A few years ago, I drowned a very large rat in a trashcan of runoff from the roof. We had caught it in the garage where it had been happily chewing through grain bags and enlarging the small opening under the garage doors to make coming and going easier. The garage was its palace, a treasure trove, and its large yellow incisors were the key to every lock. But when it found my saddle delectable, I transformed from a live-and-let-live, fairly peaceful person to a stone-cold rat-killer. The cage we used to catch the rat may have been labeled have-a-heart, but I no longer had one.
What haunts me now is the look in the rat’s eye, staring into mine as the cage gradually submerged into the water-filled trashcan, especially the penetrating look when I gave the cage a final push and held it underwater. It was not a look of fear or panic or desperation. It was not a sad look as if the rat knew these were its last moments. It was a fully conscious look: I see you. I see what you’re doing. I see that you have lost your heart. With calm clarity, its luminous black eyes mirrored me—my selfishness, my heartlessness, my betrayal.
I know I’m not the only one who has transgressed against another being, large and small, and thus transgressed against the best part of oneself. How do we do penance for these merciless acts, these sins: the roadkill that lie in our wake or are churned up in the rotating propellers of progress because we deem our needs more important than the rat’s; the badger crossing the road; the polar bears clinging to shrinking ice, the honeybees enslaved as trucked-in pollinators, the giant Saguaros bulldozed to build a wall; the brown children living in cages; the giant redwoods growing straight-grained and true into eternity but seen as so much lumber “on the hoof.” We see our fellow earthlings as expendable, subservient to human needs. To privileged, white human needs.
The day after I had surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor, our house-sitter called my husband to report in her Texas twang that “there is an industrial amount of water gurgling up by the west side of the house.” The side where the septic tank is. Despite being fresh from a craniotomy and in an altered state, my little ears pricked up. Really, great universe, you’re really giving us another problem, now? Henry helped our house-sitter track down the source of the problem—a toilet that had been running for God knows how long—so temporary fix lasted until we got home from the hospital and had the septic tank pumped.
We asked the septic guy what our options were. “Well, you got roots in the tank, thick mats of ‘em from all these trees. The cheapest way to get rid of those roots is to get yourself a couple 50-pound sacks of rock salt and dump ‘em down into the tank. Otherwise you’re looking at big bucks to replace the whole system.”
“Won’t the salt kill the trees?” I piped up.
“Well, yeah, lady. That’s kind of the point,” he replied. “No trees, no root balls, no septic trouble.”
Henry and I thanked the guy and sent him on his way. “No way can I kill a magnificent, intelligent, sentient being like a tree just for the convenience of pooping in freshwater,” I said. “That insanity.” Henry nodded.
So we stumble along with a touchy septic system, limiting our flushes to strictly necessary, and bailing the bathtub and the sink— a human-powered gray water system. Meanwhile the trees are thriving.
I haven’t seen a rat in a while, but if I do I will try the live-and-let-live approach, not just for its sake but for mine—to do what I can to make amends for my own mindless, selfish, heartless transgressions against nature, against other beings, against our sentient planet. I suspect one person won’t make much of a dent, but I get the feeling that Sensei Glioblastoma sees a much bigger picture than I do. Have faith, sensei says, keep your heart open and act from it.