Deeply conflicted.That’s how I feel about calling the exterminator.The longer I’m alive the more eastern my thinking becomes.What right do I have to kill other animals for doing just what they’ve evolved to do?The yellow jackets who made a nest in our siding were doing just what nature directed them to do.In what sense is our house natural?When they started getting inside, though, memories of having been traumatized by stepping on a yellow jacket nest when I was younger came to too sharp a focus.Terror is probably the right word.We were catching and releasing five or six a day and summer doesn’t look to be about to give way to autumn very soon.There’s nothing like being startled by an angry bee when you walk into a room in summer-weight clothes.So the exterminator came.
As the yellow jackets fled into the house to escape the poison I pondered what right I had to deprive them of their lives (here’s the eastern thinking part).How was my comfort, or my lack of terror, more important than their need for a home?Couldn’t we peacefully coexist?You see, I’m no fan of violence of any sort.In my ideal world there would be no war and no meanness.You might not be able to call yellow jackets cuddly, but they don’t seem the happiest of creatures with whom to interact.They’re industrious, like business owners want their drones to be, but their people skills aren’t too good.Maybe it’s just projecting, but when they swarm the only word that comes to mind is anger.Even their evolved body armor reflects that.Still, I didn’t want them killed.I just wanted them not to misunderstand our human interactions while shut in during a pandemic.
Life is a gift to all creatures.I became a vegan years ago because of humanitarian concern for our fellow creatures.The mess our world’s in now because of our lack of care for anything but money plainly shows.Bees, it could be argued, make more of a contribution to the well-being of the planet than I do.Who am I to make any claim of superiority?Still, I’m responsible to pay half my salary on a mortgage that will keep me in one location until the situation betters.When I see that silhouette in the window a sting of terror from my childhood comes back as I grab an empty peanutbutter jar to catch and release, only to have another bee replace the first.Childhood traumas are like that, of course.But now I apologize for bringing on the death of fellow creatures and I walk through the rooms through which they had freely flown.
Ithaca may be the ultimate hippie town. Open and accepting of diversity, it’s a place where anyone can speak out against what’s going on in the government and not worry about finding any objectors. Yesterday when I was in Buffalo Street Books, customers openly vented their frustrations with the way Washington’s handling things, and others joined in. There’s a sense of righteous anger here that hasn’t been fashionable since the days of the biblical prophets. You have heard it was said Watergate was a bad thing, but verily I say unto thee something much worse than Watergate is here. And although winter is still holding on in upstate New York, nobody doubts global warming is real.
From my first visit here, I knew that I wanted to live in Ithaca, but it is one of those places you can’t afford to live. Amazing how the liberal cities are the places people want to reside. Places where you can’t just turn off the realities of a diverse world just because some things make you uncomfortable. Places where if you notice that other people are different you are reminded that you, in their eyes, are the different one. There is no static, monochrome, cookie-cutter American. Why is this an idea so hard to sell? Capitalism leads to and fuels the desire to own. And owning leads to the desire to own more. I’ve often noticed this since being out of higher education—even within your own company others want what you have. The basic civility of the socialist is missing. That’s where the “me first” attitude leads.
In upstate New York, as in many parts of the nation, the very names remind us that others “owned” the land before Europeans arrived. Native American concepts of ownership were so different from the capitalist ones that forcefully landed on these shores that those views were forced, under firearms and steel, to assimilate to the foreigners’ ways. Capitalism takes no prisoners. Turnabout, they used to say, is fair play. We no longer feel that way as a nation. The interlopers have taken over. We’ve made the country in our own image. And it certainly isn’t any more noble for it. Being in a place like Ithaca always makes my spirits ebullient. The very concept of ownership is an odd one, I realize. Mere mortals can never really own anything. We can pretend to, or perhaps we can take a more enlightened view. We are all borrowing things here. And I would love to borrow a piece of real estate here in Ithaca.
Ownership is an odd concept for mortal creatures. With limited time to spend on a finite planet, we devise rules that give exclusive rights to some while denying access to others. I have never owned property (tellingly called “real estate”)—the life of those who stumble into higher education doesn’t really lend lenders any confidence of one’s ability to repay debts. I spent too much income, I guess, on my education. In any case, the concept of ownership seems to be endemically human. In most societies we want that thing that we found, that we picked up and moved with us, to remain where we put it so that we can access it again. That particular stick or stone that caught our eye for utility or beauty—it is that we wish to own. Soon humans are building vacation homes in the regions of stunning natural beauty that dot an industrialized landscape, vacation homes where they can get away from it all. Humans owning nature.
Recently I read a story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger about beachfront property “owners” in New Jersey suing over beach reclamation. Now before bursting out into peals of laughter, please be aware that those who claim New Jersey lacks natural beauty have never visited the state in the spring. Once outside the urban sprawl surrounding New York City, Jersey is, for the most part, very pleasant. Many of the beaches are pristine. Of course, pristinity invites affluence. The wealthy like to settle where the views are nice. And so when the state tried to prevent beach erosion by building dunes the rich cried foul and began to sue. It looks like the state will have to pay out. The very state that I, along with countless others who can’t afford a single house, support by our taxes. That money is now being piped into the pockets of those whose summer homes now have a slightly diminished view. My heart bleeds.
One of the facts of life on the Atlantic coast is hurricanes. Another is nor’easters. Both of these storms erode beaches at a terrifying rate. And when the beach is gone, whose house will be in the ocean? Those who wanted the dunes removed. Money is just distilled ownership. Those flimsy pieces of paper have no inherent value. It is difficult even to believe in money when you never see it. Electrons zipping through the Internet are the only sign that I’ve been paid. Yet we value it above all else. I’m not sure how this fits in with a gospel that condemns money and a Jesus who suggests the only way to heaven is to give it all away. Well, maybe it all fits, as long as you don’t block my view of the ocean. After all, owning part of a planet entitles you to some feeling of self-importance. Or so I suppose.