I. Sympathy for Maggots
My sublet roommates and I had a maggot infestation in our kitchen. It was nobody’s fault really! Just an unfortunate design failure! Let me explain. The trash can residing in the kitchen at the time of move-in was rather cheaply designed swing-top contraption in which a section of the peaked lid swings on an axis to allow garbage in. Unfortunately, there was perpetual gap in the lid that also let flies in – licentious beasts on a one-track mission to propagate the family line. They buzzed and rutted and laid eggs in the glistening meat-remains – which were in abundance due to an orgiastic early-summer spree of deck-top cookouts.
Enter the maggots. They emerged one day and began to wriggle across the floor, bound for some dark, moist promised land hard-coded into their genetic imagination. Some died in the ambiguous clear-brown liquid that oozes perpetually from under the refrigerator. Others seemed attracted to the light that would slant in from the clear plastic deck door. I was unhappy with the situation, and spearheaded an effort to get a trash can with a lid that closes all the way. After my reimbursement request was rebuffed by the landlord, I struck Craigslist gold, finding a bargain on a cylindrical, foot-activated can in elegant stainless steel.
The woman who sold me the trash can was somewhat chatty. Sometimes during a Craigslist transaction, a sympathetic spark can pass between the parties, and the semi-anonymous figment of your inbox with whom you have been exchanging terse logistical dispatches with takes form as a living, breathing person who might, just maybe, perhaps in perfect, or at least more open world– become a friend.
The woman with the trash can was not quite a kindred soul, but she was friendly and a plain dealer and wanted to talk and I didn’t mind listening. I confessed to our little problem, and we agreed that it was unfortunate and disgusting. However, the woman ventured something unexpected, along the lines of “Well you look at them, and they are just…” I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it expressed mercy for these little wriggling things, so helpless and under-formed and oblivious. I want to be clear that we were not finding the maggots “cute” or endearing in any other way. They’re disgusting! But this woman had found some measure of empathy for these larvae, brought into the world so blind and hideous and vulnerable. And though I did not respond to her sentiment in an enthusiastic manner, it resonated with me in a real way.
Over the previous week I had picked up maggots and tossed them vigorously out onto the sun-baked deck. I had swept them into a dustpan and flushed them down the toilet. At one point I tried to smother them in their breeding ground by emptying a full load of vacuum cleaner dust on top of them. When then crawled up through the choking grey stratum, I sprayed them with bleach-based household cleaner and watched them shrink and curl away. They were the enemy, and I did not feel guilty about my tactics. Still, some part of me wished the maggots hadn’t been born in my kitchen, so that I wouldn’t have to wage this callous war against them. Why should these writhing carrion-cleaners be brought into this world only to be despised and destroyed? This was why the Craigslist trash can woman’s mercy touched me. For a moment the two of us agreed, in unspoken terms, that it is a valid thing, even a natural thing, to feel sympathy for maggots.
II. The Armchair Jain
The whole maggot affair was small chronicle in a much longer, private arc – my moral struggle with insecticide. How should I, as a thoughtful 21st century man, approach the practice of killing bugs? What kinds of bugs should I kill or not kill, and what is the basis for this favoritism? What are the rules of engagement? Are these rules hard and fast, or should there be flexibility based on my mood and other factors? Indeed, this preoccupation may seem silly, but the debate represents a certain ethical microcosm. The way I adhere or don’t adhere to my principles tells me a good deal about my character as a whole.
As I kid, I indulged in all the usual cruelties. I cooked ants with magnifying glasses. I pulled the long legs off many a daddy long legs. I stomped earwigs with extreme prejudice. My family swatted flies at the campsite and congratulated each other on deft kills. I clapped bugs and sprayed them with toxic chemicals and drowned them and maimed them. My mother had a long war with the slugs that would eat her garden, and my brother and I used to watch her salt the ones she cornered, fascinated with the contortions they would perform in their final slimeful agonies. One of my most vivid memories of Jamaica were the hours my brother and I spent finding caterpillars on the Soursop tree, incapacitating them slightly, and dropping them at the entrance of a nest of vicious ants for our sadistic Roman-coliseum viewing pleasure.
I am not proud of many of my past actions in this arena. Over the years, I have found myself less and less willing to use force against insects, arachnids and other “pests” and “vermin”. Here are a few thoughts on the matter:
- One sympathy I have for bugs is that their lives are somehow judged invalid and expendable because of their appearance, or because of some critical yuck factor they have been yoked with. “Ew” or “It’s just a bug”, or “It could bite me” become valid arguments for crushing a living thing. I’ve looked into the eyes of strangers and seen looks of disgust in reaction to my aspect before – but I didn’t have to worry about them swatting me. What if we killed every creature that made us feel vaguely threatened or uncomfortable? Huh, what’s that? Another drone strike in Pakistan?
