Blue Ridge Naturalist: Common Sense Patrol

This Hallmark deco of Lucy van Pelt from the Charles Shultz comic strip “Peanuts” provides inspiration to the author! Photo credit: Marlene Condon.
This Hallmark deco of Lucy van Pelt from the Charles Shultz comic strip “Peanuts” provides inspiration to the author! Photo credit: Marlene Condon.

© Marlene A. Condon

My husband and I were in a card shop one day when I suddenly heard him exclaim, “Hey! That’s you!” When I looked at the shelf to see what he was grinning about, I saw Lucy van Pelt (from the Charles Shultz comic strip “Peanuts”) behind the wheel of an old-timey police car.

On the side of the car where it would normally say “Police” it instead said, “Common Sense Patrol.” Now Lucy is my writing companion, off to the right of my keyboard.

Common sense is most often defined as sound practical judgment based more upon one’s personal experience rather than specialized knowledge or training. However, very few people have faith in what their own eyes tell them or are confident in their ability to make decisions without the advice of, or confirmation by, one or more experts.

For example, you will read in gardening magazines that the feeding activity of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a woodpecker that makes shallow “wells” in the surface of tree bark to access sap, is deleterious to trees. But an astute observer can find many huge trees that are covered with ancient sap wells as well as more recently made ones.

Obviously the woodpeckers that have visited the trees through the years did no harm of any consequence; otherwise the trees could not have lived long enough to have gotten so big! Therefore common sense should tell anyone who pays attention to the natural world that this gardening lore is just plain wrong.

Yet when I point out the fallacy of these kinds of accusations against wildlife, people are often reluctant to employ critical thinking that would lead them to the truth. If they know someone with Ph.D. after his name who is a supporter of a supposed truth, they are going to put faith in that person’s purported credentials instead of in what reality tells them is true.

Consider an experience I had one autumn more than two decades ago. I visited a nature preserve every morning for a week or so to make notes about the plants and animals that could be found there. I’d been asked to write a nature column for the newsletter that was mailed out monthly, and I wanted to make sure I mentioned the appropriate organisms.

Many wildflowers were in the process of going to seed in the fields while other plants, such as goldenrod, were beginning to bloom—just in time to provide nectar that would be especially valuable to Monarch butterflies migrating south at that time of year.

The fields were absolutely bursting with life! A variety of insects visited plants for their final meals of the year while numerous species of birds poked about to feed upon seeds, insects, or both. Bees buzzed and birds chirped. It was exhilarating.

Then, within the course of just 24 hours, I returned to find the place quiet and lifeless. Every single field had been cut; every plant was lying on the ground. Virtually all of the activity that had been taking place just the day before had ceased.

The insects and the birds had been forced to move on to find other sources of nourishment and cover; the Monarchs would get no help from this nature preserve as they tried to get to Mexico.

I immediately expressed my dismay to the person in charge, providing her with the details of my observations. I explained why the fields should not be cut in the fall, but rather only in early spring so as to minimize the detrimental effects of mowing upon wildlife.

She listened intently, and I thought she understood how sensible my explanation was. But even though the course of action I was recommending for future management of the area was logical, common sense didn’t prevail.

When I next visited the area and talked to her, she told me she hated “to pull rank” on me, but she had asked her husband, a U.Va. biologist, what he thought. He had disagreed with me. He felt mowing would impact critters no matter when it was done, so the timing didn’t make one bit of difference.

I didn’t know what this man’s area of expertise was supposed to be (he had a Ph.D.), but I could tell that it was not wildlife land management. I was very surprised that he would voice his opinion when he obviously had neither personal experience with, nor personal knowledge of, the circumstances of this situation.

The professor was overlooking the fact that a fall cutting meant the plants, along with their seeds and any eggs laid upon them by invertebrates, would be prone to rotting as they lay upon the ground. If they’d been allowed to stand tall throughout the fall and winter, they would have been able to dry out by swaying in the wind following a rain or snow storm.

If the seeds and eggs rotted, plant and animal species would not be perpetuated, and wildlife trying to survive the coldest months of the year would not be fed. And, of course, with the plants on the ground, they couldn’t provide cover or shelter for wildlife during harsh weather.

In other words, cutting the fields in fall creates conditions that are problematic for wildlife, whereas cutting the fields in early spring—the best time to cut them—would follow the example of Mother Nature herself.

By springtime, dried plants are beginning to decay and fall over; animals have been fed and sheltered when they needed it most; and the seeds and eggs not discovered and consumed have a chance to start the cycle of life over again.

Although I find the idea of following Mother Nature’s example to be intuitive, my experience has been that people ignore common sense and instead try to fight this suggestion at every turn. It certainly doesn’t help when “experts,” who may not possess much knowledge about a situation, don’t hesitate to offer their opinion as seemingly sound advice anyway.

In truth, a Ph.D. following someone’s name does not automatically imply expert status with regards to any subject, no matter how distantly related to that person’s field of study. It’s simply proof that the person successfully mastered a particular topic.

Unfortunately, when people seen as reliable sources of information provide poor advice regarding our natural world, there can be seriously detrimental consequences for its welfare (and ultimately, for ours) as a result.

But no one needed a Ph.D. to understand the logic and common sense of managing the fields as I had explained. A little bit of analytical thinking about the deafening silence of the cut fields after they had been so full of life should have made obvious the correct course of action to follow.

So now you know why I always have to be on common sense patrol!



  1. Most of the time I find myself agreeing with Marlene Condon. She’s smart, informed and articulate. But here, on the issue of common sense, I must differ.

    After all, Albert Einstein is reported to have said “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”

    Common sense told us that the sun revolved around the Earth. That continents were immobile.

    And what would common sense have told us about quantum mechanics? That it was totally ludicrous.

    We need to use data to guide our thoughts. Common sense often rejects data. That’s not a good formula for informed decisions.

    Pete Myers
    CEO/Chief Scientist
    Environmental Health Sciences
    White Hall

    • Pete
      Long ago, it might have been viewed as common sense not to suggest that the sun was the center of the “universe” because you might have been killed for thinking that. Also, if you were an inquisitive, poorly-educated nobody asking this question of the informed experts the would have said that the Earth WAS the center of the universe.
      Additionally, there is so much poorly produced data from poorly conceived experiments out there that it is all but left up to the citizen to discern whether any of it makes sense, is useful, valid, or was simply a complete waste of time and money when a thought experiment (application of common sense) is all that was required in the first place.


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