Posted by: chrismaser | January 13, 2010



Killing is a necessity of human survival on this tiny planet called Earth. That I must kill to live is therefore not the issue. The important point is that I must consciously, willingly understand, accept, and be accountable for the suffering I cause in the act of living.

In the United States it is illegal, without special permission, to kill a deer that is eating its way through my garden, because deer are politically important animals with strict rules governing the taking of their lives. They are considered to be commercially valuable game animals and are to be killed for sport, provided one pays a monetary fee for the privilege of doing so.

If, on the other hand, aphids, mites, snails, slugs, pillbugs, weevils, leafhoppers, symphylids, gophers, or ground squirrels are eating my garden, they may be killed with impunity. Why? What is it about the perceived social value of an animal that allows the moral justification of killing one kind with impunity but not another?

It seems to me that it boils down to the perceived potential for economic gain. A carrot, for example, is thought to have a greater potential economic value than a gopher; conversely, a deer is perceived to have a greater potential economic value than a rose bush. But who decides and how?

Although we may express our beliefs in the value of all life, when push comes to shove, and we perceive our immediate survival to be in danger (spotted owls vs jobs, salmon vs water for electricity or agricultural irrigation), most of us will opt for our own narrow self-interest—our sense of survival at any cost. What motivates me in gardening is either I get the vegetables and flowers that I plant and nurture or the aphids, mites, snails, slugs, pillbugs, weevils, leafhoppers, and symphylids do. If I’m going to get them, or at least most of them, then I have to control the numbers of my competitors. And that means killing some of them.

Because my competitors are such wee creatures, there are no legal restrictions on killing them, however I choose to do it. But what about moral restrictions? This is my soul struggle. And now I have a garden in which there is a pond, and I am once again faced with this seemingly infernal dilemma about killing. Must I now give up my garden and/or pond?

Not long ago, a raccoon made a night visitation and wreaked havoc in the pond by turning over the potted aquatic plants in an attempt to make the goldfish swim in panic to the surface, where they could be caught for supper. After making an unholy mess in my pond, it proceeded down the street two houses to our neighbors and killed “Ducker,” a tame mallard drake our neighbors had reared from an injured baby to a magnificent thirteen-year old adult that both acted like and was accepted as a treasured member of their family. Hearing the commotion from the raccoon’s attack, our neighbors ran from their house calling for Ducker, but could not find him. Look as they might, Ducker had simply vanished.

The next morning, Zane and I found our pond torn apart, and I found the remains of one of our large pond snails, which told me in a twinkling that a raccoon was the culprit. Although it had failed to catch any of our fish, we both knew the raccoon would be back, a thought that weighed heavily in our minds.

Later that morning, we went to our neighbors to get starts of some plants they had for us, and we told them about the raccoon’s destructive visit. They in turn told us about Ducker. Putting two and two together, we figured out what had happened. But where the raccoon had taken Ducker once it had carried him across the high wooden fence between our neighbors and their immediate neighbors was still a mystery.

Around noon we found a feather trail from our neighbor’s house to ours, and discovered that the raccoon had dragged Ducker into the large cedar hedgerow that separated our yard from that of our neighbors on the other side of our house, and there had partially eaten him. After finding Ducker’s body, I realized there was an interesting lesson in our having followed the trail of Ducker’s feathers.

When I had been out watering the flowerbeds in the front of our house early that morning, I had noticed some white, fluffy down on the walkway.

“That’s odd,” I thought. “Cottonwood seeds don’t usually travel this far from the river, even in a strong wind.”

It was not until we were following the trail of Ducker’s feathers later in the day that I realized the white, fluffy material I had seen in the morning was not cottonwood seed, but rather down from Ducker’s breast. I had looked without truly seeing and saw without truly understanding. How often do I do this in my garden—or in life?

