I come from a family of hoarders, and much of my childhood was spent slavishly furthering that great tradition – toy buses, coins, Dandy comics, badges, postcards, stamps, those utterly useless wee sheathed pens you used to get at every visitor attraction across the land, and much more besides.
Thankfully, unless you count Munro-bagging as collecting (it’s difficult to take a mountain home thank goodness!), my urge to collect dissipated into my teenage years and I naively assumed my collecting days were long behind me. But 30 years later, when I clean the inside of my car before taking it for a service, I’m reminded how I’ve made a spectacular return to old habits and how insidiously my vocation fills every nook and cranny of my life.
Like most hillwalkers’ vehicles mine is a Tracey Emin-style modern art installation depicting my recent walking history. The seats are littered with random kit, maps, leaflets and expired car park or ferry tickets, and the footwell carpet is coated in dried seeds, sand and small stones. However, in the storage tray on the driver’s door I find an assortment of different coloured snail shells from Sutherland. In the passenger door, a handful of nibbled scots pine cones I’d collected to teach local primary school kids about red squirrels. In the pit below the hand brake, a scallop shell from Harris and a flaky grey stone from West Lothian, imprinted with a fossilised leaf.
Beneath the mass of papers on the back seat I discover a protective glass pot wrapped in a freezer bag. Inside is a grey paper sphere the size of a table tennis ball – a wasp nest I had to remove from the ranger hut at Linn of Dee last summer. It has a dozen hexagonal cells inside it, half of which contain the silk cocoons of wasp larvae that never hatched. “Why’s it there?” you ask. Erm…why not?
The car now clean, I drive it down to the local garage. Before getting out I open the glove compartment to get the locking wheel nut ready for the mechanics. Fumbling blindly, I instead find a fox skull and three ptarmigan feathers that I happened upon on a remote hillside.
The phenomenon isn’t confined to my car, of course. As I sit typing away in the kitchen, over on the windowsill I can see the old wren nest that tumbled out of some bushes we were clearing over the winter. Upstairs are a perfect pair of red deer antlers** that I found lying next to one another in the Cairngorms, exactly where they’d fallen from the stag’s head. The only such pair I have ever found.
Over in the porch, behind the shoe shelf, stands an unremarkable stick of birch from an Argyll lochside, perhaps 2ft long. Look closer and you’ll see how one end has been cut cleanly and diagonally by beaver teeth. It was the first beaver evidence I’d ever seen in Scotland so yep, of course I took it home. And on the top shelf of the bookcase sits a rather fierce but anaemic looking stuffed stoat. Someone who reads my blog inherited it from her dad. She didn’t want it in her house but didn’t want to throw it away either, so she gave it to me.
There’s much more at home if you care to look, but let’s turn our attention to my workplace. On my desk there’s a red deer skull I found on the estate. What purpose it now serves and how long it will sit there, well, who can say? And lastly, on the windowsill of my work accommodation there’s a Small White butterfly that I found dead under the sink when I moved back to the flat in the spring. I saw no reason to dispose of it, it’s rather pretty.
Strewn across both my work and my personal spaces, I’ve accumulated this random assemblage of items without any conscious thought, and I know I’m not alone in doing so. Many of us seem hardwired to collect nature stuff, especially when we go away on holiday. But why? What’s the point? What purpose does any of it serve other than to attract dust or to perhaps appal and unnerve our more squeamish, less outdoorsy friends? Are my natural trinkets any different to the other pointless things I’ve collected in the past?
Well, most of my natural curios evoke clear memories of places and experiences, so in that sense they’re as much mementos or souvenirs as anything else I’ve collected, but I’m sure they’re more than that too. For starters they can be exceedingly beautiful and, just like works of art, beautiful objects are nice to have around. The jay’s feather I found in an Aberdeenshire forest, for example, sports shades of blue so mesmerising and seductive I can barely believe it’s real.
Moreover, having natural objects dotted about the place is oddly comforting to me in a way that my childhood tat, oops…..I mean, ‘collectibles’….just isn’t.
I genuinely like having something of the outdoors, indoors. If I was feeling spiritual then I might describe taking natural objects into the home as a kind of reverence I suppose, borne of respect and fascination for the unfathomably complex system that produced them. They subsequently have an amazing ability to educate and enlighten, to help broaden my understanding of the species in question and, by extension the natural world in general.
