How to use tech to connect with nature

Monday night, eight pm. Ten strangers sit in a basement room in Bloomsbury, transfixed by a four-minute home video recorded on a mobile phone.

But this is no splashy viral. It is the record of an unspectacular event that happens every dusk across London throughout summer and autumn, across elegant gardens and scrubby backyards alike: the opening of oenothera biennis, or the common evening primrose.

Hidden wonders

Of course, it is spectacular, as our riveted attention attests. We’re half way through a workshop on How To Connect With Nature at Alain de Botton’s foundation for curious grown-ups, The School of Life, but although there’s a tableful of snacks and our phones are incandescent with alerts, the arrhythmic unfurling of those pale yellow petals suddenly seems more important and nourishing than any glass of red or long-awaited email.

Nature is not a remote idyll we escape to but a web we live within, from Hackney to the Highlands. And rather than railing against the things we see as alienating us from the natural world – our vitamin-D-deficient work schedules, our industrialised landscapes and, most of all, our tech – we should find ways to use them to bring us closer to it.

Screens become portals

“On the one hand I live too much of my life in my various digital screens,” says workshop leader Cathy Haynes, a London-based artist, writer and curator who recently acted as the Chisenhale Gallery’s artist in residence in Victoria Park. “I therefore tend to neglect too often the fascinating, vivifying, exuberant life around me. I have to remind myself to stop filtering everything through my tech.

“On the other, wonder abounds on the internet and I use it to find out about the natural world. I had a pretty minimal science education, but now I can research the glorious things I missed out on, from axolotls to exoplanets.

“I can find out what to watch for in the phases of the moon and learn what’s in the deepest ocean. I can get this from print media too, of course, but the range of formats, media and instant data online means I can find out more about the thing I’m looking at while standing in a field.

“And that deeper understanding can help me feel more connected.”

From National Geographic to the Natural History Museum, the web is a trove of instant, accurate and accessible nature knowledge. But there are also several practical apps that make it easier for busy Londoners to stay connected to nature throughout the day.

From dawn till dusk

We might start the morning with Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day podcast, which features a recording of a birdcall or song, followed by an ornithological story inspired by the sound.

Come lunchtime, we could use the London Parks & Gardens app to find the green spaces on our urban doorstep, including “myriad smaller and lesser known gardens, squares, secret green boltholes, cemeteries, commons, and urban farms” – the majority of which are free.

To prevent our brains from circulating to-do lists while our bodies stride through the grass, we can download Leafsnap UK. Developed by the Natural History Museum in association with Columbia University, the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution in the US, the app applies facial recognition technology to leaves, helping users to identify 156 tree species across the UK.

Or how about iBird UK & Irleand?  Its illustrations and photographs, plus identification, behaviour, habitat and ecology information will help us tune our ears to different kinds of tweets.

Even if we’re stuck behind a desk all afternoon, we can find ways to keep nature front of mind.

New Chrome plugin Momentum creates a clean personal dashboard with an inspirational fullscreen nature image crowdsourced from Creative Commons. Join The Woodland Trust’s Facebook page for a regular stream of stunning forest-themed photography amongst all the Huff Post crap. And I couldn’t live without my RainyMood app, a customisable white-noise audio stream with – wait for it – more than 100 unique thunder claps.

Finally, on the way home from work, we can restore some perspective by pausing to parse the sky with the help of The Lunar Ephemeris, a Twitter feed that broadcasts the phase of the moon.

Technologists must be naturalists

All technology originates from and is inspired by nature, from bird-inspired unmanned aircraft to Qmonos, a next-gen fabric based on spiders’ silk.

Whether they like it or not, technologists are naturalists; so what could and should they be learning right now from the natural world?

“How to cut waste and destruction from productive processes, so that all parts of a system support each other,” Haynes says. “The World Wildlife Fund reports that Earth has lost 40% of its wildlife during my lifetime. The issue couldn’t be more urgent.”

In other words, if we relegate nature to remote moors and craggy cliffs, we don’t just shrink our relationship with her. We shirk our responsibilities.