Having pieced together what had happened, I borrowed a live trap, which I set that afternoon in the hedgerow, where the raccoon had eaten Ducker. Then, just as dusk was gathering toward night, the raccoon returned and walked boldly past our pond on its way to finish dining on Ducker. Although we heard the door of the trap snap shut just after the raccoon entered the hedgerow, experience had taught me not to disturb a trap until dawn because it would unnecessarily upset the trapped animal, so I waited.

The next morning, however, I discovered that a large male opossum had gotten into the trap just ahead of the raccoon, which had left for parts unknown.

What would I have done had it been the raccoon in the trap instead of the opossum? I would have killed it. Why? For two reasons. First, it would sooner or later return to again raid the pond, and perhaps next time succeed in killing the goldfish. Second, to displace the raccoon by relocating it somewhere else would be tantamount to killing it anyway.

I say this because our area is already well endowed with raccoons. Wherever I would have taken it, therefore, another raccoon already lived, and both would have had to fight to see which one was going to live there. One or the other would be displaced and at a great disadvantage in survival, which, in Nature, usually leads to a violent end.

If I catch the raccoon and kill it, only one raccoon pays the ultimate price. But if I relocate the raccoon, at least two raccoons are likely to pay dearly for my act—the one I relocated and the one made to defend its territory, for death is surely the only victor in such a transaction.

I did not catch the raccoon, however, and I had no wish to kill it when it returned, but I also love my pond as it is, not as the raccoon would rearrange it. Must I therefore get rid of the pond to avoid having to kill the raccoon, or must I kill the raccoon to protect my pond?

As a reasonable alternative to filling in the pond or killing the raccoon, I put a low, relatively unobtrusive electric fence around the pond, which, as it turns out, is effective against cats and opossum, as well as raccoons. It might even ward off the seemingly ever-present herons that scout our neighborhood to raid backyard ponds for a quick and easy meal. Although aesthetically I would prefer not to have the fence, I love the pond and the fish therein, and I do not want to kill the raccoon. For the moment at least, technology offers me a palatable compromise.

Though I always tread as softly on the Earth and with Her creatures as I can, I still leave a mark. I can do naught else but leave my imprint simply because I exist, and I use energy in order to live and alter my surroundings in my act of living. My alterations will be simultaneously positive for some things and deleterious for others.

I simply cannot be neutral because I live from the center of my own experience, which is necessarily a subjective act of living itself, an act in which I inadvertently and sometimes consciously choose to kill. Humanity has killed both inadvertently and purposefully since time immemorial. Can it be otherwise? I think not, because the world is not a machine with parts that can be isolated one from another. It is instead reality as a seamless whole, a dynamic living organism, rather than separable fragments.

Because reality is an indivisible whole, killing will occur either inadvertently or by choice. Because life and death are opposites of the same dynamic, the probability is that killing will exist when many beings live in proximity and all want the same thing, which is in limited supply. Killing, whether inadvertent or by choice, takes many forms: disease; parasitism; disease; predation; cannibalism (amongst animals); starvation; dehydration; or human violence, such as murder, war, suicide, and euthanasia. Each is a participation in the shadowlands of life.

True, killing is killing and some ways are clearly more violent than others. But how is the act of cutting a sheep’s throat for a religious purpose any different than that of severing a head of lettuce from its root? It isn’t. The difference is that the sheep is a warm-blooded mammal with demonstrable feelings, which we deem to be closer in likeness to ourselves than a head of lettuce because lettuce is merely a vegetable, which science says has neither feelings nor consciousness, and from which most religions withhold the presence of a soul.

Then should I, who attempt to see all life as equal and complementary, retreat from eating meat on moral grounds and become a vegetarian? I could, but I would still be killing plants to feed myself. And I would still have to compete with those organisms in my garden that want to eat the same plants I do, which are limited in supply. Even if I plant more vegetables, my competitors will only increase and consequently eat more. At some point I must do something to control the numbers of my competitors or I will get little or no food from my garden. But how can I deal with them without killing?

