12 December 2008

Those crazy snail collectors

The British malacologist Arthur Edwin Boycott's (1877–1938) name is probably familiar to most current workers in the field. Some of his papers are still cited frequently. In Boycott's obituary published in the Journal of Conchology, Charles Oldham relays a funny story that characterizes the opinion most laypeople may have of grown-up naturalists rummaging around on their hands and knees in the field.

One day Boycott and a friend of his were collecting snails behind a wall along some rural road. They stood up as a car happened to be passing by.

The motorist, not without reason, suspected a trap, jumped from the car, threw up his hands and exclaimed, "What’s the matter; is anything wrong?" A puzzled look and the reply, "No, I am only looking for snails," exceeded his worst suspicions. Thinking that not only was he ambushed but ambushed by two lunatics he shouted, "Good God!", dashed for the car and, regardless of the risk he ran, drove off at full speed.
That this wasn't an isolated incident is demonstrated by the well known U.S. collector Leslie Hubricht's (1908-2005) complaints of his treatment by townsfolk during his countless collection forays. Hubricht wrote this in the April 1953 (vol. 66) issue of the Nautilus at a time when such comments could be inserted easily into manuscripts published in respectable journals.
I should warn the reader of the dangers of collecting in towns. There is a surprisingly large number of people who, instead of satisfying their curiosity by coming to me and asking what I am doing, will call the police. For the most part the police have been pleasant. But there was the time at Courtland, Virginia, when someone told the constable that there was a crazy man loose in the town. The constable rounded up a posse of about ten men before approaching me, in the event I should become violent. At Kinston, North Carolina, a man called the police, and then argued with them for at least fifteen minutes that I was a dangerous character to be securely locked up. He seemed to believe that the pose of snail collector was the favorite disguise of foreign spies. After the police left, he followed me around and carefully jotted down my license number as I drove out of town.
I've had my share of encounters with suspicious folks during my collection trips, but I will save those stories to future posts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hilarious! I remember an account by tarantula collectors in the rainforest; allegedly the very appearance of the bearded, hairy pale-skinned spider-collecting foreigners was enough to frighten "strong men, sensible women, and small children". I'd love to hear more stories of naturalists vs laypeople.