Opinion

The Urban Field Naturalist Project: An Invitation

Photo by Robert Whiteley.

A new initiative co-led by researchers including SEI’s Thom van Dooren and Dieter Hochuli aims to kindle a sense of awe and wonder by learning to appreciate the natural world through story rather than data alone.

In eastern Sydney, New South Wales, Anne Brophy photographed and described the development of a tortoise-shelled ladybird from egg to larva, then pupa, then an adult ready to take flight. In Santa Cruz, California, Frankie Gerraty writes of the life of the female owl limpet, a remarkable gardener of algae found in coastal tidal rock pools. From within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the Ukraine, Jonathon Turnbull describes the slight modifications in a firebug’s patterning that are said to be evidence of the lingering impacts of radiation.

These are just a few of the observations and short narrative accounts that have found their way onto the website of The Urban Field Naturalist Project over the past month. We’ve encountered birds tussling over seed, a meditation on wombat poo, a wasp laying her eggs in a living spider, and much more.

This project seeks to create openings into other kinds of worlds by attending to the incredible interactions unfolding all around us, often entirely unnoticed. In this period in which so many people in Australia and around the world have been forced into social isolation by COVID-19, in which our worlds have been made substantially smaller in so many ways, this aim has become all the more relevant. To aid in this process, we’ve produced a guide to becoming an urban field naturalist in a few simple steps. At its core, it is about slowing down to take the time to observe and pay attention, recording and collecting information, and asking questions to cultivate a sense of curiosity about why and how other creatures are as they are and do as they do.

But it doesn’t stop with reflection. In addition, this project is about sharing these insights and experiences with others to contribute to a broader dialogue about the world around us. To this end, the website has become a hub for short stories of encounter and appreciation, like the ones mentioned above. In fact, you’re invited to contribute a story of your own.

The project also aims to provide people with resources to inform, inspire, and provoke their curiosity. On the website now, for example, you can find a short Guide to Crow Appreciation. Playfully adapting the ‘field guide’ genre, this little booklet aims to convey some of what is remarkable about these often-overlooked birds, to encourage people to re-think what they thought they knew, and to learn to see them in new ways.

Newly emerged adult or imago ladybird. Photo by Anne Brophy.

A range of other guides are currently in development. Some of them focus on plants and animals that tend to be ignored or even vilified, opening up new avenues for consideration. Others focus on particular methods—from photography to note taking—or simple experimental protocols that might enable the budding urban field naturalist to see or record something they might otherwise have missed.

For instance, if you spend some time watching flowers you will notice insects hovering with great skill around them, choosing which ones to visit. Despite the distinctive yellow and black bands on their abdomens that often has them mistaken for bees, these remarkable insects are a type of fly, a large and diverse group called the hoverflies. Flies are the unsung heroes of the pollination world, being responsible for as much pollination of native plants as bees are, if not more.  If you’re lucky enough to see them up close you will see one of the great secrets behind their aerial artistry, a small pair of gyroscopes known as halteres that are a modification of their second pair of wings. This modification is the characteristic that sets flies apart from the other insects and is the reason they are able to navigate airspace with great precision and accuracy.

Perhaps, next time you’re in a garden, with the aid of the soon to be released guide, you might for the very first time genuinely encounter a hover fly, a creature that you have likely crossed paths with on innumerable occasions before. In a word, the aim of cultivating this rich space of active encounter is appreciation. In contrast to the rapidly growing field of citizen science, which focuses primarily on community data collection and cataloguing, this is a project that places awe and wonder above data.

“The aim of cultivating this rich space of active encounter is appreciation. In contrast to the rapidly growing field of citizen science, which focuses primarily on community data collection and cataloguing, this is a project that places awe and wonder above data.”

As such, at this stage the research questions are largely speculative. They’re also thoroughly interdisciplinary, as might be expected for a team comprised of scholars from biology, the humanities, and design. We are considering, for example, whether the methods for immersive, appreciative, encounter that we’re exploring in this project might create new opportunities for connecting and relating to the environment. What difference might it make for communities living with noisy, destructive, and potentially dangerous animals like crows, kangaroos, ticks, or bees, to know a little more about these creatures and why they do what they do? Might knowing more lead to alternative strategies for co-existence?

An owl limpet. Photo by Frankie Gerraty.

In addition to these concrete, even if still speculative, research questions, this project is motivated by the effort to explore the contemporary relevance of the naturalist tradition. This tradition emphasises close observation and description of the natural world, often grounded in a sense of wonder and appreciation, and combines art, philosophy, and science in ways that are uncommon today. At the same time, however, the naturalist tradition was deeply implicated in projects of colonisation and extraction, in destructive collecting practices, in problematic modes of anthropomorphism, and more. What possibilities might a critical and careful reinvention of the naturalist tradition offer us today in the context of escalating environmental challenges?

Again, we don’t have answers yet. Nor do we think they will be simple or singular ones. Instead, we are working to open an inclusive, experimental, and creative space for encounter. Our hope in doing so is to learn with others, to share insights and approaches, and ultimately to contribute to the effort to find fuller ways to appreciate and live within this remarkably diverse world.

For more on the project, including stories and resources, visit The Urban Field Naturalist website.


Thom van Dooren is currently an Associate Professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow (2017-2021) in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies and the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney, and a Professor II in the Oslo School of Environmental Humanities at the University of Oslo, Norway.

Dieter Hochuli is a professor in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, The University of Sydney. He leads the Integrative Ecology group using multiscale approaches to examine the mechanisms driving the ecology of a range of species, especially in novel ecosystems.

John Martin is an applied ecologist conducting research and implementing management programs, based at the Institute for Science & Learning, Taronga Conservation Society Australia

Zoë Sadokierski is a Senior Lecturer in visual communication design, with a background in commercial book design. Her research investigates: book culture and publishing in the digital age; visual epistomology; climate change communication; diagrams as narrative devices. She is part of the Speculative Narratives and Networks Studio, School of Design, University of Technology Sydney.

Andrew Burrell is a practice-based researcher and educator exploring virtual and digitally mediated environments as a site for the construction, experience and exploration of memory as narrative. His ongoing research investigates the relationship between imagined and remembered narrative and how the multi-layered biological and technological encoding of human subjectivity may be portrayed within, and inform the design of, virtual and augmented environments. He is part of the Speculative Narratives and Networks Studio, School of Design, University of Technology Sydney


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