About a year ago, due to circumstances beyond my control, I had to find a new house to rent. This is not something that anyone in Melbourne looks forward to at the moment: Melbourne’s currently going through its biggest growth spurt in decades, with tens of thousands of people moving here each year, so the housing market is extraordinarily competitive. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, people being people, most of the new arrivals want to live in the same small cluster of inner-city suburbs. There are only so many houses in these suburbs; the inner-city can only sustain so many people.
I was lucky, though. After months of searching I found a house only a couple of weeks before the lease on my old house expired, and now I’ve been living here for almost a year and it’s a lovely little house in a very beautiful part of the city and I’m pretty happy with it. As with any house there are things that could be improved about it, but on the whole it’s everything I could ask for.
One feature of it in particular that I love is the garden. It’s not a particularly magnificent garden – in fact as my neighbour pointed out, after fifteen years of being a rental property there are so many seeds buried in the soil between the bricks that the fight against weeds is nigh on unwinnable – but by inner-city Melbourne standards the garden’s large, and it’s sunny, and it’s just generally a nice place to be.
The most notable feature of the garden is the rose bushes. There are about half a dozen of them, most planted in a row but one by itself around the corner from the others. Since moving out of my parents’ house I’ve never lived in a house with rose bushes in the garden. I haven’t planted any myself, either – mainly because, despite my best intentions, I’m just not much of a gardener. I love the idea of gardening, but it’s just so daunting: planting everything at the right time of year, making sure everything’s growing in the right type of soil with the right mixture of fertiliser and plant food, pruning everything carefully to make sure it grows properly. When I’m in the kitchen I can follow a recipe with painstaking care, when I’m assembling a piece of flat-pack furniture I can follow the instructions to the letter, but for some reason when it comes to gardening I just feel defeated before I’ve even begun. My approach to gardening is hit-and-hope: dig a hole, buy a plant, stick it in the ground, water it, wait for the miracle of life to take its course.
So when I moved into my new house I was relieved to see that the rose bushes were already well established, each one of them taller than me and each covered in buds. There was nothing for me to do but wait for the flowers. The bushes weren’t just covered in buds, though: when I looked closer I saw that there was barely a bud or shoot on any of the bushes that wasn’t caked with aphids.
I can’t remember how old I was when I decided to stop killing insects. It was probably when I was about thirteen – I did a lot of thinking back then about how I wanted to live my life. I was a bit precocious that way. Up until then I’d been as happy as anyone else to swat a fly or squash a mosquito, but once I started thinking seriously about it it just seemed to me – it still does seem to me – that the smallness and otherness of insects couldn’t justify the extraordinarily casual extinction of life which marks our relationship with them.
On the other hand, when I looked at the rose bushes in my new house last year there were just so many aphids on them, and pretty much the only thing I knew about growing roses was that an aphid infestation meant certain doom. So I was torn: apart from anything else, I feel like there’s an obligation when you’re renting a house – living on somebody else’s property – to take care of it. Of course there actually is a legal obligation to do so, marked out carefully in lease agreements and conditions, but even without that it just seems like common courtesy to me to make sure the house is as nice when you leave it as it was when you moved in. So for the life of me I couldn’t decide whether to leave the aphids alone or try to stave off certain death for the rose bushes whose care and well-being I had inherited.
In the end I decided to wait and see. I checked up on the rose bushes regularly. I kept a close eye on the aphids, as if I might catch them plotting something – but really, the only thing aphids ever do is sit in one place and suck on sap. We always imagine insects as being scuttling, buzzing, wriggling things, but there can’t be many more sedentary animals on the planet than aphids. They’re completely parasitic on the plants that sustain them, of course, but after watching them for a while there was something so placid about their existence that I found it hard to sustain any negative emotions about them. I was surprised by how social the aphids were, too: when I looked closely I saw adults, babies, and eggs all crowded in together. I’m not exaggerating when I say I was a little touched by that.
Then, of course, there were the ants (Formicidae). The relationship between ants and aphids is one of the more famous inter-species relationships in the animal kingdom, and as a human I found it quite humbling to watch the ants go about the business of farming the aphids; and it is farming: the ants check up on the aphids regularly, protecting them from predators, and feed on the honeydew which the aphids produce. I really can’t think of a better word to describe this than “farming”. I imagine a lot of people reading this blog are going to be tempted to accuse me of anthropomorphism, but I think that’s looking at it the wrong way around: I don’t think animals are like us. I think it’s the opposite: I think we’re more animal than we realise.
My twelve-month lease is going to expire soon. I’ll sign another one. The rent will probably go up because there are more people arriving in Melbourne every day so it’s an owner’s market, and thought it’ll be difficult I’ll find a way to pay it, because ultimately there’s just no choice. I could find a housemate, I guess – but I like having my own space. We like having our own space in Australia. Whenever I’m lucky enough to visit an ancient city like Rome or Naples I’m struck by just how comfortable the people there seem to be in an urban environment: there’s an almost ineffable sense I get that those people just know how to live in a city. It’s innate in them. They’ve been doing it for millennia. In Australia, by contrast, our cities are young – only a shade over two hundred years for the oldest – and if you looked at the ancestry of most of Australians you’d find that they were from small towns or villages or rural communities only a few generations ago. We’re one of the most urbanised countries on the planet but it doesn’t come naturally to us, not yet. We’re learning, though: generation by generation we’re getting used to being crowded against each-other. We worry about resources but we’re also drawn to the major population centres. People keep coming to Melbourne. There’s not enough room for everyone but people are obviously finding the room, finding a little space to call their own, because the population of the city just keeps growing. I guess we’ll find out how long the city can sustain us.
At the end of winter last year, my first winter in this house, a surprising thing happened. All of a sudden every single aphid on each of the rose bushes grew wings, and almost overnight they all flew away. They stayed away all through spring and summer, and now it’s winter again and I’m watching to see if they’ll return. While they were away the rose bushes had bloom after bloom after bloom. I left the aphids alone and the rose bushes were just fine. I don’t claim that there’s a lesson in that – except perhaps that the rose bushes were so well established that they could withstand even a heavy aphid infestation. Somehow, however long ago, equilibrium had been reached. Maybe some instinct in the aphids told them to find a new home before they sucked the rose bushes dry. Maybe after a while that’s just how it goes with roses and aphids – but I wouldn’t know. I’m not a gardener. I just like to sit, and watch, and see what happens and hope for the best.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org/