Last week, we had visitors in the kitchen. First one six-footed looky-loo wandered in from under a baseboard. I slid a Pokemon card under it and carried it to the backyard. It rushed to tell its relatives, vomiting excitedly into their mouths: “It smells amazing in there! There must be a five-year-old, and her parents are too busy to sweep the floors!” And sure enough, they soon came marching two by two, hurrah.
The last time I got invaded was in our previous house, in Glace Bay. It was June, the kid was one year old, and we were getting ready to move – in fact, I think the house was on the market, which would have been awkward if we’d had a lot of interest at that point. S and P were out West, so it was just me and the ants, and I was not well equipped to cope. Eventually, they started swarming out through multiple air vents on both sides of the open-concept upper-floor – a flanking maneuver worthy of those other silent black infiltrators, ie. ninjas – at which point I called the exterminator and crashed at a friend’s for a week.
I’m a lover, not a fighter. I’ve had a strict “no organisms” policy since my very first apartment, but I can’t always bring myself to enforce it. Before I had a squeamish wife, if I noticed an insect problem, I’d solve it with arachnids. If I had an arachnid problem, I’d solve it by ceding that section of the apartment to the spiders. I knew my lifespan was greater than theirs, so I’d win in the long run.
But ants are a relentless foe. Like Twitter trolls, their numbers seem to swell even as you take them down. Last week, I looked down grimly at the vermin dappling my kitchen tiles, weaving drunkenly outward from their point of entry. There were still only a few at a time, but evicting them was not going to work. Eventually, I’d miss one, that one lucky scout who’d stumble on the motherlode – our pantry – and after that, it would be fumigation time all over again.
“I’m really sorry,” I whispered, looming over them like a god, “Better luck next time.”
I am a sorta-Buddhist who sorta believes in reincarnation. The proper term is actually animism, from the Latin word for “breath” and “life.” I believe in spiritual energy, and it makes no sense to me that humans would be the only animals to have it. When we die, our souls don’t go to heaven or hell, or directly into another newborn organism like a pre-assigned bill payment. I think souls spread out, suffusing rocks and seeping into water. Eventually those microscopic particles of consciousness find their way into other creatures – birds, trees, snakes, mushrooms. Ants.
I crushed the ants with a tissue, to keep my hands clean. I heard their exoskeletons crunch faintly through the kleenex. As they expired, each ant released a cloud of pheromones – a message to the next of its kin to wander past: Here I died. But whereas a primate might interpret that as a warning, the intrepid colonists would take the aromatic message differently: Pick up where I left off. There might be something good out there. It’s easy to be an optimist when you have 10,000 siblings.
When I was young, the family cat came home with a baby bird in his jaws. It was alive, but too injured to recover, so I had to put it down. I used a plastic bag as a glove – always be mindful of germs – and broke its neck. It was harder than I’d thought. Decades later, it fell to me to supervise the euthanasia of our dog Lucy, who’d fallen down some icy stairs and could barely walk. The vet gave her the injection, then stayed with me while her breathing slowed, then stopped. That one was easier than I’d thought – maybe because it seemed like a nonviolent death. Or maybe because I wasn’t the actual killer.
It’s impossible to know how many animals we’ve killed – mostly mosquitoes and blackflies, but who knows what else has buckled underfoot as we stampede through the world? What nest of birds were hidden in the tree you chopped down last Christmas? What family of bats got evicted when you painted your attic? And any random accidents aside, how many beasts have died for your dinner? Don’t panic; I’m not a vegetarian, and I don’t believe that meat is murder. But it could be suicide.
In Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, Paul Hawken rates one hundred solutions to the greatest crisis in human history (though, to be clear, it’s not so much about prioritizing them as about implementing as many of them as possible, as soon as possible). Many of them are related not to energy use but to food consumption, and the solution ranked #4 – that is, one of our Top Five last best hopes for survival – is the Plant-Rich Diet: “The most conservative estimates suggest that raising livestock accounts for nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gases,” though the total may in fact be as high as 50 percent. In technical terms, the book’s proposed solution forecasts reducing carbon emissions by anywhere between 26.7 and 66.1 gigatons per year. In layman’s terms: stop eating meat.
After two days of incursions, I laid some traps for the ants. I mixed icing sugar with Borax in shallow cups, and I sprayed vinegar along the baseboards. For two more days, they kept crossing No Ant’s Land, and I scooped up their poison-stained bodies and set them outside, gory warnings to their brethren. One of them wasn’t quite dead, and it bit me as I carried him. No judgment there; I would have done the same. Finally, they got the message, and stopped coming. The war was won.
Another aspect of Buddhist philosophy that I’ve sorta internalized is karma. But most Westerners don’t understand that karma doesn’t come around to affect you later in life; it’s a system that spans many lifetimes, which means bad people may only get their comeuppance long after they’ve died. If my consumption habits don’t change, I’m at increasing risk of coming back as a factory-raised chicken or pig. But even if I manage to adopt a plant-rich diet in time to help save the world, my fate is sealed. I’ll come back as an ant.