It occurred to me, sometime last Christmas, that to enter one of the Top Ten Eco Destinations in the World (according to BBC Wildlife Magazine) I didn’t have to do much more than walk a few steps from my house, cross a railway track and push a swing gate open.
I don’t live on the edge of a rainforest in Borneo. I don’t live on the fringe of the Red Desert in Namibia. As you may expect from someone who runs a magazine based in Beeston, my digs aren’t quite so exotic. I live, as many of you reading this will also do, right close to Attenborough Nature Reserve.
It also occurred to me that I didn’t know a great deal about what was within that reserve, or my own back garden for that matter, which felt an awful waste. Sure, I knew my swans from my geese, my starling from my sparrow; and I’d coaxed a few robins to feed from my outstretched palm on occasion. But what else was there? Finding a trap-cam and a bird-book in my Christmas stocking, I decided to put them to use. I would start a safari in Beeston, with the Nature Reserve, the Trent and my own rather overgrown back garden as my focus.
The challenge was simple: every day I would find and photograph a new species of life, research exactly what it was and what it did, and put it up on Instagram and Facebook. On the first day, while the outside world tussled with New Year hangovers, I checked my trapcams at dawn and found only curious cats. No matter. I stuck my camera out of the front window and onto the bird feeder, where a grey squirrel performed tail-based acrobatics and thus became my first subject. Next day, collared dove. Third day, the first creature I had no previous idea of, only identifying through a microscope: a planarium flatworm, making its way through the soil. A shiny glass snail – I’d until then assumed there was just two types of snails, garden and pond – with an aphid, coal tit and a common centipede rounding off the first week.
“Nature is an incredible array of stories, histories, etymologies and often bizarre facts.”
With each new species came a desire to not just photograph it, not just know its name, but know why it is unique. Why is a mute swan mute (it’s not)? Why do hoverflies look like wasps? Who the hell was responsible for naming fungus, and were they getting a bit too fond of the more psychedelic versions while at work that day? Nature is an incredible array of stories, histories, etymologies and often bizarre facts. I became addicted to it.
As spring broke through the frozen ground, I became spoiled for choice. Hedgehogs and badgers would regularly visit the trap cam, and the wealth of species that appeared in the nature reserves was heady: I became fascinated by beetles, amazed at the habits of butterflies, enthralled by the impossible flash of a hawker dragonfly in full flight. Rather than have nature as an auxiliary support, there to dip into when needed, I began to become immersed and wilfully lost in it. I could happily spend hours piling through scratching brambles all just to get a grainy shot of a blackcap. Windows were left open and lights left on during the night to lure in fascinating moths. My photography skills vastly improved. My own backyard became my own Serengeti, a joy taken in the minutiae.
It started to get noticed: numerous appearances on Notts TV talking about the safari ensued, and people would send me their own pictures, seemingly inspired by my efforts. The ultimate accolade came in late May, when a hero of mine who radically changed how nature is written about, Robert Macfarlane, crossed paths with me due to a work event. We went for dinner together at Cafe Roya, where he told me he enjoyed my daily pictures. I probably resembled a smug Elephant Hawk Moth right then, as my head swelled
Something more important happened too. I fell back in love with nature, and I once again understood what a balm it is. Immersion into nature takes you somewhere far from the daily stresses, the petty internal debates. By reducing you to just another temporal organism amongst many billions, a transcendence can begin. Understanding more about the creatures we share this patch with lends a greater respect, a deeper empathy and a greater need to look after what we have. To quote Robert Macfarlane “We find it hard to love what we cannot give a name to. And what we do not love we will not save.” And right now, we need to bridge that gap between nature and humanity, for it’s sake, for our sake.
This year, I’ve restarted the safari: as I write I’m watching a charm of goldfinch on a feeder, while a cautious female blackbird pecks at an apple left on the floor. Keep up with the safari over on my Instagram: @beestonia.