By, Naamal De Silva
Two years ago, my brain was buzzing with hashtags about nature and people. I came up with a list, and a good friend added an important one – #WeAreNature. When we feel viscerally that we are part of nature, we want to care for all species as we care for our families, pets, friends, and selves - after all, we are all related. When we perceive ourselves as part of nature, we also see more connections to other humans. In 2019, it feels like fewer and fewer of us notice that we are part of this ecological web of interconnectedness. More and more of us are tangled in the worldwide web. More and more of us live in cities. We are increasingly disconnected from nature, and seeing ourselves as nature could move us back towards connection.
More recently, I’ve also been considering how we perceive each other. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how conservationists perceive people. I am a conservationist. I am keenly aware of how this work grows daily in importance as our world becomes hotter and more crowded. At the same time, I am uncomfortable with the social history of conservation. The history, traditions, and methods of conservation facilitate another type of separation between humans and nature. This separation was deliberate, and persists today in far less conscious and obvious ways. In this view, there are people, who are largely responsible for environmental degradation. We are the ones who own corporations, drive cars, and eat mangos in the middle of winter. Sure, there are the few who are vegan, protect coral reefs, and don’t use straws. But, we humans are still responsible and need to feel guilty. Then, there is nature. Nature is awe-inspiring, colorful, fragile, and desperately in need of saving. Nature includes coral reefs, polar bears, poison dart frogs, and majestic redwoods. Nature also includes indigenous people and those who maintain traditional lifestyles.
Looking back a few hundred years, this distinction shows up when Europeans collected a few live humans along with their tobacco plants and vividly colored birds. Explorers took these specimens home to impress the royals and nobles who paid for their expeditions. The royals would show them off to their friends. Today, photographers collect images of lush rainforests, vividly colored birds, and smiling villagers to raise money for nonprofit conservation or development organizations.
On social media, these photographs tend to have captions or accompanying narratives. In these stories, richer, whiter, more urban people almost always have names. They have first names and last names, and often titles too. They are often depicted with the tools of their trade – camera, clipboard, binoculars. By contrast, the stories almost always refer to indigenous and traditional people by tribe or village. Bejeweled Maasai men look nobly into the distance. Tibetan children smile with impossibly rosy cheeks. A Tanzanian or Tibetan tour guide might be allowed a first name. Their clothes are western, modern – they are human, but barely.
I have taken photos of Maasai men and of Tibetan children. When I traveled to distant lands, it was easy to be struck by the beauty of people, their surroundings, and the ways in which they decorate themselves. I was entranced by their differences and their similarities to myself. Throughout the world, lives and places and traditions seemed to be changing so quickly. Photography was one way to hold on and to bear witness to what was fading away.
I have taken photos of bare-chested teenagers in Papua New Guinea. I do not know their names. I wish I did. At the time I took the photos of these teenagers, I knew that I would never share these photos without cropping them. But, I did use one or two cropped images of their lovely, smiling faces in PowerPoint presentations. My presentations had more to do with protecting rainforests and reefs than with the lived experiences of these girls. These girls were minors, and I certainly did not have signed waivers from their parents. I did not even know where their parents were. All I saw when I got off a plane in Alotau was a group of excited teenagers wearing skirts made of grasses, their faces painted and weapons at the ready. They danced to welcome people arriving for a conservation conference. They were proud of their performance and pleased to be photographed. I saw them then as I see them now: as teenagers, with all the excitement and anxieties that come with rapid shifts in identity and appearance. I did not see them as “nature,” but I did not talk with them or write down their names. This was 2008. Cameras tended to be digital, but social media was in its infancy. I will not be sharing those photos on this blog post.
A few months later, someone in the communications department of my organization categorized me as nature based on a photo. In the photo, I am smiling, squatting in front of the rough wooden boards of a small building, mud on my pants and a flower tucked behind my ear. It’s a portrait that I love, taken by a friend who knew me well. My friend, William Crosse, took this photo on the same trip where I took the photos of the teenagers. He had contributed some of his images to the photo bank of the organization where we both worked at the time. Generally, these images were used without captions on the website, on presentations, and in brochures. This particular image was used in an internal slide show and in a brochure. The brochure was where the sorting happened, and it happened in the captions, which featured some named people (the conservationists, the heroes, the saviors) and some nameless people (the recipients of conservation largesse, those living in harmony with nature, as nature). I was nameless. I was not one of those conservation heroes. Someone had cropped out my digital camera. My smile and my brown skin were being used to sell an old idea about saving faraway, exotic nature and faraway, exotic people.
