My wife Gill, and I, have just returned from a long weekend in Paris, where we spent what used to be called the Whitsun Bank Holiday. The weather, despite it being pretty much the last week in May, was far from ideal; in fact on the Friday, if it had been warmer, swim-wear would have been the appropriate attire for the day. We had arrived, courtesy of Eurostar at about lunchtime, checked into our hotel and then started out for a walk. The rain, rather than easing off, got heavier, and we looked for a convenient shop to shelter in; as luck would have it we found ourselves in the rue des Filles du Calvaire outside a shop-cum- gallery, called Chardon. The owner, Gregori Ferret, very kindly ignored the copious amounts of water that we were dripping on his floor, and invited us to come in and view the works of art. They ranged from stuffed and mounted mammals through fairly standard pinned insects to beautifully arranged and displayed Lepidoptera (all as far as I could tell correctly named, although of course not equipped with collection and determination labels as entomological purists would demand. That aside, the displays were magnificent in a very Victorian way, reminding me of the very popular song-bird cabinet in the Natural History Museum, London.
There were also insect paintings, some of which included butterfly wings and most amazing of all, a Goliath Beetle, which had been taken apart and then partly reconstructed using fine wire. A truly bizarre sight, but fascinating at the same time. The art work in the gallery, including the Goliath beetle was the work of Christine Arzel K which unfortunately, I am unable to reproduce here. If you are ever in Paris, a visit to Chardon is well worth the effort. An interesting example of the way insects fascinate artists and, when presented in a non-threatening way, can be appreciated by the public, although of course as an entomologist, I would much rather they were appreciated in situ and alive.
On the Saturday we made our way to the flea market at Porte de Vannes where we were faced by the usual collections of what I call junk. Oddly enough there were on this occasion, a plethora of insect collections, mainly single boxes of mixed insects, badly pinned, and very inadequately labelled. There were the odd sets of themed boxes, such as a collection of carabid beetles, but without proper labels, so again entomologically worthless. What was perhaps more distressing for me, was the large number of magnificent and detailed entomological prints on sale that had been removed from nineteenth century books and were being sold individually for anthing between €10-€20. Vandalism on a grand scale; but yet again, an indication of the fascination that insects seem to have for people once safely dead.
On the Sunday we made our way to a great oddity, The Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, just opposite the National Archives in rue des Archives. [Click on the hunting horn for a musical introduction or if you want to avoid it go directly here]. This had been recommended by my colleague Tilly Collins who described it as a truly extraordinary experience. It has been described, according to Wikipedia as quirky, astonishing, strange and eclectic . It was all of these things. It is a museum dedicated to hunting and its associated trappings including hunt and nature associated art, ranging from classical through to modern installation pieces. It also houses an incredible collection of firearms and associated paraphernalia, beautifully decorated powder horns, shooting sticks, restorative flasks etc. And of course, many,many stuffed animals, including in the Room of Trophies, Le Souillot, which is a wall-mounted animatronic albino boar head by contemporary French artist Nicolas Darrot, that speaks [snarls] to museum visitors in French. The weirdest thing for me was the Owl Room, which appeared to be a composed of owl skins [I sneaked a photo].
The lighting was very odd too; in some places almost pitch black, which made the exhibits hard to see [perhaps mercifully] and the light fittings were also artistically sylvan
All in all a rather odd experience. Interestingly enough, no insects! Before you all condemn the practice of hunting (and I include fishing in this, although the museum did not) it is worth remembering that if it were not for the Norman Conquest and the fact that William the Conqueror loved hunting so much that he instigated the Law of the Forest, we would not have large tracts of what became Royal Forests such as Epping and the New Forest. Given that and the fact that his ancestors and other members of the nobility from then and to the modern day, also loved hunting, shooting and fishing meant that rather than our forest cover being reduced to zero by the time of the industrial revolution, the UK still had 5% forest cover by 1899 including our much valued ancient and semi-natural woodlands. Some of us may not approve of the ethics of hunting animals for pleasure but it did have positive effects for our wildlife and countryside [perhaps a subject for a future post?]. To this day, large landowners provide funding for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust which carries out incredibly useful and important ecological research and helps make our countryside a better place for wildlife of all sorts, including insects. In fact, in their former guise as the Game Conservancy Trust they were doing very valuable entomological work investigating the value of beetle banks and conservation headlands in the 1970s and 1980s.
Do I have a take-home message? What was the reasoning behind my choice of title for this post? I guess that what I have tried to say, hopefully successfully, is that despite our increasingly urbanised existence, a significant proportion of the human race still has a fascination for nature. As ecologists it is our duty to see that this fascination is properly channelled; towards conservation, not just preservation and exploitation. So rather than enslave nature we should embrace it and nurture it.
Coincidentally just as I was getting ready to publish this post I came across a letter in The Daily Telegraph of 29th May, where the British Association for Shooting and Conservation was praised for its role in the conservation of British wildlife.