Sunday, May 22, 2011

Good Deeds

or Virtue:  Its Own Reward

No one ever regrets being virtuous in a folk tale.  Well, almost no one—a few stories do harp on ingratitude (and denial)—but in general compassion, generosity, hard work, and cleverness of the right sort are amply repaid, often with half a kingdom thrown in for a bonus.

As a child I loved the stories where the heroine was sent on a perilous journey toward what threatened to be an evil end.  On the way she'd feed hungry animals, comfort the unhappy, and generally mend what needed mending, and when she was most in need, all the creatures she had helped would come to her rescue.  When I first encountered these stories I went through a phase of releasing flies from webs and then waiting for magic to happen.  (It never did, so I grew out of that phase pretty quickly.)

Perhaps flies were the wrong targets for my self-serving efforts. Crows might have been better, as they seem to remember the faces of those have done bad (and possibly good) deeds to them.  Dogs, too, understand fair play.  On purely anecdotal evidence, I'd say that wasps have a good sense of cause and effect—when the bug bath is empty they hover in front of me in worrying ways; when I've refilled it with water they leave me alone.  (That good deed, at any rate, has its reward—once the wasps show up, at least half my problems with pests are over; watching a wasp carry off a Japanese beetle grub certainly makes my day.)  This year, the wasps have begun perching on my knee now and then; it's unnerving to have it made clear just how harmless they find me.  (Also for more obvious reasons.)

I've been thinking about cause and effect and the oddness of morality the last couple of weeks as I've come across insects in a helpless state.  One was (I think) some sort of a leaf or planthopper, though I'd sure welcome your help with an ID.  It had just molted and was completely vulnerable—it didn't even budge while I photographed it close up at leisure. 

The other was a cabbage moth, lying stunned after one of our worst wind storms.  It moved its antennae feebly as I leaned in for the photograph; I suspect that it was too exhausted and battered to do more.

Both of these insects are pests, and if I were a sensible gardener instead of a nature-loving tree-hugger with misdirected sympathies, I would have dispatched them both then and there.  Instead, I just couldn't bring myself to do it.  I wasn't looking for a reward out of it—not clouds of cabbage moths fluttering in halos around my head or anything.  It just didn't seem right is all.

And it's a good thing I wasn't looking for a reward, because do you think these little insects are going to be grateful?  Will the planthopper suck the juices only out of other people's plants, imparting nasty viruses elsewhere, while leaving mine alone?  Will the cabbage moth teach its larvae to stay out of my arugula?  Of course not.  This is not the "winning half a kingdom" kind of situation but the ingratitude-and-denial kind.  Nature does not have a code of honor; it does not step back and refuse to take advantage of a helpless state.  It is about survival, not chivalry.  The planthopper and cabbage moth will act according to their natures, and that will be that.  If I were in a folk tale, a wise toad would come along some day long hence as I was looking at my dying tomatoes, stricken with curly top virus, or at the arugula skeletons, and say, "What did you think would happen?"

Well, really, I thought I'd get a couple of photos and a blog post out of it and deal with the damage later...


  1. I think a nature-loving tree-hugger is the way to be. A bit of live and let live doesn't go amiss. That's why I threw slugs over the wall onto the church grounds beyond....

  2. A nature-loving tree-hugger with misdirected sympathies gets my vote every time. Though if compassion, generosity, hard work, and cleverness of the right sort will only get me half a kingdom, I might not bother.


  3. Survival. In the circle of life. Yes, we're with you.

  4. Ah, good--I'm glad to know that the NLTH's are carrying the day, even against pests. Though, Janet, I'm not sure that inflicting them on others is strictly within the definition of live and let live. :) And Dave, it does seem like a lot to ask for only half a kingdom, but surely you're well on your way already?

  5. I love a happy ending or was it?? I can sympathize with the tree hugger and since I believe in karma, I think your good deeds will be rewarded....

  6. I sympathize completely. I found a slug yesterday that had eaten quite a few chunks out of a hosta and I walked it halfway across the yard to an area where birds like to hang out, hoping that one would find it a nice meal. No, I don't expect the slug's gratitude. But I like being a gentle person ...

  7. Donna, it's more of a cliff-hanger so far--will the pests start munching, or will they head off into the sunset to live better, less destructive lives...? Thanks for the karmic encouragement.

    Sheila, where slugs are concerned, we have double the reason to be gentle, as killing them is just too gross... I hope a baby bird somewhere has enjoyed a tasty meal from your largess.

  8. I am like you always saving the helpless garden foes. I never thought about karma or doing it thinking I will be like your hapless heroine, but after I do, I always regret taking away the spider's meal. The poor spider needs to eat too. Same with those dreaded rabbits, hawks and slugs. Nature is always cruel to some poor beast.

  9. I love your stories and your pix! Thanks for sharing them with us:)