It was strange, truth be told, to see the small body loll bonelessly after I plucked the trap off the garden floor.
It was bated with tomato — the same tomatoes this chipmunk and his compatriot plowed through like tiny competitors in a hotdog eating contest. His compatriot, also dead now, was worse: he lined up tomatoes on the deck, in full view of our watching eyes, and ate them one by one. Some he rejected after a few bites. And he did this all day, well aware that we were on the other side of a glass pane, watching.
“You need to get a rat trap,” my father said, after watching the last round of tomato line-’em-up.
And so we did, bated delicately with a bit of tomato. Within an afternoon, the tomato thief was under its metal arm, back broken. We set the trap for the next one, and then my parents waved farewell and went back to their home state. Later that day, I saw the body under the fringes of the tomato leaves.
Its black eyes bulged as my hands, sheathed in dirty blue garden gloves, plucked the trap off the earth and walked toward the woods. I grabbed its tail at one point, and the fur disintegrated in my hand — flimsy items, chipmunk tails, silvery as clouds. As I loosed the metal arm of the trap and let it fall to the earth, I heard the still, quiet voice of the Morrigan: “You should handle what you have slain with bare hands.”
I didn’t that day, but I sense the rightness of her words. I offered a prayer for its spirit, and for forgiveness, accompanied by an explanation. That you can eat some of my tomatoes — but not all of them, and not all of them in front of me, no less. I offered a prayer for the predator that it may find the small body and be thankful for the meal. Then I turned my back to the oak forest, and carried trap and blue gloves back to the garage.
We’d like to think of ourselves as free of the chaotic mess of death, of blood, of a bewildered life instantly cut by the snap of a trap or the long suffering of those dying of disease. We wall our sick off in hospitals and our dying in nursing homes — for their good, we say, but really for ours. In many religious traditions — the Brahminic one springs to mind here, although there are others — death is polluting, as is birth. The holy do not touch corpses or the blood of birth, and the unclean must share not even their shadows lest they sully the holy foot. Touching corpses, the sick or those giving birth is the duty of the untouchable and often of women, who are ultimately the same to the robed male too sacred for the shit and dirt that come with life’s gates. Let other people touch the dying and the birthing, the suffering and the born; holiness is separation from the earth and not residency in it.
It’s one of my issues, philosophically speaking, with veganism. I understand and can utterly support the rejection of feed lots, the mass-packing of animals and their abuse.
But every gardener can tell you the price of that tomato: death. Often, it’s of aphids or hornworms. Sometimes, it’s of gophers or groundhogs that ruin the crops, or are inadvertently run over by the plow. Yes, even in non-corporate, organic operations.
Sure, you do what you can to minimize the killing: fencing, appropriate plantings to deter some insects and attract others, row covers when necessary. Sometimes, these measures fail. Gardeners expect a certain degree of crop loss to wildlife, and don’t generally begrudge sharing some of their bounty. But when a critter claims all of it, it’s accepted practice to grab the trap or the shotgun.
This is the Morrigan’s lesson: Unless we starve as Jains, we are all washers at the ford. Our existence necessitates the death of others, as their existence necessitates our own. Killing is part of the circle, the process, whether of the gopher under the plow, the soldier from the opposite army pointing his weapon at you, the potato plucked from the turned earth.
Our bodies will feed the same soil as the chipmunk and the tomato, for we are forged of the same stuff. Carbon to carbon, dust to dust. This doesn’t cheapen the value of life; whether you’re killing a chipmunk or pulling a carrot, you should do so with respect and compassion. Death must be accepted, but not mocked; it is the salt that brings the sweetness to life.