When I consider and examine each competitor as an individual living being, without judging what I perceive to be its unwanted interaction with me, I discover that it has a marvelous form, function, and adaptability in its own right, which, upon reflection, becomes a creative part of my sense of reality. Even a malaria-carrying mosquito displays a dazzling beauty under a dissecting microscope.

This realization poses for me a moral question. Is there really such a thing as equality amongst all creatures? Equality in what sense? Intelligence? Evolutionary (or social) status? Who decides and how?

I’m not sure that living is a matter of equality. I say this because, with rare exceptions, life thrives on life. The only exception I can think of might be those bacteria living around hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean floor, which as far as I know require no organic material in the form of either living or dead beings to survive. Be that as it may, as long as life needs life to live, the organisms that must kill in one way or another to survive will do so, and those that require decomposing tissue for their survival will depend in large measure on the killers to supply it. And in killing, the killers, at least in strength and cleverness, outmatch their individual preys’ ability to survive. In the sense of survival as individuals, therefore, moral equality is not equal in terms of physical attributes.

I must kill or have someone else kill for me to live, so whether I kill or cause a creature to be killed for me is not the issue. Though I wish there was a way in which I could live without killing or causing someone else to kill for me, I know of none. At issue, therefore, is not that I kill or cause someone else to kill for me but why and how I kill or cause someone else to kill for me—my motive, my conscious awareness, and my demeanor.

Some people kill plants to make fresh or dried decorative arrangements out of them. Others collect, kill, preserve, and sell such organisms as beautiful butterflies for people to purchase by way of decoration for their offices and homes. Still others hunt animals and have parts of them mounted for various reasons of memory or vanity to adorn walls in dens, restaurants, and shops that sell sporting goods.

Beyond the limitations of the law, which are meant to serve and protect the social conscience, why or how one kills nonhuman beings—whether as food or to protect a supply of food, for sport as in hunting, or for economic gain as in making a living—is a matter of personal conscience, wherein my conscience is my own affair and yours is your affair. Having said this, however, I recognize that a goodly number of people are apparently without a keen sense of conscience when it comes to harming other creatures or people. They must, therefore, have their behavior controlled through the collective conscience of society in the form of laws passed to control behavior society deems unacceptable.

If I consciously recognize all living things as being intrinsically of equal and complementary value to life itself (including those organisms competing with me in my garden for my flowers and vegetables), then I must deal with my feelings when I kill them, and it hurts. I feel compassion and sorrow at my perceived necessity of forfeiting their lives so that I might enjoy the flowers as food for my soul and the vegetables as food for my body. My competitors are, after all, created and propelled by the same Divine spark that I am.

As long as I must kill to survive, I, who feel myself to be an inseparable part of the flow and ebb in an ever-changing current of the Universe, must neither shun nor repress my feelings of depthless regret. I must instead take them most seriously and share consciously in and be accountable for the suffering I cause in the act of my living on Earth. Thus it is that I both apologize to and ask the Eternal Mystery to bless those beings that I kill, be it a weed, a carrot, a slug, or a pillbug.

I therefore consciously kill out of perceived competitive necessity in my garden, but as selectively as possible, and to nourish my body and my soul. In killing, I cause death, a horizon beyond which I cannot see, and in my blindness, I must submit in humility to Faith, and hope that I have in fact done the best I can.

Even now, I wonder what I am killing besides lichens and mosses each time I burn a piece of wood in the stove with which we heat our home. Every requirement we have in life is fulfilled at the expense of another life somewhere in time.


Related Posts:

• Climbing Mt. Consciousness

• How We Participate

• Why Make Life A Battlefield?

• Do Animals Have Rights?

• Who Are We As A Culture?


Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.

Protected by Copyscape Web Copyright Protection

This piece is largely excerpted from my 2005 book, “The World is in My Garden: A Journey of Consciousness.” White Cloud Press, Ashland, OR. 232 pp.

If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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