Category Archives: Social Media

See through the SMOG

Something kind of awesome happened last week – My friend showed me this clipping from the Isle of Wight County Press about Nathusius’ pipistrelles on the island. ‘What’s so spectacular about that?’, you might ask… If you read the article, you’ll get to the last paragraph and see a species list – including scientific names! (For a quick guide to scientific names and how they work, check out my 2013 blog post Spectacular Vernacular.)

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For a general circulation newspaper, this is pretty much unheard of, as most newspapers pitch their reading level pretty low. I immediately tweeted my kudos to them (omitting the fact that the binomials should have been in italics, as I didn’t want to be too picky! – Points for trying!). I’m not sure if they were super keen, or they generally pitch their text at a higher level than average, or perhaps they were needing to fill that extra inch of column – who knows!

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This was then going to spark one of my ranting blog posts about the dumbing down of science (and, let’s face it – I would have ended up ranting about Neil Degrasse Tyson again).  However, a bit of research googling and I was soon down the rabbit hole in a world of quantification of reading levels, journalism practices and more:

First of all, just because you can read at a certain level, and you enjoy reading, you don’t necessarily want to recreationally read at the level of which you are capable. This may explain the huge trend in the popularity of teen / young adult fiction read by adults: Hunger Games / Twilight / Harry Potter anyone?

(Should point out here that when I left the pub to join the queue for the midnight opening of Waterstones for the Half Blood Prince, surrounded by 10-year-olds in costume, I made sure to request the adult cover, because I’m like, totally grown up and stuff…)

The Impact-Information website says:

“People like to read recreationally two grades below their actual reading skill.”

While wikipedia postulates that:

“The average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade* level which is also consistent with recommendations, guidelines, and norms of readability for medication directions, product information, and popular fiction.”

*ages 11-13

Google have been doing some interesting reading age level comparisons which sum up some popular uk newspapers and their average reading pitch. The Media First website corroborates this, listing The Sun’s reading age level as between 7 and 9.

But to really quantify the reading level of any piece of text, be it an online article, an essay, or even the book you’re writing, you can use a SMOG Index calculator (I’m not even kidding – it stands for Simplified Measure Of Gobbledygook). This genius bit of formula takes the complexity of your text and quantifies it, giving it a score which equates to reading levels!

Fancy SMOG Indexing some of your own (or someone else’s) writing? Try this tool here! You simply paste a section of text into the box and click ‘calculate’.

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A SMOG score of 9-10 is equivalent to Entry Level 3 (age 9 to 11); a SMOG of 11-12 is Level 1 (GCSE grades of D-G) and 14-15 is Level 2 (GCSE grades A-C).

For example, the blog post I referred to in the first paragraph – Spectacular Vernacular has a smog score of 16.6 – meaning that it is pitched at around A-Level reading level. I’m pretty happy with that. I try to pitch my blogs at a minimum of teenage reading level, without too much jargon (unless the whole point is explaining the jargon!).

I was always taught that in scientific or academic writing, you should assume two things:

  • Your audience is intelligent
  • Your audience knows nothing about the subject

So you give them the credit of intelligence, and assume that they will understand once you have explained it, but you take nothing for granted and make no assumptions about prior knowledge. I’ll certainly be using the SMOG tool for future writing (fiction and non-fiction), and would love to know what you think about writing, reading and communicating science to the public.

SMOG index: 17.3     😉

And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.

Someone asked me this week if I miss my old job. In the 6 months since I left my post as Senior Countryside Officer I can honestly say: Not one bit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m immensely grateful for the 6 years I spent working for Walsall Council. I had an amazingly supportive boss and incredible colleagues, and I was basically allowed to do what I wanted with the job. Each person in the role approached it differently, and for me, that meant science events, stargazing, bushcraft, basketry, peregrines, amphibians, bats, urban ecology and lots and lots of social media.

I spent almost the entire 6 years there at risk of redundancy; justifying my own existence; quantifying my worth, and watching my colleagues do the same, but in spite of that I loved the job. I really loved the job.

I think I was pretty good at it. I certainly had fun, made friends, grew as a person. I don’t know what really changed, but by about a year ago, I knew that it was time to leave. Of course I can list the logical reasons why I couldn’t stay: job insecurity, I had hit the ceiling as far as job progression (unless I wanted chaining to a desk), lack of personal and professional development… but it wasn’t that. I just knew something had to give.

I’m not entirely sure what the catalyst was, but somehow the last 6 months have meant a complete change in life for me, of my own choosing: I changed jobs, moved house, ended a 15-year relationship and have basically voluntarily upended my life. (Of course the little voice in my ear whispering the words midlife crisis is there, but I’ve always been the type of person who can cut their losses and start again, so I genuinely don’t think that’s what’s going on.)

