On Bugs, Generally Speaking

Spring field copy.jpg

It’s been almost two months since I promised to start writing about bugs. It’s not that I haven’t been spending time with them; I have! The problem is that in my new life as an organic farmer, I don’t have time to write during May and June, and other months as well. . . because I’ve got weeds that grow shoulder high in one field during the time it takes to clear another field. This reality causes me to recall with some longing the use of herbicides: how easy, how convenient. But I’ve left that behind, along with many other easy and convenient things.

The fact that I am out weeding manually almost every day instead of spraying poison means I am also spending time with bugs. It even means I begin to notice a relationship between the weeds and the bugs and me, though I do not yet understand what I notice. Why do the snails make babies inside the broken bark of trees? Why do the little black ants congregate around this particular sticky low growing circular weed? Maybe by this time next year, I will have spent a winter month getting answers to these questions.

Meanwhile I see that the snails eat the fresh green leaves of my newly planted pistachio trees. I knock them off the tree with a stick, and the tree then grows new leaves.

As I am knocking the baby snails to the ground, I suddenly remember being about ten years old, watching a snail, and listening to a friend tell me that if you sprinkle salt on them they dissolve. Of course I had to try it, of course. I sprinkled salt on the slug and it dissolved before my eyes: cool. But I only did it once because it was also terrible. The same friend showed me how to set fire to an ant by focusing the sun’s rays on the ant through a magnifying glass. It didn’t work. But I begin to look like a little psychopath in my own memories. I wasn’t that.

I was a kid coming into agency, as ten-year-olds do, learning how the world works, and working it for all I was worth. And I was a kid doing that developmental phase in a particular time and place, a time of tremendous technological progress in twentieth century America, where nothing was as sacred as science. Science, the discipline by which technological solutions to ancient problems were allowing humans to finally conquer nature, to finally look to a day in the near future when our suffering would be so vastly diminished, when we would live in a world clean and orderly, healthy and well fed. We revered science, the study that requires you to put aside your emotions, to focus and discipline your mind, to manipulate and measure and repeat, to predict the effects of one thing on another. And so the little scientist in me ceased for a moment to feel for the snail and the ant, and she felt for that moment only the pure thrill of curiosity satisfied.

But I now understand that even that momentary setting aside of feeling for a fellow creature is really not a good thing, even in the name of science, which I have grown to love in a deeply personal way, as nature has equipped me to do. Of science and of everything, I now say: if you’re going to do something, have the guts to feel it, because that capacity for feeling evolved in animals for good reasons and it should not be unplugged. Science taught me that, and so did my own gut; the two are not antithetical.

The loss of weeds and bugs to massive use of poisons is more complicated than we thought it would be. The weeds and the bugs go together, and the bugs we call beneficial live in a web of relationship with bugs we call noxious and dangerous. The endangered monarch butterflies need milkweed, the honey bees are dying from pesticides that were intended for creatures like saw-toothed grain beetles (whose name surely sounds threatening) and corn worm and the snails who eat my pistachio leaves. The problem is you can’t target just one bug, and even if you could, that bug was having beneficial as well as harmful effects. Better to slow down and get to know the bugs and the weeds, with feeling for fellow beings as one of the tools in the research kit. I don’t say this lightly when the bugs are tormenting not only my pistachios but my fruit crops, and my own body as well.

More about that next time!