Tag Archives: connect with nature

Connecting in our Parks

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There’s a major controversy in Canada right now. No, not Mayor Rob Ford’s new crack cocaine video. No, not the bloated dead whale in Newfoundland that is a ticking timebomb of exploading gases. No, not the U.S.’s fight with Canada over who should have to claim responsibility for Justin Bieber. This controversy came to my attention when looking at the “What’s trending” box on Facebook.  It said, “Now Trending: Parks Canada”

“Parks Canada? Trending? Seriously?” I asked myself.

Yes, our government agency that manages Canada’s national parks and historic sites was suddenly in the news and all over social media. Why? Because they are looking at installing wifi hotspots at 150 locations throughout the system.

wifi parks

Now, just to be clear, there are a couple of key points to understand. We are talking about wifi hotspots – areas of a few hundred metres where people can access the internet on their devices. Just like a coffee shop. Or an airport. And, these hotspots will only be in specific locations where people gather – such as visitor centres, townsites, and some campgrounds. It will not be available across hundreds of kilometres of wilderness.

Regardless, this story has exploded, and there are very strong comments about it. Here are just a few I pulled from Twitter:

“If you wanted proof that city folk are ruining the world, they’re installing wifi in Canada’s national parks.”

“I think the fact that Parks Canada is even considering wifi in our parks shows what our society values more.”

“Wifi does not grow in parks, so wifi should not go in parks.”

Even 92-year-old author Farley Mowat chimed in with this subtle comment: “It’s a disastrous, stupid, idiotic concept and should be eliminated immediately.” Of course I responded on Twitter by saying, “Funny, I hear the same response from people his age about the internet in general.” But, I digress.

Celebrated Canadian Author Farley Mowat is 93 years old

Celebrated Canadian Author Farley Mowat is 92 years old

 

At first, I was quite taken aback by the controversy of this issue. But, after reflecting on it overnight, I can see a few reasons the issue has generated such a strong, guttural response:

Story Framing by the Media

In almost all of the media treatments I’ve seen (newspaper, television, online), the story begins somewhat like this: Imagine you are enjoying the serenity of one of Canada’s pristine national parks, when suddenly the silence is interrupted…” The media has purposely framed the story to cause conflict. They suggest that the mere presence of wifi will prevent others from enjoying the solitude and peace of nature. Well, of course people are upset. The media is inciting the public by creating a conflict where one doesn’t actually exist.

Clash of symbols

The public outcry may be a result of the personal symbolism of national parks. Many people see national parks as pristine wilderness – small islands of purity that have to withstand the constant onslaught of human presence and activity. They naturally see this as just another modern intrusion that threatens what a park means to them. Rational or not, this is viewed as a threat to something they hold dear.

Cell phone vs. Wifi

Much of the controversy revolves around cell phone use.  And towers. Comments are flooding in about people not wanting to hear a phone ring 50 kilometres into the backcountry trip or massive cell towers on top of every mountain. Even one of the large television channels had this as the story title when reporting: “Call of the Wifi? The Government plans to erect cell towers in national parks.” This shows a real lack of understanding of the issue. Wifi and cell networks are different. There are no towers going up for a wifi hotspot, and people’s phones are not going to suddenly start ringing because they are in range of wifi.

Need to control

This is where I have a hard time understanding much of the reaction. So many people are rejecting the idea because it doesn’t fit into their opinion of how people should connect with nature. I have heard and read comments saying that if someone needs the internet, they don’t belong in parks. Parks are about disconnecting. People shouldn’t bring that stress with them. The only way to experience nature is through solitude. You get the point. I may agree with some of those feelings on a personal level, but I would never impose that on someone else. Much of the negative reaction I’ve seen shows a bizarre need to control how others connect with nature. To me, it reeks of arrogance and elitism: “The only way to experience nature is the way that I like to experience nature. If you don’t like it, stay away.”

People’s travel habits have changed. The ways that people connect and learn have changed. And, there are many groups of people that are underrepresented as visitors, that may come if their needs are addressed.

