Set her free – why we need wild women

This blog is a transcript of a talk I gave at Birdfair 2019. Many thanks to those that requested it, and especially to the many women (and men) who contributed the thoughts and ideas that inspired its writing.

At 3.45 on a July morning my phone roused me from comfortable slumber. I lay in a bivvy bag, deep in a hedge.

I was there to conduct a survey for turtle doves. The survey protocol involved walking transects at dawn, which was just after 4am. It most definitely did not suggest sleeping in a hedge, but because the site was 10 minutes drive and a good half hour’s walk from home, I’d decided to walk out in the evening before and stay there. It made the difference between getting up at 3am or just before four, and besides, this kind of thing is my idea of a good time.

I packed a bivvy bag, filled a flask, tucked my son up, kissed everyone goodnight and went. Before it was completely dark I’d found my spot, and when the alarm when off I sat up in my sleeping bag and drank coffee while the tawny owls clocked off and the day shift clocked on. The dawn chorus in mid July is already a bit sparse – blackbirds and cuckoos have pretty much retired for the year. But even so, the morning medley was divine.

For me, time like this is its own rich reward. It is a potent mixture of thrill and peace, it is resetting all the dials in my overly busy brain. It is mindfulness, it is self-reliance, it is the purest stuff of life.

Via Twitter, I asked other women what time alone in nature meant to them and replies were wonderful.

Illustrator Jackie Morris said, ‘I find stories between the wing beats of birds, and peace in the sound of wind passing over landscape’. Nature writer Nicola Chester wrote, ‘It is my everything. It is the place I come from & the place I go to. It is family. Wherever I am, it is home & away, an escape, a bolt hole, a reason, a consolation’ and Kathryn Aalto said, ‘We are so interconnected with others, it gives us time to be singular … while reminding us that we are part of even larger systems than we can contemplate. It is restorative and wisely selfish.’ I love that.

There were recurring themes in the other replies – of calm, refreshment, resetting, of gaining perspective, forgetting ourselves for a while. Many alluded to nature being good for physical and mental  health.

OK, I thought, that’s the good stuff. But are there any negatives to being out there alone? What of anxiety, melancholy, loneliness?

In response, Gill Perkins said, ‘My fear is the fear of loss…of no bees and no birdsong. No cool green shade. To let it slip away from us. It can feel overwhelming.’ Jo Sinclair wrote’ ‘[It’s] not just the loveliness that helps me, but the violence and failures too! The brute reality of nature helps give me perspective on my own life. Every time I see a healthy thriving organism I am amazed at how it came into being and how it has managed to survive’.

Another tweet said ‘I sometimes get a little anxious when in the middle of nowhere alone because I’m inherently distrustful of humans (my least favourite species) and men, I’m sure -well intentioned, sometimes approach for a chat w/o realising how intimidating it can be in an isolated environment.’

And another Tweeter spoke for many when she said ‘I have a mild freak-out every time I walk through a field of cows.’

I followed up with a third question about the things that stop women who love nature engaging with it as they would like, and again there were recurring themes, including  health, money, access (driving) and guilt. There was a LOT of guilt, in particular that time alone meant neglecting family commitments. ‘I have a sense that it is ‘selfish’’ wrote Joanna Dobson. ‘My mother was deeply conditioned to believe that women should always and only be doing things for other people and I absorbed that in the way that children do and still struggle with the legacy.’

‘For me it’s social anxiety’ wrote another, ‘the places I’ve always enjoyed are becoming more popular so [I] find it increasingly difficult toe really be ‘alone’ in nature.

 ‘Money is the main barrier for me. It not only restricts how often I can go but how far I can reach’

‘After caring for my elderly parents and my partner, it is sheer tiredness and lack of energy that stops me.’

‘Health issues, particularly as I grow older, I miss the wilder adventures of youth, and walking with ease & strength.’

I also had contributions from women for whom time alone was disturbing or downright dangerous. We know nature is good for us, but there are dark states of mind it won’t help. There are triggers for old hurts out there too, so its very important to say that nature is not a panacea, and it was not a substitute for other therapies.

But the biggest factor limiting women’s longed-for engagement with the wild was time. This I wholly relate to. I’m self-employed and I have a family, so getting out for more than a few hours is a logistical nightmare. I’ve become a kitchen window birder. A school run naturalist. Nature cannot be an activity reserved for my spare time because, quite honestly, I don’t have any. I have spent a grand total of one day this year officially birdwatching on a nature reserve. It was in April, with my son, and a nightingale sang and it was wonderful. But it was just one day, and I wasn’t alone.

