Written by Lynette Plenderleith
I have heard that if you have a Plan B, you are not fully committed to Plan A and you might as well wave it goodbye. Maybe that’s right. I had both a Plan A and Plan B and I worked exclusively through Plan B for well over ten years. Maybe I’ve sidestepped the inevitable only by now doing both.
I grew up in a remote area. Not going-to-boarding-school-because-there’s-no-other-option remote, but no-tofu-in-the-supermarket remote. There wasn’t even really a supermarket until I was a teenager. The supermarket was roughly what would now pass as a large “Express” version you might find at a fuel station. But this piece isn’t about supermarkets, despite current appearances. This article is more about the forests and the fields within a few hundred metres of said supermarket in my hometown. It’s about the beautiful rolling hills of England that were my home for the first twenty years of my life. Going for a walk as a child showed me rare orchids and badger setts, birds of prey and ancient fossils, third-order streams and acid grassland ecosystems. My family were all biologists of some description, with an emotional connection to the country and the knowledge of all its inhabitants – be them slimy, scaly, feathered or furry.
It hadn’t even occurred to me that conservationists were necessary. Surely everyone with the ability to see, hear, and feel would just look after the things that needed protection?
I wanted to work in film and television. I used to lie in bed at night pretending to review my books for an imaginary camera suspended from my ceiling. I wanted to be a presenter. I enjoyed drama and acting, singing and dancing. But I was advised against it. It was a silly idea for a girl from the country. Perhaps I’d like to be an English teacher?
No. I didn’t want to be an English teacher. But maybe I could be persuaded to do something outdoors. Something that required a waterproof hat and a pair of gumboots. I liked animals too – a lot, especially wildlife. And being out amongst it, in the rain, in the sun, all year round. Well, I didn’t love the cold so much, but I could tolerate it for the bird-watching. A love of the land runs through my blood, and my upbringing amongst the trees and the weather and the hills gave me a sense of responsibility for the wildlife and the habitat in which it lives.
As I grew older, the need for conservationists became more apparent to me. Climate change registered on my radar, along with endangered species and habitat destruction. I went off to university to study Biology and Environmental Science with the aim of making a difference. Then one day, in the rainforests of Indonesia, I met a frog biologist. Now that sounded like a nice career – outdoors with the wildlife, a good bit of writing, and frogs don’t like the cold either! So there was my Plan B: go to the jungle, study frogs. I’m not sure it was the alternative that those people had in mind when they told me to think of something other than the media.
I had hoped to do a Master’s in Wildlife Management and Conservation, but my grades weren’t good enough for the course I wanted to do. I also had very little experience and couldn’t even get an interview for the kinds of wildlife biologist jobs that were available in the UK. So I started sending speculative letters around the world to anyone that might have a job that would interest me.
I got really lucky; I got offered my first job at the Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative in Maryland, USA. That was easier than I thought. Less than a year out of uni and I had already made it! It was only a three-month contract (the length of the frog’s breeding season), but that first job opened doors for me all over the world.
A dozen years, one Master’s degree and a PhD later, I was still not only hankering after the glamour of a media career, but I had also come to recognise the value of conservation through storytelling. The accessibility of television and film, in particular, makes them amazing outreach tools. And although the nature of television is changing, the popularity of the screen medium continues to grow.
And I got really lucky for a second time. When I was a PhD student, I sat on an advisory board for a sustainability course; there, I met a TV producer who was looking for someone to fact-check a children’s wildlife show. The rest, as they say, is history…
I work freelance now as a science media professional. I present, write, and research science stories. I have my own film in pre-production and I’m producing a podcast. I founded Frogs Victoria, a state-wide amphibian interest group where I really get to flex my outreach muscles, and I am President of the Victorian chapter of Australian Science Communicators. I even continue to feed my herpetology addiction by occasionally working short or part-time science contracts. I suppose you might call it Plan C.
The freelance life can be a lonely one. Always the outsider, often the leader, the loneliest positions of all. In the ecology world, most people that I meet are working towards the same aims, even if they aren’t on the same project. But in the media, there are people with every imaginable stance on conservation. Even when we’re lonely, we conservationists are not alone because we stand on the shoulders of giants. We are not alone because we come from a rich heritage of people that made us care. Whether because they didn’t care enough or didn’t have the ability to do something about it, or whether they cared a lot and worked hard to make other people care. We were all brought up by people who have given us a reason to stand up and be counted as a global team of conservationists, scientists, teachers, and activists.
Follow Lynette on Instagram @lynplen