Jonaki Bhattacharyya, PhD, does applied research in ethnoecology (focusing on Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge), conservation planning, and wildlife management. Integrating cultural values and knowledge systems with ecological issues, her research endeavours have ranged from remote villages in India to backcountry meadows in British Columbia (BC), Canada. As Senior Researcher withThe Firelight Group Research Cooperative, Jonaki works with First Nations and communities in Western Canada. Focusing on relationships between people, animals and places, she seeks to make applied contributions to conservation and human management practices around wildlife, protected areas, natural resources, and ecological systems. Jonaki is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia.
Jonaki’s current work builds upon years of engagement with Indigenous peoples, and diverse stakeholders and agencies throughout BC. She continues long-term research on wild horses and traditional Tsilhqot’in First Nations’ systems of land management in BC’s Central Interior. She holds a PhD in Environmental Planning, and Master of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo. She was recently awarded a Wilburforce Fellowship in Conservation Science. Jonaki is motivated by the desire to connect the power of individuals’ experiences in wild nature with policy and governance decisions, so that the knowledge and conservation ethics of people on the ground have a stronger voice in decisions affecting the land.
Yes. Unhesitatingly, yes was my response when invited to share a story at a storytelling evening among landscape ecologists.
It’s not that I’m a show-off. In fact I’m an introvert. But I was burned out at the time, worn down from overwork and life stresses. The result was that I felt I’d lost whatever creative spark used to infuse my work. Storytelling seemed like just the thing to get the juices flowing again. So I leapt at the chance.
Little did I know that only weeks later as the event drew near, I’d be wrestling with a draft of my story, a growing tangle of nervous discontent and self-judgement in my belly.
The good news is that it didn’t end that way.
As a social scientist with a background in the humanities and ecological sciences, I’ve always been drawn to stories in research and life. The core questions that underpin all of my work are: How do people experience their own love of nature? What moves them to care for and protect natural places? How does one person reach out and touch that motivation in another?
For years, I’ve worked in the field of environmental conservation, always focused on people, places, and stories – ethnography, oral history, local knowledge, Indigenous culture. I’m that woman who walks around in the backcountry with an audio recorder in hand, always ready for the next good tale. My professional writing is woven with narrative excerpts – the stories people have shared. Even tracking wildlife or measuring plants, I’m really just following storylines that are imprinted on the land.
My own memory is chock-full of personal stories from the field – wacky adventures, near misses, beautiful reflections, colourful characters – that never make it into formal written papers. But somewhere along the way, my own brief pieces of creative writing fell aside, and dried up all together – casualties on the factory floor of academic productivity.
So of course I was eager to tell a story. It sounded like good fun! The staff from Springer and Story Collider were supportive from the start. They warmly received my pitch for a story over the phone, and encouraged me to send a written draft so that we could polish it together. No problem. I write for a living.
Yet somehow, when I wrote it out, that spark fizzled out again.
I entered the familiar territory of revising, wordsmithing, struggling with decisions about what to edit out…and the story lost its energy. I had excellent feedback from the producer, from friends and colleagues with whom I practised…yet I couldn’t make my story feel right.
In anguished frustration, with five days to go until performance night, I complained to my partner: “I should be good at this! Stories are what I do. I want to be good at it. Why is this so hard?”
That was when he gently pointed out something that should have been obvious to me: “You deal with other people’s stories. Telling your own is different. How often do you do that? It’s going to take practice.”
Hm. Of course.
It turns out that telling a good story, a personal story that touches other people, is an art and a craft. Like music or singing, it is a unique combination of skill and technique, together with phrasing, tonal and emotional nuance, feelings. This is something that the people at Story Collider know very well, and thankfully they have experience guiding people like me through that epiphany. Their producer didn’t skip a beat when I told her four days before the event, “I’m throwing away my written draft.”
I went for a walk, cleared my head, and then got out a blank sheet of paper and a pen. I drew a meandering path across the page, and began filling in features along the way: events, quotes, sensory details. Then I looked at it for a while, put it away, and recounted my story from memory over the phone to Story Collider’s producer. Better. Getting there.
Practice, practice, practice: over the phone to friends; muttering to myself while walking on public footpaths; visualizing silently on the plane to the event.
At last we were there. I saw the other storytellers, and realized we were all nervous – even the senior professors who have taught and lectured to large audiences for years. This was different. There were no notes, no slides, no prompts, and it was personal.
I walked to the microphone and spoke my first sentence. Eager smiles and laughter! Second sentence – the audience was right with me. I thought, This is going to be OK. And it was. In fact it felt wonderful.
And that is the magic. People connect through stories. Stories are how we learn, relate, empathize, and remember. Standing up there and telling my own story, I felt the power, humility and vulnerability in sharing a personal story with a room full of people. I was reminded by the audience of the generosity inherent in the act of listening, really listening.
As a social scientist, working on the story gave me helpful first-hand insights to many of the methodological decisions I deal with in my academic and professional writing. What details to include or leave out? Where is the central theme? How much to guide the audience’s interpretation of someone else’s experience? Am I representing the characters fairly?
Crafting a good story yielded some valuable techniques that translate to improve the way I communicate about my work and how I teach. I truly believe personal stories do have a place in professional scientific discourse. Without them we are at best dull and forgettable, at worst lost.
For me, storytelling is not merely a form of science communication. It is a core aspect of human connection to the world around us. In my work, storytelling is a forum where the colourful personal emotions and experiences that often make conservation science work most meaningful are celebrated as the best part! It reinvigorated the dormant passion that underlies my work – the creativity I’d lost in recent years. I can’t wait to try it again.