As Ray Bradbury put it: I pack up my dinosaurs and leave.

So I’m wondering why I’m not scared. I’m wondering why I’m not sad. And here’s the rub: I think that, finally, I am comfortable in my own skin. No small feat for the girl who, 25 years ago, was a risk-taking, self-harming runaway, hitch-hiking across the USA.

You often hear it said: What advice would you give to your younger self? – What would I say to that headstrong and reckless 16-year old? The temptation to start talking about being true to yourself, to cultivate good friendships and prioritise your family, etc is a strong one, but you know what?  I know from experience she’ll get there in the end.

So what would I say to her? Not a fucking thing. I’d listen to her, because she was brave and she was passionate, and these days I could learn a trick or two from her. As put so well by Tolkien’s Galadriel: …some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.

So, you know what? I don’t miss my old job. I don’t miss my old life. And I don’t have any regrets. I’m prioritising. I’m attempting to live life unapologetically. I’m bringing back the things that used to mean so much to me that I’d set aside, and learning to let go of everything else.

Guess I’ll let you know how that all goes…

Gorillas in the List

So I’m a lister. A list maker. I have been known to start a ‘to do’ list with the first item as: “Make ‘to do’ List” (check!). I don’t suffer from OCD – at least I don’t think I do; and I’m no more riddled with anxiety than any of my friends (unless I just collect lovably unstable people – which, thinking about it might be the case, and as such might not be the strongest case for my sanity!). List making just makes me feel slightly more in control. I’m fairly unapologetic about it, as it is a harmless coping mechanism for my very busy life. My lists include groceries, books for which I’m waiting to be on sale on amazon kindle (I have a £3 rule!), and wildlife.

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One of our Girl Bird Nerds’ many trip lists!

You’ve probably heard of ‘bird lists’ – especially if there’s a twitcher – or even ‘just’ a birder – in your life. A birder tends to have at least two ‘lists’: the Life List and the Year List. (This type of list making can end up developing into an expensive habit as it can involve a lot of spontaneous travel to see birds (twitching) and buying expensive kit like scopes and binoculars.)

A ‘Life List‘ is a list of all the birds you’ve seen in your life. Some people regard this as your home country only – some include all birds seen anywhere. I am in the former camp – to me a Life List is all birds I’ve seen in the UK in my life, and I have a separate USA Life List).  So my (UK) Life List is only around 175 (there is a ‘400 club’!) – that’s out of a (current) 574 species.

I’ve also been keeping a Year List – a list of all the species of bird that I’ve seen in the UK in 2016. I don’t do this every year, and I only started a month ago, and have now seen all the common ‘garden birds’ plus a few more awesome ones like Goldcrest, Red Kite, Peregrine, Skylark and Stonechat. (I’ll, of course, keep you posted on instagram and twitter!) If you’d like to see a great portrayal of an extreme Year List, check out The Big Year (it’s on Amazon Prime – and is also a book). [p.s. I’m at 59 species so far!]

Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black in The Big Year

Honorable mention here should go to the ‘Trip List‘ – when you go on holiday and you make a list of all the birds you see. My friends and I have a birding club called the Girl Bird Nerds, and we have an annual Girl Bird Nerd’s Birding Trip. We’ve so far been to Norfolk (twice), Dungeness, Nefyn, and Dorset. This year we’re off to Cornwall. We have a very serious set of rules:

  1. Birds ‘count’ from the time you leave home until the time you arrive back home;
  2. Birds have to be Alive, Wild and Native or Naturalised
  3. At least two members must see the same bird and agree on it’s identification; hearing the song only counts if it is absolutely diagnostic of that species (cuckoo, etc);  and
  4. The most recent member is ‘The Minion‘ and has to do the washing up…
Some of the Girl Bird Nerds
Some of the Girl Bird Nerds

Anyway, I digress… What I actually want to tell you about is the phenomenon of extreme listing. I’ve had a go at the first and seriously considering the last…

Patch Listing

Patch Listing is the recording of all the species of all the taxonomic groups in a given area in a year – usually your local nature reserve. I’ve been keen to do this within a 1km square – and was thinking about using my NARRS square (the National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme – where you adopt a 1km square to survey each year). Patch listing is almost always done competitively with other patch listers.

Pan-Species Listing

Okay this is epic. Check out http://www.brc.ac.uk/psl/ for the details, but the long and short is this – EVERY species of EVERY taxonomic group you’re seen IN THE UK (insert your own country here) EVER. Plants, birds, mammals, bees, slugs, springtails, you name it… I’m so tempted to do this, but part of me doesn’t like playing games unless I can win (shocker) and I know I could never get in the field time to do it – there are some people up to 12,000 species!!

