In my eight years with the Conservancy, I’ve edited and selected hundreds of nature photos for literally piles of conservation publications.
But no photos of leeches or mosquitoes.
It’s easy to explain why. Elephants and other glam stars of the conservation movement are inspiring. Who feels warm and fuzzy when they see a photo of a vampire bat or bedbugs?
But the uncomfortable truth is, sometimes nature bites.
Yet conservationists often ignore this truth by paying lip service to the idea of connecting to nature, while remaining silent when it comes to the less appealing aspects of those interactions.
Are we doing a disservice by promoting a view of nature that’s not authentic?
Cockroaches, ticks, city pigeons and nasty bacteria are fellow creatures, too. But how often do you see any of them celebrated with a nature documentary or a Photo of the Month?
That’s why I love biologist’s Bill Schutt’s book Dark Banquet: Blood and The Curious Lives of Blood Feeding Creatures. Schutt writes with obvious enthusiasm about fascinating creatures that, quite frankly, repel most of us.
He celebrates “real-life vampires” without glossing over the fact that some of them can be pretty horrible to encounter. (I understand he’s now working on a book about nature’s cannibals.)
Take the candiru, a small Amazonian catfish. While most of us know that peeing in the pool is bad form, the candiru is the reason why relieving oneself in the Amazon is much, much worse: this thin fish allegedly follows the urine stream and uses its tiny but sharp barbs to fasten itself to the human anatomy in truly horrific fashion.
I’m not proposing that The Nature Conservancy start an “Adopt a Candiru” program. But I am glad there are conservationists, like Schutt, who see that even candirus—and ticks, leeches, vampire bats and bedbugs—are fascinating creatures worthy of study and attention.
A frequent call among environmentalists is for humans to be in “deep relationship” with nature. We’ve lost our way, the argument goes, so we must reconnect with our fellow creatures.
This reconnecting feels more like a high school crush than a real relationship.
The “nature crush” offers up a seductive vision of postcard-perfect scenery, noble animals and the peaceable kingdom where we can all just get along. It’s nature “out there” — a vacation destination, perhaps, or a noble idea. In the meantime, we ignore the fact that common and adaptable and, yes, harmful critters are around us all day, every day.
And maybe those little pests can remind us of something that’s too easy to ignore when conservation is “out there:” That sometimes human-nature interactions are complicated and messy.
For conservation to succeed, we desperately need people to have relationships with nature. But the infatuated crush won’t do.
Only by acknowledging the real natural world and our relationship to it in all its complexity—even the ugly, biting things—can we really accomplish conservation in a way that works for people and nature.
(Photo: Vampire bat. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)