Last year I let the back garden of my house get out of hand. It was easy to do: spurred on by the wettest year in memory, plants all over Melbourne sprang vigorously to life, and the city became green, and then over-green and over-run. Weeds which my neighbours couldn’t recall having seen before in many years of living in Melbourne began to proliferate. Gardens became jungles.
It was overwhelming, and being at best a reluctant gardener I reeled before it. Then, late last year, I happened across some photos I’d taken of the garden when I first move into the house and, seeing those bare bricks, those orderly flower beds, I realised something had to be done.
Yarra City Council doesn’t provide green waste bins, so instead I took to filling the general rubbish bin before each weekly collection. I ripped great fistfuls of plant matter from the ground and crammed it into the bin, tamping it down with a shovel to fit in as much as I could at any one time. The job is still a long way from being done, but I’ve been helped by the fact that this summer, though still cooler than usual, has not been nearly as wet as last summer, and plant growth has not been as great.
Gardening is a boon for anybody interested in animals, even if it also provides a dilemma for anyone at all concerned about disrupting the lives of those animals: shelters, nests – homes, for that’s what they are – are inevitably disrupted by the excavation of unwanted plants and the turning of newly exposed soil. In fact, “disruption” is not nearly an adequate word for it: it’s destruction, plain and simple. Any spate of vigorous gardening will, without doubt, destroy the homes of any number of invertebrates. Even if one doesn’t feel in the slightest bit concerned about this, upon seeing a Spider (Araneae), or a Woodlouse (Oniscidea), or a Beetle (Coleoptera) or a nest of Ants (Formicidae) running in panic from the newly raw sunlight, one can’t help but be struck by the extent to which we humans hold dominion over the lives of our fellow animals.
Of course in the case of invertebrates it would be wrong to single out humans as being unique in this power to destroy: any relatively large animal is going to disrupt the world beneath its feet. Just think of Elephants (Elephantidae) uprooting unfavoured trees; more mundanely, think of Cows (Bos spp) foraging, tearing up grass and trampling the ground as they do so.
Yet if we humans imagine ourselves to be uniquely conscious of the consequences of our actions, surely it follows that we ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard than we do other animals. On the other hand a proper awareness of the sheer mind-boggling density of animal life on earth brings with it the realisation that there’s barely an action we can take that doesn’t impact some creature, somewhere. We can’t help living, and to live is to cast ripples out into the world. So what, then, can be done about the disruptions we cause? Perhaps nothing; but it doesn’t hurt to be aware of them.
A few weeks ago I was engaged in a particularly enthusiastic weeding session, uprooting metres and metres of a particularly obstinate and vigorous weed which has been the bane of my garden for the last year and more. Removing a bushel of it from near the back wall of my house, I noticed a small brown Mantis scrambling frantically up the weatherboard cladding. Mantises – Praying Mantises, to give them their more familiar colloquial name – have long been a subject of particular fascination to me: I find myself simultaneously enthralled by, and slightly wary of, them. On a practical level I have, for as long as I can remember, been cautious of those ferocious spines on their front limbs, the means by which they catch and hold their prey. I’ve never actually felt the touch of those spines, but I’ve always been afraid to: though I can no longer remember the details, some warning given to me at an impressionable age has instilled in me a morbid fear of the slightest pinch of a Mantis’s forelegs. Perhaps I’m mistaken, and the claws of a moderately-sized Mantis could not in fact puncture human skin, or if they could would be of no more consequence than the bite of an ant or the sting of a bee: painful, but ultimately tolerable. Perhaps I ought, the next time I see a Mantis, to offer it my finger, to provoke it to anger. But I won’t. I’m afraid to.
The other fear presented by a Mantis is more abstract: although the Mantis does not pose any mortal threat to me, I can’t help imagining myself into a position in which it does. Is there any animal more terrifying than a Mantis? Expertly camouflaged; able to strike with unexpected speed. Yet even such a visceral terror is not the most distressing aspect of a Mantis: worst of all is the fact that all of this danger, real or perceived, is packaged in a form which is so dishearteningly alien to our own. A Mantis looks like a creature from another world – more so than any other insect I can think of.
But I find Mantises irresistibly fascinating, too – perhaps, in part, because of the slight unease the stir within me. Or perhaps it’s the reverse of those fears, the other side of the coin, which provides such fascination: if a creature is alien, so too is it exotic; if an animal is dangerous, so too is it exciting. Whatever the reason, whenever I see a Mantis I find myself gasping in exhilaration, even as I find myself imagining the terror of all the insects in its vicinity.
Let us not forget, though, which animal in this encounter is in the greatest danger. When I disturbed the small brown Mantis a few weeks ago, tearing out of the soil the plant which had been its cover, its desperate movements indicated an animal in fear for its life. Call it base instinct, call it acute awareness, it doesn’t matter: this great terror of the insect kingdom was in panic because of me.
All at once all of my latent fears about invertebrates suddenly seemed absurd. Granted, some invertebrates can be a danger – I’m in no hurry to get bitten by a Funnel-web Spider (Atracinae) – but to live every day afraid of them is surely an over-reaction. An insect or a spider in the course of its ordinary daily life no more wants to bite or sting a human, than any of us want to inflict an unprovoked attack upon one of our fellows. We humans somehow manage to see ourselves as uniquely vulnerable within the animal kingdom – perhaps because we try so hard to isolate ourselves from it – but I hope it only takes a moment’s thought to realise just how ridiculous this is. To say that we have nothing to fear from other animals is obviously incorrect – but to say that those fears are grossly overstated, and are too often the cause of our unnecessary violence towards other animals, I hope will not seem too far-fetched.
Image by Harry Saddler