Do you think you could do any of these? Do you do them already? I’d love to hear about your experiences, especially if you’ve done Patch or Pan listing!  Let me know!

The End of an Era

Okay, that’s a bit on the narcissistic side, but it really is a huge thing for me – after nearly six years at Walsall Council working as Senior Countryside Ranger, I’m moving on to pastures new. It is very difficult to take the decision to leave a job that you love, but I had my reasons, not least that I need to push myself.

Yesterday I cleared out my desk. I had envisioned leaving my job to be like one of those films where people walk out holding a cardboard box with a picture frame and a couple of books – what it was actually like was roughly 6 trips to the car, loaded down with hessian bags-for-life full of field guides, tupperware, entomological display cases, microscope and more. I was well and truly embedded in my work. Part of my ‘exit interview’ was asking me if I had achieved work-life balance, and I had to say ‘no’. The problem with doing something that you love for a living is that it’s very hard to leave at the door. In fact, the job has been very hard to leave at all.

I spent a good couple of weeks talking myself into it. Budget cuts and staff redundancies had made the job increasingly stressful in the last couple of years, and there is no end in sight to those pressures. I’m very lucky – I have a lot of those “I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this!” days, for which I’m extremely grateful, and I think that gratitude is crucial in life. So, as a swan song to Walsall Countryside Services, and in the grand tradition of Nick Hornby a-la High Fidelity, I thought I’d to a ‘Top 5’ of those:

My Top 5 ‘Pinch-yourself’ moments from the last 6 years are:

#5: Total Solar Eclipse on Barr Beacon – I’ve loved all of the astronomy events that have happened on Barr Beacon, and I’m really proud that we achieved Dark Sky Discovery status. 5 years of eclipse-watching, MeteorWatch, Stargazing Live, the Transit of Venus, solar observations, ISS-passes and more really culminated for me at the Solar Eclipse, in which over 600 people gathered on Barr Beacon for the event. The atmosphere was tangible and it was a real privilege to share the day with so many other people.

#4: Botanical Surveys – Mostly because it has been a baptism of fire. To me, for most of my ecological career, plants have been simply Things That Bees Sit On. The last two years of summer botanical surveys have taught me loads, and I have a new appreciation for an entirely different taxonomic area of interest.

#3: Bat Box Scheme – The one thing that I feel has only just begun, as I will continue to supervise the bat box scheme in Walsall (but with my bat group hat on instead of my ranger hat). We’ve made some real progress with recording the bats of the borough, and we have two new bat box areas to add to the scheme!

#2: Ringing Peregrine Chicks – Really, not many people get to do this, do they? I know what a lucky cow I am – and I’m not rubbing it in, but just being there to see our baby peregrines, and to hold their hot little fluffy bodies, and then to see all four chicks fledge the nest had been a long time coming, and after 5 years of Peregrine Watch, it really was a moment I’ll treasure.

#1: Walsall Amphibian Survey – this really has to be my number one, not only because it was my first big survey for Walsall Council, but also because I met so many wonderful people through recruiting volunteers for this survey, which took place way back in 2011. Not only did we get to record amphibians (including Great Crested Newts) across the borough, but it was the starting point for the Black Country and Staffordshire Naturalists, whom I still spend almost all of my spare time with! It’s brilliant to have started something worth while and to see it grow and blossom. I can’t wait to see what the future holds. (p.s. because NEWTS!)

So, it’s been a really tough decision to leave, but I’m so very excited about the next step in my career/life/etc. I’d like to say a huge thanks to all of my colleagues over the years including the twitterables: @DanSlee, @Corporal_Kleg, @AbesOddWorld and in particular to my boss @CountrysideKev for being just so awesome.

Deep breath…. here I go!

So do you like, really BELIEVE in dinosaurs?

I used to do temping work between contracts, and one of those temporary jobs was working for a local university doing data entry. The work was dull, but the office environment was fantastic, and was full of people that I really liked, and we had a grand time. One day, the girl (we’ll call her Jane) who sat next to me was listening to me talking about dinosaurs. She stared at me, incredulous, and said something that blew my mind. The conversation went something like this:

Jane: “So do you, like, really BELIEVE in dinosaurs then?”

Me: “Um, Jane, that’s kind of like asking me if I believe in cows.”

Jane: “Oh. I thought they were like dragons.”

Now, Jane was not a fundamentalist with religious motivations. She was simply uneducated about something that I thought was (or at least should be) common knowledge. And this isn’t the only time I’ve encountered this level of ignorance in real life.

I was once giving a bat talk and walk to a group of some 20 people, and as usual I began by talking about the extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period giving rise to the Cenozoic – the age of mammals. I went on to explain the current thinking that bats had evolved from a tree-dwelling shrew-like creature, before developing flight. Later on, during the walk, one of the adult men (whom I knew to be a Jehovah’s Witness – make of that what you will) confronted me:

“You don’t really think bats evolved from voles do you?”