I could imagine a caption for that photo of me: “In the face of accelerating climate change, women from tropical islands struggle to maintain their traditional way of life. Rising sea levels threaten to wash away their ancestral lands. [Insert name of environment or development organization] helps by teaching them how to farm seaweed.” A caption like that would be sort of true. I was born on a tropical island. My grandmother's family lived for generations on coastal land in the village of Thiranagama. That land holds some of my earliest memories, of digging my toes into wet sand, searching for elusive clams while holding on against the tug of the waves. I wonder at times whether rising seas will wash away that land. But, in this particular photo, I was on a very different tropical island. I don’t struggle to maintain a traditional way of life – I was born in one capital city (Colombo) and grew up in another (Washington, DC).
In the face of accelerating climate change, women from tropical islands struggle to maintain their traditional way of life. Rising sea levels threaten to wash away their ancestral lands. [Insert name of environmental or development organization] helps by teaching them how to farm seaweed. Photo by William Crosse.
My friend took another photo of me on that trip. In it, I have a camera in front of my face, with a lens large enough to block out my features. I’m sitting on a boat in the middle of a river, with hazy tropical hills behind me. I could imagine a caption for this photo too. “Dr. Naamal De Silva, on a field trip in rural Papua New Guinea in 2008. At the time, she worked with numerous partners to identify globally important sites, species, and landscapes.”
Labels are powerful. Labels delineate belonging and community. However, through this very delineation of group identity, they inevitably exclude. Each of us has many labels. The labels we use for ourselves are rarely exactly the labels that others assign to us. Labels also change over time.
Our names, by contrast, are relatively stable. Our names highlight our individuality, and they are markers of our humanity. Taking away our names takes away part of our humanity. Slavery in the United States provides a powerful example of that. I recently saw what might be the first known portrait of a slave, a young woman known only as Flora. While it is a lovely, biophilic name, it is unlikely that “Flora” was what her parents named her, or what she chose for herself. Similarly, during the holocaust, nazis at concentration camps replaced the names of Jews, Roma people, and others with tattooed numbers. Stripping away names, stripping away humanity, facilitates acts of unthinkable brutality.
Independent journalism and bearing witness can help prevent or halt genocide and other horrors based on sorting and exclusion. Photography is a vital type of storytelling, and since life is continually unfolding, sometimes it is impossible to ask for names. Sometimes, naming people can compromise their safety or their ability to speak openly. I understand that.
And, I believe that conservation photography is vital, since we will not feel moved to protect what we cannot see. While not directly attributable to climate change, a portrait of a starving polar bear made the consequences of climate change feel more viscerally relevant and immediate for billions of people. Portraits of a giant Indonesian bee and a lonely Bolivian toad brought the world’s attention to species that we considered to be lost forever. Portraits of individual humans can similarly highlight diversity, beauty, peril, joy, vulnerability, power, and so much more.
Recognizing all of this, I still believe that we can all do better in showcasing people as both part of nature and as humans. Portraits of people should highlight individuals as subjects and not objects – we should feature their humanity alongside their connections to nature. Including full names whenever possible helps showcase both humanity and agency.
by Maya Hall
I finally feel like I am at a point in my life where I can make tangible change. That being said, change is hard. There are many scary things in the world. These scary things sometimes feel impossible overcome. The fear of losing our wildlife and their habitat is something that hangs like a butcher’s knife over my head, and it is petrifying. But, the fear of never doing anything to sway that executioner’s hand, is above all, my greatest fear.
I regularly tell myself that I need to grow up. As a young adult, I need to be brave and push forward into the world of wildlife conservation and environmental science. I tell myself I need to be a force to be reckoned with. I need to be a force that can change the world. But, I ask myself, how do I change the world? How can I make waves in what seems to be a never-ending ocean of shared dreams, aspirations, and goals? How can I become the self-assured, mature scientist I’ve always wanted to be? To be honest, most days I still feel like I am grasping at nothing more than a child’s daydream.
