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Lions Roar : March 2011
62 SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2011 i’d read about the benefits of compost and decided we should have a pile of our own. todd hammered three two-by-fours into the ground and stapled chicken wire on the outside, leaving one edge loose so that i could open it. alone, one day, i decided the compost heap could use some attention. With shovel and rake, i dug into the center, up and over, again and again. it was difficult, hot work for someone with so little upper-body strength. as i scooped into the black gold at the bottom, something moved of its own volition. i glanced down at a snake—and before i could think a rational thought, i smashed it to death with the shovel. then i almost cried. its mangled body lay in the grass. one closer look revealed to me that it was no more than a few inches long. even if it had been a copperhead and managed to bite me, i might have become sick but almost certainly wouldn’t have died. in fact, i’d been in no real dan- ger. the snake’s appearance startled me—a primal reaction flooded my mind and muscles—and i killed it. i didn’t bother to think. i vowed i would never do something so unnecessarily cruel again. i would think first, then act. eventually, i’d learn that was a form of mindfulness. ten yearS later, we moved into our first house, a 1940s cottage. on a spring morning that insisted on every living thing’s presence outside, i raked fall leaves from a flowerbed to make room for new plants. bricks marked a spot where a white- blooming gaura might have survived the winter. i moved the bricks with my bare hands. as i reached for the last one, i saw a coiled snake in the corner near the concrete steps. i jumped back, then crouched for a better look. had it not been so chilly—or had i been intrusive in its space—it might have bitten me. i felt a familiar adrenaline throb in my body. i remembered the snake i’d killed and the promise i’d made. With the rake, i poked into the snake’s hideaway. it struck twice, exposing a white mouth and glints of fang. Slowly, it uncurled. i angled the rake near its body, and the snake twisted among the tines. i assumed it might want a similar environment, so i walked to our backyard and over to our neighbor’s, where he had a pile of broken concrete draped with dead weeds. i shook the snake loose. it disap- peared into a crevice, safe from humans, cats, and hawks. that 1940s cottage was where i began to spare the under- ground innocent. When i prepared the beds for new plants, in- evitably i disturbed the earthworms’ holey work in the soil and the grubs’ dark wait for maturity. i kept a bucket with a layer of dirt nearby as i tilled. When i found a little creature, i placed it in the pail and released it on the loosened soil after i was finished. although i gave thought to their lives, i didn’t contemplate my motives. it simply felt like the right thing to do. SoMe yearS later, an old friend orbited back into my life. he hadn’t changed a bit, yet he had. he had become a practicing buddhist, a path that made perfect sense to me based on what i remembered about him. a cerebral, gentle man with a strange, koanlike sense of humor. he mentioned in conversation a practice of nonviolence to other living beings. he said there were monks who went so far as to brush the areas where they were about to sit to avoid crushing insects or creatures that might be present. “they don’t even slap mosquitoes,” he said. i held that conversation in my head for weeks. Not even mos- quitoes, i thought. it was summer in louisiana. the little buggers were everywhere, hungry. What i learned burrowed into me. i didn’t ponder it as much as i attempted it. that is to say, i was on the path already, what was one more step? by then, almost every creepy-crawly thing was spared. outside, no snake, frog, toad, salamander, or gecko needed to fear my reaction when i saw it. Unearthed worms and grubs returned to their dis- turbed ground. if found in the house, beetles, earwigs, crane flies, and moths—even flies—endured temporary capture and subsequent re- lease. Most itsy-bitsy spiders were allowed to stay in dark corners, capturing their prey. (Who knew so many gnats buzzed around so low to the floor?) the large spiders found themselves scooped up on sheets of paper or trapped in glasses, then left outdoors. My transformation was obvious. all of these creatures were going about their lives around me, doing what they do. that i disliked some of them, that they were a nuisance to me, gave me no cause to harm them. i had no justifiable reason to kill. So i wore long sleeves and pants if i worked outside when mosquitoes swarmed. if one attempted to land on me, i brushed it away. in my Crickets garnered my special affection. They were hopelessly dapper with their sleek black coats and shiny smooth eyes. Their back legs tickled my hands when I held them.