Cat and ‘munk: At the confluence of evolution and circumstance

Posted: November 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

The lop-tailed white-and-yellow cat prowling the savannas of Sterling College had found prey. A rodenty creature — chipmunk or ground squirrel or whatever the Vermont equivalent of a boomer is — had made the mistake of crossing the lawn behind Madison Dorm while the cat was on guard. Several of us, fresh from environmental writing workshops, paused to watch the interplay.

Across the lush grass, the chipmunk skittered toward an island of ferns and wild plants near the dorm. The cat looked on with whetted attention, eyes focused, ears erect, ready instantly to mount an interception. But it didn’t. The chipmunk reached the sanctuary of the knee-high growth without mishap.

Then the cat began its stalking. It patrolled the edges of the wild bed, peeking over and around the fern stalks, poking its nose under the broad burdock leaves. Occasionally it jumped into the patch, sometimes emerging with the wiggling ‘munk in its mouth. But it always managed to drop the squirrel, which would immediately disappear back into the wild patch. Then the cat would go back to its stalking, delighted — if feline delight can be inferred from alertness and vitality — to be in the hunt again.

Finally the boomer made a break for the dorm. It ran along the foundation, trying to find a chink in the stone, but there was none. Nor would the basement windows open no matter how hard it chunked its small body desperately against the glass. The cat caught up with it and caught it — again and again and again. Occasionally it would issue a peep of pain or protest; sometimes it would stand up defiantly to combat the cat.

Some of the onlookers considered an intervention. For me there were issues with acting: After the rescue, what would we do with the ‘munk, which was already showing signs of injury? Take it to a wildlife ER? What if it escaped only to set up residence in the dorm. Infestations of chipmunks can do major damage to structures. The informal consensus of the crowd was that a cat’s gotta do what a cat’s gotta do.

For all its skill in the hunt, the cat seemed unsure about administering the coup de grace. Catlike it continued to toy with the squirrel, which by this point had taken refuge under its persecutor. Finally, bowed up either from injury or anger, the chipmunk rounded the front corner of the dorm with the cat in close pursuit. The show over, the spectators began to scatter.

***

On more than one occasion, I have made a different choice in these life-and-death dramas.

My father was a beekeeper and honey producer. Our garden was forever full of bee stands , and summers the white clover in the yard was always awash in bees. By the time I was a sixth-grader, I was expected to help move hives and carry supers of honey as needed. Though I hated being stung and was never to be an apiarist, I took pride in Dad’s accomplishments among the bees and felt a marginal level of ownership in the enterprise.

It was in that spirit that I reacted one day when I found a worker bee caught in a strand of spider web in our garage. The strand was old and ragged, not obviously a part of any intricate web, so after checking for any menacing spiders, I decided to free the insect. It was, after all, one of our bees.

First I tried breaking lose some of the surrounding strands, but that didn’t help. Then I decided to put my finger up to the bee to give it a place to stand while I broke the final silk loose. A moment later,the bee was writhing on the floor and its stinger, complete with venom sack, was pulsing in the flesh of my forefinger.

I was stung by the ingratitude. Not only was my finger throbbing, but the dumb bee was going to die anyway — because, unlike wasps and hornets, a bee guts itself when it uses its barbed stinger. My altruistic impulse had accomplished nothing — except maybe to deny an industrious spider its supper. At that tender age, nursing my finger,  I resolved not  to interfere again in the natural order, even on behalf of a family-owned insect.

***

That was a promise I didn’t keep.

Two dozen years later, I found a dirt dauber in the same circumstances as those of the long-dead bee — hung up in an abandoned strand of silk on my parents’ back porch. I thought back to the philosophical pledge of my childhood, but this time I realized there was an important difference: Dirt daubers don’t sting people. They sting spiders, which they load, alive but paralyzed, into the long mud tubes where they lay their eggs. When spring comes, the wasp larvae feed on a meal of living spiders, still fresh thanks to the miracle of suspended animation.

So I looked around for a spider and, seeing none, freed the wasp, as a benevolence from one of God’s well-intending creatures to another. No sooner did the last of the cord fall away than the dauber flew in a beeline to another web further along the porch. There it landed on a fresh web and, as I watched, gave the web a firm shake. When it shook the web a second time, a small spider, hairy like a little terrier, stepped from hiding and advanced boldly to claim its prey.

What happened next had all the choreographed formality of a balletic pas-de-deux. The spider reared back on its hind sets of legs and lifted its front legs to grasp the wasp. In a move that was almost sexual, the dauber squatted over the spider and hunched down on it. The spider wilted visibly, its eight legs drawing up under its body in an arachnine fetal position as the venom took effect. Then, like a mother cat picks up its kitten, the wasp flew off toward its nest with the spider hanging from its mouth.

***

Human beings are “the ethical animal,” in C.H. Waddington’s phrase. Unlike other species, we can act out of altruism, a sense of fairness, a notion of justice, a belief that there are necessary actions that must be taken, even when those actions appear not to be in the best interest of the individual. Among most of us, there is some assumption that this is the way the world itself is structured, that our best wishes are somehow woven into the DNA of all creation, patterned in the structure of atoms, mirrored in the cosmos.

We’re wrong about that.

The cat’s tendency to play with its food, the bee’s impulse to sting when it perceives danger, the intricate dance staged by the wasp and the spider — these have been bred into behavior by the confluence of evolution and circumstance. Free choice does not exist there; nor does gratitude. There are no neutral actions — just neural actions. Each bee that is freed leaves a hungry spider. Each wasp turned loose is a dead spider. Each escaped chipmunk leaves a cat with an unfilled destiny — and belly.

But our impulse to interfere, our tendency to read human values and motives into natural events and circumstances — these are part of our makeup as human beings. As much as the cat is instinctively a stalker and a toyer, we are evolutionarily determined to make self-conscious, anthropomorphic value judgments. We, too, have no freedom. We see through human eyes and add a patina of human values to the situations that present themselves to our awareness. That is the state of our being. We can do no other.

***

A few moments after the cat disappeared in pursuit of the chipmunk, one of my fellow workshoppers came around the corner of the dorm and spooked both cat and ‘munk into the open lawn again. A cat lover herself, she addressed the feline: “We can’t have that.” It looked up at her, and the chipmunk used that instant of inattention to scamper up a nearby maple, leaving the cat on the ground looking up the tree.

Wildbranch Writing Conference

Sterling College

Craftsbury Common, Vermont

07 June 2007

Comments
  1. I really enjoyed your reflections on the natural order of things.

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