Sunday, August 16, 2015

Travels with Charlotte

 A Golden Garden Spider (Argiope sp.) decided to build a beautiful web behind the front seat of the "Bad Boy Buggy," the four-wheel-drive golf-cart that I drive around every day.  

For several days we kept each other company.
My Garden Spider, ready to travel

One day our lab Deci, riding on the front seat with me, snapped at the spider.   The spider dodged, and Deci came up with a mouthful of web.   I scolded her.   I didn't want her, and through her, me, to be the cause of a wasteful death.    After that, Deci left our eight-legged passenger alone.
Charlotte on the Buggy
I called this spider "Charlotte."    She was of a species different from the one made famous by E. B. White in Charlotte's Web (his Charlotte is a Barn Spider, Araneus cavaticus).   But my spider made me ponder the same mystery White probes in his "children's" book.  (We are all children in the face of mystery!)  The mystery is the fact of predation--that we kill to live--combined with our feelings about it.  The fact takes on a mantle of mystery when it arrives hand-in-hand with our desire to be good, loyal, and kind--our desire to be reciprocally benevolent members of a community.   

I have long held dear two visions of "community."

The first is the Christian goal of the "Beloved Community."

The second is the ecological construct of the "Land Community."

But are these two visions compatible?

The "Beloved Community," a term first coined by theologian Josiah Royce, was described by Martin Luther King, Jr. as the goal to which all people of good will should strive--a society without war, poverty, racism, or exploitation, a society endowed with spiritual riches surpassing its material possessions.

The "Land Community," made popular in Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, is the foundational concept of  contemporary ecology.    In this view, nature's components--plants, animals, soils, stones, air, water--are in constant interaction with each other, creating a whole that affects the parts and vice versa.   We humans should not hold ourselves apart from this community but should take our place within it.    And our citizenship should be benevolent.   It is the well-being of the community  that determines the rightness or wrongness of human actions.  Thus, the Land Community gives rise to a Land Ethic:   Humans  have a chance to be part of a community and at the same time good.   

Leopold certainly understood the importance of predation in an ecosystem--just look at his essay, "Thinking Like a Mountain," in which he bemoans the killing of wolves which led to overpopulation of deer and then over-browsing of vegetation.

But did he really explore the implications of predation for "community?"   Sometimes he wrote about the "land community" as if it were a liberal democracy--a place of universal rights and mutual respect--equal citizenship for all!

But what kind of "community" is it where some citizens are busy eating other citizens?

Charlotte's lunch
When I first saw my Charlotte on the buggy, she had a grasshopper in her web, already wrapped up and partially processed.   She busied herself around her web but frequently returned to her bundle for a little snack.   Because the grasshopper was already dead,  I could watch the spider with interest--I did not have to feel torn between a hungry predator and a frantic prey.

But the emotions of prey-empathy are always there, under the surface, ready to be tapped.   That's just what E. B. White does in Charlotte's Web.    Spring-pig Wilbur is scheduled to be slaughtered in the fall so humans can eat him.  Charlotte the spider, out of the sheer goodness of her heart, sets out to save him.   Her kindness finds an answering kindness in the heart of every reader, old or young.   Yes!!!   SAVE WILBUR!!

Charlotte eating her lunch.
And yet Charlotte herself is a predator.   She makes Wilbur uncomfortable by describing the "deliciousness" of flies and how she "drinks" her prey.   "I love blood," she says.

Watching my Charlotte enjoy her lunch, I think about how she and her life are a metaphor for me and mine.  

My husband and I are about to take delivery of half a hog.   By the time we see him, he will be in parts, wrapped up in paper and freezer-ready.  

Our neighbors raised him humanely and he had a good life.    I like thinking about his life.   He had intelligence and a personality--his name was Bruce.   Oh, dear--too much thinking.   I don't like thinking about his death.

No one saved Bruce!

The only way not to feel bad about it is not to think.    But thinking is what we do.   We are Homo sapiens--not wise humans, but thinking humans.

E. B. White's "Charlotte" catches not only flies in her web but two aspects of our experience:  We live by killing but we hate slaughter.

So will we humans, in the midst of abundance, always feel some aversion for ourselves?   Some shame?

Will the Beloved Community ever come into being and will it and the Land Community ever be one and the same?

Charlotte!   You've taken me to Question-Land.    Now tell me:  Where do we cross the border into Answer-Land?

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