Sunday, June 6, 2010

Who's Domesticating Whom?

Yesterday I spent the day out in the garden, trying to get a few new beds dug. The first part of the project involved getting the grass out of there. I had already dug up the clods of grass a few days ago, so all I still had to do in order to finish de-sodding was to shake loose the soil clinging to each clod and toss the grass into the wheelbarrow. I got into a nice work rhythm and was enjoying the gorgeous day, but quickly hit a snag. The patch of lawn I was working on was full of lawn grubs, and as I worked the soil loose from the grass, grubs would fall out periodically. This was a huge problem.

[Warning: Creatures were harmed in the making of this garden.]

I don't like killing things. I don't like it, yet I understand this is the nature of life. It's all about eating or being eaten, killing or being killed. Life springs from death. Death keeps the cycle of life turning. Bodies get cycled through other bodies and we're all continually digesting each other.

I couldn't allow the grubs to live if I wanted to grow food for myself. Lawn grubs act as cutworms on tender new plantings, so getting them out of there was critical if I wanted to meet my own selfish need for food. And besides, I was destroying their habitat so they had little chance of survival anyway.

Last year I dealt with the grubs by gifting them to the red ant colony that lives in the alley next to my garden. My son however pointed out this was a very cruel way for the grubs to die--being bitten by thousands of red ants--and after all, the grubs were just innocent babies. He wasn't against killing the grubs, or giving them to the ants. He just thought it should be done more humanely. So his solution was to first behead the grubs with a shovel before giving them to the ants.

It was definitely more humane than my solution, but yesterday Collin was at his dad's house and I am no cutter-offer-of-heads--so what was I to do? If I just left the grubs exposed on the surface of the soil where they fell, they would slowly dehydrate and fry in the hot sun. Would that be any better than being bitten by a thousand red ants? I hardly think so. So my cowardly solution was to cover them with a thin layer of dirt. Just enough so I couldn't see them suffering. Not enough to save them from the sun. See, I have no problem being an accomplice in death. I'm just too cowardly to do the deed myself--so the end result is that I leave grubs to suffer needlessly.

All of this was adding an element of stress to what should have been a very enjoyable day in the garden.

Then something amazing happened.

A robin showed up. He was hopping around on the ground about ten feet away from me and seemed to be saying, Hey, I see you have a little problem here--I can help you with that! Thus began an afternoon of fun and games.

I started tossing grubs at him. I couldn't keep up. He would scoop up a grub, fly away to feed it to his kids, and be back for more before I could find the next one. Then he'd wait patiently on a branch or the back corner of my house until I found a new one, and the game would start all over again. He told his wife about me and she showed up--a far more reserved creature than he was. She'd sit on the fence and watch me, then flit away when I made a sudden move. By the end of the day however, she got over her fear enough to retrieve a grub I tossed to her. I watched her fly off to a tree in the opposite direction from the tree where her nestlings were tucked away. Then she waited half a minute or so before flying home, taking a path which looped far out beyond my yard.

I got so engrossed with feeding the robins I wasn't focused on getting my own work done. In fact, I think I've created more work for myself. I was randomly digging holes looking for grubs, but I'll still need to go back over it all to double-dig it. I didn't care. It was fun. I was engrossed in the neat new relationship I was building. I even gave the male robin two of my earthworms (which I'd really rather keep) in an effort to show my friendship and to further build trust.

So now I'm thinking about this--this amazing thing that happened in my yard yesterday. This connection which we forged between species. Can we say that I began taming the robins? Are they becoming domesticated?

Or are the robins taming me?

What is this thing that's happening between us?

I think "domestication" may be the wrong way to frame this. If there's one thing I've been learning about lately it's how we need to become participants again in our own ecosystems. When we participate and claim a niche, it's inevitable that we will form relationships with the other members of the ecosystem. We don't exist in isolation from other species. Our niches rub up against each other and we meet and we negotiate relationships. Each ecosystem evolves from countless negotiated relationships. We don't tame or domesticate each other but rather we relate and cooperate. We find what works between us. If there's an opportunity to forge a symbiotic relationship between species, you can bet that we'll do it. It just makes sense.

I love the Gaia hypothesis because it helps me see my local ecosystem as its own sort of organism. Together we members of this ecosystem create a functioning whole--we're like different organs of one body, dependent on one another's services to keep the whole body healthy.

When robins and humans cooperate we get healthier gardens and healthier birds. Both of our species benefit (the grubs...not so much). I'm sure the grubs have entered into symbiotic relationships of their own. We're all working together in one way or another.

A question I have is: when we enter into a relationship with another (be it another human or a member of some other species) do we automatically give up something of our own wildness? When we get tied down into relationships, however beneficial, aren't we giving up something of our own autonomy? Is all relationship a form of domestication? If so, I guess that's not a bad thing, is it? "Domestication" seems like such an evil word, but perhaps all species need a degree of domestication. Through domestication the individual self is subsumed by this larger entity which gets created through cooperation. What do you think? I'm still waffling back and forth on this. Would you call what's happening between me and the birds a form of domestication or would you call it something else?