Old Ecologists’ Aphorism, quoted in Feral by George Monbiot
The mouse lay in the middle of the trail, desiccated and flat. It didn’t appear to be eaten; it was relatively intact. The ants weren’t finding much to drag away, so it just lay there, dry and lifeless. I debated with myself about picking it up along with other trash on the trail (part of my job as a volunteer), but I decided to let it lie.
Humans are pretty messy. On a day’s hike, I usually pick up a handful of used kleenex, gum and candy bar wrappers (yeah, it says granola, but it’s just a candy bar), and neatly bagged dog poop left at the side of the trail. Regarding the latter, I think the intent is to come back and get it later, but “the best laid plans…” (It’s interesting to me that some people actually pick up and bag the poop, then throw it off the trail. It doesn’t degrade easily in the bright blue or yellow plastic bag, and it’s usually plainly visible. Come on, people, get it together!)
The (Messy, Disgusting) Circle of Life
Generally, nature is pretty efficient about dealing with waste. In fact, waste isn’t really an operative term in nature. Something will eat just about anything out there. Someone (predators) will eat living things, and scavengers will eat what predators leave. All kinds of critters, bugs and microorganisms will eventually get to it, leaving fodder for plants. Plants are attacked by insects, fungi and microorganisms, and also become food for herbivores, which become food for predators, etc. Lichens actually degrade rocks, over vast spans of time, and release the minerals back into the environment. The circle of life, or more aptly, death.
Unfortunately, humans screw up the system pretty routinely. We harvest animals and plants and remove their unused parts from the community where they lived so that they aren’t available in the ‘circle’ anymore. We want it to be tidier than nature provides. We fell and remove old trees eliminating them as fertile homes for insects, birds, bats and other creatures. We mow grass, which destroys the flowers in our lawns, because we think the lawn should be green and even. We collect the cut grass and rake up the fallen leaves, then add fertilizer to our lawns to resupply the nutrients we took away.
Even on natural trails we are instructed to remove our dog’s poop, so it can be safely disposed of in a landfill. We’re starting to do more recycling and composting, but we’re not very efficient at it. My town offers curbside recycling along with trash pickup, and I compost kitchen and yard waste for my garden. As a result, landfill trash is only a minor component of my trash. Of course, landfilling in most parts of the west is dirt cheap, because cheap land is widely available.
We humans don’t think in terms of community. We put our lives into little boxes, separate and discrete from each other. Work goes in here, exercise goes there, and home goes back there. We water and mow the lawn, we trim trees and rake the leaves. We spray for bugs we don’t like, and plant flowers for the ones we do. We only buy ‘perfect’ fruit at the store, but tolerate imperfect veggies if we grow them ourselves. Our meat comes pre-butchered and nicely wrapped for an attractive display.
I think we should be a little more open to our place in the world. Where you live is not just your house, but a piece of a wider community of others, including human and natural beings. The place you work, the paths you travel, and the things you do are in the context of a given community, of which you are a member.
And, that community, if it’s healthy, is interconnected, relying for life on contributions from all of its members. The dead mouse on the trail represents food for something, and nutrients for the use of others. Along the lines of “one man’s trash…”, there are entire ecosystems that depend on the wastes from other animals. We are all interconnected, whether we acknowledge it or not.
It’s not all pleasant and pretty. The dead mouse probably stank for a while as it decomposed. Shit stinks, but something out there likes that smell. To them, it’s the scent of life. Maybe we need to just get out and smell the world, smell our community. Look around; there’s more than roses out there. Look closely and you might be surprised by what you find.