Though the title of this piece jestingly refers to the old Save The Whales campaign, I am far from indifferent about whales and other cetaceans. The organization by that name is still in business, by the way, since 1977. Though whales and dolphins and their ilk tugged on our American heartstrings early in the environmental movement, much has changed since those days. Cetaceans are metaphorically jostling for position now in the hearts and minds of citizens who feel strongly about current countless abuses of nature, particularly to the animal kingdom, our own tribe.
Yes, I have for years sometimes wept and meditated and cheered in response to information about these sea creatures. They live in another world from myself and never the twain shall meet for most of us. I cannot recommend you meet them at Sea World, or otherwise incarcerated, but your call, of course. My inbox is daily peppered with human pleas for many land animals, however, who are indeed living close to humans; the suffering, the ill, the maimed, the incarcerated. I admit to disagreement in some cases, such as when humans do stuff like this:
I understand in theory, that, given a particular circumstance, I might commit to such an heroic project, for I know Never Say Never, and there’s always a backstory. And of course I would not judge the person negatively for such action, for it is surely of a heart centered nature. However, I am way more repulsed (a very decided gut feeling of WRONG!!!!!) by Gaia’s creatures mutilated but living, than I am by death, by Gaia’s great mercy. I know some humans find these paraplegic animal stories to be heroic, and of course they are to those individuals. But something in me just screams desperation in the face of death.
It seems to me (yes, it’s just me, folks- this is an opinion piece) that we are using ethics that apply more solidly to the treatment of humans, in relating to the animal world. The feeling of oneness with the animal kingdom that’s the foundation of such behavior is fantastic, marvelous, phenomenally and wildly to be celebrated. Therefore I would never say a word to the friend or acquaintance who spends thousands of dollars on treatments for their ill or otherwise damaged pet, or some random rodent; their call. For me, the heroic approach in this kind of situation brings a rush of sorrow, perhaps for both beings involved. It ignores the mercy of death that Gaia offers, her tender, shapeshifting arms waiting to release her creatures from bodily suffering, in her uniquely compassionate and magical way.
I realize this subject must have proceeded from my last writing on ethics, for the above situation of the human and their beloved pet (or random rodent) is an ethical situation, and therefore complex. Death and suffering are the ultimate teachers of ethics, and wars have served as ethical teaching forum on this planet for many years. Somehow, I was born to death-lessons early, as I was given a procession of pets from an early age, and they all died, of course; some through accident, some through illness, one through neglect (the most horrible of educational memories). Aside from that one which I ignored to death, the most educationally impressive of all died relatively complicated deaths. Back in those days there were no heroics in the pet vet office on the scale we have now, so that quandary was never a challenge for me. The cost of dragging the pet to the veterinary office for a diagnosis was already a luxury.
So I learned to pull the trigger. Not literally, but I have put small animals to death; killed them. A few more I took to others for mercy killing. It was always done with grief, but I knew it was time, thanks to Gaia’s hand on my shoulder. However, I also understand the urge to save a life, an occupation I also was very taken with as a child, and continue still, not just in the virtual reality of my inbox. I also, by the way, was self-appointed funeral director for the dead things in my ‘hood, organizing everything from coffin and flowers to rounding up a captive audience. I was also grave digger, monument carver, cemetery keeper, priestess, griot, and chief mourner.
Back in the day, my savior work was mostly the old saving-the-fallen-nestlings thing. With an addition that persists; saving the worms. Is there anyone else out there who does this? I’m talking earthworms here, the ones that red-breasted thrushes tussle with on the lawn.
In my preschool years, when we traveled from the Boston ‘burbs to the U.P. for the summer, fishing on the Fortune Lakes was a popular occupation. I soon dropped out of that game since I could feel the worms on the hooks; I felt their writhing in my gut, their cold descent into the water, and final pale lassitude that rendered them less a-lure-ing, upon which they were unceremoniously chucked into the lake. At some unremembered moment I implemented my lifelong career of carefully removing worms from the sidewalk or any other dangerous situation, to some protected, cool, damp spot, childish Guan Yin of the Annelidae.
