The Rat Came Back: Musings on Biodiversity

     Funny thing about biodiversity—it’s great in principle, but when things start to get too, well, diverse, one’s feelings on the matter get a bit muddled. Allow me to explain. Back in the early days of A Rocha’s first Environmental Centre, we had the usual diversity of biological life: chickens, cows and a myriad of plants and veggies on the farmy bit; frogs, salamanders, newts, shrews and at least forty species of birds in the wetland/forest bit; and homo sapiens in the shape of staff, volunteers, interns and school children throughout. We celebrate this kind of biodiversity.

     That year, however, things got too diverse—too diverse by two species. The first, Canis latrans, was spotted the previous spring, drawn by our chickens, who being free range apparently seemed a free smorgasbord for our canine nemesis. The coyotes (for that’s what they were) picked off two of our lovely heritage breed chickens, most notably Miss Mullet, a Black Polish cross with a crazy hairdo for whom we all mourned. So the rest of the chickens went back into the coop. But the farm was so much farmier with the “girls” scratching about, and so we let them out again. In short—and in short order—the coyote took three more chickens. Now the four that remained were only let out under the strictest supervision. But since the allure of chicken-sitting wears off after about fifteen minutes, they spent most of their time behind bars. Alas, what can you do when you live in a zoo?

     The second species to appear uninvited that year was Rattus rattus (that’s really its Latin name). They took up residence in our basement that fall when the weather turned chilly. After chewing up numerous plastic buckets and figuring out quickly what the rat traps were all about, they took advantage of renovations on the main floor to sneak up into OUR living space. By the evidence they left, they boldly scurried up the stairs, visited every room in the house and even started building a nest in our green corduroy couch. This last atrocity occurred while we were away for a week, and, needless to say, shot us into serious rat-eradication frenzy, which we eventually won.

     To our shame, I must admit that we used the appearance of these two species to our unfair parental advantage. When our daughter Maya (aged four at the time) showed signs of dashing without permission from our house to visit the interesting interns at the Main House, we casually would chirp, “Watch out for coyotes,” which, of course, sent her scampering back to our sides. And when little Bryn (then two) sauntered into the living room with a crumbly piece of toast in hand, we’d lightly draw for her the connection between crumbs and the onslaught of hungry rats. And so in their impressionable minds, coyotes were beasts to be feared above all others, and rats were so resourceful that at the mere scent of something delicious they flew from the basement to snatch the crumbs falling from one’s mouth. Law and order in the here and now versus a battery of counselling sessions for our girls years in the future—it was a tough call.

At the Table of Abundance

credit:  Brooke McAllister

     The predominant theme overarching all the farming and eating at A Rocha’s Centres has been one of abundance. Weekly Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) baskets (actually, big Rubbermaid blue tubs) overflow with up to twenty different selections of produce, from potatoes to spinach to rutabagas. The bounty is so copious that most CSA members split their share with another household since they find it impossible to make it through all those veggies in one week. Reflecting on this theme of abundance, our farmer Paul summed it up well in one of his regular CSA newsletters: “Such abundance is a gift, and makes possible other gifts: healthy bodies and minds nourished by good food; the raw materials for hospitality; the opportunity for generosity; the necessity of creativity in the kitchen (what to do with kohlrabi?); and the reminder that all of this comes from the hand of our generous Creator!”

     At A Rocha, we don’t have a chapel, we have a table. The meal is a place of community, fellowship and invitation. Conversations range from favourite films to theology to birds sighted on the morning bird walk to the number of eggs laid by the hens that morning to more personal family histories. The table is a safe place, a neutral ground for dialogue, knowing and communion. Is it any wonder that the New Testament is full of accounts of Jesus eating meals with people (and with the most unlikely people)? Is it any wonder that Jesus chose a meal to commemorate the abundance of his love?
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True Confessions and Thoughts on Ecology

Photo: miniCooper93402
     Sometimes I struggle with the importance of the whole environmental stewardship thing. Theologically I’m on board with the centrality of creation care to authentic Christian living, but sometimes my heart wants to perform triage on the needs of the world so I can prioritize my vocational work and financial giving accordingly. On most days malnourished African babies and AIDS sufferers in Asia go to the front of the line while the pretty fish and waving strands of eelgrass can twiddle their thumbs and wait all day to see the doctor as far as I’m concerned.

     But when I perform this kind of triage I’m forgetting the principle on which all conservation is founded. I’m forgetting the fundamental definition of ecology: that everything is interconnected. I might not care about the eelgrass, but the salmon do. And the bears and blue herons need the salmon, not to mention the fisheries, and so it goes, spinning an intricate web of interwoven relationships.