To calm these fears, I think back to what started me on this path.
Loving wildlife and nature came easily to me. I was very fortunate as a young child to have access to a lake and all the fun nooks and crannies that came along with it. I would dig in the ground for insects and catch minnows in the shallow parts of the lake. I would collect snake skins and tape them into a book along with pressed leaves – a self-made nature book. I would pick wild blueberries and watch dragonflies hunt along the glimmering water. I would bask in the beauty of the natural world, unafraid.
I miss this unabashed love of dirt, water, and all things living. Having grown up, I find myself outside less and less.
We all have to grow up at some point; this much I know is true. But, what if it is that young, child-like mindset, that wonder, that should remain our lighthouse?
Retaining my sense of wonder may help me become the confident and accomplished professional I envision. Perhaps I can embrace and nurture the part of myself that I have chipped away at through competition, academics, and rigid standards – this could be my tool to enact change.
What if going back to our roots, back to who we were when we were those open-minded, loving children, is the key to a more sustainable future? To connecting with each other and growing as a community for environmental change? To being fearless in our pursuit of planetary healing? I cannot be certain this is the key, but maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t grow up so fast.
Naamal De Silva
Slow can be beautiful. A snail, possibly a new species, from Massif de la Hotte, in Haiti. Part of this remarkable forest was recently protected thanks to years of collective work by Global Wildlife Conservation, Haiti National Trust, Rainforest Trust, Société Audubon Haiti, and others. Photo by Robin Moore, who was part of this effort.
No one has ever accused me of being fast. I walk slowly, hike slowly, read slowly, and cook slowly. As a kid, this slowness embarrassed me during gym class. These days, it makes me anxious about being late to pick up my daughter from school. And yet, most of the time, I see slowness as a good thing. If a passage is written beautifully and with care, I prefer to read it slowly to savor the words and images. I could hike faster and pause less, but if I did, I would be looking at my feet more and might miss a passing bird or a particularly well-framed view. If I give myself the time to cook slowly, I really enjoy slicing garlic and washing dishes. With enough time and mental space, I can focus on a single task and see its inherent beauty.
But often, it feels like there isn’t enough time, and I know that I am not alone in this struggle. During the past century, our collective focus on expanding economic growth has meant more things, produced more quickly and at lower cost. Many of us are now drowning in things, but without the time to enjoy them. Many others are producing these things at ever increasing speed and at a great cost to their wellbeing.
This pace of life is punishing, but I see more and more resistance. In the 1980s, Carlo Petrini and fellow activists in Italy launched the slow food movement, which now has 160 member nations. The movement envisions “a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet.” By safeguarding tasty food and the time to enjoy it, they simultaneously help sustain culture and biodiversity.
A recent article in the Hindu mentions these intersections: Tapoa honey from Burkina Faso was the 5,000th product added to the Slow Food Ark of Taste. The Gourmantché people use this honey for rituals, in traditional medicine, and to sweeten multigrain porridge. Honey and bees are woven into sayings - “having the heart of a bee means being willing to sacrifice one’s life for the community.” The savannah plants that the bees depend appear to be protected within several parks, but local human communities are threatened by fundamentalist terrorism. In many places, young people are drawn to terrorism because they lack jobs and hope. The jobs provided by investing in traditional foods can also help ensure the safety of people and other species.
Similarly, producing fabric using traditional dyes and weaving techniques can support living wages and healthier ecosystems. In the 1960s, in Sri Lanka, Barbara Sansoni “travelled the island, observing, sketching and taking notes.” Inspired by colors and patterns in nature, she began a business that employed women across Sri Lanka in dying and weaving cotton at home or in small workshops. There are no factories, there is little waste, and there is a lot of creative freedom. The results are beautiful and vibrant, and I am inspired every time I visit her Barefoot stores. I see this fabric every day, since we use their place mats at most meals.
The clothes at Barefoot are an example of slow fashion, a term coined by Kate Fletcher, who urges us to value what we have. Like slow food, slow fashion emphasizes quality - clothes, shoes, and accessories that are handmade, that emphasize style over fashion, and that are meant to last. Slow fashion also advocates fair wages, ethics, and sustainability in production and throughout the supply chain. This article from Conscious magazine demonstrates how individual designers, consumers, and activists focus on different aspects of slow fashion. For instance, the Tennessee-based company Live FashionABLE prioritizes fare wages for women, focusing on empowering employees and supporting other sustainable designers such as Van Hoang.
