There has been much written about the disconnect for people between the modern digital world and the natural world – how we all need to get out more because it is good for our health, both mentally and physically. In my patch, Tees Valley Wildlife Trust have been thinking about that problem a lot and this year have been awarded a small grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to try and engage people with the flora of their local coastline; I’m involved in that project.
We don’t have anything particularly rare growing here but we do have plants (not always native) with interesting stories behind them, set amongst both natural and man-made habitats, and all with a spectacular scenic backdrop.
So why don’t people notice them?
They do notice sometimes, but I think they often don’t differentiate between the different wildflowers. My brother does this….all trees come with the label ‘tree’ attached; he’s aware vaguely that they are different in some way but he’d be hard pushed to tell you the differences. In his everyday life I’m sure he doesn’t notice them except as background and I think that’s the same for someone walking their dog on the beach front – they see flowers and think they are nice and, well, ‘wildflowers’. Or they don’t look because they don’t know what to look for and the flowers go unseen.
We are creatures of selective attention: Buy a red car and all of a sudden you are amazed at the number of red cars that are everywhere. Give something a name, or have some personal involvement, and you are more likely to look for and notice it in the future.
So if you notice it more when you know the name, how can we get people to learn the names of plants – to see that there are different types of ‘wildflower’?
That’s where modern technology helps. Most people, when out for a walk, now have either a phone with a camera or a small pocket camera that they carry for snapshots. See something you don’t know, take a photograph of it and then… you need to find someone to give you a name for it. This year local people can upload their photo to our website www.clevelandcoast.org.uk , let us know which stretch of coast they found the flower and I will name it for them. We’re gradually going to build up a visual library of the plants that people have noticed – have you seen what other people have spotted? – and even if you are housebound you can still have a look at the wildflower photos and enjoy them from home.
I’m running four photography workshops (looking at how we can record a plant clearly, as well as more artistic interpretations) and running a series of gentle ambles where we wander along and I point out interesting wildflowers and tell a funny story, and (yes there’s more) also some longer walks which give us time to talk about why different plants grow where they grow and the social history of those habitats. There’s even a fun photography competition with an exhibition in a local art gallery at the end of the year.
If it all goes well, then maybe we can get funding to focus on birds next year, or fossils, or snails or …