This post is going to start out fairly innocent, and quickly veer into controversial territory. Or perhaps it will start there. I guess it depends on how you feel about moles.
If you’re one of those gardeners who wages a private little war on moles every year, furiously spending hundreds of dollars on poisons, chemicals and traps in order to maintain that perfectly manicured lawn, I have some bad news for you: not only is this post probably going to annoy you, but you’re fighting a self-defeating battle. You’re on the wrong side of history, dear reader — or rather, the wrong side of ecology.
I, on the other hand, am a great friend to the mole people. When Jeff and I moved into our new house a few weeks ago, I was quietly thrilled to see a few molehills popping up in the newly-laid sod just outside our front door. (Have you ever seen a mole up close? They’re freaking amazing, miniature marvels of evolution!) Having spent the last several years living in a small apartment in a concrete condominium jungle, I was just happy to sink my feet into the soft earth and enjoy the company of my new non-human neighbors, even if they were mostly noisy steller’s jays and brazen gray squirrels. When people talk about wanting to attract wildlife to their yards, they almost always mean pretty little songbirds and maybe a few butterflies. Which are all well and good, of course! But I tend not to discriminate when it comes to wildlife — I’m just too excited to see all the wild and wonderful kinds of life there are — so long as I’m not encouraging the spread of disease or being irresponsible about my trash can.
When a friend visited our new home for the first time recently, he observed, “Looks like you’ve got a mole problem.”
“We’ve got a mole,” I said, “I don’t know if that’s a problem!”
“But it’s pushing up your flowers,” he pointed out.
“Well, they’re not really our flowers,” I said, feeling somewhat stumped on how to explain.
For one thing, the seller’s real estate agent had put the flowers there (along with the new sod) only a month or so earlier, to enhance the property’s curb appeal in online photos. If it were me, I probably wouldn’t have planted any delicate annuals in the shade and rain-shadow of the nine huge western red-cedars in our front yard, and I’m not sure how long they’ll really last before more drought- and shade-tolerant species (some folks call them “weeds”) start to reassert themselves.
But more than that, I find it difficult to think of the yard as something I “own.” The flowers — and the jays, and the moles — were all living here before me. At best, I am a new caretaker; still just a tenant, a guest on land that belongs to a whole community of beings who came before me, and those who will come after. Sweeping in and declaring my aesthetic taste to have some kind of authority just seemed… well, rude. As rude as leaving a note for the house next door complaining about their ugly patio furniture. (Side note: Our neighbors do not have ugly patio furniture. I’m just using that as a hypothetical.) Sure, I’ll need to dig out the English ivy that’s starting to creep over the fence into our yard and smother some of the Douglas firs — but that’s just basic maintenance. That’s just being a good neighbor.
I haven’t always called myself an animist, but this sense of living in a world full of non-human friends and neighbors has been with me since childhood. I can see it in my own stepkids, too — especially my oldest, S, who was equally excited to stalk ghost crabs and sand fleas as she was to watch the more showy dolphins and elegant gulls at the beach this summer. It’s almost a stereotype of idyllic childhood that kids can be perfectly happy spending the afternoon digging up worms and chasing pillbugs in the dirt, or getting soaked up to their knees wading through ponds looking for squirmy spring peepers. At some point, though, we grow up to become adults who think that cultivating a beautiful carpet of lawn shows how mature and responsible we are, dandelions and molehills be damned.
This is — if you’ll excuse my bluntness — an anthropocentric version of responsibility. The kind of responsibility that says, “Hey all you lesser beings, you couldn’t possibly know what you’re doing. Thank god I got here in time! Shut up and I’ll show you a better way.”