How will wifi help? Someone can check the weather to decide what activity to partake in. They can book a canoe rental or a hotel room online. They can download a Parks Canada app that they didn’t know about before arriving. They can use birding apps or plant identification apps on their smartphone or tablet. They can take photos of and report sighting of rare animals. They can let their loved ones know they arrived safely. They can post a selfie to show what an incredible time they are having in nature. They can send a digital postcard. A work-at-home parent can take their kids to a park and still check in to the office. The list is endless…

As I have said before, maybe we should be less judgemental about how people should connect with nature, and just be happy that people connect at all.

 

Visiting Through the Screen

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(photo credit: BBC Nature)

(photo credit: BBC Nature)

A few years ago, I was leading a guided hike in beautiful Vancouver, Canada. The program was for a group of junior high students in a near-urban park where black bears and cougars sometimes frequent. Everything was new to these kids. It was like they had never had a moment outside their perfectly groomed yards before.

During the hike, I did notice something odd, though. Every time I stopped to show these 15 kids something neat – a bat house, skunk cabbage, or bear claw marks on a tree – out came 15 phones to snap pictures and capture video. Then they would huddle together to show each other and send photos/video to their friends. The kids were experiencing nature through their phones! At first it annoyed me. Why can’t people step away from their technology for one hour to enjoy their surroundings? But, then I realized something else. The technology was just a conduit, a go-between through which these students connect with nature. In some ways, it isn’t so different from experiencing nature through your binoculars or camera.

As interpreters, we are tasked with connecting people with “the real thing.” And, even though first-hand experiences are our ultimate goal, are they the only meaningful way that people can connect with nature (or culture/history/science/art/whatever else you interpret)?

I remember enjoying a CD-ROM I once received as a gift in the 1990s. Yes, remember CD-ROMs? Well, this one was called the “Digital Field Trip to the Rainforest,” produced by a Canadian company called Digital Frog International (named because of their clever use of technology to save frogs from biology class dissections). It was wonderful. Basically, it was a guided walk through an actual rainforest trail in Belize, Central America. Each stop had a 360 degree view of a stop along that trail. There were little pop-ups with info on plants and animals, interactive games, and puzzles. I remember feeling very connected with rainforests, even though I wasn’t actually there. If you had asked me to reach into my MC Hammer pants and pull out money to donate to rainforest conservation, I wouldn’t have hesitated.

Now that's a backpack! Google employee hiking in front of Green Gables House in PEI National Park (photo credit: The Guardian Newspaper)

Now that’s a backpack! Google employee hiking in front of Green Gables House in PEI National Park
(photo credit: The Guardian Newspaper)

Why do I bring this up? Well, flash forward 15 years to today. Google has just formed a partnership with Parks Canada to use its streetview technology in various national parks in Canada. Right now, as I type, Google employees are travelling all around the land of Anne of Green Gables – Prince Edward Island National Park. With 360 degree cameras mounted on backpacks, they are hiking various trails and visiting historic buildings. Once online, anyone with an internet connection will be able to visit many of Canada’s iconic parks from anywhere in the world.

Undoubtedly, many people will criticize this approach and say that nothing can compare with the thrill of actually visiting these places. And, they would be mostly right. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.  Connection can happen many different ways, and some people might never get to visit these wonderful places except online.

Case in point – seven years ago, I started doing short television segments about Metro Vancouver Parks.  They took a few days to plan and film, but they were very far reaching, viewed by as many as 40,000 people per airing. At the time, we debated if my time would be better spent connecting actual visitors to these places, or if I should spend some of my time doing video clips to reach a large number of people that might not ever visit. You can see me in one of these segments here (After watching “Hidden Wonders” try watching “Bats”). Well, now there is no question in my mind. People felt very attached to these video segments. We reached people who visit the parks regularly, as well as people that can’t, sometimes due to disabilities or other barriers. And, in the end, these clips received more online hits than another clip of a building demolition (bats before buildings!).

I’ve watched video clips of arctic parks and international destinations that I may never get to in my lifetime. Yet, I feel powerfully connected to them. In the end, perhaps it is not important how people connect with these places, only that they feel a connection at all.