Written by Alex McMaster

In April I interrupted a phone call with a friend – birdsong was chiming across the line. ‘Where are you?’, I asked. She was in her garden in Glasgow. Like many cities during lockdown, a respite in traffic and the noise of human bustle was allowing birdsong to be heard. It had made news stories and was a topic for conversation. While it was sad to think of the extent to which the singing had been drowned before, its enchantment was not lost. 

Any hope for our relationship with the natural world must include telling better stories; with all elements that involves. My roots are in Ireland where oral histories and legends are at the heart of tradition. At their most basic, stories express the ideas and emotions of people – and even the earth itself. There is a strength in that which I set out to explore with my new podcast.

Over the past few years I have been fortunate to meet and be inspired by a host of people interacting with our natural world in extraordinary ways. I reached out to a handful of them and opened discussions that led to the recording of My Natural Habitat. This podcast seeks to explore our place in the complex balance of life on earth. As a global community, the way that we relate with our planet and each other affects the entire natural system. 

Alex and friend Merlin travelled 10,000km from Cairo to Cape Town to distribute an innovative new medical device designed by the University of St Andrews to prevent eye disease.

The title of the series aims to place us within the ecology that is often perceived as separate from humankind. But the term ecology comes from the Greek, ‘oikos’, meaning home – and the mesh of life on earth’s surface is just that. In fact, we have made much of it our own habitat.

Speaking with scholars and storytellers, I began to learn how humans from around the world are collectively re-embedding their lives in nature. Collaborating with people in a way that allows them to trust you with their stories is a humbling responsibility. That story will ultimately be conveyed through my own lens, and I feel a strong compulsion to get it right so that the ideas are expressed in a representative and accessible manner.

In one episode, Dr Emilie Crossley discusses the concept of ecological grief. She describes an arrested, emerging form of mourning that is at the heart of much of our inaction in response to ecological degradation. Denial and apathy in reaction to feelings of loss are part of an ‘environmental melancholia’ that might be better softened to create conditions for a participatory and creative process of ecological recovery.

Later episodes in the series explore rewilding. A story can encourage us to think about these wild spaces, finding enchantment, reverence and respect. It can connect us with an ancient wisdom, sense of community and, with that, empathy and feelings of localness that are rooted in our landscape. In the final episode, these ideas are taken further as I explore the unique perspective that traditional storytelling can bring on the natural world. This episode was a collaboration with Jane Mather, a storyteller from Edinburgh, and she opens with a magical tale that can be enjoyed by young and old.

The series delves into efforts to restore the wild twists and bends of Europe’s rivers; understanding the dark patches of the law of the sea that lead to the exploitation of fishes and people alike; using carbon as currency for forest protection; and the lessons that can be learned from people living with predators in East Africa. The podcast covers some of the crises facing our global habitat and the people working to overcome them.

Just as the birdsong invoked dual feelings of sadness and hope, the stories portrayed in My Natural Habitat might encourage thinking in a small way towards a deeper ecology that is inclusive of all that exists within it.

My Natural Habitat is available on most platforms including Spotify, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts. You can also find it here. Follow the story on Instagram at alexander_mcmaster.