautumn16 – a collective effort to write more and offer encouragement to other writers. It was organised by Éireann Lorsung, a writer and poet who runs MIEL publishing and Dickinson House in Belgium. This summer I had the pleasure of spending a lovely day at Dickinson House, writing and sewing and meeting its furry inhabitants.

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City Critters by Helen Ross Russell

This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.


City Critters bills itself as a fine general introduction to a natural world that is often ignored. In her general introduction Russell covers sparrows, starlings, pigeons, seagulls, mice, rats, squirrels, earthworms, and house pests. Each chapter provides an overview of the creature’s presence in the city, how it came to be there or to adapt to life in the city, as well as its habitats and mating habits. Russell also looks at the various methods used to control these “pests”. She seems to be in favour of measures to limit their numbers, but she also recognises the value they bring to the city and doesn’t want them to be eliminated completely. Not only do many of these species provide people with pleasure, but they (and we) are also interrelated:

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