I reiterated what I had previously said about shrew-like creatures, and proceded to elaborate about early bats in the fossil record showing vestigial claws at their finger tips, a ‘missing link’ between bats and their early ancestors.

“There ARE no missing link fossils” he said.

“Archaeopteryx?” I said

“It’s a hoax.” He said.

“Um.. there are eleven of them.”

“They’re all hoaxes.”

“Okay, well I’m not paid to debate theology with you. I’m here to teach science, and if you don’t agree with me teaching science, then you shouldn’t come to a science event.” I replied.

Anyway, he proceeded to accost the other attendees of the event, pretended to be a ‘monkey’ to ‘prove’ that humans didn’t evolve from monkeys, all the usual claptrap, and generally ruined the evening for everyone. In his case, this person wasn’t someone who had never been taught the truth, like Jane. This man was aware, even, of what archaeopteryx was, but had rejected it due to religious doctrine.

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[You see,  I’ve always been crazy into dinosaurs. You can see above the remnants of my dinosaur paraphernalia. (I have whittled it down somewhat as I’m a grown-up now.) Dinosaurs were my first love. The photo at the top of the page is me in around 1997 on my first ever trip to the Natural History Museum, at which I was pretty much giddy.]

Just when I thought that I’d seen it all, the wonder of facebook made me aware of someone today whose ignorance beggars belief, and I’ve been seething with irritation all afternoon. (And you know me, irritation = blog post!) This little gem is Kristen Auclair of – wait for it – Christians Against Dinosaurs, a ‘grass roots movement with 12,000 members’. Now, I’m going to embed this video, but I’m not promising you’ll get through it.

Among this outspoken young woman’s claims (see her other video here) are that ‘science has only been around for maybe 10-15 years’ and that ‘a complete dinosaur has never been found’, and that ‘the parts they have are just fossils that have been put together in a way that looks like dinosaurs’. This is all, apparently, because of the ‘corruption and greed in the [billion dollar] palaeontology field. It’s not just the ignorance, but the smug self-satisfied attitude that grates on me. This girl is perpetuating a stereotype, and giving Christians a bad name.

She, like many people who seek to ‘debunk’ evolution, seem to be perfectly fine with science when it brings them electricity, medicine, broadband, cars, re-runs of ‘Friends’ and hair gel, but they reject the specific types of science that they don’t find personally beneficial. This type of cherry-picking gets my goat. The same scientific principles that cured polio are the foundation of evolutionary biology and palaeontology.

I’m not out to offend anyone. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter if I “Believe in dinosaurs” or not. They were (are) real. Fact. It blows my mind that people who are otherwise extremely intelligent can deny the overwhelming weight of evidence supporting the theory of evolution. (And yes, it is a theory – like everything else in science. That’s how science works: we find out more accurate information or make new discoveries and we continually build on our knowledge, peer-reviewing our findings and changing our textbooks to show our growth. That is how we come closer to truth with every new paper, study or discovery. Science is self-correcting.)

And, for the record, I’m not saying that evolution is proof of the absence of god(s). This post isn’t about that. Science tells us, by the way, that we can’t prove absence of something – we can only say if evidence supports or doesn’t support a hypothesis. I know plenty of people for whom Faith and Darwinism aren’t mutually exclusive. (They are for me, but that is not the issue.)

Anyway, I found something that calmed me down from my frenzy of irritation: Slowly, patiently and methodically, piece-by-piece, this wonderful soul talks to Kristen over the course of an hour, trying his best to educate and inform. This man has more patience than I will ever have. Ultimately, she remains firm in her misguided beliefs, but that’s the problem with dogma – you can’t use facts to talk people down from the ledge.

I’ll leave you with this thought though – next time you’re surrounded by people who are not from your tribe – take a leaf out of Bradbury’s book: Pack up your dinosaurs and leave.

uncle-ray-bradbury

 

Big Patronising Anthropomorphic Cats

Okay this is the second time I’ve had a rant about the poor quality of natural history film-making. (Let’s be specific about it – I’m actually talking about presenters and script writers, as camera operators and editors seem to get better and better!) I had a similar rant earlier this year after watching Nat Geo Wild’s “Lioness in Exile” (please click through to read it in a new window – you’ll have a better picture of the extent of my irritation). I’m not sure if it’s something about cats that brings out the worst in TV presenters, or that there is some sort of perceived need to patronise and anthropomorphise anything fluffy with big eyes, but this is just getting worse. Somebody help me! I can’t stop yelling at the TV…

Sky TV’s ‘Big Cats: An Amazing Animal Family’ is presented by Patrick Aryee, from the BBC stable of natural history presenters. His website states in his profile:

“A naturally lighthearted approach coupled with the ability to be authoritative and engaging, provides him with a distinct ability crossover between children’s and primetime factual programming.”

