This month, a familiar question came up about collecting in forest preserves.
A visitor to the nature center had read that some native plants could be used as medicine and wondered where he could get some of these plants.
The short answer is, "Not on forest preserve property." Taking any natural object from a preserve -- living or nonliving -- is prohibited. The person was surprised, chagrined and disappointed.
The answer is negative, but for a positive outcome. It is best understood with a bit of anthropology and ecology. Putting the issue of collecting in context helps to see the reasons behind the regulations, and the ultimate good intended.
Consider our long-ago ancestors who lived in small enclaves surrounded by the immense wilderness. Plants were there for the taking, animals were dispensable, and the wilderness was a force to conquer.
Thanks to opposable thumbs and inquisitive minds, early humans discovered they could pick up things. Tasty leaves, shiny pebbles, curious insects, pretty flowers, you name it. This talent proved very helpful, and we've had a hankering for collecting things for some 200,000 years.
Gathering plants and hunting animals for food was a daily necessity from the get-go. Collecting plants for medicine proved useful for survival. Using plants and animals in ceremony and ritual became part of human culture.
As human civilizations grew, so did the quest for knowledge, riches and power. A way to obtain these was to explore uncharted territory and to collect the riches therein.
Collecting flora and fauna in faraway lands began in earnest in 15th century Europe and continued into the 19th century. Exotic plants and animals were taken from the wild and sent home by the boatload to Portugal, France, England, and Spain. In the young United States of America, expeditions into the wilderness yielded tremendous collections of flora and fauna.
Our scientific knowledge today is based on the prodigious collections of people like John James Audubon, who collected birds with a shotgun in order to make his famous paintings, and Illinois' premier naturalist Robert Kennicott, who collected hundreds of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects in northeastern Illinois.
That was then. This is now. Things have changed.
We are no longer a minor species in the midst of a huge, biologically diverse wilderness. Now, the wilderness is reduced to small, fragmented areas in the midst of a human-dominated landscape. Collecting plants for food is no longer a way of life in the age of fast food, fake food and online shopping. Gathering herbs for medicine has given way to modern chemistry and the drive-up pharmacy.
The loss and fragmentation of habitat on our planet has been drastic and devastating to many species. Illinois is one of the many parts of the planet that have been completely transformed in the past 200 years. In Kane County alone, natural areas have been reduced by more than 90 percent since the time of European settlement.
Forest preserves were established in the 1920s as havens for wildlife and plants.
"But," you may think when you're in the middle of a preserve, "just this one butterfly -- who cares if I put this one in a jar?" Or, "No one will notice if I sneak a pocketful of prairie seeds." Or, "A turtle is a turtle -- what difference does it make if I take one home?"
In many cases, it does make a difference. A big difference. Native turtle populations, for example, have taken a nose dive due to habitat loss. Turtles are long-lived but slow to reproduce. Removing just one from the population can have a significant impact.
Butterflies, too, suffer setbacks from collectors. Catching these beautiful insects is an innocent enough pastime for many, but -- whether the butterflies end up pinned in a case or if they are caught and released -- the result is damaged wings and untimely death.
How about fireflies? Many of us have fond memories of forays into grassy fields on summer evenings, jars in hand, on a quest to collect as many of the glowing insects as possible. Summer just wouldn't be summer without this evening ritual. The ritual is fading fast, however, as firefly populations are declining. They are subject to the usual assaults: habitat loss, drought, pesticides, and light pollution. Collecting fireflies only exacerbates the loss.
How about collecting things like acorns or hickory nuts along forest preserve trails? Also verboten. These are the future of our native woodlands. They must be left for posterity -- the trees', the squirrels', and ours.
What about, say, garlic mustard? This highly invasive plant is a scourge in natural areas. It is, technically, a wildflower. So, technically, one should not collect it, right? Kind of. Collecting implies removing the plant from the preserve. The District would love to rid the preserves of this (and many other) problem species, but pulling garlic mustard plants willy-nilly may actually exacerbate the problem.
Its ecology allows it to spread readily after the ground is disturbed. If pulled and then scattered on the ground, individual plants can resurrect themselves in no time at all. Rather than "collecting" garlic mustard, the better course is to join District-sponsored volunteer events to help with invasive species control.
There's always the question about autumn leaves: to collect or not to collect? A big hullabaloo occurred in 1994 when former Chicago Tribune writer Bob Greene wrote a scathing column about a Cook County Forest Preserve District naturalist busting a 9-year-old boy for collecting leaves for a school project.
The no-collecting ordinance of many forest preserves was brought into question. Since then, a bit of reason has been infused into the enforcement of the ordinance and leaves -- once fallen -- may be collected.
Thus, collecting is not always "cut and dried." If you have a question about scientific collecting, contact the your local forest preserve district. Scientific permits may be obtained by submitting a request to email@example.com.
We humans are inveterate collectors. In this day and age, it's important to consider the ecology and the ethics of collecting in order to preserve the very things that we desire. Our curious minds and opposable thumbs can be put to good use collecting images and memories, and leaving the rest for future generations.
• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. She welcomes questions and comments from readers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.