Some people in that very unscientific Twitter survey mentioned anxiety and concern for personal safety but, actually, rather fewer than I expected. I guess generally for people who identify as ‘wild women’, fear about what might go wrong was low down the list of reasons not to go. Perhaps wilder women feel less anxiety, or don’t admit to it, or are more determined to block it, or leave it to other people to worry about.

The night when I slept out for the turtle dove survey, I found other people camping close to where I’d planned to stop. They were involved in setting up a big triathlon event that coming weekend and were having a completely blameless evening, with a couple of vans, a tipi and a campfire and some music, which they considerately turned off by half past ten. 

But, you know when you meet a fox or badger and they stop and stare at you, and the look is not so much fear as outrage that you are there, in their place? That was what the presence of those other people, in a place I expected to have to myself was to me. I was the fox. So I skulked, like a fox. I took a diversion so that I kept a rise in the ground between them and me, and I passed them by, and walked through a wood and out the other side, much further than I had planned, until I felt clear of them. I surprised myself at how much I didn’t want them to know I was there. But afterwards I thought again about foxes and I realised there is something else in that laserlike stare. It’s total focus. All senses and full mental capacity applied to the job of evaluating the situation and deciding what to do. I value that insight into the alertness of other wild beings, because it’s not something we encounter very often in our mollycoddled lives. It’s similar to the focus I’ve felt whitewater kayaking in remote parts of the world, and to the time expansion that happens when you fall far enough to have time to think ‘this is going to hurt’, and to actually process what you need to do to protect yourself on landing. In such moments you are bracingly, nerve-cracklingly alive.

Going out alone shouldn’t feel like asking for trouble. But comments, even positive ones can make it feel just that. In particular there’s that word ‘brave’. You wouldn’t hear anyone call a man who chose to swim in a river or sleep out to get an early start on a survey brave. When you say it to a woman, it feels like code for ‘you shouldn’t be doing that, love’ It’s tantamount to suggesting a lone woman is either reckless or an accident waiting to happen.

I’d love to normalise the solo experience of nature. Obviously sleeping in hedges is not for everyone, and if the thought of waking up with a woodlouse up your nose or spider webs in your eyelashes isn’t for you, that’s fine of course. There’s plenty you can do by day. But at the same time, the comments about it being brave or warning me about risks which are both real and imagined, come from women as well as men. And each one puts a little ding in the self confidence that lets me go in the first place. So, if someone you care about is planning a bit of solo time, instead of alluding to those risks, perhaps you could ask if she has all the kit she needs, or what she’s most hoping to see. Or you could be the one who says ‘Call me any time if you feel you need to.’ Or the one that just says. ‘Great, enjoy it!’ Like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Because it is.

As folk who know me from Twitter may be aware I’ve been a bit of a pain in the ass for some institutions in recent years. One of them is Birdfair. Firstly, I absolutely love Birdfair – the wildlife Glastonbury – three days of immersion, inspiration, reflection and socialising. There’s nothing else remotely like it. I first attended in 2000, and I’ve not missed a year in the last seven.

But loving something shouldn’t make you blind to its shortcomings, and since that first visit, I noticed that the great majority of people on stage were, well, somewhat male. After a few years of this I heard other visitors mentioning it, questions being asked, and other people, sometimes quite influential ones, agreeing and saying things should change. And then the next year would come and it would be the same. It wasn’t just Birdfair. The nature sector as a whole seemed to be lagging the general trend in for visible female participation. Last year, in the year of hashtag feminism, the difference was especially acute and something in me snapped.

We were – we are – facing climate breakdown, an extinction crisis, terrifying rates of soil loss, and the hideous, insidious scourge of plastic pollution. These issues affect everyone. And yet in 2018, the movements highlighting them were still coming across as minority interests. I found myself sitting on a 15-strong judging panel for the magnificent Bird Photographer of the Year competition – me and fourteen blokes. I found myself looking at publicity for Birdfair’s headline Question Time panel which initially featured one white woman and five white men. And I realised why representation matters. I almost didn’t want to be there on that judging panel, or watching a debate in which my experience my opinion and my perspective were going to be weighed in an arena where my face didn’t fit.