Slow food is a response to industrialized, chemical-laden, and soul-crushing fast food. Slow fashion is a response to the high waste and environmental and human wreckage caused by industrialized fast fashion. Both make visible what fast fashion and fast food seek to conceal – producers are humans, individuals, rather than numbers. Essentially, it comes down to respect. Respect for the land and water, respect for the rights and dignity of people, respect for animals, for the food we eat and the clothes we wear. Slow down. Reconnect. Savor what we have.
These approaches are seeping into mainstream consciousness. However, the startup world rarely values slow, thoughtful, and intentional work. With startups, there is relentless pressure to launch immediately, pivot often, secure investors, and then sell. The word “hustle” is everywhere, on instagram posts, t-shirts, mugs. The only reprieve is in a nod to self-care – get a massage and get back to the frenzied whirl of work. In 2017, when I came up with the idea for Mayla, I felt some of that pressure. The ideas behind Mayla gave me hope. I finally felt like I had some answers to questions I had been asking myself for nearly a decade. I wanted to dive in.
However, in 2017, I also needed to finish the doctoral dissertation that I had paused (done!) and to figure out next steps with work (in progress). I needed time to think and time to talk with lots and lots of people. Now, nearly two years after writing my first blog post about Mayla, I am ready to move forward. I see Mayla as in a pilot phase. Over the next year or two, we will test out ways of growing community and sharing ideas. Slow food and slow fashion provide the model for us to follow. Mayla is a startup. But, Mayla deserves a slow start so that we can focus on quality, beauty, inclusion, and relevance.
Growing Community Through Slow Food and Slow Fashion
The Slow Food Movement highlights ways to learn more and to act in 160 nations. You can sign pledges, donate money, and find a chapter where you live. I find that last piece particularly exciting, since that is the global-local approach Mayla will eventually use. I noticed two organizations in Sri Lanka. In Washington, DC, the local chapter of Slow Food will be hosting a free potluck tomorrow that highlights fish peppers! I love that model – bring a dish, learn something, make new friends. Earlier this month, Sun Cinema in DC screened a movie about local food in Burkina Faso – here’s the trailer – I wish I had time to go see it.
The DC Fashion Collective provides a range of general and DC-specific resources on their site, including lists of thrift and consignment stores in DC and information about local government initiatives such as Re-Thread. Personally, especially since becoming a mother, I’ve focused more on reuse – we buy many of Lakshmi’s clothes through collective consignment companies like TotSwap, and we donate or hand down or recycle all the clothes, toys, and books she no longer uses. The amount of things that we own still overwhelms me at times, but Marie Kondo’s approach has certainly helped.
Contact us and let us know what you are doing to support slow food or slow fashion! We’d love to share your stories.
Naamal De Silva
There have been so many ideas about Mayla buzzing around in my head for the past six months. It is incredibly exciting! But it is also noisy, since so few of these ideas relate to what I need to get done right now to get things started. These bees needed a home. So, here is a hive of hashtags to contain some of these ideas, just for now.
One question I get is, "storytelling for what purpose?" I see storytelling as a tool for building community, for highlighting commonality, for showing us the way to a more sustainable and fulfilling future. There are many types of stories we would like to tell and share, and many groups of people that we would like to engage. In a way, the hashtags below are a distillation of what Mayla could become. As Mayla grows, we would love to partner with organizations on a range of initiatives. These are hypothetical hastags that we might use around initiatives or events or to grow community. Some of these are already in use, which I think is great.
Mayla will curate hopeful ideas about protecting nature. We will create, aggregate, and share stories of resilience, innovation, and possibility:
Using the arts to translate science about protecting nature into compelling stories:
#scienceintostory - I read yesterday about a wonderful related effort by Sara ElShafie.
Mayla is a global community of people who protect nature. We will use partnerships to connect people to each other and to nearby nature:
#MaylaNature (which translates to something like "community of nature")
#naturehood – via Nature Canada - so evocative!
