Featured Artist: Estée Preda
S&H editor Ben Nussbaum talked with this issue’s featured artist, Estée Preda, about winters ...
It’s official: I live in an increasingly interspecies home. Field mice have moved back into the basement, innumerable wasps are busy creating a hive, commuting in and out of the eaves, and a squirrel is playing kickball in my attic.
And so, my husband and I have begun negotiations about what to do. While I remain committed to keeping the house as nonviolent as possible, actions will need to be taken. As a spiritual person, this means balancing both contemplative and pragmatic approaches.
We humans love possessive pronouns. Our house. My yard. Through these words, we create justifications for who belongs—and who does not.
“We like to imagine that we are in control of our homes, garden, forests, parks, landscapes, and urban spaces, and we are determined to serve as gatekeepers, or wardens, adjudicating which species are allowed and which are banned, which are prized and which are denigrated. These decisions are often based on our prejudices, our taste, and our habits,” offers Randy Malamud in Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species.
Admittedly, our perceived control is based on a long legacy of colonization and human expansion that has not only pushed indigenous people off the land they inhabited but has also impacted native animals, plants, fungi, and other lifeforms.
Notably, “pest” is not a scientific classification──nor determined by species──but rather an anthropocentric judgment. Originating from “pestilence,” the term carries a legacy of concerns about the spreading of disease. Yet, it is now used more broadly to refer to any being judged as harmful to humans (e.g., a West Nile virus-transmitting mosquito) or destructive to something people value (such as when grasshoppers eat crops planted by humans for humans). Unfortunately, once the unwanted are labeled pests, they are often exterminated.
It’s said the Buddha instructed early nuns and monks to stop traveling in the midst of a monsoon so that worms, snails, frogs, and other rain-loving sentient beings would not be crushed under human feet. The Yin Chih Wen, a book of Chinese morality, offers: “Whenever taking a step, always watch for ants and insects.” Regarding bees, the Quran says: “And your Lord inspired the bee [saying]: ‘Make your home in the mountains, and on the trees and the trellises that they erect.’”
While interspecies ethics are much more complicated than these few sentences can convey, we don’t need to look too far in some spiritual traditions to see concern for insects and other so-called pests. Most notably, the Jain tradition provides numerous practices specifically for avoiding the death of the creeping and crawling.
[Read: “How Do We Pray for Animals?”]
Ask yourself: Does an action I am considering align with my spiritual values—such as those of compassion, love, mercy, and nonviolence? If not, might I be willing to search out new solutions to perceived pest problems?
While many of us have been conditioned to kill unwanted houseguests—or hire a company to do it for us—there may be more compassionate options to try. Here are a few I’ve used around “my” house.
In our case, I first tried decoy wasp nests but had little luck with these. So, during the daytime, when we believed most of the wasps were outside, we repaired holes in our roof’s eaves, hoping the wasps would start a new nest somewhere else. (Hey, we gave them a shot.) For any lingering beings who navigated down into our living room over the next few weeks, I used a humane bug catcher to move them outside. (I’ll note that no one in my home is allergic to wasps, so that was a lucky break.)
I’ve been known to trap individual ants in Tupperware and release them outside, as my family members inquire: Really, Sarah?? But I’m not alone in trying a spiritual approach.
My Reiki master friend suggests having a conversation with unwanted insects, asking them to leave, appealing especially to any queens. A Catholic friend offers this prayer to God from her garden: “By Your power may these injurious beings be driven off so that they will do no harm to anyone and will leave our fields and meadows unharmed.”
Moving to the material plane, PETA suggests: “Pour a line of cream of tartar, red chili powder, paprika, or dried peppermint at the place where ants enter the house—they won’t cross it. You can also try washing countertops, cabinets, and floors with equal parts vinegar and water.” They also suggest planting mint around the foundation of your house.
I appreciate any attempts that avoid defaulting to death. And at the same time, I acknowledge how messy and frustrating this process can be if an unwanted houseguest refuses to leave. So, I refer to the sage advice of this classic interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in which he shares that the first time a mosquito lands on him, he may give them a little blood. If the mosquito returns, he will blow them gently away. Yet, he admits, on the third return, he might flick them away.
As with the above examples, filling holes is an essential preventative step. For hard-to-fill cracks, stuff in steel wool and dryer sheets. I also swear by the cinnamon-based Grandpa Gus’s Mouse Repellent. If your mouse roommates still refuse to vacate, get a reusable humane mousetrap—never a glue trap. Make sure to check it frequently and then release any captive beings outdoors asap.
And don’t forget your vehicles. One spring, a mama mouse moved into the glove compartment of my Jeep to have her babies. I stopped driving until I could get her to relocate. (Auspiciously, this was during the first few months of the pandemic!) After they moved on, I placed a battery-powered “underhood animal repeller” in my glove compartment.
Let’s face it. To find the biggest pests on Earth we need only look in the mirror. There’s no denying humans are responsible for the majority of the planet’s current problems. What might we gain from admitting our capacity for being pest-like as well? What wisdom could we learn from acknowledging that from other-than-human perspectives, we might be the unwanted—or at least annoying—neighbors or roommates?
As I wrote this article, a musca domestica perched on my hand as I typed, then they moved to explore the top of my head. For a moment, I considered getting up to encourage the little one to head outside and “let me focus.” But then I caught myself. Why do I think flies belong outside? Might this house be just as much his (or her) home as mine?
Rather than shoo the flying one away, we finished this contemplation together. And now I will ask that the next time you encounter such a cohabitator, you consider leaving the flyswatter under your sink.
Want more inspiration from insects? Learn What the Cicadas Can Teach Us About Sex & Sacredness.
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