Lately I’ve been in a house cleaning mood and yesterday I decided to take on the toughest challenge—the roof of my living room. My house has the Balinese-style high vaulted ceiling, fully open to the outside from one side and with doors that I usually keep open on the other. As any of you living in Bali know, this means that I share* my house with many non-human companions— spiders, wasps, geckos, both large and small, caterpillars, butterflies, damselflies, dragon flies, snails, an occasional snake and so on. I just realized that many of you reading might be feeling squeamish at this point which is the exact opposite of why I listed them. I like all of them and am happy to share my house with them. They usually mind their own business as long as I mind my own. As the resident snake expert of Bali likes to say: how do you know if a snake is dangerous or not? If you are getting close to her (no, not ‘it’), cornering her, are unaware of her and scaring her by your movements, she’s dangerous. If you are aware of her and keeping your distance and simply letting her do her (vital) job in the ecosystem, she is not dangerous. As is true for snakes, so is true for my non-human companions.
As I am cleaning the roof, I came across a full, round nest, bigger than the size of my wrist hanging from the ceiling. In a moment of ignorance, I brushed it with my broom and down it came in a second. Instantly, out of nowhere, a wasp came to where it was and started to fly around frantically. I looked down where it had fallen and broken into pieces and I saw three wasp larvae lying on the floor. From all that is human in me, it was clear what I had done. The wasp mother was flying around the place in patterns I had never seen before, now zig-zag, now in circles, now as if hanging and swinging from the roof, now landing on the empty space where her nest had been. It does not take a rocket scientist (actually, it might be a distinct disadvantage if you are a rocket scientist) to figure out that these were the same moments of panic and shock for her which we all experience at a sudden loss, the moments in which we are aware of what has just happened in the deepest of our cores but neither our body nor our hearts, brains or emotions have caught up to the horror of the loss. I simply stood there, motionless, watching her for about 20 minutes. It was a strangely solemn moment. Eventually, I got on with my cleaning but she was still there after 4-5 hours, just sitting close to where her nest had been. Thankfully (and selfishly), I was glad she did not figure out how it had happened or who did it.
After this incident, I decided not to touch another, much larger nest which has about 4-5 wasps already on it and glad that I didn’t. I read up on the life of wasps and their nests and found out that wasp nests only last for a season and are never used again (and therefore can be cleaned). It is very easy to figure out if a nest is alive or dead just by looking at it. Incidentally, I also learned that wasp females can decide the sex of their offspring: if they want males, they lay eggs without fertilizing them, if they want females, they fertilize the eggs with the sperm stored inside their body.
Here’s the point: all our non-human neighbors in this world (including trees) are constantly communicating with us and with each other just like us humans through their bodies, through their sounds and through their behavior. All we need to do is learn a few basic “words”— the more we learn, the better—of their language. If any of you have had a pet, you know what I’m talking about. They are usually clearly communicating what they like and what they don’t, when they are happy and when they are not, when they are angry and when they are in pain, what their crouching posture means and what their wagging tail means if we only take some time to understand their language**.
Yes, living necessarily entails being part of the cycle of life of consuming (eating) other living beings, whether plants or animals, and finally being consumed when we die. Notwithstanding the Jain philosophy, for someone to live, someone has to die. This is okay, in fact, desirable, as long as—and this is the most important point of any relationship—we are aware of our responsibility to give, not just by dying but when we are alive, and not just take. Currently, we humans, are taking and taking and not giving much back.
Learning the basics of the language of our non-human neighbors not only enables us to understand and live with them harmoniously and cause less harm through ignorance—like destroying their home and children with a flick of a broom—but it is vital to our continued survival on this planet. We are currently breaking their backs, destroying their homes, killing their (our) kins and pretending not to listen to their screams. We are destroying nature, of which we are a part of, and our planet, which is our only home, at a breakneck (literally) speed. Through our science and through our education, through our laws and through our religions, through our economy and through our progress, through our philosophy and through our morality, through our factory farming and through our agriculture, we have normalized this destruction and silenced our non-human neighbors’ pain. Only we humans, the chosen one, feel the pain. Let’s just take science for example: Rats, frogs, monkeys, pigs, birds, fish, snails, and so on are routinely “experimented on” (tortured) and the students or scientists are told to remove “emotion” (humanity) from these experiments. Scientists routinely debate if animals and plants feel pain in science journals and newspapers. Seriously? If you can look at the conditions of factory farmed cows, chickens or pigs or baby monkeys whose mothers are killed (for science!) to see how they react or a dog struck by a car and writhing on the side of the road or a baby rhino not leaving the side of his dead mother who was just shot down for her horn and still don’t know, in the core of your being, that that is the same pain you would feel in that situation and need science (or religion, or philosophy) to help interpret “this odd behavior”, then congratulations! Whatever your favorite myth is—science, religion, education, philosophy, law, economy, progress , etc.,— it has (or they have, together) successfully brainwashed your humanity—animality—out of you.
At this point, you might be asking why (especially if you’ve been industrially schooled [schooled for the economy and production], live in a city, read mainstream media, work in a company and believe in technology and progress) are our non-human neighbors important for our survival? Leaving aside the moral and ethical problems that I just laid out, there is a strictly practical, utilitarian reason. The air that we breathe is produced by trees (which are being cut down) and phytoplankton in the ocean (which are being replaced by plastic), the water we drink and use is the result of natural cycles of rain and rivers (which are being toxified and dammed) flowing into oceans (which are being toxified and vacuumed), and the food we eat comes from plants (which are being toxified by fertilizers and pesticides) and animals (which are being tortured in factory farms or becoming extinct). All these processes are complex, subtle, delicate and require participation from various organisms from bacteria and fungi to whales and five hundred year old trees. These processes are the complex web of life, they are life itself and we are part of this web, not above it. How do I know this? By the results of its destruction: The air is increasingly becoming unbreathable in many of the cities from New Delhi, to Beijing to Seoul and is killing 60,000 people a day***. The water in the rivers, streams and in the ground is disappearing fast and also becoming undrinkable at the same time. All cities in the world import water from nearby places which are becoming farther and farther away (or deeper and deeper in the ground). Imagine what will happen when these places run out—and they are running out fast—and there is no water. Natural disasters like floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes caused by climate change—caused by destroying this complex web of life—are increasing all around the world. The planet, our only home, is being destroyed, murdered. Every tree and every fish, every river and every mountain is asking us in their own unique language, if we can just put aside our distractions for a moment and listen: What are you going to do about it?
* The word sharing is incorrect in this context. I’m their guest in this house (and in this world) since they were here before me in this house (and in this world).
**A simple example with a dog: Dogs usually face in the direction they want to go (logical, right?). And yet, how many times have I seen humans facing the dog and yelling “Come” at them. From the dog’s perspective, it means not only that the human is barking and angry and someone to be stayed away from, but that she should be going in the reverse direction since that’s where the human is facing.
*** Science Daily, “Pollution Causes 40 Percent Of Deaths Worldwide, Study Finds.”