Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Family of Things


I killed a woodchuck today.

I don’t mean to be trite and predictable, I know that wrestling with and coming to terms with animal pests and life and death and food and one’s part in it all is pretty standard territory for neophyte farmer-writer types.

Possibly because it is traumatic and shakes up a lot of the smug assumptions that one is only doing good by hoeing beans and harvesting tomatoes for the kind local people who buy our veggies.

At the lovely farm where I am lucky and happy to work, several fields have become nasty little dens of woodchucks. We see their paw prints in the dirt, their teeth marks in the beets, the gnawed off carrot tops, along the squash and eggplants, and so on.

If they weren’t eating food that needs to be sold in order for the farm to remain operational and solvent, I would have no problem with the animals. But, they are. Whole plantings have not yet been lost to the woodchucks, but we are losing more that anyone would like after the investment of hours and labor and CSA members’ faith in our abilities. By virtue of my opposable thumbs, large brain, and upright posture do I also have the utter right to dominion over this landscape? Do my needs for survival—a paycheck and food—supercede the rights of the woodchuck clan?

I am not quite sure. It seems arrogant to say yes, and self-denyingly stupid to say no.

Yesterday, using my thumbs and curious, capable mind, I put a rotting tomato in the very large Havaheart trap and set it up outside one of the woodchuck holes. This afternoon, I found a woodchuck in the trap. It was shaking with fear and its nose was bloody from bashing against the door of the cage.

I don’t know who designed the Havaheart trap, but I gravely doubt the actual size and scope of their heart. For most of the unwanted animals—mice, rats, chipmunks and woodchucks—that I can think of people trapping, carrying the caged animal to another location and releasing them, alive, doesn’t really solve the issue. The animal could well be so traumatized by the experience that, like a deer almost hit on the road, it’ll stumble off and die of stress, possible more traumatically than a quick snap of the spinal cord from a traditional mousetrap. If you drive the cage far from the catch sight, there are other troubles. I know pet cats and dogs who get carsick and I can’t imagine that automotive travel is an experience that most groundhogs would enjoy, either. Or, let’s say your trapped mouse lives through its ordeal. It will come back to dine again in your pantry, leaving you with the same problem you started with. The Havaheart idea seems to embrace a certain NIMBY/ “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that irks me with its ease, with its lack of ethics to be questioned and answered for and cleaved to.

Through the years, I have killed more mice than I can count. Pest killing is something that I feel somewhat obligated to do personally when and where the need arises. If my way of being in the world requires the death of another being, I’d like to make myself aware of the death. It seems, to me, to be the responsible, mindful and empathetic thing to do. I don’t like to insulate myself from the unpleasantness of the hard or dirty work. I feel dishonest.  A quick death seems like the most practical, ethical and the kindest way to deal with unwanted varmints.

However, at the farm, there are no firearms to be discharged (even if that were in keeping with the land use agreement with the Park Service), and we certainly don’t want to poison a woodchuck, only to have the poison leach into the ecosystem we grow organic food in as the creature decomposes. Neither could we figure out how to slit the throat of the squirming and terrified caged woodchuck. And we could let it out in a tub and then bean it with a shovel or something, but that seems like it could quickly go wrong.

Which pretty much leaves drowning. While the other farmers filled up the biggest receptacle we could find with water, I put on thick rubber gloves so as not to get bitten and walked down to the field to bring in the cage and critter.

While I’m disturbingly capable at killing pests, I don’t enjoy it. I feel terrible, in fact. The bigger and more charismatic the animal, the worse my moral compass and imagination spins. And, if they aren’t munching on your beets, woodchucks are pretty cute. They look like little beavers, without the paddle-tail. And I was on my way to end the life of one of these chaps, simply because it was trying to live its life on the same patch of land where I am trying to live mine. Really, does my humanness trump their woodchuckness? In all reality, they cause less damage to the world than I do. Their carbon footprint is admirably small, they are very family oriented and community involved, they provide their own housing using only green technologies, require no electricity or fossil fuels, and they certainly do seem to eat predominantly local, organic food grown by well-treated workers.

