16 June 2014

The urge to collect

'...he was also in the grip of an urge that gained a stronger hold on him with every day: it was the collector's disease, that unsleeping impulse to acquire, to classify, to create a microcosm where order and pattern can be shored up against the world.'
 — Nicolas Rothwell

In Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll, one of the hemulens first appears in a melancholy, almost distraught state. When Moomintroll questions him, the hemulen reveals the cause of his despair: an obsessive stamp collector, he has finally completed his collection. He now has every stamp, every error; nothing remains for him to collect. Moomintroll begins to understand.

‘You aren’t a collector any more,’ he says, ‘you’re only an owner, and that isn’t nearly so much fun.’

As a very small boy, I too collected stamps. Briefly and badly, I admit, but I shared the hemulen’s urge to collect. I soon lost interest in stamps but not in collecting; that impulse took decades to dissipate. For much of my life I was possessed—and I use the word deliberately—by that urge, which manifested most obviously in the accumulation of a collection of pinned, pickled and labelled insects that to the best of my knowledge remained for some years the most extensive and interesting insect collection submitted for the fourth year entomology paper at Canterbury University. Still, compared to professional research collections like those of the university's zoology department or the New Zealand Arthropod Collection, my dead, preserved insects barely registered [2].

Somehow I eventually lost the need to own boxes of dead insects. Perhaps getting a job that came already supplied with a large—by my standard—insect collection meant most of the insects I encountered alive were already represented by dead cousins in the collection, so adding another to the killing jar and eventually to a wooden box seemed pointless (mostly, it is, although the study of variation within a species remains important for distinguishing species). Eventually the loss of the urge to collect developed into a mild aversion. My taste for collecting not just insects but most other things has become exhausted, or, perhaps more accurately, I have become exhausted by the accumulation of things and stuff. I now have more than enough things and stuff and get more satisfaction from getting rid of things and stuff than from accumulating more.

I wonder about photographs, though. I wonder in particular about photographs of insects. Having recently discovered the NatureWatch web site and at roughly the same time settled on an excellent system for macro photography, I’m getting a great deal of satisfaction from posting observations of insects and plants, thereby slowly building a record of interesting things around the house, up No. 1 Line, and in the Ruahine. Could this be a way of satisfying that urge to collect? I thought that was long gone, but maybe it was just dormant.


Collecting photographs, though, seems harmless. Who could object? What harm is being done? Certainly none to the subjects—the spiders and flies and beetles and little flowers and other things so easily harmed by other, even temporary, forms of capture [3].

There, though—that word: ‘capture’. At the risk of disclosing my crankiness, I’ll admit that the word ’capture’, along with an increasing number of other too-often thoughtlessly used words, bugs me. Look at the photoforums and you’ll see the comments infested with statements like ‘Great capture!’ or its twin, ‘Great catch!’ The subject hasn’t been photographed; it’s been captured, ensnared, possessed. My aversion to this has become so unreasonable I don't even like to say I 'took a photograph', preferring instead to say 'I photographed'.

'Nit-picking,' you say. 'Semantics—"capture", "catch": they're just words.'

No, they aren’t. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a collector’s attitude. I’ll stress that I accept no harm is being done to the subject, unless of course the photographer is one of those morally suspect or possibly well-meaning but ethically unaware individuals who breaks branches off instead of tying them out of the way, or who persists in trying to get closer to a bird that’s clearly anxious. In general, though, most subjects will have no awareness that they're being photographed. Many won’t even have what we could reasonably consider ‘awareness’ of any sort; for example, a little gentian flowering on the side of the No. 1 Line track responds to its environment in only the most basic of ways. When did you last hear a plant exclaim ‘Eek! A photographer!’ and close its petals over its pistils?

If any harm is being done, therefore, the most obvious recipient of that harm is the photographer, the collector of photographs.  Mostly, no harm will be done even to him (or her). Another possibility is that those who view the photographs might in some way be harmed. The obvious way this might come about is through inurement: after repeated viewing of photographs that at first kindled wonder and awe, the viewer might lose not just that ability to be moved, but the empathy that accompanies it. This, however, seems to draw a long bow; if it's true at all, I doubt it's common enough and important enough to agonise over. Feel free to disagree.


Moomintroll was right when he said owning isn’t nearly as much fun as collecting. What he didn’t say was why it’s not as much fun. That’s a much bigger question, though; it has many answers and Moomintroll might never have carried on with his adventures if he’d stopped to philosophise about the consequences of owning compared to collecting [4]. However, as far as I can work out, the main reasons owning isn’t as much fun as collecting are twofold. First, the owner has the responsibility of looking after the collection, and that can lead to the gnawing fear that something dreadful might happen to the collection — theft, fire, pestilence, the depredations of small children, and so on. Second, an owner is no longer creating anything, at least in any significant sense. That second reason rings most true for me because the act of creating something is the primary way a life attains meaning [5].

Perhaps this, then, explains why I continue to add to these collections of words and photographs: because I'm driven not by the desire to amass, but by the desire to create.

1. The introductory quotation is from page 11 of The Red Highway, Collingwood, Australia: Blank Inc., (2010). ISBN 9781863954938.

2. If the hemulen had chosen insects rather than stamps, he could have spent his entire life collecting with no risk whatsoever of completing his collection. Even specialising in beetles, the most numerous organisms on earth in terms of species, would have left his collection incomplete and him permanently happy.

3. Unless you believe, like Dr Brett Mills, that animals are aware enough to understand the concept of privacy.

4. That’s a job for the Muskrat who, if his whiskers have anything to do with it, might be a cousin of Nietzsche (although this has been disputed and a reasonable claim advanced that the Muskrat was modelled on arch-pessimist Schopenhauer). The Muskrat, however, would undoubtedly have considered collecting to be useless—possibly even as useless as owning anything.

5. Richard Taylor makes a persuasive case in support of this claim.

1. Copper butterfly on the No. 1 Line track, southern Ruahine Range, January 2014

2. Crane fly at the top of the No. 1 Line track, southern Ruahine Range, January 2014

3. Fungus gnat on Agrocybe parastica fungus, Pohangina Valley, late February 2014

4. Native gentian near the summit of Tunupo, southern Ruahine Range, mid February 2014

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor