Perceptions of wetlands: why so negative?

I’ve been working on the animals and plants that live in urban ponds for a few years (you can find some of my work on my Kudos page here, here, and here), and I have a Google Alert running for mentions of “pond” or “wetland” in the media. However, far from lots of stories about fish, ducks, and dragonflies, all I see is this:

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Lots of people dead, dying, or narrowly escaping from various different types of pond. It’s not hard to see why we have a fear of water as a society – the public perception is shaped partly by personal experience but also partly by the media. Wetlands are frequently the receptacles for human waste, and as a result, are degraded to the point that they lack value. The result is that we do not feel so bad about degrading those wetlands yet further, and the cycle perpetuates. We also attempt to exert an extreme level of control over water, often to our own detriment. You only have to look at the floods that engulfed the north of England last winter (2015/16) to see what happens when we pave floodplains and use concrete to modify river channels. All of this contributes yet further to the sense that water is bad.

And yet there is more because throughout popular culture there has been a negative view of water. Here is the dramatic climax of Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore (spoiler alert!):

The black bog had him by the feet; the sucking of the ground drew on him, like the thirsty lips of death. In our fury, we had heeded neither wet nor dry; nor thought of earth beneath us. I myself might scarcely leap, with the last spring of o’er-laboured legs, from the engulfing grave of slime. He fell back, with his swarthy breast (from which my gripe had rent all clothing), like a hummock of bog-oak, standing out the quagmire; and then he tossed his arms to heaven, and they were black to the elbow, and the glare of his eyes was ghastly. I could only gaze and pant; for my strength was no more than an infant’s, from the fury and the horror. Scarcely could I turn away, while, joint by joint, he sank from sight.

Now imagine parents contemplating digging a pond in their back garden, or visiting a nature reserve. These sorts of stories stay with people and colour their views of the natural world. And there is, arguably, a good reason to be concerned. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the US cites drowning as one of the most common causes of accidental death. One-third of children aged 1-4 who die from accidents die from drowning. However, like crime, natural disasters, and ghosts, the fear of drowning is often excessive relative to the absolute risk. Relatively mundane activities such as driving a car, smoking, or drinking alcohol represent a far greater risk than drowning. But it is the stories that we remember.

There is a move now towards encouraging riskier play where the risks are managed. A good example is the forest school approach, where children are encouraged to learn outdoors immersed within a natural environment with all the ensuing dirt, plants, and animals. This open-ended approach to child development seeks to counter a combination of sterile environments and nature deficit disorder. This move away from risk-free environments that stifle development towards risk-managed environments that stimulate children (and adults) can only be a good thing for us and for the natural environment.


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