     Brian Brett, in his excellent book Trauma Farm, tells a story which illustrates the rippling aftershocks created when we tamper with one bit of creation’s web. He recounts the devastating results of Chairman Mao’s fateful Four Pests Campaign. It seems that Mao, as part of his Great Leap Forward, decided his nation would be far better off without sparrows, flies, rats and mosquitoes. The latter three seem logical pest suspects, but sweet little House Sparrows? Evidently a sparrow can eat ten pounds of grain a year, landing it on Mao’s most wanted list. Hoping to eradicate this pest from his nation, Mao instructed every citizen of China to kill sparrows on a single spring day in 1958. Over six hundred million dutiful citizens did just this—chasing sparrows from their nests and banging pots to scare them from returning, thus rendering the eggs left behind unviable. What Mao wasn’t told was that while a sparrow can eat ten pounds of grain a year they seldom do; their diet consists mainly of insects, locusts in particular. Within two years China’s crops were overrun by noxious insects, with locusts leading the assault. This, along with several other supposedly ‘scientific’ decisions affecting farming practices, led to China’s famine, which killed over twenty million people.

     Turns out it’s not so easy to say that conservation is a luxury for citizens of wealthy nations who value hiking trails and salmon dinners, not when the survival of the world’s most vulnerable people depends almost entirely on healthy ecosystems to sustain them. Again, this is where the definition of ‘ecology’ is helpful: ‘Eco,’ from the Greek oikos, for household, and logia, for ‘the study of.’ Anyone who has grown up in a household understands that it’s a complicated web of interrelated relationships. (If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, right?) In essence, the word ecology draws attention to the relationships between living things and their environment and implies that if one tinkers with one bit of the world, the effects are felt in radiating ripples throughout the rest of the world. Tug at this bit of creation, to paraphrase John Muir, and you find it is attached to everything else. Even the smallest actions for creation care have implications for the larger web that makes up our larger home.
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Robins for Supper

     I grew up in Arizona. But every summer from the time I was eight until I was eighteen my family made a three day trek to my grandparents’ home on Orcas Island in Washington State’s Puget Sound. Every bit of those summers was magical. The temperate rain forest of the island was a tangled green so lush it almost hurt my eyes. Parched from the previous twelve months in the desert, my sister, brother and I gulped it down in great verdant draughts. We spent nearly every daylit moment outside, scrambling along deer trails, prying limpets off rocks to use as bait to catch rock cod, building tree houses in sturdy Douglas Firs, and, as teenagers, sitting for hours at the ocean’s edge contemplating the mysterious workings of the universe.

     And we came back, one by one, like a stone skipped along the Northwest coast, touching down in Seattle, the Skagit Valley and Vancouver, BC. This was my mother’s gift -- not just the days of driving -- but the long-term gift of taking us to a place that each summer tethered an invisible strand to our imaginations, until one day the combined strength of those strands created an irresistible pull that would draw us back and tie us down, each one, firmly to the Pacific Coast, far from her.

     Those strands were woven by Orcas, the place, but also by the people—and two people in particular: my grandparents’ neighbours, Frank and Dorothy Richardson. Frank was a retired professor of ornithology who looked strikingly like Leo Tolstoy, and Dorothy was a homemaker with a graduate degree in biology and crinkly fairy godmother eyes. They both were slight and ate like birds. They also ate birds. Not just chickens and turkeys: they ate little birds. They ate robins. Or at least, they ate one robin. We entered their kitchen one afternoon—unannounced as usual—just as they were clearing their dishes from lunch. We were surprised by the teeny bones on their plates. In response to our bewildered expressions, they explained that a robin had flown into their car windshield while they’d been driving back from town, and, not wanting it to go to waste, they had brought it home, cooked it and ate it. I myself have yet to eat roadkill, but I appreciate the amazing commitment to conservation it represents. There’s a First Nations-esque respect and love for creation in their unwillingness to waste what lost its life, if not at their hands, then at their windshield.

     The Richardsons’ approached the entire natural world with this degree of care and concern. They never once sat down and lectured us on the evils of clear cuts or the plight of endangered species; they simply invited us into their lives. We caught Lingcod from their rowboat, pulled carrots in their organic garden, paddled along the coast in their hand built kayaks, hiked along woodland trails and learned (momentarily) the Latin names for wild orchids, and when need arose used their outhouse so as not to waste the precious “indoor” water which they had collected from their rooftop.

     The combination of Orcas Island’s wild beauty and the Richardsons’ friendship packed a double punch, which formed in me a deep love for creation, even the creation of my desert homeland. That love transformed into conviction and became an impetus for caring for creation in both my everyday and vocational life.
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