So I get it – he isn’t preaching to the choir – that’s not his bag. Patrick is communicating to the uninitiated – he’s recruiting for “Team Wildlife”, which is great. Pitching to adults and children at the same time and holding the attention of both is no mean feat. But presenting for the general public and being knowledgeable in your field aren’t mutually exclusive things (Steve Irwin, Jeff Corwyn, etc., are examples of those who have done this expertly), and I DO think that Patrick is a technically good presenter, but the script on this show really spoils it for me, in spite of the flawless videography and editing. The show was ruined within the first five minutes with one sentence:

“Different felines evolved SUPERPOWERS to thrive in each of the planet’s wildest landscapes.”

Superpowers. Really. Why is it deemed necessary to state that the cat family have ‘superpowers’? You can achieve awe and drama without the B.S. (Because big cats are intrinsically awesome – they sell themselves!) You can say they have incredible hearing, powerful weaponry, amazing agility, and even say that they are beguiling, mysterious – all of these things are true and help to convey that sense of drama and awe without resorting to likening them to bloody power rangers!

You’ve already read  my opinion on what I call APE TV and coffee table conservation programming, but there was a scene in Big Cats that particularly caught my eye as being poor conservation. If you watch it, you’ll know exactly which bit I’m talking about (I hope).

South African ‘big cat conservationist’ Kevin Richardson (AKA ‘The Lion Whisperer’ – I kid you not) basically hangs out with lions. He has integrated himself into a pride of lions in a conservation area (Richardson’s ranch), and he has essentially become part of the pride. Now, in a sense, this is valuable behaviour work akin to experimental archaeology, as he seems to genuinely have garnered an insight into the social dynamics of lions which may otherwise not have been achieved. But it’s not, in my opinion, conservation.

However, Casey Anderson (One of my favourite wildlife presenters) hand-raised a grizzly bear that could not be released into the wild. So somehow I think this is fine, but what Kevin Richardson is doing is wrong. Take a look – I’d love to know what you think:

I think that, in the end, it comes down to my instinct about their motivations. I think that Anderson is respectful, humble and a true conservationist, and I just think Richardson is dangerously arrogant. (Interestingly, you could insert Ray Mears for Anderson and Bear Grylls for Richardson in this scenario for exactly the same reasons. I love Ray, and think that Bear is a narcissistic maniac.)

So, I’ve been up in arms about this for a few days, but ironically something else has fallen into my lap this Christmas season and melted my cold, Grinchy heart. (A little.) I found a TED talk by Casey Anderson, where he mentions the dangers of anthropomorphisation, with a twist:

So what do you think? I found this very thought-provoking. How do we know when we are projecting human feelings and emotions onto a wild animal? If we approach conservation vulcan-style with only logic and no emotion, there are certainly drawbacks (lack of empathy, poor uptake when campaigning for financial and political aid for projects, lower profile of conservation concerns). I’m not immune to the persistent tug of a charismatic animal (I’ve fallen in love with a few bats that I’ve had in care over the years – and yes, their personalities DO vary considerably!).

Where is the place for emotion and empathy in conservation? I think it’s a blurry line, and would love to know what you think…

 

 

 

 

Tasting the Wild in 2015

My year in review. (In photos!) I’ve had another amazing year – looking back, I’m not entirely sure how I’ve fit it all in!

Wild Encounters

From Chasing Violet Carpenter Bees in Andalucia, hunting for Eyed Ladybirds on Barr Beacon and moth trapping on heathlands around Walsall to mist netting for bats in woodlands, ringing birds (including our Peregrines which fledged four chicks!) and monitoring our amazing badgers, I’ve had another amazing year of wild encounters.

Wild in the Woods

I’ve also done lots of playing in the woods this year, and have concentrated on working on my fire craft skills (from just practicing lighting fires to experimenting with different tinders and kindlings). I’ve made a willow crayfish trap and learned some new basketry techniques, honed my corn dolly skills and bashed the heck out of some plants to make hapa zome flags. Culinary foraging has been limited to hedgerow berries and birch sap tapping this year, but I’m still reaping the benefits of my hedgerow vodka!

Travel

Kind of spent a ridiculous amount of my pocket money on travel this year, with a trip to Andalusia in March, followed by Edinburgh in May, the 5th annual Girls’ Birdwatching Trip (Norfolk), camping in the Derbyshire Dales and hiking from Ft William to Inverness. And I wonder why I have no money now that December is here! Highlights were definitely the seals at Blakeney Point and my first ever glimpse of the Aurora Borealis whilst camped on Loch Ness – amazing! (You can read the blog and see the videos of the hike across scotland here.) I’m planning on Florida, Cornwall and lots more camping in 2016!

