In Defence of the Frowned-upon

by Art Guppy

This article was inspired by a thought-provoking article by Ann Nightingale in the January-February, 2007 Victoria Naturalist in which she pondered the recent evolution of the ethics of nature watching.  She described how as a child, fascinated by the enchanting world of nature, she interacted with nature in ways that are now frowned upon.  As examples, she mentions turning over rocks on the beach, collecting shells, and taking tadpoles home to observe their transition into frogs.  Her article and the questions it raises are of such general interest that I am submitting my response to it to BC Nature because it reaches a large number of people.

Whether they call themselves conservationists or environmentalists, the people who do the frowning are in a nice, safe position.  The activities they frown upon may sometimes harm living creatures, so they feel they are the good people attacking the bad people, or at least the bad habits that harm nature.  Because frowners seem to be attacking bad people or bad activities, the people of the media eagerly repeat their frowns and thus greatly amplify them.  But is reality that simple?

I have never met Ann, but I have read enough of her articles in the Victoria Naturalist to feel that I know her as the kind of naturalist the world needs more of.  Surely those activities that the frowners disapprove of must have played an important part in making her what she is.  There is something very strange about the reasoning of the people doing the frowning if they object to the activities that produce naturalists.  As a boy I engaged in those same activities, and others that are frowned upon, and I am a naturalist and proud of it.  I believe that the frowners are guilty of what I call “incomplete thinking”.  They think of the effect of someone turning over a rock on the beach to observe the fascinating creatures under it, and then leaving the creatures exposed to the air and predators.  That would be bad and their thinking stops there, so they frown upon all turning over of rocks, even when the rocks are carefully replaced.  Worse than that, their thinking stops short of considering what observing the amazing creatures under the rocks does for the observer, especially if the observer is a child.

No doubt sometimes a little harm was done to the creatures under the rocks, but only a little, and the activity helped produce naturalists. In a world full of people who exploit nature, or who damage it by careless behavior, there is a great need for naturalists who act as the defenders of nature.  Furthermore, there is a great need for ordinary people to be less ignorant of nature.  Human ignorance is nature’s greatest enemy.  Surely if nature suffers a tiny bit of damage from an activity that helps produce naturalists, or that makes people less ignorant of nature, the world of nature has paid a very small price for a very great benefit.  The frowners need to think more carefully and to use common sense to keep things in perspective.  As a person who has done many frowned-upon things and encouraged my children to do the same, I suggest a more complete thinking process and the use of common sense.  Probably most naturalist when they were children enjoyed some of the now frowned-upon activities, and to an important extent are the product of those activities.

From my window as I write this at my home near Duncan, I can look out at Mt. Prevost with its upper part white with snow like a picture on a Christmas card.  It makes me think of how kids take motorcycles up there and roar about with their wheels scattering bulbs of the beautiful Erythronium grandiflorum.  I know that I would never have done that, but can I know how I would have behaved if I had not learned to love nature when I was a child?  I am sure the unfortunate kids who do the damage on Mt. Prevost never learned to love nature, or they couldn’t behave that way.  The frowners need to go further with their thoughts and think of the importance of having young people learn to love nature, even if sometimes at the cost of a tiny bit of damage to nature.

The collecting of tadpoles, as Ann did, is an example.  Occasionally a child may neglect the ones collected and they may die, which is unfortunate, but the chance of those lost creatures being the young of a rare species is very slight, and the natural mortality of tadpoles is very high.  The chances for survival for the tadpoles collected by a child are probably much better than for those left in their natural habitat.

Certainly in the past there were activities carried on by adults — often scientists — that were reprehensible.  Ornithologists, for example, were sometimes far too ready to shoot birds to add to their extensive collection of bird skins, and frowners have served a very useful function by encouraging such scientists to think before they shoot.  Birds are thinking creatures, almost certainly capable of self-awareness, and hence are in a very different category from tadpoles and the little creatures under beach rocks.

