Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Snakes Alive!

Until recently half the human population of this household was vegetarian, the other half only limited meat-eaters. Our reasons are as manifold as our habits. Of the carnivores, it seems, in the cold light of day, that the bigger the beast, the less likely you are to be eaten in this house; no cows or pigs, very occasionally sheep, chickens often, and fish oftener. Some of us claim a strong interest in Buddhism, famous for, amongst other things, its equal valuing of all sentient beings and therefore its vegetarianism. Mendicant monks, including the Dalai Lama himself, are allowed exception on the grounds that they can eat whatever they are given. If I applied that to myself I’d live on chocolate, booze and thin fresh air.

Following the Buddhist thread, I remember hearing of a large Buddhist monastery in America (I forget the name) who were invaded by cockroaches in big numbers. After many weeks of uncomfortable living cheek by mandible with the only probable survivors of a nuclear attack, and over many increasingly frequent discussion on the subject, the good monks decided mass-murder was their best option. This can’t have been easy. Especially for the roaches.

But it seems these decisions have to be made and everyone draws a line somewhere in the quagmire of moral living.

While in the local pet shop recently, I heard a sound that made me smile. It was the singing of some crickets, or cicadas to give them their prettier name, who were incarcerated in little plastic boxes on a high shelf near the window. I was transported to warm nights in foreign climes, or cinematic moments of intimacy as heroine and hero leave the company of others and step onto the balcony alone together and get to know each other a little better, swooning in the heat. Returning to earth I thought crickets strange creatures to keep as pets. You can’t take them for walks or cuddle up with them on the sofa or let them out in the garden for a run around. You can sing with them, I suppose, compose music around their backing vocals even, but wouldn’t you need a few other notes?

‘Snakes,’ said the shop assistant, when asked. ‘For people who keep reptiles as pets.’

The full horror was upon me. The realities of the fast food chain of life. The foolishness of my reveries. It was chastening to be standing there with flea foggers in my hand preparing for my own mass murder.

But, again, these decisions have to be made and everyone draws a line.

Life, surely, is to be cherished. Does that include bacteria? Is it ok to eat yoghurt? Or to bake yeast into bread? I’m saying yes to both, even though in baking bread I’m killing infinitesimal numbers of infinitesimally small creatures in doing so. And what about all those cleaning fluids that make life difficult for all manner of beasties including spiders, who after all eat flies (yuck!) that otherwise might infect us with those germs? And what about the fact that our body system grows stronger if it is exposed to low levels of bacteria? Bacteria are good for us. That yoghurt is only playing life’s game of one organism battling against another, the yoghurt gobbling up other bacteria in the war-zone of our stomachs.

The genesis of each human life itself is a battle: the ovum secretes vile chemicals in the face of approaching sperm, chemical war-fare of the womb, the survival of the fittest.

And now I begin to scare myself, but to find a shadow of that line I was looking for too. Survival of the fittest seems to me one of the most repugnant popular notions of these post-modern days. It's the lazy alternative and we can do better. Going forth with care and consideration, even cherishing, for other beings as much as humanly possible, seems much more satisfying and carries less risk of hubris. Buddhists try to leave as little trace of their existence as they can, to limit the damage they cause to other life. As a writer of historical fiction this is tricky. As a human being, it's still tricky, but also rather obvious.

To quote one of Muriel Spark's favourite words (apparently) 'Nevertheless' ... where's that flea fogger?

(These and other dilemmas of the tiny world of beasties are a feature of a novel I am working on. You can read the opening few paragraphs on my website.)


  1. As we were about to crawl into bed last night my wife drew my attention to a blot on the ceiling, an animate blot as it happens. As its shape wasn’t arachiform and unlikely to descend on silken thread and creep all over our faces I would have been content to leave it but I know the difference been the informative and the do-something-about-that-now tones my wife adopts even if the dissimilarity is subtle. So I trudged back into the kitchen, located a glass and a piece of card and encouraged the wee beastie to let loose its grip. As it turns out it was only a small moth which I carried to the door of our flat and bid be on its merry way. Like most of us I have a pecking order when it comes to how far I will go to preserve any particular genus of insect. Ladybirds get a free pass – I can’t imagine anyone killing a ladybird – followed by crane flies (how can you kill anything with a name like daddy long-legs?), butterflies, moths and spiders of all sizes. After that they’d better run quick. And most do when I’m around. I’m convinced those ugly black beetles that I find in the kitchen are telepathic because as soon as I cast my insecticidal eyes on them they know, they just know, and they high tail it out of there tout de suite.

    I was never one of those kids, not that I remember although I may well have repressed the memories, who took pleasure or even idle interest in incinerating bugs with magnifying glasses or dismembering daddy long-legs. I did incarcerate insects in jars and matchboxes, usually until they starved or suffocated and I have been known to glean a certain amount of childish pleasure flushing spiders for the plughole but that was about the limit of my juvenile sadism.

    I’m not sure how I would feel about feeding live crickets to a snake. Methinks I wouldn’t do it. In the wild where the cricket’s death wasn’t a certainly and his capture attributable to poor surveillance on his part then so be it but to deliberately drop him in an enclosed space with no chance to escape, well that doesn’t sit well with me.

    You need to fix the link to your website by the way.

  2. Thanks Jim. I think the link is fixed now.

    I've just been told that, contrary to my earlier post, hens don't eat slugs unless you wash the slugs first. Don't fancy that much.

  3. feeding live crickets or cicadas, whichever, to snakes as JM says above, is indeed a monstrous idea. Quite apart from their not having any chance as they would in the wild, [and my gut feeling is that in the wild they would have plenty of chances] who could willingly sacrifice these creatures with whom I and I'm sure plenty of others, associate warmth and sunlight, lazy Mediterranean nights brimming over with romance?

    I really like snakes as it happens. Many years ago I took it into my head to acquire one as a pet. You'll have to feed it live baby rabbits, the petshopkeeper said to me. I looked at her in disbelief. [clearly this was some time ago as their diet seems to have changed]. Oh I said, no thanks, I'll have an iguana instead.