Stories about people who protect nature:
Falling in love with nature and with the people who protect nature:
Globally, when girls are educated and empowered to create change, they exceed expectations and make personal decisions that benefit the environment. I’d love to work on an initiative that features stories of girls sharing how they protect nature and their goals:
There is much religious inspiration for protecting nature, and some faith-based obstacles too. I’d love to feature uplifting connections between religion and protecting nature through stories of faith-based nature-protectors and multi-faith collaborations:
In understanding ideas like climate change, I feel that some of the most powerful voices are those who have a deep understanding of local change over decades. It would be an honor to feature the stories of elders in communities around the world, and #speakforthetrees could be relevant.
Around the election last November, I was thinking a lot about the need in the United States to nurture and amplify hopeful conservative perspectives around protecting nature. I am personally progressive but believe strongly that protecting nature is not a partisan issue, and Mayla is multipartisan:
Which of these resonates with you? Which hashtag should we lure out of the hive first? What partnerships would help us move forward with storytelling and events?
Naamal De Silva
At 3pm yesterday, I attended an event on sustainable cities at National Geographic. The president of National Geographic, Gary Knell, said of an announcement happening at that moment nearby, “Climate change is not a partisan issue. On behalf of the Geographic, we are disappointed in this decision. We will stay the course.” The decision was that the United States would withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. I was disappointed too, but yes, we will stay the course! A single roadblock cannot stall progress when there are an infinite number of paths to creating positive change.
After Gary’s introduction, speaker after speaker highlighted that working towards environmental sustainability was not only good for nature, it was good for business and good for human health. Lucia Athens, the Chief Sustainability Officer of the city of Austin spoke of their dense, walkable EcoDistrict: "If you walking or taking a hike instead of sitting in traffic, you have more joy, more sense of community." Rob Kunzig of National Geographic mentioned that cities reduce our environmental footprint, and that even Dubai “a city of glass boxes in the dessert” was becoming greener. He also highlighted that when people move to cities, they have fewer children. Alaa Murabit, a physician and advocate for inclusive peace, emphasized that women’s fertility and the education of girls are the most effective ways to fight climate change. She urged us to be inclusive (social and environmental issues are connected), realistic (we must address the needs of this planet before exploring others) and patient (elected officials and other leaders focus on creating short-term benefits that “forego the important for the urgent”). I found this to be an inspired trio of ideas. Eric Shaw, the head of the DC Office of Planning discussed the importance of learning from the past: historically, people considered the local climate and landscape in how and where we built our homes.
The president of United Technologies, Greg Hayes, “a conservative republican at heart,” spoke of the importance of new technologies and urban sustainability in fighting climate change. Among other things, his mega-corporation makes air conditioners and elevators, and he highlighted the role that coolants play in exacerbating global climate change. Manufacturing these products also releases a huge amount of toxins into the air. These are massive problems, or viewed differently, massive opportunities. As Alaa emphasized, we must be realistic. As Greg discussed, we need air conditioning to enable dense cities and to prevent food waste in transporting and storing food.
But, we also need to invest in new technologies that enable more efficient cooling and fewer negative environmental impacts. We must invest in alternative energy sources to power elevators and the trucks that transport produce. We need regulations that limit the toxins released into our air, land and water through manufacturing. And, as individuals, corporations, and governments, we can all work to minimize waste: we don’t need freezing office buildings during heat waves, to keep the air conditioning on while the windows are open, or to buy more food than we need.
Dan Gilgoff, National Geographic's lead for digital media announced the publication of this article on six signs of progress in addressing climate change.
Hope is abundant - we just have to look for it and to create it!
Naamal De Silva
Last month, Facebook suggested that I organize a birthday celebration for Ines Cifuentes. I wish I could! After a seven-year battle with breast cancer, Ines died three years ago at the age of 59. The last time we saw each other, we chatted over brunch at my house and I introduced her to my daughter, who was about 2 months old at the time.
Ines transcended easy categorization: she was Hispanic, Jewish, American, born in London, raised in Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and the United States. She graduated from Swarthmore College 25 years before I did. Like me, she found a refuge there, among fellow students who “cannot accept things as they are and are working to change them for the better.”