Ann mentioned something that frowners frown upon which I feel very strongly about.  It has become fashionable to frown upon the single-family dwelling because to a large extent such dwellings make up our city suburbs, and suburbs have spread over large areas where nature once thrived.  The reasoning is that if people gave up living in single-family dwellings, suburbs could be greatly compressed and large areas would be saved for nature.  That is incomplete thinking at its worst.  Think of the children who would grow up in multiple-family dwellings.  Think of the children now who grow up in such dwellings because their parents cannot afford to buy their own house.  How much contact do the majority of such children have with nature?  There is the occasional very conscientious parent who takes a child for walks in the country, but even those contacts with nature of necessity are likely to be brief.  Most children in multiple-family dwellings see nothing of nature during most of their lives except the sanitized and essentially fictitious version of nature presented on television.  If they are lucky, once a year they will be taken for a vacation in the country, but it will seem such a strange environment to them that likely they will want to turn up a radio or other noise-making device to drown out the foreign sounds of nature.  How many of those children will grow up to be naturalists?  An occasional lucky one will come under the influence of someone who grew up in a single-family dwelling; the rest will see nature merely as something to be exploited as a source of money.

The great virtue of a single-family dwelling (or sometimes a side-by-side duplex) is that it has a back yard, and given a chance, nature creates itself in a back yard.  It is the back yard that incubates naturalists, though a nearby piece of vacant land can be a great help.  Do away with single-family dwellings, and you do away with naturalists and, of course, with natural history societies.  As naturalists and natural history societies are the defenders of nature, frowners with their incomplete thinking would have us do away with the defenders of nature.  It is true that city suburbs are gobbling up the world of nature, but that is because the human population of the world keeps increasing, while the world has a fixed size.  That is a very big problem, but it is beyond the scope of this article.  It is a situation that will not be helped by doing away with single-family dwellings.  Of course, many people choose for various reasons to live in multiple-family dwellings, but we should never allow frowners to convince us that people should be forced to live there.  City planners are much too eager to provide that pressure.  When I think of this situation, I remember the words of the very perceptive historian Arnold Toynbee, who concluded that civilizations are not murdered, but die by suicide.

I grew up at Tofino when it was a small village consisting entirely of single-family dwellings, most of which faced on Tofino Inlet which, with its connection to the Pacific Ocean, was our unpaved highway to the outside world.  The house I lived in was uninsulated and drafty, but had a multitude of virtues.  My mother’s garden and nature shared a big untidy yard, and around us was lots of vacant land.  Best of all, the yard ended in a beach, where at low tide there was an enchanted world inhabited by a multitude of extraordinary creatures.  I spent the happiest hours of my childhood on that beach and the calm, inviting waters of the inlet.

Looking back, I marvel at having had the good fortune to live there at that time.  That beach had everything that a naturalist could ever want on a beach.  There was a sandy area edged with seagrass that was alive with marvelous things (and where one could dig clams for a meal, if one wished).  Nearby there were big outcroppings of rock that didn’t quite reach the surface at high tide.  Everywhere there were great numbers of gulls and other birds adapted to a marine habitat.  Best of all there great numbers of rocks to be turned over and no frowners frowning when I turned them over.  Of course I always carefully replaced them because I loved the amazing creatures that lived under them, and one does not intentionally harm the living things one loves.  I was especially fond of the little brittle stars that lived on the underside of the rocks, and I quickly learned to be very careful with them because if I touched one roughly it would react by dropping off part of an arm or even a whole arm in the hope that a predator would be satisfied with that.  Brittle stars are only distantly related to starfish, of which there were a great many of several different kinds on and under the rocks.  Among seaweeds in tide pools and under rocks if there was water and space, there were always blennies, which we called “eels”, though they are really long, slender fish adapted for hiding in small spaces.

