The most illegal thing I’ve ever come close to doing was want to start a feather collection.
I’m reluctant to admit to almost commiting a felony online, but it struck me the other day that much of my childhood was potentially illegal. Not intentionally -- I wasn’t a poacher hunting Bald Eagles or collecting snakeskins to grind up into medicine -- but as a curious, wonder-eyed child who liked to pick up seashells and tadpoles, and who liked cracking open mussels to feed octopi in tidepools. None of it was malicious or disrespectful. Yet, my actions would have been greeted with angry scolding in certain circles. As I grew older, and entered the birding community, I became very conscious of our treatment of the environment, and the way people directed their frustration into ethical projections: nature, as defined as rules. It was a concept that was both familiar and alien to me. I couldn’t imagine a childhood without raising wild-caught caterpillars and praying mantises. Yet, I understood that if everyone did what I did, soon there might be no more caterpillars and praying mantises.
My inner ethical battle reached its pinnacle when I entered the wider world of wildlife biology -- more specifically, collecting. It struck me how many of the people who were angered by museum collecting, a controlled process with limited licenses and lengthy applications, were probably not vegetarians. Their anger was not motivated by the fear that the collection practices are unsustainable. They’re not. They were motivated by ethical concerns. There was a disconnect between collecting in nature, and eating a McDonald’s burger, because a wall between nature and man has been slowly drawn for the last century. Gone are the days of Teddy Roosevelt: when the greatest naturalists were hunters as well as scientists. Instead, overhunting and dwindling resources triggered by the tragedy of the commons has shifted the majority of wildlife-lovers in a more protective direction. In a world where man outnumbers nature, such a viewpoint is fitting to protect limited resources. But sometimes, this attitude is taken to potentially dangerous lengths: a primarily moral standpoint.
Several instances come to mind. One extreme, a Facebook group against bird banding, cites the cruelty and very small number of deaths that banding causes. Given the vast amount of data generated from bird-banding that aids conservation, their attitude seems to stem from this 21st-century phenomenon: a view that nature is a pristine thing to be maintained outside of human interference, human touch, and human disturbance, like a diorama at a museum: do not touch. Others bemoan the successful technique of shooting Barred Owls to protect the endangered Spotted Owl. Most of their concerns stem from ethics (the owl situation is a whole ‘nother can of worms, but for this essay, we’ll focus on the belief that man should not “mess with nature” even further). Still other organizations will jump in anger at the use of pishing on a nature reserve -- an action that has just as much effect on the well-being of birds as the presence of humans there in the first place. Some of these attitudes are understandable, but the have unintended side effects on how humans and nature interact.
Humans are very much a part of nature. To set strict moral rules determining which interactions are permitted defies the relationship. Some rules are in place because tragedy of the commons dictates that if every visitor peered into a sensitive bird’s nest or plucked an endangered flower, these resources would be soiled. These privileges are usually left to researchers, whose curiosity is considered of a different breed: more structured, more meaningful. Such restrictions are necessary, but if anything, they are guidelines: tenets for how we should respect and treat an easily disturbed common resource - not commandments for the treatment of nature as a separate, holy, entity. Some actions, such as collecting and hunting, have obvious reasons to be limited. But this limitation should not come solely from a place of higher morality but sustainability and practicality. Draconian attitudes infused with self-righteousness go contrary to the ever-flowing, ever-embracing style of nature. This brand draws a glass wall between humans and nature, as well as “common people” and environmentalists. We forget that nature is resilient, as we are, and not a thin crystal statue liable to shatter at a touch. What we cannot interact with becomes stagnant. Then, we may forget that man, too, is rightfully a part of the woods. Nature falls apart in our hands. Society views it as a stop along a sightseeing tour or step on a wellness lifestyle change, forgetting that it ever existed, raw and untamed, on our doorstep.
So I came to learn, that respecting nature did not necessarily mean leaving it alone. Respect, in fact, had to be fostered by both education and interaction. As for my childhood? The mirth caused by my discovery of its unlawfulness was mitigated when I discovered that almost all of the species I had caught were introduced. There are no native praying mantises in California, nor were the mosquito fish I kept in a ten-gallon tank protected by law. Those House Sparrows I had attempted to catch with a butterfly net? Invasive. In my pursuits of curiosity, I had not imposed on a protected species. Yet, I imagined the hordes of people still left balking at my actions, and I realized with sadness that their kids might not ever have the chance to explore nature like we used to.