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?


  1. Good question. I believe it would be domestication, in that you are encouraging the robins to give up some of their wild tendencies while you are giving up nothing. Yes, they benefit too, but I think they may lose more in the arrangement than you.

    You said yourself you were more than happy to kill the grubs. You would have gotten what you needed (dead grubs) regardless of whether the robins showed up or not. That the robins DID show up only helped salve your conscience.

    The robins, on the other hand, are in danger of losing some of their natural (and justified) fear of humans. YOU might be kind and benevolent, but if they start learning that humans will feed them without harming them they might fall prey to some of the less enlightened of our species.

    One time I doubt is going to do any harm. But if you start feeding them grubs every day they may come to depend on you and may lose their ability to fend for themselves when you run out of grubs or stop feeding them.

    But does entering into a relationship make fellow creatures less wild? Not necessarily so. We see numerous cases in nature where two different species cooperate for mutual benefit. Are wild horses that stand end to end to swat flies from each others' faces domesticating each other? Perhaps, but so long as they are creating a natural advantage for one another without necessarily creating a disadvantage in the process, I don't see how it's a bad thing.

    If you and robins can cooperate without placing the robins at risk of becoming dependent on you or losing their fear of other humans, then why not cooperate? Domestication becomes a liability when one side becomes dependent on the other, such as cows or sheep who have lost their ability to cope for themselves in many instances.

    I think I'm basically calling mutual cooperation a probable good, while calling domestication--the act of bending another species to serve your needs in a way that makes the other species dependent on you--a probable negative.

  2. Thom, you hit the nail on the head describing the moral dilemma here. But I think there’s more that needs to be teased out of this.

    I had the same thought as you—that I shouldn’t make feeding the robins a habit, so that I don’t inadvertently tame them to a degree that puts them at risk. But there’s something that bugs me about that sort of thinking. I think it presupposes that we’re intellectually superior to other animals and always know what’s best for them. In the animal kingdom humans aren’t superior to any other creatures and it’s arrogant for us to think we know what’s best for everyone else. We’re demeaning the birds when we think we have to look out for their own good. They’re intelligent creatures and can determine their own needs and do their own cost/benefit analyses.

    In this case the male robin knows what he wants and he’s determined to get it. Yesterday I was out in my front yard trimming some grass with clippers and he came up and got me. He kept chattering on the power line above me and when that didn’t work he hopped down on the ground in front of me and flapped his wings and made quite a scene until I finally listened. I dropped the clippers, went and got the shovel and went to the backyard to dig some grubs. He’s domesticating me, taking my wildness away—training me to do his bidding. I’ve definitely met my match here.

    I’ve noticed him watching me for weeks. He’s been checking me out. He’s seen the uncanny relationships I have with some of the feral cats in the neighborhood, how they’ll come and sit next to me with no fear (although I can’t touch them). He knows I’m benevolent and respectful. Am I projecting all of this on him? Again, there would be something awfully presumptuous in assuming he couldn’t be making these sorts of assessments.

    Another thing is, in my experience, that robins love to engage with humans. There are many birds that like to live among humans, but the robin is the one who really enjoys not merely living among us, but also engaging with us. In fact, my very earliest experience with birds was with a “tame” robin who lived in our yard when I was three years old.

    We form relationships by doing something nice for each other. How else can two living things truly meet? If I were to take a paternalistic stance with these other creatures and presume to know what’s best for them, then how could we ever meet? By telling them that association with us humans was a bad thing, and then walking away, I’d be eliminating one way that healing can occur on this planet. Humans desperately need to reintegrate into our respective ecosystems. I realize that engaging with other species tends to be a very slippery slope for us humans--for some reason we go from tossing grubs at birds to having chimpanzees in our beds in a heartbeat--but I don’t think that’s a reason to seal ourselves off from these relationships. We just need to know how to honor boundaries and not cross a line.

  3. Reading your post about grubs remended me of a crow that stayed with us when I was a young boy. The Crow stayed around our house and didn't seem to like any of us, much, except for my mother. While she gardened, he would wait for her to uncover grubs and obliged my mother by removing them from the garden. He would sit on her shoulder while she read in the garden, as well, a past time she is fond of to this day (without the crow).

    Taming, domestication...not sure. I beleive it is willful cooperation. The crow knew that my mother was harmless and benevolent whereas myself and my brothers were more interested in getting our hands on him for closer inspection. Animals operate in constant survival mode. It's all they know. Most people don't know what that is like. Combat is the most comparable thing to the natural behavior of most animals. If you were to swing a broom at that robin you would have no hope of landing a blow. He would still, most likely, come around when you begin to turn earth. I don't think you pose a significant risk to his overall safety.

    Interacting with nature is the reward for spending time outdoors. If you have ever been still in the woods in the evening or morning and had an encounter with deer, there is something visceral about the experience that reminds us that once we were more.