The more I hang out in our backyard and the longer I live, the more amazed at and appreciative I become of the phenomenon of life. Its abundance, its interconnectedness, its boisterousness, its sheer tenacity and unending ingenuity. Give it a fraction of a chance and it boils up, sometimes seemingly from nothing, ready to take on the world, pugnacious and marvelous. Made up of an almost infinite variety of forms, it is yet a vast whole, it seems to me, with everything connected to everything else.
The fabric of life seems vastly complex, yet strikingly simple at the same time. Most living things share basic commonalities, like the need to continue existing and pass into the future by procreating. Most everything else seems to follow from that basic drive. The rest is detail.
As a farm boy, I was a predator and didn’t always see things this way. Stalking the buildings and grove with a BB gun and the fields with a shotgun, I was hell on birds. The sparrows, doves, pheasants, ducks, swallows and their compatriots seemed to figure me out pretty quickly, and I soon found that other places on the property had a much higher population of them than the part I happened to be in at the time. That, and the fact that I was never a great shot, probably helped keep their populations pretty well intact. But I killed my share.
Killed. Nice word, that.
I look back on that predation, that killing, with regret. Not the part with the shotgun, which sometimes brought wild game to the table and had a purpose, but the senseless sniping at non-game birds that we never ate and wouldn’t consider eating. I no longer remember what the thrill was in holding those small, warm bodies in my hand and watching their eyes become dull and empty. I don’t like to think about it now.
Nowadays, watching the citizens of our backyard has made me realize how much like them I am at a most basic level. I want to go on. I eat when hungry. I duck when threatened, and I fight when necessary. I try to protect my loved ones. Leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.
Even so, it’s obvious that it is absolutely impossible to live without causing harm to other organisms. We can’t take a step without causing havoc at some level, we can’t eat or breathe without causing the destruction of other things—-the flip side of the coin of creation. The two things can never be separated.
But what we do have is a level of control that may, I say may, be unique among the creatures of the earth. We can choose to be merciful or deadly and, more and more, Nadia and I seem to have a horror for the useless destruction of life. That doesn’t mean we don’t swat mosquitoes or put out baits for ants when they get out of control in the kitchen in the spring. We eat meat, although much, much less than we used to. We eat plants, too, and they must also die.
What is different for me now is that every decision to kill is a conscious one and there is no enjoyment involved. When I destroy a mosquito or a tick, I’m highly aware that the tiny creature was only doing what it knew how to do to make a go of it. I smush it anyway, but there is a part of me saying, “I’m sorry it has to be this way”. I once watched Nadia capture a paper wasp that had just wandered inside and stung her when she unknowingly leaned against it. She gently took it outside and released it. When I eat meat, a part of me feels guilt at knowing that there are other alternatives.
Awareness breeds its own kind of discomfort. It is often so much easier not to think too much about things.
There are times, I swear, when it seems I can almost physically feel the web of life and watch it functioning, the butterfly connecting to the bee, the redbud to the mushroom, everything to everything, and all to us. That makes it hard to treat life cheaply.
We try not to. Our backyard teems with life, and we guard it well. Reparation for my predatory youth? Maybe. Maybe I’m chipping away at some bad karma. Or maybe I just grew up.