It could be as simple as seeing how water beads on the surface of a feather, which then gives you an insight into how birds stay dry, but my most educational find recently has been the deer skull from Inverey. I’ve seen a lot of deer skulls in my time of course, but until now I’d never actually studied one close up, so had never noticed the wildly meandering lines on the cranium before. After some rummaging online I’ve since learned how the skull is made up of different plates (separated by these lines or ‘sutures’), whose mobility allows both the skull and the brain to grow. But in so doing I’ve also learned that the more ‘meandering’ or interlocked the sutures on a skull are, the greater stresses and energy absorption the skull can endure. Essential, if you’re a stag headbutting its rivals during the rut.
I learn something new from almost everything I take, but as enlightening as my accidental hobby might be I do wonder if I should be taking any of these things. When I started writing this article I intended it as an amusing and uplifting tribute to the natural world, but given I eagerly espouse the ultra-low impact ‘leave no trace’ ethos, especially in my work as a ranger, I started to wonder if I was being hypocritical. ‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints’, isn’t that how the saying goes?
Feeling a wee bit adrift I put the question out on Twitter and was surprised at how many people were already following a strict ‘leave it where you find it’ policy:
‘We built a small collection of minerals and work on the principle that if we’ve already got a sample, we don’t need another. We still go looking for them, but now we just look and leave’
‘I now take pictures on my phone of feathers, shells, interesting plants etc and take those away with me instead’
‘If we take things home then we have no reason to return to nature. Special things belong in special places’
Have I been naively, albeit innocently, espousing the ‘leave no trace’ ethos where it suits me, and flouting it where it doesn’t? While such introspection might seem over-the-top, it’s no bad thing to re-evaluate our environmental footprints on the places we pass through and visit, especially given our increasing numbers, both in general population terms and in tourist numbers.
“Ach, don’t be silly!” I told myself. “It’s only tiny things you take and it’s very low impact.”
Yep that’s true, but that’s the same mentality that sees people take deadwood from a pine woodland for their fire, or not pick up after their dog.
“What harm can it do?” you think. “It’s just me”.
But like so many things these days, no, it’s not just you. One person taking a small handful of deadwood from a native woodland on one day of the year, very little impact. One person per day doing that all through the summer, every summer, effectively stripping ALL the deadwood from that woodland, the ecosystem is fundamentally damaged. Possibly for years.
And so it dawned on me, I had unwittingly become Candice-Marie from that exquisite Dorset beach scene in Mike Leigh’s 1976 film, ‘Nuts in May’:
Keith (her husband): What are you doing?
C-M: Just collecting some pebbles to take back.
Keith: Well, you shouldn’t do that, you know
C-M: Why not?
Keith: Well, if everybody did that there wouldn’t be any pebbles left.
C-M: Don’t be ridiculous, Keith.
Keith: Well, there wouldn’t. There are thousands of pebbles on this beach. I told you what happened at Brighton in Victorian times!
The film is a well-observed commentary on earnest, self-appointed, rule-loving middle class guardians of the countryside that feels scarily close to home. I’m not sure whether I’m Candice-Marie, Keith, or even both at the same time, but there’s truth in both viewpoints. Clearly some things are so abundant and widespread that they will not be missed if they are absent. But that’s not to say they aren’t valuable to ecosystems in themselves. Not pebbles on a beach, necessarily, but as someone on Twitter did point out:
‘In Greenland I was told that musk ox remains were legally protected from disturbance. Didn’t know why, but looking at the way a little ecosystem thrived off them….everything plays a part in a huge system’
Respondents rightly acknowledged the questions of abundance or rarity when taking things, and responsibly advocated restraint in protected areas, but there was a general perception that ‘waste products’ were, for the most part, okay to take. That’s pretty much where my own views probably were, but I’m also keenly aware that in nature generally, nothing is wasted. Everything that is seemingly left behind as waste is extremely important in both decomposition and nutrient recycling.
I’ve seen loads of bird nests lined with other species’ feathers. And how about antlers? Examine any you find on a hillside and you’ll likely see teeth marks from all manner of mammals, including other deer, as they’re a valuable source of calcium and other nutrients. I’ve been as guilty as anyone else for picking an antler up and thinking “ach, it’s just one antler. There must be loads of others out there”. But who else is thinking that exact same thing? Back to Twitter:
“Think of a bag of sweets on your desk – each passer by takes just one, thinking you won’t notice – soon they are gone.”