The most astonishing of all the creatures in the tide pools, in shallow water among seaweeds and kelp, and sometimes under rocks, were the nudibranchs, some of which are called sea slugs, which is not unreasonable as nudibranchs are molluscs and are related to the slugs we find in our gardens.  Nudibranchs often have such astonishing shapes and colours that if real ones were described in science fiction, they would be dismissed as unbelievable.  The most amazing of these extraordinary creatures is one that is slug-like in shape, but not in appearance.  Its back is covered with slender lobes which function as gills, and are tipped with glowing orange as a warning to predators that they contain nematocysts, which are tiny cells containing a powerful toxin.  When the nematocysts are disturbed, they burst and inject the toxin into whatever has disturbed them.  They are not produced by the nudibranch, but by a process that is one of nature’s wonders, they are obtained from the hydroids which the nudibranch eats, and does so somehow without disturbing the nematocysts.  The tiny poison cells are then transferred intact to the orange tips of the lobes where they serve to protect the nudibranch.  They are too minute to harm a person, but evidently are potent enough to discourage predators.

When as a boy I began to read about evolution, I was delighted with the idea as it fitted so well with what I was seeing during low tides.  After I read about a crab that had evolved the habit of planting itself all over with seaweed, I found the real, living crab in shallow water among seaweeds.  So perfect was the crab’s camouflage that I stepped on one thinking I was stepping on seaweed.  That camouflage allows the crab to wait for prey among seaweeds and be absolutely invisible.

Now as I think of that beach and all I learned by turning over rocks and browsing about in shallow water, I feel sad, for no other child will ever enjoy the same experience on that beach, for it no longer exists.  Dredges have been at work and now there are wharves and boats where I used to marvel at the wonders of nature.  The loss of that enchanted beach is no one’s fault.  As the human population of the world increases, bit by bit nature is sacrificed.  Nevertheless, the reality of such damage to nature should help us keep in perspective the minute amount of damage that might be done when a child turns over a rock.  The thought of the loss of that beautiful beach stirred me, with apologies, to mangle some lines from Lewis Carroll.

The Walrus and the Carpenter

Were walking close at hand:

They wept like anything to see

The blackened, muddy sand:

“If docks were only cleared away,”

They said, “it would be grand!”


“If ninety boys turned ninety rocks

And worked for half a year,

Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,

“They’d make it quite so drear?”

“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,

And shed a bitter tear.

Corrupted from Through the Looking-Glass, Chapter IV

Only one child in many millions can live close to a beach like the one I knew so well, but nature offers many opportunities to many children and to many adults.  Insects, especially butterflies and moths can be fascinating to many people, especially to children, and the exercise of that fascination can bring on much frowning, so I must come back to it later in this article, but now I am going to write about my own fascination with wild plants, a fascination that I developed after I left Tofino and its wonderful beaches.  It is a fascination that has caused me to encounter some rather specialized frowning.

Before I leave the frowning experienced by children, I will just mention an activity that used to be very common, but is now frowned upon, and in this case I am forced, reluctantly, to join the frowning.  I am thinking of young people, usually girls, making collections of pressed wildflowers.  In the past it really was an excellent activity, though even then there had to be some supervision to protect rare plants, but now with so many people, even in B.C., the damage to uncommon plants likely would be too great.  Many years ago I was recruited to judge the collections made by a group of girl guides, and I was very impressed with the amount of knowledge some of the girls had gained by carefully identifying their collections.  The loss of that activity is sad, but it is another loss that goes with the increasing human population.

Growing wildflowers from seed for a wildflower garden is an excellent activity, but most wildflowers grow too slowly to keep the attention of children.  For adults, it is a very practical activity, though of course it generally requires a single-family dwelling with a garden.  Unfortunately, it can lead to the digging of plants in the wild, which is frowned upon, often with reason.  This is a difficult and dangerous subject.  If such collecting were approved of,  some would feel they could dig everything and anything, and they would do very serious damage.  Generally it is the ignorant person who does the damage, as he collects plants that cannot grow in garden conditions and they simply die.  If a person has a conscience and is careful to collect only where the plants are numerous and nature will quickly replace the lost plant, no harm is done.  The person learns about the plant, and people he shows it to in his garden learn about the plant, so the result is good.  I will leave it at that.  It is a matter of conscience.  We need to keep in mind that ignorance is nature’s worst enemy, which means that knowledge can be nature’s friend.


About Art Guppy

Art spent over 70 years studying and writing about native plants of the Pacific Northwest from BC to California, especially the genus Erythronium and related plants. This site is a compilation of his work for the benefit of naturalists everywhere.
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