When I was 9 years old I wrote a book report on Darwin’s paper The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms. In this book, Darwin’s last published work I think, he described the staggering amount of earth-making and earth-moving the earthworm community silently engaged in beneath his British feet. Perhaps this earthworm aspect of unsung greatness is part of my lifelong save-the-worms campaign; who knows. It doesn’t feel that way to me; it feels like the order is reversed. I glommed onto Darwin’s study as an affirmation of what I was born to admire.
My love of earthworms is an inconvenient love, as perhaps all loves are. When I dig soil, something I do so enjoy in the spring of the year, I feel I must tend the earthworms like family members (well… sorta.) Each little squirmer is saved from demise to the best of my ability, and this savior project can get pretty taxing, as one who has done some gardening will know.
Cutting sod, for example, is a major undertaking then, since earthworms love to hang around in the root systems of grasses. Luckily, I am very good with a spade, hardy in regards to lifting dirt, and find kneeling and sitting on the ground no difficulty, or it would take me forever to clear sod for gardening. As it stands, I can get frustrated with my self appointed savior task, but somehow I cannot renege on an unspoken promise. Perhaps this is the case for caretakers of paraplegic mammals as well; luckily for me, worms have no appendages to lose.
As I am born a Pisces, this behavior is appropriate to my astrology, for Pisces is the proverbial champion of the underdog. I have always, from my earliest memories, fit this particular bill. What could be more underdog than that which is literally underfoot? I have been surprised many times in my life to discover how little some people are aware of where they are stepping. When I lived in East Palo Alto for a year and had no soil to dig, I spent time outdoors in a wonderful park, one of the only marshland preserves in the San Francisco Bay. I was sometimes disturbed that people very much tended to use its trails for morning Starbucks-enhanced cycling, or jogging en masse in their expensive exercise duds, and/or talking on their cell phones (note that only two of those can be done at once). The natural world was seemingly unheeded. Mothers covered their children’s eyes in horror when a carcass loomed into view, some animal having had the crude audacity to croak on their path. But whatever.
Anyway, there were a lot of land snails there, and they would, especially in the early morning, wander onto the paved trails, dragging their silvery trains behind them. The cyclers and joggers just crushed them; Crunch Crunch went their little shell-homes as folks sped by me. I do realize that we don’t want people breaking their ankles in order to avoid snails, but let’s do what we can here, people.
Aside from the disturbing noise, the trails were a slaughter scene by the early afternoon, which I hated. Guess what I did about that? Uh-huh. I bent over, the gigantic hand of humanly inspired mercy (not the death one) reaching down from the heavens, and placed them (the live ones) out of harm’s way, sometimes explaining to them they had made a poor choice and that humans are not always careful where they step. Hey, don’t look at me like that; snails are cute! And, despite the futility of my project, I felt I had helped a few fellow creatures live to slime another day. I had put in my stint on the snail suicide hotline.
So. Point: humans are usually born to save SOMETHING- besides themselves. And to each their own. The mercy of death is not always understood in a person’s lifetime; all are not privy to up close examples thereof. My society tends to emphasize death stories that are seemingly cruel; the grief of war, the deceased child, the romanticized fallen warrior, or those who succumb relatively early on to cancer. Death is often portrayed as the most cruel and tragic of Creation’s possibilities; no mention is made of any positive purpose it serves. And most of us these days are not exposed to death’s mercy in the form of release from suffering until we are older, and the realities of debilitation loom larger. Death is all around, of course; there’s plenty of it in the grocery store, for example, neatly packaged in plastic and metal. We think nothing of tucking Death under our arms, through the register line, and into our homes, because we call that form of death “food”.
So, as our old friend Tiny Tim so succinctly put it, God bless us everyone, and with that our many mercies, whatever they may be, from worms to whales. And try to avoid crushing the snails, would you, please?