The mid-1800s through the early-1900s was the heyday for the study of natural history. Men and women explored the outdoors in droves, learning about birds, plants, and all other aspects of the natural world. Collecting was huge, but not often done in a sustainable manner (for example, birds were usually shot and then identified, and their eggs and nests were also collected; many of these items also made their way onto hats, but that's a whole different blog). Wasp nests decorated corners of rooms. Ferns were hugely popular in collections (a hobby known as Pteridomania) and were grown in miniature glass houses called Wardian Cases. Many a Victorian home had shelves or rooms that were known as Cabinets of Curiosities. The outdoors was “in.”
In many ways, I can relate to these Victorians, for I, too, love to collect natural objects. My house and my office are full of things I have found out in the field: acorns, rocks, shells, leaves, galls, exoskeletons, bones, sand. I often bring objects in so I can identify them at my leisure, or to incorporate in programs – original objects are terrific teaching tools. But in truth, some things I collect just because they fascinate me.
Legally, I am “allowed” to collect some of this stuff because I work at an educational facility that has the proper state and federal permits to possess such things as feathers and nests. What most people do not realize is that these items (all parts of or belonging to our native birds, with the exception of game birds like turkeys) are protected by law…a result of that very collection (and hat) craze of the Victorian era. Many bird populations were nearing critically low levels during this time and we have them around today only because laws were passed that made their collection illegal. So, please be aware that unless you have the proper permits, you cannot legally have most bird nests, feathers, or eggs in your collections.
Children are natural collectors; many’s the time we have had school groups here and found students with their pockets jam-packed with acorns, walnuts and more. I’ve had students who really wanted to take frogs home with them, or even worms. Rocks and sticks naturally find themselves in children’s hands. We are by nature drawn to picking up stuff that we find; more than once I have turned around to find a student has plucked the flower I was just showing them. I imagine this is an ancestral habit from when we were a nomadic species, and by investigating our surroundings we could determine if objects could be used for food or as tools to either help us get food more easily or to protect ourselves from those who wanted to eat us!
Today nature centers tend to discourage the urge to collect stuff, and in many cases this is quite reasonable, for if every student or visitor took a pocket full of souvenirs home, there would be a lot less here for others to enjoy (not to mention the impact it would have on the plants and animals themselves). However, I often wonder if we have taken this “hands off” dictate too far. If we do not encourage children to pick up and touch things, or to go off the trail to explore, we are putting just one more barrier between them and the natural world. And then we wonder why interest in the outdoors is waning.
As with all things, I think there is a happy medium here. There should places where we encourage visitors to step off the trail and go exploring. And it really is okay if a child pockets a walnut husk, or takes home an acorn cap that she has learned to use as a whistle. For it is only by exploring and getting our hands dirty that we engage our minds, learn about the natural world, and develop a love for it that will carry on into adulthood. I think every child should have his or her own cabinet of curiosities – a shoebox under the bed that is stuffed with found rocks, bones, and cicada exoskeletons. These will be the memories that tie him or her to the outdoors, memories that when accessed as an adult will hopefully trigger the desire to protect our planet.
With caution and respect, good sense and where permitted, collect on.