Why list? Why everything?

Inspired by a question on Facebook from Megan Shersby, it is interesting to reflect on why I maintain a list of all species I have seen, of all taxa. That is, a pan-species list.

In many ways, it feels to me that it derives from the same impulse that has spurred me to read, research and write local history, and to explore aspects of my family history, often in considerable detail, after countless hours in archives. The passion comes from curiosity, for sure, but specifically one for knowing one’s self and the place around you. Similarly, studying history of science in my 20s was a route into an understanding of how historically contingent are the things we personally know and believe about the world, and the stories we create to make sense of it.

Thirty years ago I remember walking Dartmoor and wondering what were the plants I was walking on; I amassed articles from the Transactions of the Devonshire Association and other sources describing the flora, including the bryophytes, and the lichens of the tors. However, the engagement was a bit academic at this stage, with relatively few attempts to actually identify anything in the field, despite my interest in field biology having been stoked by an A-level visit to Wembury beach.

So, I start with curiosity about the world around me, conscious that there is an astonishingly complex universe to engage with from the moment I walk out of the door. One need never be bored by the world; new, everyday things are always there to be found, and the naming is but the first step.

This wasn’t precisely the rationale going on inside my head when Graeme Lyons mentioned an all taxa list when I went on his grasses course at Sussex Wildlife Trust a few years ago, but it clearly struck a chord. Already curious about vascular plants, it forced me to ask myself ‘why not beetles, why not flies, why not fungi?’ The short answer to that is, of course, that there isn’t really enough of a lifetime to get to know everything really well, but starting from where you are, it is a fascinating journey to steadily unpick the layers of common and less common organisms which share your local patch. And from there, it is only a short step to the realisation that, even on your local patch, there will undoubtedly be species that have never been recorded there before.

And so, from knowing more about where you live, and gradually learning a bit about how the local ecosystems function, and how they have changed in recent decades, there is an incentive to share it. For me, first off I was keen to hook up with other people locally who might fancy going out looking at plants, or moth trapping, but that soon extended to a keenness to gently engage other people with the diversity and beauty that is around us, and to inspire wonderment and potentially open up to view the flower of this very special natural world we are part of.

However, faced with big media stories of climate change and catastrophic species loss, the more you learn, the more it becomes apparent that these are not just issues that affect faraway places. An older generation of botanists has told me about the meadows that they remember from their youth, which are now rare; and Michael McCarthy’s book The Moth Snowstorm also recounted how lepidoptera populations have plummeted over a generation.

This can be cause for despair; it is terrible, but the mere act of going out and looking feels like a positive engagement with our natural world. Yes, habitats are being destroyed, pollution is encroaching around us, and we need to campaign and engage politically, but we can also discover something new too. To change the world we need to start from where we are. Sploshing along a stream in Ashdown Forest, ducking under fallen trees, clambering over banks, and finding something stunning, that no-one has seen before, not there, is truly exhilarating. It, too, is a political act. Finding and observing, enjoying and being part of a natural world, all these things act like an overcoat against the chill winds of environmental devastation, something actually positive that you can share and tell stories about. There may only be one decent meadow around here now, but there are still countless other sources of joy to be found right under our noses, and these must be celebrated, shared and shouted about; if no-one else knows, then no-one will care.

So the list is an anchor, a reminder of past walks, of previous interactions with mossy pools, sandstone cliffs, beaches and woodlands. It is a touchstone of our connection with and our being part of this thin green film that coats our planet. It is a treasure.


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