On Packrat Philosophy, Cantankerous Grasshoppers, and Living with Nature’s Unwanted Species

Why are some species admired or beloved while others are despised? An eagle or hawk circling overhead inspires excited sounds and the whipping-out of binoculars, while gulls and rats are ignored or openly reviled.

From pigeons to prairie dogs, Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species, out now from University of Minnesota Press, offers reflections on reviled animals and their place in contemporary life. Each essay in the collection focuses on a so-called “trash species”—coyotes, carp, cockroaches, magpies, and lubber grasshoppers, among others—examining the biology and behavior of each in contrast to cultural assumptions about them.

The collection includes work from fifteen different contributors, including Orion friends and contributors Kathleen Dean Moore, Lisa Couturier, Jeffrey Lockwood, Michael P. Branch, and Andrew Blechman, the magazine’s managing editor.

Here’s Kathleen Dean Moore on packrat philosophy, from her essay “The Parables of the Rats and Mice”:

In a mountain cabin in Colorado many years ago, when Frank and I were very young, we were annoyed each night be a packrat. It was a lovely brown rat with a softly furred tail, but it pooped on the dishtowels and skittered and crashed all night long, chewing up tin foil and Styrofoam cups. Plus, it was a prime suspect in the disappearance of a bike-lock key. Not really capital offenses, as I think about it now, but we decided to put out poison. In those days, rat poison was a waxy substance in bottle caps. Fools, we put out two. In the morning, one of the bottle caps was gone, and in its place, the rat had left a quarter.

Western philosophy has made a whole moral theory out of trade-offs like this. “An act is right if it creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” we assure each other: the famous Utilitarian Principle. So anything can be traded, so long as you’re a sharper trader, always getting a balance of happiness in the long run. Dam the Columbia River, for example. Ruin ancient runs of lamprey and sockeye salmon, bury the places where native people have gathered for centuries to fish and to pray, as long as you can show on a graph how the benefits soar beyond the measured costs, irrigating orchards and sending cheap electricity to California. We do the calculation—this much pleasure, that much pain—and if the balance of happiness is in the black, we assure ourselves that we are acting morally.

Well, maybe we are and maybe we aren’t. It’s complicated.

And here’s Jeffrey Lockwood on the lubber grasshopper, from his essay “A Six-Legged Guru: Fear and Loathing in Nature”:

The lubber may look dim-witted and benign, but appearances can be deceiving. Lurking beneath the bulging exoskeleton is a cantankerous and wily creature. One must be careful when accosting these creatures because their hind legs sport rows of spines that they rake across the flesh of a would-be captor. This might partially explain their minor-at-best place in the vertebrate cuisine of the prairie. However, a clever predator (or entomologist) can neutralize this defensive maneuver by grabbing them by their hind legs. But wait—as they say in the cable infomercials—there’s more. At this juncture of the capture, the lubbers resort to their most noteworthy tactic. They become utterly repulsive.

Their first and most revolting strategy in this regard is to regurgitate copiously. Many species exhibit this defensive behavior, and as kids we referred to grasshoppers “spitting tobacco juice.” Indeed, the cola-colored fluid resembles the expectorant of tobacco chewers in its capacity to stain whatever it hits. Of course, a grasshopper isn’t spitting masticated wads of chewed tobacco. Rather, it is heaving up masticated and liquefied sunflower leaves—the contents of its foregut, which is the anatomical equivalent of our stomach. The prairie lubber manages to produce this material in truly impressive quantities, smearing itself and its handler with the dark brown fluid. For this grasshopper, however, the effort to repulse its assailant is not complete…

Trash Animals is edited by Kelsi Nagy and Phillip David Johnson, and includes a foreword by Randy Malamud.

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