Written by Kate Stephenson aka Kate on Conservation
Back in January 2020, ahead of the most life-changing of events that many of us would ever face — and certainly the most life-changing that we have all faced collectively — an extraordinary thing happened.
I entered Terra Incognita’s Travel Writer of the Year competition, centred around ethical tourism — and the judges selected me as a prize winner!
To set the scene, I began my media and communications career at the age of 15 – after a year of work experience and maxing out on opportunities for young writers and reporters, I landed my first paid-per-article role, and set the ball rolling for the numerous professional opportunities that would follow. At 18, I completed a hands-on volunteering role in the conservation sector during a gap year in Africa, and from there began the long road of combining my love of reporting and storytelling, with my passion for conservation.
Although my early career wove through a somewhat convoluted path, I’m fortunate to be able to say that it was a fairly successful route. Culminating in 3 years spent working for Discovery Education (as in the Discovery Channel’s educational output), followed by 3 years at National Geographic’s children’s publication, I decided to take the (albeit terrifying) plunge to go it alone, and pursue self-employment through my blog and freelance writing work.
And so we arrive at that incredible moment of discovering that I had won one-in-a-lifetime prize from Terra Incognita’s Travel Writer of the Year competition, January 2020.
Literally days after leaving my job at National Geographic Kids magazine to venture into the world of freelance writing (can you imagine now how poorly timed that decision was?!), I had landed the most amazing start — an award; some writing publicity; and most unbelievably: a trip of lifetime to Costa Rica and the Peruvian Amazon to experience ethical travel tours that would introduce me to sloths for the first time, see me staying in fabulous eco lodges, enjoying bird watching tours and many other exciting plans. Which, of course, I would write about.
I planned, prepped and saved — as with many of these competition prizes, the cost of the flights was not included, but I knew that with a little determination, and a few freelance roles later, that wouldn’t be a problem.
Fast forward two months and we all know the story. The world was shut down and the realisation that I’d left a steady and successful career to become a freelancer at a time where no one could take the risk of using their finances to commission any outside work, was beginning to hit home. The idea of taking any kind of exotic trip turned into a cruel joke.
All plans and dreams, targets and milestones slipped away – in a 12-month period that would see both my 30th birthday and the 10th anniversary of my Kate on Conservation blog, all those ideas of ‘making it on my own’ as I strode through those success markers washed away, and quite frankly it felt like shit.
30 left me feeling washed up and rejected; 10 years of input without being able to turn my blog experience into a self-reliant career felt like failure. If I can’t do it now, when can I? And to top it all off, like many others I had to learn to navigate being locked in a house with two toddlers 24/7, who even now are still far too young to under concepts such as ‘virus’ and ‘lockdown’.
Perhaps not such a common problem, however; a long suspected suspicion was simultaneously confirmed; my insides were trying to kill me. So started a six-month medical treatment originally developed to stop the spread of prostate cancer in men; which eventually became a 12-month treatment owing to pandemic-related surgery delays; and would push me instantly into the vulnerable category – meaning I really was in the house 24/7 with two toddlers for months on end.
Somewhere between picking toys off of the floor for the thousandth time a day, and trying to block the congested-sounding voice of Peppa Pig from my mind (I surely can’t be the only mum who’s started hearing her own internal thoughts spoken in Peppa’s voice?!), I took a Conservation Careers Kickstarter course and applied for a handful of jobs I was overqualified for (and didn’t make it to interview), then applied for a couple of roles I was underqualified for (and did make it to interview, only to have my decision to try and jump the experience-gap awkwardly raked over the coals).
All while trying to conceal how ill I was from the glaring spotlight of social media and prospective job opportunities. Sure, it was a lot to take on – but it was literally my make-or-break moment; sink or swim; live or die.
So hey, what are you going to do when your life is falling apart around you? Commit to more things! A stay-at-home freelancer that wasn’t freelancing just wasn’t going to cut it for me, so I decided that it would be a great time to launch an online support network of like-minded people, The Wildlife Blogger Crowd.
My vision for The Wildlife Blogger Crowd came from a desire to create a community of wildlife and nature storytellers, where people could share posts, join discussions and support other content creators – which would in turn give me the chance to feel like a valued professional again.
As our community grew and connections between members became stronger, plans for a free mentoring scheme also became a reality; to provide members a means of committed connection to other conservation communicators, where they can explicitly ask for the help and guidance they need. Having utilized the value of mentors in my earlier (more straightforward) career journey, I hoped to re-create something similar for others.
Before too long, the ‘holy grail’ of a printed book crossed my mind. A chance to give everything single person in the Wildlife Blogger Crowd community the opportunity to list themselves as a published writer.
Six months after launching the Crowd, and too many weeks of Covid -19 restrictions to even differentiate between the months anymore; I thought about those savings accrued for my flights to South America — and I put them all into creating an anthology.
Staying grounded (quite literally — and figuratively too, as it would happen) at the beginning of this new stage of my career had changed my perception; and building up the opportunities available to my online community now seemed far more important than chasing those that I would keep to myself.
Plus, I had the small matter of contending with being bed-ridden for a little while after having my womb and ovaries removed, but hey; at least my body isn’t trying to kill me anymore.
In a time of pandemic, if I could not get out and explore the world; enjoy its natureful offerings and write about it: then I would bring the world to me, share in other people’s natureful experiences and create a book out of it! Hopefully one that will inspire all of the members of our collective blogger crowd, and beyond.
And who knows, now that things seem to be looking up again, perhaps this washed-up 31-year-old might actually get some freelance contracts – or even make enough money back to afford those Costa Rica flights. I really do need to get out of my house more – and get the hell away from Peppa Pig.
For more of Kate, check out @kateconservation and @wildlifebloggercrowd on Instagram
You can also buy her new book ‘Connections with Nature: 50 Moments of Meeting the Wild’ here