COMPASSION: An Entomologist’s Dilemma by Margaret Erhart

An Entomologist’s Dilemma by Margaret Erhart

From Turning Wheel

Every day this Buddhist kills something.  Many things.  And not just thoughts.  Creatures.  Sentient living beings.  Butterflies.  Robberflies.  Beetles, wasps, bees, spiders, anything soft-shelled or hard that moves, flies, creeps, scuttles, or runs for its life.  If I can catch it, I do, in order to kill it.  In order to record what lives here, and in what numbers, and what it’s eating, and what’s eating it.  In the interest of science, I carry a special jar for killing — a killing jar, it’s called.  (When it comes to language, I feel the least I can do is not equivocate.)

The jar contains ethyl acetate.  Cleaning fluid.  I put the hard-bodied insects in the jar and usually I watch them struggle and die.  I’d rather not watch them.  But it seems the wrong time for that particular preference.  Watching them causes me sadness and regret, yet this is a death I have brought them.  Chosen to bring them.  It seems vital (exactly that word) to witness the consequences of my actions.

Catching them also causes me sadness, to arrest motion and then life.  The soft-bodied bugs like spiders, or the aquatics like water striders or back-swimmers, I put in a small vial of ethyl alcohol.  The butterflies, skippers, and moths go in little glassine envelopes after I’ve caught them in a net.  I catch them and squeeze the thorax, which is the center section of their three-part bodies.  I squeeze gently but firmly with the nails of my thumb and forefinger.  For the butterflies and small moths this isn’t difficult.  I feel something in there break (I imagine a tiny rib breaking, though of course butterflies have no such thing), and then the creature is dead, I’ve killed it.

Sometimes nothing happens in me, and sometimes something does.  Something always happens in me when I kill skippers, which, like butterflies, have clubbed antennae, but their bodies are large and mothlike.  Most of us would just call them butterflies and never know the difference.  Except when it comes to killing them.  They are hard to kill, hard to squeeze.  They have tough bodies, and there is seldom the pop of that imaginary breaking rib.  Instead they wiggle their antennae and legs long after I’ve put them in the envelope.  Even when I squeeze them again, they still wiggle, I’ve taken to placing the envelope inside the killing jar for a few minutes, and even then they are sometimes still moving when I pull them out.

Movement I assume to equal life.  But does it?  The philosophical questions don’t interest me while I’m in the middle of killing something.  I feel a need to enter right into the killing, yet at the same time I long to keep it separate from me.  The use of equipment, the refinement of the method of death, the moving away from causing death with one’s own hands — all of this is part of the desire to separate.

Just as the remarkable and beautiful face of a butterfly is not called “face,” because we want what we kill to be separate from us, not to share this intimate and human feature.  The first time I took a long look at a bug’s face was four years ago, downstream from Lava Falls on the Colorado River.  A tiger beetle.  The man who brought it to me (alive) wore thick glasses that enlarged his eyes.

The faces tell mind-boggling evolutionary stories, as do the wings, the colors, the mouth parts, the barbed stickiness of the legs.  Dragonflies, incredible predators that they are (and hard to catch — they seldom succumb to my predation), have mouths, in their nymph stage, that under a microscope look like earth-moving machinery.  The jaw unhinges to accommodate large prey objects.  Eat what you can, catch what you can, live while you can.

Dragonflies are, for me, the most difficult to kill.  More difficult than the most beautiful butterfly.  Though I notice in the bug-hunting world the same emotional law as in the bird-and-mammal-hunting world: the larger it is, the larger it is to take its life.  As if more size equals more life.  Easier, then, to kill a child than an adult?  Easier to kill a fetus than a child?  In the bug world, the large insects and spiders are harder for me to kill, and the small, numerous drab ones are almost easy.  Like shore flies and mosquitoes.

Though not ants.  I remember the first time I took a good look at an ant.  The house that summer was overcome with ants.  Some were eating our sugar — not an insoluble problem — but another hidden species was down in the darkness below our feet, chewing away at the house’s foundation.  So the exterminator came.  He brought pamphlets showing how the poison would work its way into the colony and kill it.  Pink arrows flowed toward the nest where cartoon ants lay on their backs, feet in the air.  When he left I felt unsatisfied.  I felt the way I do when I read a newspaper that’s too conservative or too liberal.  The facts were skewed.  The sugar-eating ants were going to die along with the foundation-eaters, and this felt wrong to me.  It made me angry.  I decided to see what an ant was, before there weren’t any left in the house to see.

To my astonishment, when I picked one up and put it on a piece of paper and watched it move around, it looked like a tiny horse.  It lifted a front leg.  It reared back.  It settled and put its head down and raised it and did the whole dance again.  Tiny horses.  I can no longer kill an ant.  I’ve caught dragonflies in my hands when they were trapped inside trying to get out.  Is this what makes them hard to kill?  The contact?  The touch relationship?  Or is it their prehistoric nature, the sense of killing elders, killing wisdom, killing continuity?

Butterflies are younger.  They are a much younger life form.  But I’ve been places where they landed on me (one Vanessa cardui, common name painted lady, stayed for more than twenty minutes on my right thigh as I walked up and down a water-filled culvert), and killing would have been impossible.  And unnecessary, as the killing’s purpose is to record what lives here.

“Collecting” is killing for science, but when science lands on your thigh and you can identify it without question, you can record without killing.  But “without question” is an ideal, especially for those who classify bugs.  Taxonomists, as they are called, are said to believe only a specimen.  A photograph, an eyewitness account, an educated guess — often these won’t do.

When it comes to bugs, the internal characteristics are where the distinctions are made between one subspecies and another.  The shape of the reproductive organs is what you have to look at to see what you’ve actually got.  And what do we gain from knowing that this and not that lives here?  That this used to live here and no longer does?  That that which was scarce is now abundant?

The pulse of the environment, that’s what bugs are.  The patient is healthy, the patient is not.  Look at the bugs.  They shed light on evolution, genetics, social behavior, geography.  They tell us how the land used to look, where old inland lakes used to lie.  The killing I do has a purpose and logic to it that most of the time I can live with.  But logic is one thing, connection another.  My heart still sinks to watch life beat its wings against the glass of the killing jar and die.  I hope it will always sink.  I hope I will always take notice of these moments of transition, to know that the Great Matter is at hand.

I am utterly uncertain that it is right to kill, even knowing why I kill and what these bodies are for and how difficult it is to hear what they have to tell us, exactly what species or subspecies they are, without the convenient stillness death provides.  Connection lives outside of logic.  Connection, compassion, is in its own way an outlaw activity.  To engage in it is to take on relationship, and relationship to what we are about to kill is, as any hunger knows, confusing, strong, both power-ridden and helpless, regretful, gratifying, frightening, mind-opening, heartbreaking, and transformative.

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