One morning last week, I was getting ready to mow the back yard. The first step in that labor, of course, is to find where the dog has done what dogs do and pick up the treasures hidden in the grass. Equipped with my trowel and shopping bag, I headed to one of our canine’s recent favorite spots: under the enormous fans of a low-growing palm tree, near the place where the lawn is cut out around a bird bath.
As I approached the first deposit I found, I noticed something: hovering in the air, reflecting the rising morning light off of their whiny little wings, were scores of mosquitoes. As I knelt down to address the dog’s business, I remembered reading somewhere that mosquitoes, like our ubiquitous sand gnats and all manner of other creatures which annoy me, are attracted to carbon dioxide. I tried holding my breath for a moment, but I knew that was futile. I let the contents of my lungs go, and sure enough, they found me.
The presence of the mosquitoes most immediately reminded me that I had not been vigilant in the previous week or two about changing the water in the bird bath. In our sub-tropical climate, the water really has to be changed daily to keep it from becoming a cesspool of mosquito breeding. I spent the obligatory moment chastising myself for my laziness, because every failure in the garden must reflect a fundamental flaw in my character, right? But once I was finished with that, I started reflecting more on what was going on in my back yard that morning.
We keep the two bird bath, as well as two bird feeders and a hummingbird feeder, because we enjoy watching the birds. My wife has one of those books which identifies the birds found in Georgia. It even provides a check list at the end of the book for her to mark when she sees a specimen of each variety. She and my son have found great pleasure in seeing new and interesting birds take their repast at the feeders or a splash around the bird baths and looking them up in the book. I am less scientific about the whole operation, but I just like sitting back and watching the wildlife as it plays outside the living room window.
But recently, we noticed something different eating on the feeder that is further from the house. It was small, it was brown and furry, and it could fit inside the feeder to get a really good meal. One night, there was only one; I took a closer look, and found that its long tail was bare. My wife informed me that meant it was a rat. The next night, there were two, and by the next night, there were four climbing up and around that far feeder. We don’t want rats that near our house; in fact, we would rather pretend they don’t even live in our part of town. I am almost embarrassed to admit that they came on our property. We certainly do not want them multiplying exponentially as they find their sustenance at our bird feeders. Through some research, I found out that there is no way to really get rid of the rats without risking collateral damage to the populations of squirrels, cats, dogs, and children which use our back yard for a variety of purposes. The fact is that we had a mild winter, so the rat population is going to be larger than normal, and they will come closer to humans as they look for food. The only safe solution was to stop filling the bird feeders. I made sure the feeders were empty. The bird baths and hummingbird feeder would have to suffice for some time, until the neighborhood cats help the rats find a new place to eat breakfast.
Then the mosquitoes made their early morning attack. I felt the frustration rise: I can’t fill the bird feeders because the food attracts rats. I can’t fill the bird baths because the water is breeding ground for mosquitoes. So how can we enjoy the wildlife without all the pests?
As a person of faith, I could have gone from there into those kinds of questions that pop up in our minds every now and then, like why did God make useless things like mosquitoes and rats? But I didn’t want to because I am not sure those kinds of questions can be answered this side of our glory. So I settled on a different reflection.
Gardening is one of many attempts by us humans to manipulate nature for our own pleasure. I don’t believe there is anything intrinsically wrong with our attempts to manipulate nature for our pleasure, any more than there is anything wrong with manipulating nature to meet basic needs for food and shelter and the like. But in nature, everything we do has consequences which are beyond our control. The rats and the mosquitoes are among those consequences. The rats and mosquitoes probably serve some great purpose in the larger scheme of creation. My encounters with them function to remind me that, while there is nothing wrong with manipulating nature for my own pleasure, nature was not created solely for my pleasure. The world does not revolve around the whims of my pleasures, or even around the persistence of my needs. There is something much bigger than me operating in the world; I have the privilege of being a part of that something bigger, but it is not operating for me alone. So if I try to attract birds and find myself with mosquitoes and rats too, there has not been some great failure of the way things ought to be. In fact, the way things ought to be has worked itself out, and I can choose to either accept the consequences or stop leaving bird seed and standing water outside.
Having reluctantly removed myself from the center of the universe once again, I think I have decided what I will do. I will leave the bird feeders empty for a while, perhaps even leaving the one farthest from the house empty until winter, when I hope the frost will do its job with the rats more completely this year. But I will fill the bird bath again, with a commitment to fill it with fresh water daily. Perhaps I can even find pleasure in the discipline of the nightly work in the back yard.