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WEEDS, BUGS, AMERICANS
John Fowles
December 21, 1970
The celebrated author of 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' takes a far-from-fictional look at the dour role of man in nature, argues on behalf of backyard laziness and places the fate of God's world in hands that want it least—our own
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December 21, 1970

Weeds, Bugs, Americans

The celebrated author of 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' takes a far-from-fictional look at the dour role of man in nature, argues on behalf of backyard laziness and places the fate of God's world in hands that want it least—our own

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And why not bomb the bugs? Because the insect is directly or indirectly the chief food source of countless higher forms of life. If you mercilessly destroy your bugs, you build your conservation house without foundation or a ground floor. You can rate your garden conservationally by checking on the abundance of insect life in it. In this context, if it's clean, it's dirty.

There is really no clearer ethical decision to make in our time: ban the insecticide from your own backyard and get your neighbors to do the same with theirs. But very clearly the process cannot stop there. The vital complement of the conservation garden is some form of local nature reserve. Though I don't doubt the honest intentions of the good people who run many of those I have visited, they seem often to be founded on something of a wrong principle. In fact such local reserves should be known, and their use determined, by a now old-fashioned name for them: nature sanctuaries. It is absolutely essential to keep near towns and cities some such unpolluted and wild area open to nature and closed to man; and I'm afraid that being closed to man is not compatible with picnic areas, walk-through paths and similar features installed in the attempt to compromise between social and civic amenity and the true purpose of a wildlife reserve.

But even the conservation garden and its accompanying out-of-town reservoir of wildlife is of little use if all the surrounding farmed country is regularly drenched with insecticide. And here I come to the crux of it. What is urgently needed is rethinking on where conservation is most useful. Instead of thinking of the uninhabited far-off as the ideal area, we ought to reverse the process. Uncontrolled spraying is in any case safest—for humans as well as nature—the farthest possible distance from town; and the town and its wide green belt ought to become the priority conservation zone. This situation has already arisen accidentally in many British towns. Quite a number of once rural species have now taken happily to suburban life in protest against the pollution of their former habitats.

If hedges, small woods and other (from the profit-oriented farmer's point of view) waste areas are to be reinstated in the landscape, it ought to be in just such conservation belts around towns and cities. If the farmers won't listen, then public authorities ought to be made to. Contrary to popular belief, many birds are extremely tolerant of traffic noise. I have even seen them among the scrub on the Los Angeles freeway banks and verges, only a few yards from the steel stream. But one warning: an ecologist must determine the character of the planting. Town-owned free space should be gardened for local nature, not for civic pride and a showy flower display.

I wish there were a way I could lend my own garden here in England instead of trying to say it all in words. I've attempted to practice what I preach. I won't use insecticides out-of-doors. I keep weed killers to the barest minimum. And yes, it is far from being a gardener's dream. About half of it is given over to natural scrub and cover; whatever seeds there happen to be are allowed to grow—thistle, dock, fireweed—no matter how high on the blacklist they figure. It is a town garden, and not very large by American standards. It harbors five or six breeding mammals, a dozen or so species of nesting birds with many more as visitors, a good variety of butterflies and moths and a generally luxuriant insect life. A lot of hard work is saved, since I let nature look after its own part. All I have had to do is learn to bear the shocked expressions of the more orthodox gardeners who come round it. I can only report that this social shame is increasingly easy to bear once you have made up your mind to it. You soon realize such people are half blind. They simply don't comprehend the rewards, the richness, the sense of a harmonious creation that such disorder and laziness bring into daily life.

Nothing can annul the prior lien nature has on your property; the title it possessed long before you became the owner, long before you were, even. And there is no argument possible as to where conservation starts. It starts right there, outside your window. That is, it starts if you start, and from the moment you stop merely saying the word conservation in order to avoid its reality. It's no good believing in conservation, agreeing with conservation, talking about conservation. It's one of those words that gives you only two choice. You either do or you damn.

Now let's consider the man with a gun in his hand: the hunter, the prototype of all nature exploiters. Since my views are not going to make me popular, I'd better explain that I'm not, like so many reformers, quite trying to ban the whorehouse. I've always envied the other men but never had the guts to enter myself. I spent a great deal of my youth duck hunting and I can remember very well what it's like some winter dusk when you hear the first swift sough of oncoming wings and see the hit black shape plummet down to splash in the reeds behind you. No other game or sport I've tried has ever given me quite that kick—or made the time wasted on it so endurable.

I was taught to hunt by a man named Brealey, one of the old school. I was not allowed to shoot at a bird until I had proved myself to his satisfaction on the cans and bottles he threw up as a test—and I didn't do that in a day. I was not allowed to shoot at any but legitimate and edible game. I was not allowed to shoot at that unless I could reasonably expect to kill it at the range. I can still recall his code: not above 30 yards with number six shot, above 40 with number four, above 50 with number two. You never, but never, gave up the search for a wounded bird. If night stopped you, you went again the next morning. Only barbarians used automatic shotguns: if you couldn't bring your duck down in two shots (another major crime was "browning"—firing blindly into a pack) that was your fault. You had had your sporting chance. At the time I got irked by all this punctilio. Nowadays, when I occasionally see what we call in this country "town shots" (city people who blaze away at anything that moves) I make silent penance to old Brealey. Like most such men, he was a good field naturalist and a sincere nature-lover as well as being a crisply accurate picker of widgeon and mallard out of a dark sky. He's long dead now, but I think the world hunting community badly lacks men like him as its arbiters.

On one of his "laws" I can't expect to convince Americans—and especially not the gun lobby. Nonetheless I believe the repeating shotgun ought to be banned. Later in life I did use one for a time and it seemed to me not only to make me shoot worse and to wound more than I killed but to take a very essential element out of sport—the sport itself. The thrill of hunting for pleasure is surely killing for pleasure, not just killing at any cost. A two-shot gamble ought to be enough; it's already one more than the golfer has. I have my doubts, in fact, about all the new aids to bigger bags and heavier baskets that the hunting and fishing industries have concocted. All great games depend very strictly on certain agreed limitations and restrictions. The skill lies in beating the system inside the rules. And it is time we started laying down rules on the kind of equipment and behavior hunters and fishermen can and can't be allowed. Both activities are almost purely sports now, and they need to be regulated as sports are.

Another growing necessity is the hunting test. It seems bad enough that a man can buy a gun across the counter without question, but just as bad that he can go straight out and immediately start firing it at any wildlife that crosses his path. I would make a certain standard of marksmanship obligatory before a hunting license was issued: I would ban minors from hunting, for reasons you will guess in a minute: I would also like to see a compulsory course in animal and bird recognition and in general hunting ethics. This is all still a good deal less than what we require of sailors, airline pilots, policemen and other people who hold life and death in their hands.

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