Nature meets culture: A birding board game, a climate-friendly play and more

© Will Turner

It can be hard to connect with nature in our daily lives. But with a little help, you can find nature everywhere. With that in mind, here’s some recent arts and culture news to help bring nature to life for you, wherever you are.

1. Board game for birders takes flight during pandemic

As many practiced social distancing during the pandemic, a unique and relatively niche hobby soared in popularity: birding

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, birders set a world record in May 2020 when they reported more than two million bird sightings — the most ever documented in a single day. And recent data shows that the trend has continued despite loosening lockdown restrictions. 

For those without a backyard or binoculars to spot rare jays and finches, game creator Elizabeth Hargrave offered an alternative in the form of a bird-inspired board game. 

Wingspan” allows players to try their hand as an ornithologist, who stewards forest, grassland and wetland habitats. The goal: entice the widest variety of birds to your nature reserve using a variety of tools, including food tokens and pastel eggs. 

During each turn, players draw from the 170-card deck — complete with hand-painted bird illustrations and trivia from sources like the Audubon field guides and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird database. As the game continues, the amateur ornithologists will grow their bird populations, while learning more about the importance of protecting each species’ habitat. 

“A lot of games are very historically based and show colonization as a thing that’s interesting to do,” Hargrave told Vox. “You’re mining ore and cutting down trees in this falsely infinite way.”

In “Wingspan,” players are instead tasked with better managing resources in their ecosystem, rather than exploiting them.  

And even scientists are joining in on the fun. 

“Before Wingspan, I had a hard time connecting with my husband’s love of birds,” said Laure Katz, a marine ecologist at Conservation International who has become an avid “Wingspan” player with her husband, Will Turner, a Conservation International scientist. “Now, instead of an internal eye roll when he points out the 20th bird on a hike, I am the one pointing out birds to him with an enthusiastic ‘isn’t that bird in Wingspan?’”

Despite her husband’s expansive knowledge of birds, Katz wins almost every time.  

“Specific bird knowledge offers no strategic advantage, but having the mind of an ecologist does,” she says. “To play well, you need to think in multi-dimensions about how each card and each play contributes to a diverse and complex ecosystem. For example, Will’s scores are perpetually low, despite him having an encyclopedic understanding of birds’ traits, calls and behaviors.”

Fortunately, Turner is a good sport.  

“She’s not wrong,” he says. “I’m the one with a Ph.D studying birds, but Laure destroys me on a regular basis.”

2. A theater production makes a dramatic statement about climate change 

British director Katie Mitchell’s latest project, “A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction,” is about a young theater worker reckoning with environmental destruction. 

The production itself, however, is working to fight this very issue. 

In the theater industry, it is common for entire casts and crews to tour internationally, traveling by plane to each destination (and releasing significant amounts of emissions along the way). 

But “A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction” is trying something different: By 2024, the show will be performed in 10 countries, but not a single member of the cast or crew will have traveled further than their own city. Mitchell is achieving this by hiring a new director and cast in each city — something that goes against traditional theater norms, where one director follows the production as it travels. 

“In the light of climate change, you can’t have the normal hierarchies, systems, structures, or control, because the subject is so much bigger and so much more important,” Mitchell told The New York Times. “You have to relinquish artistic control.”

Although each director is free to adjust the play to their creative desire, Mitchell does have a few consistent requirements for each production to shrink its carbon footprint. Every participating theater must complete an emissions evaluation with the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. They also must ensure their production is entirely off the electrical grid, and instead use stationary bikes to power the equipment, which emphasizes “the effort of electricity,” says Mitchell. 

So far, theaters in Belgium, Croatia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Portugal and Sweden have signed up to take part in this experience — signaling a potential movement in how the theater industry is confronting climate breakdown.

3. Sculptures that weave a story of new life

As a former pediatric nurse and midwife, Sally Blake spent years witnessing the magic of new life. 

Now, the Australia-based sculptor is using her experience to explore reproduction and the resilience of nature in her art. In her new collection, Blake uses copper wire and natural materials such as ink, ash and charcoal to depict a variety of plants, marine creatures and even a pair of human lungs. 

Her original inspiration, she says, came from a small seed pod figurine given to her after her mother died. 

“It seemed to symbolize much of what I was experiencing and feeling — it was vulnerable, and yet also resilient,” she told Treehugger. “It gently still held its seed, as a source of potential new life and inspiration. I have made many baskets since, all inspired by that little seed pod and life’s cyclic patterning."

As more than 1 million species face extinction due to climate change, Blake hopes her work will stress that all living things are connected — and that when one species suffers, we all suffer. 

“With every breath, in and out, we are relating to and connected with other living creatures," she said. "Our inner worlds and outer worlds are linked."


Kiley Price is the staff writer and news editor at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Yellow-headed Caracara, Costa Rica (© Will Turner)



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