Ines shifted from astronomy to seismology after college. She wrote of that time in life, “I knew that I wanted to balance my love of science with my passion for political work, but I didn’t know how.” She began finding this balance during field research with the US Geological Survey in Nicaragua and Guatemala. Believing strongly in the importance of equipping people to prepare for earthquakes, Ines took the time to explain the meaning of her work to local villagers. She went on to become the first woman to receive a doctorate in seismology from Columbia University.
When I met Ines in 1999, she was director of the Carnegie Academy for Science Education, which she and Maxine Singer established in 1993 using a grant from the National Science Foundation. Each summer, Ines trained about a hundred elementary school teachers in hands-on math and science instruction. During the school year, she visited classrooms and provided support to these and other DC public school teachers. I worked for her twice – during college and also after graduate school, since it took me about six months to find a full time job. During those summers, I heard teachers’ exclamations of surprise and joy as they made discoveries of their own while practicing lessons meant for elementary school students. Many of these teachers had never experienced these emotions when they were students themselves: their own teachers had prioritized memorizing lists and tables. Over the years, some participants went on to become mentor teachers, eventually numbering about 50 incredibly creative and skilled individuals.
Working with Ines helped me understand the power of communicating ideas using methods that were context-based, personal, and emotionally engaging. Ines said, “science has given me a special view of the world. It has taught me to think critically, ask questions, and persevere.” Ines told science stories, but she also told her personal story and said that, “we must all become storytellers.” Understanding that science, education, human rights and the arts are deeply interconnected, Ines advocated for each of these.
When I first came up with the idea for Mayla last November, I was inspired in part by the words and work of Ines Cifuentes. At the time, I said that what I wanted to do was to “turn science into story.” Science is driven by the passion, excitement, pain, and joy of numerous individuals. Through Mayla, we hope to connect scientists who study and protect the environment with artists who can help shape their stories using beauty, humor and emotion.
Naamal De Silva
My daughter Lakshmi and I slept very little over the past two nights. She has had episodic abdominal pain, and while generally ok during the day, she has been up for most of each night. This was unusual - she complains very little when sick and has slept pretty well during her nearly five years of life. Plus, my husband is out of town this week. So, the past few days have not been easy. This morning, we talked about using a phone to take a photo of an image. She asked, “Can you take a picture of a dream?” I said, “That’s a beautiful question.” She replied, “It’s a poem. No, actually, it’s a story.”
Can you take a picture of a dream? I think so. I believe that the collective stories of myriad storytellers and nature-protectors will create a picture of a world in which our actions do make a difference. A world where we take it for granted that we must all nurture our relationship with nature, and where we find it just as obvious that we will each choose a different path in doing so.
Mayla will be a platform for such stories: stories of personal and environmental resilience and human creativity as well as dreams about what might be possible. Stories told by nature protectors, but also by professional artists of all types – people who are highly skilled in engaging our emotions and our curiosity. The mission of Mayla will be to foster emotional engagement, partnerships, and connection to nature through stories about the people who protect nature.
Our portraits will showcase the lives and work of a diversity of people who protect nature either professionally or in their spare time. Stories that celebrate people’s different approaches, experiences, disciplines, faiths, nationalities, and political views. Intersectionality may feel like a buzzword of the moment within the American political landscape. But, the ideas behind the term are ancient. Concerns, beliefs, disciplines, and concepts relating to the natural and social worlds are deeply intertwined. We benefit from highlighting these intersections, whether through spirituality, systems thinking, philosophy, or a holistic approach to health. Our professional and personal lives are similarly intertwined. While peer-reviewed articles and other technical work must often separate the two and emphasize discipline-specific expertise, stories on Mayla will celebrate commonality and connection.
This blog will be a platform for uplifting stories by and about people who protect nature: stories of inventors, conservationists, teachers, park rangers, lawyers, public health professionals, beach-cleaners, and elementary school students. Who inspires you? We would love to hear from and about stay-at-home parents, engineers, trash collectors, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, muralists, philanthropists, and custodial staff. To protect nature, we need all these people and more! We will also use the blog to link to the websites of nature-protecting organizations. Our website will eventually be able to highlight partner service events, fundraising campaigns, and accomplishments. At first, there will probably be quite a few posts from me on this blog. I hope that fairly soon, I’ll be drowned out by other voices.
Mayla means community. Our blog will feature the ideas of a diverse global community of nature-protectors. Together, we can create a vision of a more sustainable future.