Of course, most of Scotland’s ecosystems have already been directly impacted and degraded by our actions so they’re hardly self-contained, pristine systems akin to the Greenland tundra. And yes, feathers and pebbles and bones and wotnot will probably not be missed in the grand scheme of things. Even so, I do find myself coming around to the idea of leaving things where they are. Primarily for ecological reasons but also for our collective enjoyment, for as one person put it:
“I used to enjoy collecting keepsakes….but in recent years I prefer not to strip that experience from others. If I spot something interesting I instead leave it in place for others to enjoy in situ.”
I really liked that idea but I still wasn’t entirely convinced, chiefly for another reason that many folk cited:
“I feel there is some common sense needed. And getting children interested in nature is very important”
“If I hadn’t been allowed to collect feathers, shells, bones & stones, my childhood would have been considerably duller and less educational”
I’ve witnessed first hand how much more engaging and stimulating actual physical objects are in the classroom. Skeletal remains and stuffed animals in particular, kids absolutely love, and my stuffed stoat has certainly had a worthwhile life, educating kids about mammals and mustelids. True, almost without exception the kids always think it’s a meerkat, but that’s advertising for you!
Anyway, as someone else said:
“How do you feel a photo?”
Photos have their place of course. Just last week I was in Braemar primary school showing the kids photos of insects sitting on my hand, but sometimes there’s just no substitute for the real thing – the touch, the smell, being able to see the true scale of something, and sometimes even the very act of taking something indoors teaches you something unexpected.
I still vividly remember taking a soaking wet spruce cone home, putting it on a shelf and then forgetting about it. A few days later I was marvelling at how the smooth missile-like object had completely opened up in the dry interior of my home, thus teaching me the importance of weather in seed dispersal. Now, when kids pick up a spruce cone in a forest, I tell them to take it home and to watch what happens, which they eagerly do. Can you provoke that same wide-eyed wonder with just ‘before and after’ photos?
Given we’re increasingly disconnected from the natural world I think it’s even more important that we’re able to show it to people up close. Especially if it’s not possible, as it often wasn’t for some West Lothian schools I used to work with, to experience things in a natural environment. Some of their local greenspaces and parks were too dirty with dog poo and litter to visit safely, and the schools couldn’t afford to bus their kids up to the cleaner country parks.
Still, regardless of what you take and why you take it, due consideration needs to be paid to the impact you could have. Truthfully I’m still not sure where I stand, so please don’t take anything in this article as me trying to tell you what you should do, rather I’m thinking out loud really. There certainly needs to be a balance somewhere, between minimising our impact on the processes that sustain and nurture the natural world, and bringing objects home for inspiration, education or whatever. A strict ‘leave it where it is’ policy is a sure-fire way to take control of your environmental impact, whereas anything else requires a subjective assessment and judgement at the time. In that event it’s not always clear what’s right or wrong, what might be harmful or not, but as someone on Twitter said:
“I think we just do our best”
Personally, I’m still a nut in May and probably always will be, so while my inner Candice-Marie can’t promise she’ll stop taking the odd thing home, my inner Keith can honestly say he has already started reining in her collecting impulses in light of writing this piece. I took a dead emperor moth home from the Borders the other week, much to the dismay of my better half, who hates moths. It was very beautiful of course, utterly fascinating and I thought I could use it in an educational capacity, but after a week or so I came to my senses and put it back outside. A week later I found a beautiful sun-bleached deer antler while I was tree-planting in Glen Geldie, which I did unthinkingly pick up with the intention of taking it. But in light of this article I thought better of it. I’ve got a beautiful perfect pair of antlers already, after all. Why do I need any more? So I left it where it was, for nutrient recycling and for other people to pass by and enjoy. And no doubt my cupboards, shelves and windowsills, not to mention my long suffering better half, will breathe a huge collective sigh of relief.
** BY THE WAY….
Forming your own wee ‘nature stuff’ collection or taking stuff from the outdoors more generally isn’t as straight forward as you might think, because depending on what you take, pick or dig up, you could very well be falling foul of the law or contravening the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. And yep, that includes antlers! I’m going to write more about this in my next column for Walkhighlands.