Ornithologist Mya-Rose Craig: ‘The nature sector is decades behind in terms of diversity’ | Autobiography and memory

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Mya-Rose Craig is a 20-year-old ornithologist and activist who grew up in a village near Bristol. She’s been an ornithologist since birth (well, her first trip was when she was nine days old) and, at 17, became the youngest person to see half of the more than 10,000 species of birds in the world. world. Craig is also the founder of the charity Black2Nature, which encourages ethnic minority children to spend time in nature. his memoirs, bird girlis a lyrical appreciation of a lifelong obsession and a powerful account of the Craig family’s attempts to deal with his mother’s bipolar disorder.

Right after this interview, you will go on stage with Billie Eilish at the O2 for its climate festival, Overheated. Do events like this give you hope that your generation will have an impact on the climate crisis?
Oh, that’s absolutely insane. But I still really enjoy doing events like this, where someone with this massive platform and this massive influence uses it for good. It’s a lot like going to Cop26 with Emma Watson. Just meeting these incredibly dedicated and passionate people makes me think, “How can you not have hope for the future when these people care so much and work so hard?” And I think you have to be optimistic to be an environmental activist.

Are you going to hang out for the Billie Eilish concert?
Basically my [university] exams ended yesterday and most of my friends exams end today, so unfortunately I’m going back to college tonight so we can all have a big party.

You blow Billie Eilish for your friends. That’s impressive fidelity!
It’s going to be a very good party.

What is the attraction of birdwatching for you?
I’ve never been the kind of person patient enough to do meditation or anything like that. So being outside is my version of mindfulness. But what I find really hard to describe to people is that birdwatching isn’t even a hobby. I just a m an ornithologist at this stage: I am constantly observing birds. I very often have conversations with people and watch birds fly by the window, or even just watch pigeons jumping. I am always aware of the bird life around me because it is so intrinsically part of me and my identity.

Have you ever been embarrassed to do this?
In elementary school, I don’t think I ever thought of it as weird. But as I grew older and became this painfully awkward teenager, I realized just how weird that was. And it was this very weird dichotomy where I was furiously embarrassed by my hobbies, but at the same time, I was totally unable to stop myself. But one of the benefits of getting a little older is becoming mature enough to realize that people don’t care that much about what you do in your free time. I don’t think anyone is more self-centered than a very self-aware teenager!

Was it difficult to write about your mother’s mental illness?
On a personal level, it was truly cathartic. There were a lot of things that I had never thought about, or had never thought about in a larger perspective. Just understanding much more explicitly this journey that my family had been through, and how we had stayed together and how we used nature – I hadn’t even really recorded that before. I had a long conversation with my mom about this – the importance of having honest conversations about mental health – and she was really okay with putting those details out there explicitly.

Birdwatching has traditionally been a very white, mostly older activity. Does it change?
In the last six or seven years since I started Black2Nature, I think there’s been a very, very slow period of change. But I can’t stress this problem enough: it seems like the nature sector is two or three decades behind most other sectors in terms of diversity. It’s really shocking. But for me, one of the biggest accomplishments has been being able to have explicit conversations about this issue with various nature organizations and CEOs. And they listened. And they accepted that there was a problem. It felt like a major breakthrough.

Mya-Rose Craig at a Youth Strike 4 Climate protest in Bristol, February 2020. Photograph: Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images

You have just completed your first year in the Humanities, Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge. Are you a member of the ornithological society?
I am a member of the ornithological society. But I can’t lie, the most active society I’m a member of is the Taylor Swift Society.

What are they doing?
Oh, all kinds of things. She releases an album every six months at the moment. So we have club nights, we have album listening nights. We went to a pub quiz once where my friends and I were pretty bad. We don’t know enough about Taylor Swift, apparently.

In 2020you became the youngest recipient of an honorary award doctorate, when you have obtained one by University of Bristol. Is it strange to arrive at university already being a doctor?
Yes. I knew early on that I wouldn’t call myself a doctor in college because I thought all of my supervisors who actually had doctorates might be a little upset. But it is very strange. There are absolutely crazy things that have happened to me and I say to myself: “Oh, finally, it must sink in…” And it never does. The doctorate is one of those things.

After university, are you open to what’s next?
Yeah, totally. I have no idea what I want to do, which I tell myself is probably pretty normal for people my age. But that kind of burning desire to try to make the world a little better – or at least to try – was so ingrained in me by my family that I can’t imagine I would ever engage in activism and campaign in one form or another.

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