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Clay Bolt: MYN Made Me a Better Naturalist

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Backyard Naturalists is a new program to inspire children to look at the natural world. Meet Your Neighbours (MYN), the photographer's project funded by Clay Bolt and Niall Benvie, is a big step in making Backyard Naturalists a success. We interviewed Bolt about both projects and how MYN as changed his perspective on photography.

Clay Bolt in the field during a MYN project shooting session.

Launched last May, the children’s program, Backyard Naturalists aims to inspire a lifelong appreciation of the natural world in children through educational programming that integrates science, art, and technology.

The program will draw from the considerable educational resources of the Highlands Nature Center, where staff has provided hands-on science-learning opportunities to help educate the community and promote conservation for over 60 years. Backyard Naturalists will utilize the images produced by MYN to capture the attention of a generation of children fully integrated in technology.

Meet Your Neighbours is a project centered on the discovery of the wildlife close to home. It was created by Clay Bolt and Nial Benvie in 2009. The project is dedicated to reconnecting people with the wildlife on their own doorsteps – and enriching their lives in the process.

These creatures and plants are vital to people. They represent the first, and for some, the only contact with wild nature. Yet too often they are overlooked, undervalued.

Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa)

Phototuts+: How was the MYN project born?

Bolt: When I first saw Niall's field studio work I was really impressed. I was in a bit of a rut with my own photography and wanted to try something different. This technique struck a chord with me not only because of its artistry, but also because the photographs were made out in the wild.

I loved the idea that something so polished could be made in a portable studio without harming the subject. Niall and I were having a conversation about the work and he made the comment that he "wished it could become a movement."

I went away with that thought in my mind and soon followed up with him with a proposal detailing how we could start a project to enlist photographers around the world to shoot in this same way in hopes that they might appreciate the wildlife in their communities better. He had recently put together a proposal for a children's book project called "Meet Your Neighbours in the Pond." The name stuck and nearly three years later, here we are!

Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)

Pt+: Looking back, how is the MYN project going? Is it reaching the initial aims?

CB: The project was founded in late 2009, although it didn't really get off of the ground until early 2010. Each bit of progress is a gift and I continue to be amazed and appreciative at just how much it is growing.

Currently, we have representation in around 30 locations around the world with new applications coming in on a regular basis. I've always tried to adhere to the philosophy that if you open even a few people's eyes to the natural world then you've done something.

It is really rewarding to learn about people moving forward and sharing the project on their own without being prompting by Niall or me. Once this began to happen on a regular basis, I realized that we were beginning to see the first signs of a movement of sorts. I'm excited to see where it will all lead!

Roosting Cuckoo Bees (Nomadinae)

Pt+:The MYN project aims to reconnect people with the wildlife on their own doorsteps. Do you feel people need to be reminded of that? Is MYN filling a void in the network of organizations working with nature and wildlife?

CB: One of the unfortunate necessities of many conservation-based projects is that they tend to focus on critically imperiled ecosystems and species that most of us will never have a chance to witness first hand. So much of the great work that is being done happens to take place in locations that are almost like a fairy-tale land to the average person on the street.

Again, this is very important but it makes it very difficult for most people to relate to the loss of these species and places. In addition, it has become apparent to me that many people have become numb to the whole "doom and gloom" message that has been a critical component of many of the conservation campaigns we've witnessed over the past few years.

With Meet Your Neighbours we wanted to take a different approach. In the tradition of Wild Wonders of Europe (of which Niall was a founding member), we want to show people that there is still so much beauty and diversity out there that we CAN save. That we CAN provide a place for.

One of our mantras is that this is a proactive conservation project where we have a chance to save today's common species so that they don't become the threatened species of tomorrow. One of my personal goals of MYN is to dispel the myths that rarity equates to more important, more amazing or more beautiful.

There are so many species that are rare today that were once very plentiful. We don't have the luxury of being able to take these creatures for granted any longer.

Green Frog (Rana clamitens), South Carolina, USA by Clay Bolt.

Finally, we want to create a sense of wonder and nourish a sense of adventure in our viewers. We want to challenge people to go out and see what actually lives all around them. I can guarantee you that anyone who makes an effort to go out and really seek out the wildlife that lives around their neighbourhood will come home having seen something amazing.

To paraphrase one of my heroes, entomologist (and MYN contributor) Piotr Naskrecki, "Over 90% of life on Earth is smaller than our little finger." Life is all around us. We just need to slow down and change our point of view!

