The other evening I had dinner with a friend at a favorite pub in Kelburn village. It was raining when we left, and the steep steps back down into Aro Valley were dark and slippery. I could just discern the form of a woman wearing a white raincoat in front of me as she carefully made her way along the path. Just as I was about to pass her, she bent over and picked up something from the pavement, placed it in the grass, then took a few steps and picked up something else. Something round and shiny. “Snails,” she said, seeing that I had paused. “I squished one the other night and felt so terrible.” I joined her, spotted another snail shape and tried to move it. It took some effort to pry it off the moist surface and after releasing it in the grass, left my fingers slightly gluey. When I got home, I looked up what we had been rescuing: the common garden snail, Cantareus aspersus.
Doing this reminded me of a fellow Antioch doctoral student whose research focused on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. While walking this ancient pilgrimage route, she encountered dozens of snails crossing the path. Rather than let them be crushed under the feet of other travelers, she spent hours carefully moving them to the side – part of her mission of humane service.
The wild creatures that I meet along Wellington’s various pathways are often unable to move out of the way quickly. They may be naturally slow-moving, like snails, or they may be incapacitated in some other way. I often find bees on the sidewalk, sometimes attracted by squished fruit, or maybe just too old or cold to fly any more, trying to absorb some heat from the pavement. They crawl willingly onto my finger or a leaf and are airlifted to a safer spot.
Sometimes the encounters are closer to home. The first morning that I took a good look around my new apartment, I found a web stretched across the frosted glass of the bathroom window. Tucked into a crevice by the window frame was a small, still spider. Sometimes I inadvertently disturb its web when I open or close the window. It always rebuilds and, based on the evidence that has fallen onto the windowsill, has found an ideal location for trapping prey that is attracted to the light inside. Having a spider web in lieu of a window screen would seem antithetical to most people, I realize – but I see it as a partnership for the greater good.
There are any number of invertebrates I’ve met here whose lives have intersected with mine for the briefest of moments, yet left a lasting impression. I think about the human tendency to recoil from such encounters, or to want to destroy them, and I recall a student at one of the schools that I visited. She refused to follow the direction to squish the caterpillars feasting on the brassica plants and instead collected all she could find and released them on the other side of the school fence. One of her classmates teased her about rescuing pests, and she retorted, “Well, YOU are a pest – wouldn’t you want me to rescue you?”
This urge to look out for the smallest, most fragile, and often most reviled creatures sometimes feels like one of the missing links in our understanding of biodiversity. From our earliest days we receive both implicit and explicit instruction on which species are good and bad, beautiful and ugly, worth conserving and deserving of death. These small, cold-blooded creatures are usually consigned to all of the latter categories, often for no reason beyond an instinctive fear or revulsion. One of the goals of teaching younger children about biodiversity is to help them encounter the rich diversity of invertebrate life with curiosity, and to engage what I believe is an inherently humane attitude.
As one student at Zealandia put it, guarding a tree weta that had been stepped on in a path, “You don’t know if it has feelings. But I do.”