A little while ago, I asked the question ‘which is easier, wildlife or historical interpretation?’ That’s a difficult question. It made me think. Now I have an answer, but not the one I expected.
I work in and train people in both wildlife and historical interpretation. I enjoy both and I think there are some quite important differences between them that are sometimes glossed over. They present different opportunities for the interpreter. I wrote about the strengths and opportunities of historical interpretation here, this post is about the strengths and opportunities of wildlife interpretation.
Then I will answer that difficult question about which is more difficult.
Interpreting nature means dealing with the unpredictable. Nature changes. A couple of weeks ago, I took you on a wee walk through the wildflowers on the moorland edge at the back of my house. That walk no longer exists. It was only there for that week. Everything there is different now.
If my walk had been about the history of water supply and how it changed from between the 19th and 21st centuries (which it could have been), I could point out all the same structures today as a month ago. The built environment is fixed, the living world isn’t.
I maintain we cannot used fixed interpretation for non fixed stuff*. Or at least not if we really want to share the excitement of nature with people.
Whatever media we use, they have to change with the seasons. At the very least. So, in almost all circumstances*, one year-round panel, or publication, or app or QR code-linked website are poor solutions for helping people understand what they are seeing. We have been making this point in our TellTale training for years and, maybe coincidentally, maybe not, change is happening, at least in the UK.
And, yes this means that good nature interpretation is labour-intensive. Somebody has to change that communication.
And it gets worse – I really believe that the interpretation should be more than ‘seasonal’, it should recognise that, even in temperate climes, the story of nature isn’t really divided into four acts with four different casts.
The fact is, it changes. There is a very good chance that many of the things you see you will never see like that again. This is very exciting. For instance, last month I saw a grey squirrel carrying its young across a hotel patio. I only just missed seeing a heron reach into a nest burrow to eat a brood of young kingfishers. Recently, I saw two red kites and three short-eared owls flying together (goodness knows why). Two years ago I watched an adult otter teach a young one to swim. I will probably never see any of those things again. Wildlife is generous in offering once in a lifetime experiences regularly.
Most naturalists and nature guides will, I believe, tell you that it is the sense of having a once in a lifetime experience that lies at the heart of great wildlife encounters. Interpretation that acts as if it was otherwise misses the whole point of being in love with nature (whoops – that’s a bit of a giveaway – more on that tomorrow!).
So wildlife interpretation needs people. People who can respond opportunistically to change; who can rise to the challenge that they have a cast of thousands and a legion of stories and the best story to tell today may well be different from the best one yesterday. They are constantly intervening and inventing – whether by rewriting the sightings board, re-routing their walk, putting up temporary signs, editing the webpage – to create the best possible connections between the wildlife happening all around them and their visitors. They use the changes to build and maintain excitment.
So, in some senses, good wildlife interpretation is harder work, more labour-intensive. That makes it more difficult.
But, that’s only part of my answer. There’s another, deeper, possibly more important reason, why wildlife interpretation is harder and I will explain that tomorrow.
(*Regular readers of this blog will remember I recently found an exception to this which you can read about here.)
NOTE: Our new training course on “What makes nature and wildlife interpretation special?” is now ready for in-house customers (at an introductory rate until the end of 2012). We are looking for suitable venues for running an open course for up to 30 people in 2013 – ideas welcome. If you would be interested in hosting or attending such a course, contact us at email@example.com.
All pictures (except the foxgloves, which is mine!) thanks to Peter Phillipson. For more go to Peter’s Flickr stream. Follow Peter @ TellTalePeter on Twitter.