Misplaced fear

In the summer the cicada wasps take over the sidewalk outside of one of the buildings on a campus where I used to teach. They weave and bob just above the white concrete, in a solitary dance only they understand. As wasps go, they are gigantic, fearful looking beasts. But they are harmless to humans, or as close to harmless as a stinging insect can be. They are unlikely to attack even when provoked. Despite this, one of my colleagues wanted them poisoned. He is allergic to honeybee venom, he told me, better safe than sorry. I tried to tell him that his fear was unfounded, but his determination to have the insects killed was unaltered, and I watched as one of the campus grounds keepers soaked the grass around the sidewalk in pesticide.


Not long ago, the dog and I were returning from a trip to the local quarry. An acquaintance, the elderly wife of another colleague from campus, was trimming the rectangular hedge in front of her house. I stopped to talk for a minute, and told her that the dog and I had just seen a family of foxes, an adult with several pups. Her face immediately contorted in a look of horror. The idea that such wild animals were living barely a city block from her house terrified her. They’re just harmless foxes, I tried to tell her. But she would have none of it. Foxes are wild animals, and, in her mind, the dangerous beasts of folklore and fairytale.


Misplaced fear. The farm field behind her house was recently sprayed with atrazine, a potent endocrine disruptor known to cause cancer. On her porch was a bottle of Roundup herbicide, also a potent endocrine disruptor linked to a variety of diseases, declared carcinogenic by the state of California, and, in conjunction with the GMO crops it is designed to be used on, tied to the disappearance of honeybees. The electricity running her electric hedge trimmer originates in a coal power plant, a major source of greenhouse gasses that are likely rendering large portions of the planet uninhabitable for large numbers of organisms—including humans.

But she is afraid of foxes.

A moment on the train

The passenger train creeps into the heart of North Dakota. Rickety rail and a constant procession of freight trains carrying oil and coal make for frequent stops and slow speeds.

Outside the observation car window stretches an endless sea of virgin prairie grass and herds of buffalo so thick that they seem to form one giant amoebic mass that threatens to engulf the horizon as if to digest the few small clouds that linger there. The feeling is one of breath and life and endless space.

And then my eyes blink through into the modern era, the mechanical now, and the prairie becomes coal and oil in the form of GMO corn and soybeans arrayed in GPS guided rows upon the sterile ground, and the black amoebic masses of buffalo are foreshortened into an endless passing parade of tanker cars, their sides dripping with the dark toxic lifeblood of civilization.

The word sabotage comes close, but misses the mark. It evokes a dark gallantry, careful backroom plans, cunning craft. We are not saboteurs. We are neither cunning nor crafty. We fight for no higher cause. We know of no higher cause than our own greedy oblivion. Self-immolation comes closer—a symbolic sacrificial suicide—but it too falls short, with hints of faith and virtue.

Imagine killing a lover because you were overwhelmed by your own feelings of love and compassion. Imagine your lover’s dying breath forgiving you.

Imagine a sea of dead coral or a forest of driftwood.