For the love of collecting

In the summer of 1958 a recently married couple strolled along a beach on the south coast of England while on their honeymoon. They picked up a strange rock, sort of roundish and black with a pattern of dots radiating across it in five rows. They didn’t know what it was and guessed that it was a fishing weight, the dots being where rope had rubbed its way into the surface. Being a strange object of natural beauty, they kept it as a lucky charm, a memento of their nuptials.

In the summer of 1958 a recently married couple strolled along a beach on the south coast of England while on their honeymoon. They picked up a strange rock, sort of roundish and black with a pattern of dots radiating across it in five rows. They didn’t know what it was and guessed that it was a fishing weight, the dots being where rope had rubbed its way into the surface. Being a strange object of natural beauty, they kept it as a lucky charm, a memento of their nuptials.

That couple were my parents and when I was a teenager I identified that stone as the 80-odd million year old fossil of a sea urchin. Thus the first fossil in my collection was found before I was born. I came across this incredibly sentimental piece just last weekend while I unpacked my fossil collection and set out the hundreds of specimens in the collecting case that my dad and I restored while I was still in early high school. That was the period when I collected most of the fossils that make up the current collection. Some were from the occasional field trips I made with friends and family. Others were traded with fellow fossil collectors in Sydney, across the country and around the world. One fine specimen of a fish was swapped for an imitation dog poo that I got from a joke shop.  This collection of ancient relicts from the distant past is also a collection of personal and cherished memories. When I was at school there were a few of us who collected natural objects. While I was the only fossil collector there were a couple of rock collectors and another kid who collected insects. I also collected other gems of nature beyond fossils, gathering some pretty mineral specimens, learning how to pin out butterflies and other insects or how to preserve small invertebrates in jars.  This was the beginnings of my career in science; a first-hand engagement with the natural world. An exploration of the environment to reveal creatures hidden in the leaf litter or swimming in the local creek. Collecting tadpoles and watching them develop into frogs before releasing them back into the wild. Even leaves could be collected, catalogued and curated or photographs and pressings of flowers. As a young man growing up surrounded by the bushland north of Sydney, my world oozed with natural treasures to be collected, studied and understood. I reflected on those happy times last Sunday as I unwrapped bundle after bundle of newspaper to rediscover trilobites and ammonites, corals and brachiopods; treasures hidden in the earth for millions of years that had been hidden from my view for the last couple of decades. And I wondered if the modern world has room for budding child collectors? Today many insects are protected and collecting them can attract a fine. Similarly you are not allowed to remove tadpoles from creeks any more. In some states fossils are also protected and every collector, no matter how junior, needs a licence to collect them. While I appreciate that we do need to protect the endangered and the threatened species out there, I do wonder why the collection of common species by children is not encouraged. It would do no harm to the environment and it would inspire and encourage those young minds that have a desire learn. Then there are the questions of protecting our kids from the world around them. I have heard parents express alarm at the idea that their kids should be allowed to poke through the leaf litter to see what’s there – they might find a spider or snake that could harm them. From my experience not only are such dangerous encounters rare, I think I’ve benefited greatly from having to confront them. The benefits of understanding what’s out there far outweighs the risk that something there might hurt you. More depressingly, I wonder if there are any kids around today who would even be interested in a natural history collection. There is so much to compete for their attention and time. From computer games to the internet, television and sports through to the more mundane demands of school work.  For today’s kids there may simply not be enough hours in the day to start a rock collection or learn how to pin out butterflies.  So despite the odds, please tell me that there are budding junior collectors out there. Give me the solace of knowing that some children are building brilliant minds by devoting part of their weekends and holidays to exploring and collecting in the natural world.  Let me know if there is still room for the love of natural history in Generation Double Z. Dr Paul Willis is the Director of RiAus   

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