I’m about as cynical about social media as anyone. I spend too many hours of my life on the Internet and I feel icky about it. Any benefits I get — seeing what faraway friends are up to, learning about events I might be interested in, reading interesting and important articles — are usually offset by the disappointment at the wasted time. Yet every now and then, social media can be a source of joy, and sometimes even does what it set out to do: connect people.
Recently I’ve become a big fan of Instagram, a platform that revolves around photos, as a way to learn about nature and to share it with others. The “Insta” essence of Instagram — people take a photo and share it instantly — lends itself well to understanding what is happening in nature right now. I can look through my Instagram feed and see photo after photo that my friends and acquaintances shot today or yesterday. When the photos are of plants, or insects, or birds, and they are local to where I live, I know that perhaps I could go outside and see these things right now too.
I see Instagram as a way to contribute to phenology, the study of the timing of natural phenomena. To my delight, I can scroll back through my photos — or those of others — and see what was blooming or buzzing on a given date in history. I dream of my Instagram account becoming a sort of calendar of what’s happening in nature in the Pioneer Valley.
A feature of Instagram we nature nerds can use to our advantage is the hashtag, which is a way users can link their content with like content across the Internet. For example, if I want to make my photo of a monarch butterfly public and searchable, I can put #monarchbutterfly in the caption, or if I want to reach more scientists, I can include #danausplexippus (its scientific name) as well. These hashtags become hyperlinks that users can click, leading to a list of other photos with these hashtags. At times I have used this method to help corroborate my plant and animal identification. To cheer myself up in the doldrums of late winter I like to search the hashtag #hepatica to see dozens of photos of one of my favorite spring ephemeral wildflowers.
It was through the use of hashtags that I discovered the Instagram botany community — that is, the botanists and naturalists, some professional, some amateur, who share their beautiful photos in the interest of educating people. Over the five years I’ve been using Instagram, I’ve stumbled across users such as @the_buckeye_botanist and @newyork_botany, whose mission truly seems to be sharing their passion and expertise about nature. Many of these career naturalists have seen and photographed rare and endangered species that they share with the public on Instagram — opportunities to view things in nature that most of us never get to see.
My Instagram account, on the other hand, features humble flowers and common weeds (and the occasional photogenic insect). I do this on purpose. I enjoy sharing photos of the most readily noticeable plants because someone could put their phone down and see a real one out their window, or on their way to work or home. The photos I post are mostly of native plants, but some non-native ones as well. One of my favorite flowers is chicory, a brilliant blue weed found on gravelly roadsides that’s native to Europe, and I have shared it many times. If I learn something new I’m eager to share it with my small community of followers; if I can inspire
someone to notice something outside that they hadn’t seen before, it brings me joy. And the “social” part of social media allows people to interact with my photos and leave comments such as this recent one: “Saw this in Michigan today and wondered. Thank you.”
As an environmental educator, my goal is to share the beauty and wonder of nature with others in hopes that it brings joy and a desire to preserve it. We modern-day environmental educators have to spread the word about nature however we can, so why not Instagram?
Katie Koerten is an environmental educator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.