September took an unexpected turn this year as a small piece I had written on the subject of ‘hope for the future of UK wildlife’ for an AFON competition was selected and rewarded with complimentary tickets to the Nature Matters conference in Cambridge, organised by New Networks for Nature.
— A Focus On Nature (@AFONature) September 23, 2016
In all honesty I had never previously even heard of New Networks for Nature, let alone considered attending a conference of any kind. However if my brief account can offer any perspective, I hope it is that entering AFON competitions is a very good idea, and that New Networks is something everyone involved in conservation needs to know about.
Now in its eighth year, New Networks For Nature is a charity that aims to provide a forum for, and create an interface between the arts and sciences, encouraging debate, discussion and collaboration between writers, scientists, visual artists, musicians, conservationists and academics in the interest of environmental protection and wildlife conservation. I cannot stress enough that to understand how productive a meeting of minds of this kind is for generating ideas, sharing information and I can only assume conceiving any number of world changing collaboration and projects, it needs to be seen to be believed. The atmosphere at the conference was charged with a detectable energy of innovation and diversity that stimulated and inspired me.
Hosted by the Cambridge Conservation Initiatve at the Sir David Attenborough Building, I found myself rubbing shoulders with well-known conservation spokespeople I had never dreamed of meeting, not least including rewilding giant George Monbiot and hedgehog hero Hugh Warwick (a man as equally warm hearted and hilarious in person as he is eccentric in his writings). It was a weekend of being thrust unwittingly into conversations with editors, professors and authors, I found myself organically and effortlessly engaging in one of my most under-practised and lacking personal behaviours – networking.
The conference was titled ‘In touch with the wild’ and broadly focused on interfacing with nature but featured a strong underlying theme throughout, hope. Too massive in scale and depth to list in a single article, highlights for me personally included Hanna Tuuliki – a Scandinavian performance vocalist whose hauntingly beautiful traditional folk compositions mimicking bird song, sent shivers down my spine in the surreal gilded feasting hall of queens college around which her voice echoed. A talk titled ‘how people see nature’ by a jet-lagged but nonetheless enthrallingly charismatic Cambridge academic Ivan Scales transported my mind to a rich new perspective of how indigenous cultures view and value their natural world and how understanding their unique and different values may be the key to conservation overseas.
I also greatly enjoyed a dynamic workshop discussion titled ‘Is nature conservation representative of society?’ led by the wonderful pair Ben Hoare (BBC Wildlife Magazine) and Lianne de Mello (Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust), it explored the ethical issue of the UK conservation communities shortfall in engaging individuals from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) groups with wildlife – an issue I feel very strongly about and I can say was honestly and intelligently discussed, highlighting the exciting platform for freedom of expression and discourse this conference was providing.
But, by far the biggest highlight of the weekend and I’m sure I speak for all others, was the arrival of Sir David Attenborough, closing the conference with a message of hope for the future. A hysteric flurry of excited snapchats and applause gave way to the kind of attentive silence you would expect from an audience to the Dalai Lama, as the literal, actual, yes-its-really-him, Sir David Attenborough delivered a masterfully executed, ad lib reflection on his hope for the future of wildlife conservation that was personal, uncontrived and quite frankly beautiful. It was what happened next that reduced a 24-year old adult male to full tears as without co-ordination or hesitation, every single person in that room awarded a standing ovation that seemed to last forever – a profound, unplanned show of love and respect for a venerated elder, childhood hero and legend of wildlife conservation. It is that kind of shared experience and thinking that truly illustrates what New Networks is creating, and I hope very to experience it again in the future.
A huge thanks to AFON for the opportunity to attend this event and all the hard work they do to provide ongoing opportunities for young conservationists.