As I was heading down to the field, thinking thick and self-hating thoughts, a ragged V of Canada Geese took off from the neighbor’s mown-down sunflower field. They flew over the beets, over the caged woodchuck, and then wheeled off towards the backfields.

Every time I hear a goose honk, I hear Mary Oliver’s voice, an echo announcing my place in the family of things.

Thankfully, today was no different.

I don’t believe in Destiny or fate or coincidence or karma. I do believe in finding peace in reality, in whatever meaning you can derive from the randomness of the world, whatever faith sustaining comfort comes from interpreting the circumstances before your eyes and fingertips. So, yes, it was just the geese's time to take off and there were probably better sunflower seeds available the next field over. Their presence was not a natural-world sanctioning of the murder I was about to commit. Nor was it a fleeing censure, or a thing with feathers abandoning me because of my earthbound inhumanity.

It was just geese being geese, playing their part in the family of things.

And reminding me of my own. That I have as much right to life as a woodchuck, as a goose.

That we all do, and that the trade for our lives is often the death of something else beautiful, something else just as worthy of life, that the family of things is a constantly shuffling deck of cards.

Certainly, it helps to have opposable thumbs for much of this shuffling and reshuffling. Which is why I actively participate in the killing of mice and woodchucks. I want to take responsibility for my power in this world. I do not see the cost of so much of my life. I do not see or know the lives of people mining the heavy metals inside my computer, or know what terror it is to live wherever my gasoline comes from, to be almost the last of my species as my habitat and homeland is violently removed, or any of the rest of little distant murders our lives and lifestyles beget.

The woodchuck hyperventilated and scurried around its cage as I carried it to the waiting tub and the ambivalent and practical farmers. The heft felt like taking an angry cat to the vet. Because I’ve read a thousand and one books with talking, sentient animals, I muttered an apology as we walked along. I thought of my dog, if there is some animal telepathy that would let him know I killed something cute and furry, much like himself.

I do not think that, to the woodchuck, any of this mattered. But it mattered to me, in trying to be present to what I was doing—ending a life—in a way that was as respectful and mindful as I could manage. People often say of the hard things to just not think about it. That’s like a Havaheart trap for the mind, I believe. Better to think about it, to be honest and aware and present, and if it is awful, question why and learn from it and go forward cleanly and clearly.

It was terrifically unpleasant to sink the trap into the water, to watch the woodchuck try to paddle about in the cage, clawing at the water and helplessly tipping its bloody nose towards the surface. I saw its eyes roll back and go white, I saw its claws drop its grip on the cage. I saw it go still.

And then I reached in, hauled out the cage, and took it to the woods. For the ease of whoever is next in the food web, I threw it as far into the woods as I could. Something will find it, eat it, and life will go on, as it always does. Matter is neither created nor destroyed—we each just borrow it for the duration of our lives. I'd like to live ever more respectfully, joyfully and uniquely with the eternal molecules I'm borrowing and being.

But something has shifted with me. I am more aware now of the cost of what we do, of the responsibility that comes with being the human, having the thumbs. I want more and more to minimize the devastations I participate in, although I understand I am not a ghost and harm to others will ripple out from my life, by the very nature of life. Even small friendly organic farms require the deaths of other beings. We have a place within the webs and chains and systems of the world—we are none of us separate or above.

After the killing, I went to the flower field and picked a large bouquet of riotously wonderful flowers. Because life goes on and if I am going to be present for the unpleasantness, mindful of the cost of my own life, then I am going to be eternally certain to be willfully attuned to the good and beautiful parts of this same life of mine.

They are splendid and infinite. In truth, I see the light more clearly when I am awake to the darkness, of life when I look death squarely in its scared little eyes and know my place in the family of things.

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