It seems I spend my time running between two goals: One is trying to kill things and the other is trying to keep things alive. Algae, on which all life depends, I kill. Roses, which stick me with thorns every chance they get, I sacrifice myself for. The dog and the cats are able to deprive me of my dinner by simply wishing it for themselves, while deer are forced to starve, if possible, beyond the dining room wall, where the nourishment of summer has dried up and blown away. If you’re a swan in the pond, I’ll bring you breadcrumbs. If you’re a mouse in the house, I shall pay no attention to how cute you are compared to, say, the earthworm (which I would defend at all costs) and will place a torture machine, spring-loaded and just your size, right in your path. In other words: drop dead.
In my world, when it comes to man versus nature, it’s every man for herself. I’m the one who decides what lives where, or if. My head swells when I think of my powers. If I consider you cute, like a ladybug, you’re in business, but if I don’t, rest in peace. So if you were a spider I’d kill you, but if you were a spiderwort, I’d pour water on you and fertilize you once every two weeks. And if you’re a daddy longlegs, that’s a whole nother thing. You I’d carry to the door so you could get home unharmed, wherever home is. Just don’t make it to my bedroom — a capital offense.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a dedicated greenhead. I loved An Inconvenient Truth and dragged everyone to see it, even though it was spring and there were better things to do than sit in a movie theater. I could have been reaching into my cache of poisons meant to take the lives of things I wanted to annihilate, like white flies and thrips and aphids, which I hoped to make into dead things without even knowing what they do or why they do it. There’s one poison for poison ivy, one for Japanese beetles and one for bacteria — little beings we can’t even see. One poison is specific to the murder of yellow jackets and wasps, a far-reaching spray that can kill them in a distant tree without your having to leave your lawn chair. It’s a god’s tool, and I am the god: I giveth and I taketh away. With yellow jackets, that decision is easy (an apology to the honeybees, who simply looked too much like the enemy).
My husband and I have become so fond of the two frogs living in our fake pond that we have set aside our long-handled frog remover meant to skim them out of the water and into obscurity. Instead we bring them bugs we’ve killed and worry that they might get chilly, once the ice forms. Yet I’ve also poured salt atop an innocent slug and then watched it dehydrate to death. Slithery things gather no mercy, I guess, unless they’re frogs.
One recent fall evening, on our way home from a lunch of smoked duck with brandied peaches and wild rice, we encountered a duck crossing the road. My husband, a hunter, was driving. He braked to a standstill, out of respect for the waddly bird, causing the folks traveling in the two cars behind us to slam on their brakes, all of them watching their lives flash before their eyes, each ending on a freeze-frame of a mallard duck.
But it had been a great lunch.
A moth has flown around the lamp and seems to be surrendering, flapping downward toward my notebook as I am writing, until it silently lands in my hair. I have nothing against moths, so I carefully help it out of its hirsute trap, hoping not to harm its fragile wings. Once it’s free, I toss it in the air, hoping it will fly off in some other direction and not pull an encore. Had it been a fly, however, that would be a different thing. I would get out of bed and seize the swatter to end the life of a single fly, if it were to make the fatal mistake of landing on my person.
Ah, decisions, decisions. We poor humans must decide, again and again, what will be and what will not, and we don’t get a single day off. Why, there are still diseases to defeat, species to save, oceans to clean up. Or not.
Oh, and then there are groundhogs to rescue. Or not.
Story by Martha Holmes. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2006. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.