I prefer an animistic approach to responsibility: that is, response-ability. Before you can respond effectively and compassionately to the world around you, first you have to listen. (And before that, you have to get used to the idea that others — including non-human others — are worth listening to.) Before you declare that a mole is ruining your flowerbed, for instance, you have to wait and see what happens to the flowers. (And then you have to ask yourself how much it matters to you how pretty your flowers are — if your penchant for petunias is worth the life of a mole, and what kind of person that makes you.) In this case, my friend was wrong anyway: a month later, the flowers are doing just fine, still happily blooming.
I’m not surprised, actually. Because, as any good friend of the mole people would, I already knew that moles are good. We have this weird misconception that moles wreck gardens, but the truth is that having a mole or two in your yard is a sign that the land is in excellent health, that it has nutritious soil teeming with garden-friendly earthworms (a mole’s favorite meal). As insectivores and efficient underground predators, moles also eat grubs, slugs and other critters that we human gardeners might otherwise waste a lot of time, energy and money trying to get rid of. Their tunnels and molehills help to aerate the soil, keeping it loose and moist and excellent for sowing seeds. The savvy gardener can even take advantage of those unsightly molehills, harvesting them for free potting soil rich with nutrients that would otherwise be inaccessible. Can moles disturb plant roots sometimes? Only if those plants have shallow root systems — but as folks in California are finding out, yards bursting with delicate ornamentals that require constant watering aren’t sustainable in the long run anyway, with or without moles.
Still want to get rid of those moles? Good luck! People with “mole problems” always seem to have it worse than people who have a live-and-let-live attitude towards our underground neighbors. Why? For one thing, moles spend almost their entire lives in the soil and are supremely adapted to getting around down there — unlike we human beings. They can dig down five feet or more (one resource I have says up to nine feet!), so no fence you build will ever go deep enough to keep them out. Plus, moles are territorial. Depending on the size of your yard, you probably only have one or two moles on your property, but if you do succeed in catching or killing them, all you’ve really done is create a power vacuum. And since nature abhors a vacuum, you’re inviting more moles to move in. More mole movement means more of those dratted molehills cropping up everywhere. No wonder people who have a problem with moles always feel like their lawns are under siege! Better to make friends with the neighbors you already have.
And this is where this post is about to take a controversial turn.
Because it’s my strong belief that being a “good animist” helps us to be better neighbors — not just to the more-than-human community, but to our fellow human beings as well. Practicing loving attention and respect for the wildly diverse other-ness of the natural world teaches us to have humility and patience in the face of diversity of all kinds, including our own internal diversity as a species.
This might not seem all that controversial at first. But recently, I’ve been seeing a surprising number of comments online complaining that compassion for non-human animals distracts us from focusing on social justice for fellow human beings, particularly people of color.
The other day, someone on Tumblr reblogged a rant accusing “white vegans” of being racists because they use terms like “animal rights,” “abuse” and “oppression” to talk about the horrors of factory farming. Saying that animals are abused or oppressed draws a parallel, the blogger claimed, between “mere animals” and people of color, which is inherently insulting to the latter. Then just this morning on Twitter, I saw someone make a similar complaint in response to the outcry about the killing of Cecil the Lion, a beloved beast in a Zimbabwe national park who was lured out of his lair, shot with an arrow and then left to suffer slowly for two days before finally being skinned and beheaded. “Why are white people more upset about a stupid lion than they are about the oppression of PoC?” the Twitter user wanted to know.
First of all, as a white person, I do want to point out that I can be outraged about more than one thing at a time. Twitter cannot contain my rage.
But nor can it express the breadth and depth of my compassion. Unlike the 140 character limit on Twitter, compassion is not a limited resource. The more we have, the more we share with others, the more we are challenged to expand our circle of compassion, the more there is to go around.
That said, there is good reason to be concerned about drawing comparisons between non-human animals and people of color. Historically, these kinds of insults have been some of the most hateful and harmful in the language of racism. The abuse, oppression and enslavement of people of color have been justified for centuries by comparing them to “lesser” beings such as wild animals or livestock.