- And yes, let’s take this idea one step further. The rhetoric of dehumanization, used in too many horrific campaigns to name, often equates humans to insects. To wit:
“In Rwanda they referred to Tutsis as cockroaches,” explains Omaar. “They were not human beings. This is very important to understand, [there are] very close parallels to what happened in Hitler’s Germany. [They said,] ‘Don’t worry, you’re not killing humans like you. You are killing some vermin that belongs under your shoe. You’re killing cockroaches.'”
It’s a pretty big jump from killing bugs to massacring humans, but a callous, often cultivated indifference to the lives of certain beings is where it starts, and I don’t want to share in those attitudes.
- I’ve adopted a sort of one-sided dialogue for escorting insects out. Yes, I talk to them. It’s mostly “C’mon buddy, I’m trying to help you out here.” I’ve scooped daddy long legs out of the shower before I turn on the water. I done the old cup-and-card containment to ferry centipedes and spiders to the front door. It makes me feel benevolent, this little narrative. But to be honest though, this mercy of mine is often a practical matter. Squashing larger insects results in carcasses and goo puddles that are gross and sometimes difficult to clean up. To be fair, I am not without my moments of caprice. Sometimes I lose patience. “Sorry guy, not your lucky day.” I might say, as I watch a silverfish disappear down the sink. Other times however, I find that I have injured the insect in my oft-hurried attempts to get it out of my dwelling. I usually feel guilty about this for at least a short time, as I watch the poor bug limp away into a dim and uncertain future.
- I have actually become somewhat fond of spiders. They are just fascinating creatures, with amazing capabilities. The web-spinning, the mathematically pleasing number of legs and eyes, the jumping, parachuting, the fishing, the catching of clumsy insects and the subsequent mummification. Do I want them crawling all over me? No. But I respect what spiders do, and so I try very hard to avoid harming them. It bothers me quite a bit when people kill spiders out of irrational fright. Sorry ladies but this means you! Do you know people who get bitten by spiders? I venture that this barely happens in cities and towns above a certain size. Yet people of both sexes will jump and shriek and swing shoes and magazines at the first sight of a harmless arachnid. I usually try to jump in front of the deathblow, and usher the creature outside.
- Flies and Mosquitos are usually on my kill list, but I am finding it harder and harder to lower the hammer. Flies can be annoying as all hell, especially if they are landing unapologetically in your food, or on your person. But have you looked closely at a fly lately, beyond the ick factor? Just their compound eyes alone are bizarre technological masterpieces. And the way they are always rubbing down their mouthparts seems fastidious, and somehow worthy of consideration. Mosquitos are a funny one, because I often kill the bloodsucking females, but leave the feather-antennaed males alone. Does this make me a misogynist? While they bear diseases and leave itchy irritating bites, it seems cruel to escalate with the old pinch-trick – In which one can over-engorge the mosquito until it is overfull, or, as the rumor goes, it explodes.
- Killing a bee should be an arrestable offense, as bees are facing significant levels of endangerment. Without them, agriculture will become a mechanized, macabre affair involving Monsanto, micro-drones, human fertilizer, slavery, and long gun battles with sentient crops.
- As I write this, I am in a vacation home with people that I don’t know terribly well. They do not share my qualms about insecticide. Moths have been swatted, ants crushed, and spiders assaulted. These acts have even taken place outside on the deck, which seems horrifically unfair, as this is the insects’ turf. I’ve been spiriting a few bugs out of harm’s way – today I did a spider and an earwig-looking thing. “I’m getting you out of here before those barbarians spot you” went the dialogue. It’s an uphill battle, but one worth fighting.
So there you have it. This one of my stranger posts, and a bona fide navel-gazer, but I’ll say this. If one takes a certain attitude toward the beauty of life, it is impossible not to delight in the joy of the interconnected ecosystem of the earth. Even insects possess some small measure of animate spark – a vitality and sense of purpose that is wondrous and precious. Somewhere, right now, children are running through summer fields in pursuit of vibrant butterflies and winking fireflies. However, in less idyllic places, someone is putting out their cigarette on a beetle, or grinding a crane fly into the porch with their heel. The wanton killing of the many frail insects that surround us – simply because of their “creepiness” – has become inconsiderate and cruel in my eyes. Life is life, mysterious, inscrutable, nigh-impossible to recreate, so why not preserve it – live and let live? To see the beetle breached and oozing, the moth broken in its own dust, the critically injured ant struggling to crawl before the final blow – these sights hurt me every time. And so I welcome this softening in my own action, this forbearance toward household bugs. In social situations, there is often a moment of panic and calculation when a bug is discovered. Often I am not fast or courageous enough, so when someone else shouts “Wait wait, don’t kill it!” it makes me happy, and I feel good to know that I am not the only armchair Jain.