'No Thanks, We Have an Ecosystem'
Periodically, we get a knock on the door, and it’s a guy who wants to let us know that some of our neighbors have contracted with him to take care of their (cockroach/ant/black widow) problem, and to ask if we’d be interested in doing the same.
“Why would I want to do that?” I asked one of these men, perplexed. “Why would I want poison in my house? The ants aren’t hurting anything.”
His training had not prepared him for a response like this. “Because they aren’t paying rent?” he responded, hopefully.
I smiled at him, like a bemused school teacher. “No thanks, we’re good.”
I mean really, how many poisons have we been told were perfectly safe, only to find out later that they were actually doing serious damage to humans? And don’t even get me started about things like rat poison - anti-coagulants are a disaster for predators all the way up the food chain.
Hank handled the last such inquiry with the most succinct and perfect answer ever: “No thanks, we don’t need it; we have an ecosystem.”
I didn’t see the guy’s face, but I heard the silence, then heard the door close.
And it’s true. We manage our humble quarter-acre in the Sacramento suburbs as an ecosystem. Perhaps it won’t work forever, but it’s worked pretty well for going on 18 years now.
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Here are the rules: Insects, spiders, lizards, birds, rats, ’possums and skunks get run of the yard. We don’t use poisons to kill or deter them. We leave brush piles for many of them. At most, Hank uses diatomaceous earth to keep slugs out of various plants at tender junctures in their lives. Other than that, Hank just plants his garden with the understanding that varying animals will take their cut.
We are not overrun with any of these creatures in our yard (with one exception I’ll get to in a bit), because they keep each other in check. And, because we give them places to live outside, they rarely feel the need to come into the house.
This philosophy has everything to do with what we have learned as hunters, anglers and gatherers: Ecosystems work, because every member of the ecosystem gets its share, and in doing so keeps other members of the ecosystem in check. When humans mess with ecosystems and try to choose winners and losers – usually losers, because we rarely want any species besides our own to win – we throw everything out of balance.
I once found evidence of termites on the floor of a shed in our yard, and I called an exterminator to evaluate the situation, because my charity does not extend to anything that could literally destroy the house. I believe every species has the right to defend itself and its home.
The guy came out and took a look. “They were here, but they didn’t stay long – this looks fine,” he said.
Termites just want to munch wood, and apparently they just couldn’t resist the cardboard boxes in that shed, which are apparently satisfying and more easily digested than wood. It made sense that they did some munching there, and also that they didn’t stay long: We leave enough dead wood lying around the yard that, like other insects, termites apparently didn’t need to invade our structures to get their fill.
The exterminator said he should check under the house too, just to be sure everything was OK. He came out of the crawl space stunned. “There is nothing under there. Not even spiders,” he said. “It looks like you have an exterminator come regularly.”
Even I was a little surprised at that, because we definitely get insects and spiders in the house.
There are rules for them, too. Spiders are welcome inside, except for black widows, which are not allowed to live in my spaces. They die, without apology. (I’d like to consider a relocation program for them, but dang, that venom gives me pause.)
When insects come in, I escort them out of the house if I can, and leave those I can’t to feed spiders and amuse the cats. The exception is house flies. If I can’t get them to fly out the door, they die. We process way too much meat and seafood in the house to allow anything that wants to lay eggs in meat. They can make their little maggot babies in the garbage can outside.
Now, I did mention one exception, one thing getting out of balance in our yard, and that’s the rats. It never used to be a problem because our cat Harlequin LOVES rats – loves hunting them, loves eating them. Their feet and tails are delightfully crunchy, and their skulls are a great workout for her molars. We’ve always had just enough rats to keep her happy, but not so many that they caused problems.
That’s changing. Missy is now too old to hunt, but she’s still spry enough to limit how much time other neighborhood cats spend in our yard, so she’s not being replaced as a predator.
This winter, I knew it was getting bad when rats devoured literally half of the sweet navel oranges on our tree. I’d go to pick one only to find it hollow, with a hole chewed through one side and literally every bit of the sweet flesh removed from within.
This bums me out, because the beautiful thing about a citrus tree is that you don’t have to harvest all the fruit when it’s ripe – the tree will take perfectly good care of it until you’re ready to eat it. Hell, I used Meyer lemons off the same tree (a lemon-orange splice) in June that had come ripe in December.
But the rats have gotten out of balance. They’re not being kept in check. So we’re on the lookout for ways to restore the balance.
It just won’t be with poison. We’ve got an ecosystem to maintain.