The existential crises we face were first noticed people who love nature. Loving something makes you afraid of losing it. So watching wildlife, far from being just a hobby, is a route to understanding and inevitably, I think to some form of activism – whether that is swapping clingfilm for beeswax sandwich wraps and writing a polite letter to your MP, or  chaining yourself to a big pink boat in Oxford Circus or refusing to go to school on Fridays. This fight needs everyone, and yet it seemed to me that if you weren’t a white, able-bodied, middle-aged, middle-class, cis-male, you were unlikely to find your demographic represented by the faces selected to write about nature, to photograph it or film it, present it on TV, or discuss it in a public forum.

American novelist Rufi Thorpe wrote a great essay titled Mother, writer, monster maid, in which she said: ‘There is nothing more subversive for a woman to do than believe she deserves to get what she wants and to recognize in herself the willingness to fight to get it.’ I guess I discovered a willingness to fight, in my own way. My fight is for nature. For my right to access it, for the representation we need to ensure that nature’s army recruits all the voices it needs.

When Chris Packham called to ask if I’d contribute to the People’s Manifesto for Wildlife I said yes immediately. And almost immediately after that, I began to worry that I wasn’t up to the job. I felt confident enough speaking for myself, but what on Earth gave me the right to speak for anybody else? I’m very aware of my own privilege in being white, middle class, able bodied and educated. I’m not part of some beleaguered minority. But I have felt disenfranchised and I have experienced discrimination, sometimes without realising it, until I looked back on choices that I might have made differently, or sooner, if that discrimination hadn’t existed. It was a bit of a shock. I realised that part of the reason I usually describe myself as a ‘biologist’ rather than a ‘naturalist’ was because most of naturalists I’d heard of were men. The other reason was that I felt I hadn’t spent anything like enough time honing my field skills to earn the title. But that inadequacy in the face of nature’s wonder is surely something every naturalist feels. If you don’t feel it, you’re probably not as good as you think. I’m grateful that I had the kind of parents and lived in the kinds of places that meant I was able to roam fairly freely as a child and that I’m sure was formative, but I’m also certain I would have had still more of that freedom if I’d been born a boy and grown up as a man.

My part in the Manifesto was as Minister for Social inclusivity and Access to Nature, and my principle proposal was this: ‘That access to diverse nature be recognised as a human right’. Allied to the right to access nature is a right to fight for it and to express an opinion about it. And if the naturally diverse opinions of a society are to be considered, then representation matters.

We have to understand the barriers to access, and tackle them. In many cases, we can do that by simply role-modelling diversity. It might not always be easy, but it is that simple. I’ve been told, in all earnestness that ‘there aren’t enough women/young people/minority ethnic people with the attributes and following needed for this/that/the other high profile role’. There’s a dreadful circularity to that argument. There are so many talented, engaging, fascinating individuals out there, but if you don’t give them profile, how can they gain a following?

I’m hugely encouraged to see how things have changed in a year. Thank god for the young climate strikers, thank god for XR – those new raised voices are already making a difference. Credit to Birdfair and BirdPOTY for improvements made since last year. They have further to go, and I’m looking forward the year where I can move on to complaining about something else.

It know it takes effort and energy to organise big public events. And balancing the gender profile takes more of both. It might also take money. Just asking women to attend or participate isn’t enough. Lots decline, perhaps more women decline than men because they are often juggling greater share of other responsibilities. They are also often on lower incomes, which makes attending events that don’t offer a fee or expenses more difficult, even if they want to. We almost certainly also need to broaden subject matter to represent different perspectives and areas of expertise, and to value expertise enough to pay for, it or to tackle logistical barriers such as childcare, especially for events in the school holidays. If you’re the primary childcarer it can be difficult to accept invitations in August, even if you want to. But in the case of Birdfair there is now the fantastic WildZone, in which it would surely be a relatively small step to include a forest school style creche or child care service where speakers and visitors could leave their children for an hour or two of grown up time.

Meanwhile, commitment has to come from women presenters too. Nature needs your voice. I would say to any woman  – if you’re invited, please, say yes. Ignore that nagging voice that suggests you might mess it up, or that you might be a token. Everyone messes up. And tokenism is a start. By saying yes, you will make it easier for the next person to do so.

I’m going to finish with someone else’s words. Virginia Woolf imagined what would have happened if Shakespeare had been female – what would have been lost? She also imagined a genius yet to be born and understood that this woman’s ability to change the world for the better would depend entirely on the kind of world in which she would have to live. Maybe that genius has been born already. Maybe she hasn’t. But, said Woolf, “She will come if we work for her.” So, I will do that. I’ll work for that Wild Woman… for all those wild women. We need them.