Still, it seems to me that the power of these insults would be lessened — and the shaky ground of these justifications for bigotry and prejudice would be shakier still — if admitting we were animals wasn’t seen as such a horrible thing. If, for instance, saying “I am an animal” was no more controversial than saying “he’s gay” or “she’s a Muslim,” because after all, it’s perfectly okay and even pretty awesome to be any or all of these things. Not something to be ashamed of. Not something to hide. Wouldn’t it be nice if, like the poet Mary Oliver writes, you could “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”?
When we were kids, we knew this — at least, in that idyllic version of childhood that none of us really had, we did. So what if Suzy loved board games, and Joey loved horses, and Leslie loved baseball and make-up and girls? Who ever said we all had to love the same things, and with the same intensity? When we were kids, it was okay to love simple things with the simple passion of children — and to know that, if you loved something deeply enough, that love connected you with everyone else in its own special way. But then somewhere along the line, we grew up to become adults who believed that being mature and responsible meant only loving the right things, only things really worthy of love, and to love them in the proper order, lest the love dry up and run out.
But between you and me, dear reader, I’m sick of a world that’s always trying to tell us we are wrong for loving who or what we love. I’m sick of a world where you can’t mourn a lion until you’ve finished mourning the whole of the human race, or where you’re only supposed to feel repulsed by the suffering of beings who walk on two feet and have the same number of eyes as you. It’s my opinion — and it’s not a very humble one, to be honest — that the cause of justice is never served by telling people they should cut themselves off from their own sense of compassion. I’ll say it again: Compassion is not a limited resource. The more practice you have in caring for others and working for their empowerment and equality, the better you get at it. The more you cultivate compassion, the more you see how it applies in every situation.
Not to mention how ridiculous it is to claim that care for the environment and the non-human beings who share it with us is a privilege only white people have. As if the marginalized, the oppressed and the impoverished aren’t the ones affected most by pollution and environmental degradation. As if people of color don’t also love their pets and enjoy watching the sunrise over the ocean. As if “urban” is an acceptable euphemism for “black.” As if fresh air, clean water and green open spaces — the chance to listen to birdsong, to smell the scent of rich humus, to see the stars at night — aren’t basic human rights that belong to everyone, no matter what color skin they have or what gods they worship.
Biophilia is a basic scientific fact of our species. We come alive when we see the natural world thriving, when we feel ourselves a part of it. Our connection with other animals is woven into our very DNA. We have so much in common with other non-human animals — especially other mammals — that our similarities far outweigh our differences. You can try to build a fence separating the human species from the rest of the planet, but you will never be able to dig down deep enough to keep the animal out.
And yes, people who love their cats but complain about the crows annoy me. Yes, people who are outraged by the death of a celebrity lion but scoff at giving a dollar to an anonymous homeless person because “they’ll just spend it on booze” make me want to bash my head against the wall sometimes. But you have to start somewhere. You don’t nurture compassion by pulling it up by the roots and trying to replant it in unfamiliar soil. You nurture compassion by deepening those roots until it cannot be uprooted even by the strongest forces of prejudice or the longest periods of doubt. You deepen those connections of love, respect and attention until they reach everywhere, into every corner of the world, into the heart of every being.
Then your compassion becomes a mighty oak tree, in a forest wide and wild enough for all kinds of love to take root and thrive.
But you have to start where you are. You have to learn to love the neighbors you have (even the silly or short-sighted ones who think tweeting about lions — for or against — is going to change anything). How are we going to make it to the mountaintop, unless we learn how to love the molehills in our own backyard?
While You’re Wondering…
What’s biophilia? What began as a scientific term coined by the biologist Edward O. Wilson in the mid-1980s has been slowly creeping into our morals and metaphysics ever since. As Wilson himself said: “Without beauty and mystery beyond itself, the mind by definition is deprived of its bearings and drifts to simpler and cruder configurations.” Check out this article on the theological complexities of biophilia in modern Paganism.