Pt+: You’re involved with children projects now. Is this part of the global plan to make people aware of wildlife?

CB: Although Niall and I didn't initially set out to create a children's program as part of the program, we are both passionate about connecting children to the natural world and I believe that we have been aware from the beginning that this style of photography captures the attention of children.

Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)

After about a year and a half into the project, we began to discuss how a MYN program for children might be developed. I had just made contact with a wonderful new sponsor for the project, The Highlands Biological Foundation in Highlands, North Carolina, and their administrative director Sonya Carpenter, and I began to discuss how might create a kid's program at the Highlands Biological Station.

As it often happens, ideas converge and the material that we began to develop with biologist Megan Eckardt was a perfect fit for the MYN children's program as well. Soon afterwards, Backyard Naturalists was born!

Building off of the MYN technique and experiential teaching techniques, Backyard Naturalists (BYN) aims to inspire a lifelong appreciation of the natural world in children through educational programming that integrates science, art, and technology. We just completed our first 8-week pilot program in Highlands with much success and a lot of insight into how we can continue to nurture this program in the years to come.

Pt+: The BYN project is a way to keep with the MYN in terms of external image. You’ve finished a 8 week program. What’s next? Do you have other plans concerning the expansion of BYN’s and MYN’s projects?

CB: We have many plans in the works for MYN and honestly, a project that I thought might last a year or so seems to be rather boundless at this point. Right now, our number one goal is to grow our network of photographers and partners so that we can have as much geographic representation as possible.

We would like to see an increasing number of MYN photographers sharing their local species with their communities in innovative and unconventional ways. One exciting event that will be coming up in August is the National Geographic BioBlitz in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

A team of MYN photographers in partnership with the iLCP, International League of Conservation Photographers, will be photographing a wide variety of the species that park scientists will be discovering during the 24 hour event.

We are hoping to use these images to show the people of Colorado just how much biodiversity thrives in their own community. This technique is a perfect match for a BioBlitz because once your lighting is set up, the process can be used in almost an assembly-line fashion to make beautiful portraits of a wide range of species in a very short amount of time.

Imperial Moth Caterpillar (Eacles imperialis), Pickens, South Carolina by Clay Bolt.

Pt+: You mention an increasing number of MYN photographers. How do you recruit photographers for the cause?

CB: Initially we sent out letters to every conservation organization and photographer whom we felt might be a good fit for the project. At first, the responses were very slow to trickle in. It was a bit disheartening to be honest.

However, after we began to gain endorsements and build a good team, other photographers seemed to recognize our dedication and began coming forward. For the most part, these days we have been in the fortunate position of not having to actively recruit with a few exceptions.

We are still hopeful that more contributors will come forward from South and Central America, Asia and Africa. We do have representatives in these places but we could use a lot more coverage. They are all big places with a tremendous amount of diversity that needs to be shared with their local community.

After all, what is exotic to you and me is just a boring old backyard to someone else. It's all about perspective in the end.

Red Salamanders (Pseudotriton ruber) are thick-bodied, brightly colored amphibians found in the eastern United States.

Pt+: Is MYN a "professional photographers only" group or are you open to photographers of various levels?

CB: MYN is unique in that it welcomes both professional photographers as well as passionate amateurs. We didn't want this to be another project only open to celebrity photographers.

Our goal is to create an awareness of our amazing natural world and there is an entire army of people out there who want to help. I see this as being the other crucial segment of the conservation photography movement.

Although all of our contributors are held to professional standards – from ethics to labeling files correctly – I find it hard to downgrade someone's willingness to do something good simply because they don't make their entire income from the camera. Some of the greatest findings in natural history have come from "non-professional" naturalists. We need to stop the class-warfare and get on with the task at hand.

Oak Treehoppers (Platycotis vittata).

Pt+: How much has MYN changed your perspective in terms of nature and wildlife photography?

CB: I think that the thing that I've enjoyed the most about my work in this project is that it has forced me to become a better naturalist and as a result of pushing my observation skills I've learned a great deal about my local wildlife and the wildlife found around the world.

In addition, I've been able to travel vicariously through the work of others and see amazing plants and animals that I might never have the chance to see in person. Each day something arrives in my inbox that makes me say "wow!" Meet Your Neighbours has reconfirmed my belief that nature contains boundless beauty and innovation and that we must cherish these things today, while we still can.

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