Bats

Oh, the bats this year! I’ve been involved for a few years with the Herefordshire Mammal Group, doing mist netting and harp trapping surveys, and this year their project organisers helped BrumBats to undertake some woodland surveys of our own. With help from the Shropshire Bat Group, we surveyed Cuckoos Nook & the Dingle, Merrions Wood and Sutton Park. At BrumBats HQ we are very excited to get stuck into another season of study!  We also had a crazily busy year of bat care, and with this mild weather, are anticipating some winter grounded bats and (most likely) a very busy (and early) bat maternity season in 2016!

Space

The sun and the moon had amazing things in store this year – a total lunar eclipse, and a near-total solar eclipse. Both events had (uncharacteristically) clear skies. Over 600 people turned out on Barr Beacon for the solar eclipse. Amazing that so many people value natural phenomenon enough to come out and experience them together. The atmosphere was just incredible! I’m hoping to be in the USA for the total solar eclipse in August 2017.

Botanising

I had a fantastic summer, spending most of it undertaking botanical surveys of grasslands. I think we’re going to get a few new nature reserves out of it, and certainly some relaxed mowing regimes.

Becoming an Auntie again…

In January I became an auntie again – this time to a little girl – the enchanting Eleanor Hughes, whom I’ve got to spend time with twice this year (which is pretty good going seeing as she lives 3,500 miles away!). Can’t wait to see you in March, Elley!

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I hope that everyone has had a merry Christmas full of comfort and Joy, and I’m sending you wish-grenades for a prosperous, healthy and bright new year!

Thanks, as always, for reading. If there’s anything you’d like to see me cover in 2016, please let me know!

Morgan x

An accidental post about christmas and feminism

Make a cup of tea, this may be a long one.

*I should qualify this post by stating something that may alienate most of the feminists in the room: I love men. Most of the men in my life have been (and are) emotionally intelligent, progressive, thoughtful, supportive and respectful to women. 21st century Renaissance Men, unashamed polymaths who cook, clean, read, travel, play music, view women as – well, as other humans (novel, eh?).  I was raised by my Dad, who believed (and still does) that I could do anything. Be anything, He never pushed me into a mould. I have three large beardy brothers who treat their partners like queens and equals, and have always simultaneously defended me and refused to take any shit from me. I grew up in what I suppose you could call a benign patriarchy. I didn’t grow up damaged by how men viewed or treated me. It is true that I had no good female role model growing up (the less said about that the better) and so struggled with my ‘femininity’ in the sense that hair, clothes, makeup, all that stuff – was very alien and I felt for decades like an impostor in the world of girls. So it’s small wonder that now, at the age of 40, I am still on the fence about whether or not I should be a feminist. Do I really have to?

Family gatherings in our house are via Skype - my two brothers (above) and me & my hubby below.
Family gatherings in our house are via Skype – my two brothers (above) and me & my hubby below.

This all started at 8am this morning on twitter, when my friend posted a link to a blog post about unpaid ‘Emotional Labour’. The cliff notes are: “Women tend to be the ones in relationships who do the birthday shopping, arrange family get-togethers, all that jazz. This creates an emotional burden on them – why should women do this alone, with no help from men?… etc.”

True that women do this stuff more often. But rather that jumping on the feminist bandwagon, I wonder, really, just why that is the case…

Whilst admitting that certain gender stereotypes are genuine and not just perceived, I find it hard to believe that men prioritise these things as highly as women do but simply want women to do it because they’re either lazy or because they don’t see why they should. I seriously doubt that men are telepathically organising things in some sort of conspiracy to make us buy and write all the birthday cards. So if there is no conspiracy, then why do we women adopt this burden if it is perceived by so many of us as an unfair one? In my mind, it has to be for one of two reasons:

