An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of September 7, 2007
Issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve Headquarters in
Jalpan, Querétaro, MÉXICO

TOAD-SQUASHING MORALITY

Last Sunday it drizzled all morning as I hiked the reservoir road. Rain walks reveal alternative worlds that emerge only when it rains. The hut where usually I feel purple annoyance as I walk by because of dogs who attack passers-by, in the rain stunned me with orange-hued homey feelings as sleepy, Sunday-morning conversation filtered through the house's pole walls, the odor of strong coffee mingled with that of roasting tortillas, and the dogs banished outside the door forlornly looking at me drenched and forsaken.

Thumbnail-size immature toads everywhere made it hard to walk without stepping on them. Each car on the road that day must have squashed hundreds of them. The toads reminded me of a mail I'd just received from Bea in Ontario. She'd written that as a nature-teaching mom she'd been struggling with the question "How much can a child safely handle nature without harming it." Is it right to let a kid hold frogs when you know it may be damaging their slimy, important-to-them coating? Or put caterpillars in a jar, when you know how exacting the caterpillars' environmental needs are?

Bea's letter, in turn, had brought to mind a philosophical crisis I'd passed through myself when I was a teenager back in 60s, in Kentucky, driving a car for the first time. How I loved sailing through Kentucky's hot, silky summer nights, the windows down, the radio blaring, the headlights starkly illuminating tall fescue grass along country roads billowing in and out around the car's accompanying air-bubble.

But, the next morning, look at the windshield, all the splattered bugs. At that time I was deciding to be a vegetarian and was much impressed with Mahatma Gandhi's ideas on the beauty and sacredness of other creatures' lives. In that heightened state of sensitivity to other lives, how could I justify killing so many night-moths just to indulge my driving through the Kentucky night? For a while I quit driving altogether.

It took me a while to accept that, since I also was an animal, I had certain rights, and one of those rights certainly was mobility. I did quit discretionary driving, but also I went back to driving when I needed to.

Last Sunday morning I was thinking about all that, but also I was remembering what I'd just heard on internet radio (I'm a paid-up member of National Public Radio) where a guy promoting a traditional community's rapid gentrification had said, "We're a capitalist society and that means that if you have money you're allowed to do with it whatever you want."

Last Sunday's rain walk, then, turned out to be an exercise in making sense of a world where from moment to moment we must deal with extreme opinions. Thinking about Bea's letter and what the guy on the radio said obliged me to remember that there's always a Middle Path. There's a Middle Path between killing any creature that gets in your way, and perpetually wearing a mask to save tiny insects from being inhaled and killed -- a practice I've witnessed in a Jain community in New Delhi, India.

To my mind, the day after day, year after year struggle to develop your own insights and then calibrate your behavior to those insights is the most meaningful task any person ever undertakes. And if, beyond that, you can make out a Middle Path coursing through your understandings, and you try to follow it, that's beautiful. Facebook Icon.