  1. They are doing it in spite of not wanting to. They are buckling to self-imposed social pressure, largely put upon them by other women. The same reason they need the latest fashion, gadget, car, whatever. They are conforming to a media-induced state in which they are oblivious to the fact that they are both the producers and end users of the same concept of ‘normal’ life/womanhood. In a self-perpetuating cycle of supply and demand, they choose a life of constraints, of insatiable feelings of inadequacy, and of guilt. This is the 21st century, and in our western society, we really are pretty much free to be who and what we want, and women who are stuck conforming to what their husbands think they should be doing/wearing/cooking have it in their own power to vote with their feet. It’s not always been this way, and it’s not this way everywhere, but it is here. It is now.
  2. They are doing it because they want to. I certainly fall into this category. I don’t feel ’emotionally burdened’ by remembering birthdays and buying presents. It gives me pleasure. I like remembering the birthdays of my friends and family. It bonds us. I like it when they remember my birthday, too. Because I value it, I help to perpetuate the practice in my tribe, in my community, even in my digital community. The things that leave a bad taste in my mouth – I don’t take part in. For example, I very rarely buy or send christmas cards. Because it’s bullshit. It’s wasteful (resources, money, air/road miles) and also it affronts my inner rebel – I will buy you cards all damn year if I see ‘no reason’ cards that remind me of you – but I’m not buying cards because it is what I ‘should’ do in order to be ‘normal’. My closest friends and I exchange gifts at christmas and birthdays, but this makes me happy. I value that particular tradition. That is a personal choice. I think if I never bought a gift for a friend ever again, they would feel no less loved, no less admired by me. I certainly hope so anyway. I suppose growing up with very little money, as we did, love and esteem was shown in words, deeds and time spent with each other. Isn’t that the way it should be?

My husband does not really value social gift-giving. He’s far more introverted than I am (not shy, just less of a social creature) and as such he doesn’t value social bonding, interaction and the rituals that enhance those interactions as much as I do. And that is his prerogative. He is a grounding force in my life – a touchstone in an insane world. I value his sensibility, his humour and his rationality, which balances out my tendencies toward neuroticism and rebellion. He’s kind of awesome. But he doesn’t remember people’s birthdays (except mine – I’ve beaten that into him!), buy presents and cards, etc because that stuff just isn’t in his landscape. Deal breaker? Hardly.

Admittedly, the pressure is perhaps a bit less for the two of us than it may be for most people to socialise, fraternise and interact in a socially acceptable way, as neither of us have family close by. So, I admit that perhaps I don’t have direct experience of how huge the pressure can be to do all of these ’emotional burden’ tasks. Am I over-simplifying to just say ‘don’t do them unless it makes you happy’? Is it really that hard? I’d genuinely like to know what people think – do you, like me, just opt out of the traditions that people expect of you if you don’t like to? Am I being naive?

I once told my therapist how I had spent a long time knitting a scarf for my mother, and within a week she had given it away to her sister, and my feelings had been deeply hurt. His reply was that I should ‘do it with love or don’t do it at all’ – meaning that if I was giving a gift and expecting gratitude, I shouldn’t be giving it.

To give without risking emotional injury, a gift needs to be given freely with none of your OWN emotional attachments. Of course it makes me happy to see people enjoying something I have given or made, but those are perks. The purpose of giving is because it makes you happy to do it. Additionally, when you truly give something to someone, it is now theirs to do with what they will. And thinking about it rationally, whatever her reasons for giving away the scarf were (perhaps her sister needed it more, perhaps she felt she was ingratiating herself to her sister, or perhaps she just didn’t like or need it and was passing it on) – it was hers to give away because I gave it to her. Would I prefer that she kept it hanging around, causing her guilt or stress if she didn’t like it? Absolutely not. I let go of the scarf and learned my lesson. And it feels great.

So if you give something – be it a card, a present, or your time, if you do it for the right reasons, you’ve nothing to fear from feminists who think you’re conforming, selling out, or whatever. The sweeping conclusion that every woman buying cards and presents is conforming to masculine, patriarchal, outdated ideals puts just as much pressure on women!

I was a vegetarian for 15 years because I felt that I should be, as a conservationist/environmentalist. I compromised my lifestyle be cause of well-meaning, yet overwhelming pressure from my peer group. And likewise, I feel under extreme pressure to call myself a feminist. If I enjoy my freedom to work, be educated, vote, live, travel, express myself freely, choose not to have children, love freely and think freely, shouldn’t I be a feminist? If I don’t call myself a feminist, am I sending the message that I’m ungrateful for sacrifices of women who fought hard for the recognition of my equality? I hope not. But I’m just not ready to put on the t-shirt.

Ism ism ism. What would John Lennon say?

39 Rules for the Modern Human

Okay so in extreme irritation at Country Living’s recent (easily as recent as 1815) ‘39 Rules for Being a Modern Gentleman‘ (eg: ‘Avoids lilac socks and polishes his shoes’ or the flippin amazing ‘Tips staff in a private house and a gamekeeper’) and the Daily Mail’s awful response: ’39 Rules for Being a Lady’ (eg: #38: ‘Takes off her stilettos on other people’s parquet floors‘. yeah I like, totally identify with that. Right on, Libby – you’ve definitely got your finger on the pulse of the modern woman.) I felt that the only proper response was to come up with my own list.

So here you go.  Nigh on 41 years of wisdom, largely accumulated from making loads of stupid mistakes, engaging in fruitless efforts and time wasting.

    1. Surround yourself with your own tribe. (Whatever their race, creed or background – YOUR people).
    2. Do awesome things.
    3. Be excellent to each other.Bill-and-Ted-31
    4. Don’t sweat the small stuff (and EVERYTHING is small stuff).
    5. Spend your time as if it was a finite resource (It is!)
    6. Look at the world as if you’ve just come out of a tunnel.
    7. Notice the seasons.
    8. Turn towards. *The secret to long-lasting relationships!
    9. Read. *However, life is too short to finish a terrible book.
    10. Look up.
    11. Walk the Walk (Don’t just Talk the Talk)emerson
    12. Don’t hold on to hate/resentment – you are the only person you are hurting.
    13. Have adventures.
    14. Dance it out.
    15. Cook and eat actual food, that didn’t come in a box.
    16. Love hard, for as long as it lasts.
    17. Speak your words as hard as cannonballs. *RW Emerson
    18. Family and friends are the most important thing in life. bach
    19. Watch great movies, and great TV.
    20. Top-up. Wherever your energy comes from. The ocean, the woods, in the arms of your family – go there. Often.
    21. Live passionately.
    22. Live compassionately.
    23. Gung ho. (Work together)
    24. Buy decent shoes and look after your back.
    25. Forgive yourself.
    26. Share the sweets.
    27. Find your thing. (Or things – watch this awesome TED!.)
    28. It’s okay to get muddy.
    29. Cultivate a few skills for the apocalypse.
    30. Don’t feed the trolls.
    31. Push past your limits. Surprise yourself.
    32. Take responsibility for your health, your personal development and your happiness.
    33. Play. Whether it’s board games, xbox, volleyball – whatever. You should be having fun.
    34. Be nice to animals. We don’t have dominion over the Earth – we SHARE it with them.
    35. Try to see more sunrises and sunsets.
    36. Laugh more.
    37. Sleep well.
    38. Tell them you love them.
    39. Have good role models.

 

Twitter: Crafting the Buzz

I had a bit of a crisis of faith in social media a while back, and seriously backed off until I felt I could re-approach it on my own terms. And I’m still working on it. This all may seem a bit melodramatic, but I genuinely think that there is something of a sense of obligation (real or just perceived) that can come thickly spread on every social media platform. Do I follow everyone who follows me, even though it means my twitter feed a) is full of stuff that doesn’t interest me and b) goes by so fast that I miss all the stuff that does interest me??  Just because I want to be nice?

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I’ll tell you what I’ve figured out for sure: If you’re not getting out of it what you want, you shouldn’t do it. If it makes you feel bad, guilty or obligated, you should vote with your feet. If it takes more than it gives, it’s not for you.

There’s a reason they call it ‘spending time’, you know! Minutes are the only real currency we will ever have. I refuse to spend mine on something that makes me feel negative.

I know why I hang out with my mates – they’re nutters and I love them (see photos of us ‘being seals‘). That is also why I love social media. It’s fun. (Okay, informative, powerful, thought provoking, but mostly just FUN – and often pretty GENIUS.)

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I asked myself what I want to use twitter for, and what I want to get out of it – what do I love about it, and is there a way to cut out of my experience the things that I don’t like about it? One overwhelming thing that has improved my twitter experience is this: I don’t follow famous people.

Okay, there are about ten exceptions:

  • Richard Branson because he’s the most positive person on the internet
  • Stephen Fry because he is a national treasure
  • Richard Dawkins because he’s spectacularly sane
  • Caitlin Moran because she’s a badass bitch from Wolverhampton
  • Victoria Coren because she’s the smartest person on the internet
  • Brian May – because badgers (and space, and rock)
  • Casey Anderson because he’s a rare find in American wildlife film making – NOT a wanker
  • James Wong – token botanist
  • Dara O’ Briain – hilarious, clever
  • and Michael Moseley because he’s awesome (and adorable)

But with the exception of a handful, I find most famous people to be self-promoting and in-genuine, and I’d rather spend my time with real folks, living real lives, doing real jobs. By and large, if famous people post something awesome, it is usually retweeted by someone not famous that I follow, as I tend to follow people who share my interests. And that’s the POINT.

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If you post about foraging, sci-fi, knitting, photography, astronomy, bats, basketry, bees, beetles, Darwin, Whitman, Thoreau or dinosaurs, then you’re right up my alley – I’ll follow you any day. I’m also not afraid to un-follow people that post ignorant, racist, sexist or, well, just boring stuff. I don’t want to upset anybody, but I’m not about to either censor myself or ruin my own experience by exposing myself to stuff I don’t agree with. Neither do I argue with people on Twitter – it’s just not worth feeding the trolls.

Twitter is awesome, and I am crafting the buzz.  See you there?