(about bats, parasites, and other visitors)
The apparently innocuous, small baggy brown blob on our bedroom floor looked like a misplaced pair of hose, which is why my wife reached down to pick it up. As her fingers closed in on it, what she supposed were hose reared and turned a tiny head, which bared its teeth and hissed. It was our fourteenth bat.
For years, I’ve seen the bats in Goodale Park flapping and swooping, picking off their prey and then soaring off to find a place to rest. Half a block away, our house was a convenient hangout. Bats have been uninvited guests in our house since the first week we moved in. We’re renovators, and the frequency of their visits has decreased to nearly zero as we’ve systematically reduced our home’s structural porosity, but for years, there seemed to be all manner of holes through which they oozed and squeezed, invading our personal space.
I removed each of these bats using a catch-and-release method perfected by my dad, and originally conceptualized, possibly, by Douglas Adams. My father expanded the applicability of the advice provided in Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (“A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have…”). A towel is also massively useful for homeowners, and among its many applications, I feel that it is clearly the tool of choice for eliminating bats. The swinging bath towel quickly confuses their directional radar and then nicks the bats, disrupting their flight patterns and sending them to the floor, where I throw the towel on top and scoop them up. Safely separated from their savage mouths by several layers of terrycloth, I carry them out to the second-story porch where I open the towel and fling them out to freedom in the open air. I wash the towel.
Bats are transient visitors, but not only because I throw them out. They really don’t want to stay in my house after they find their way in; they have a restricted area for flying, and their favorite foods simply aren’t available. On the other hand, our house does support other creatures that try to establish permanent residence. Two that immediately come to mind are spiders and cockroaches.
Spiders are everywhere in our house. Cobwebs are ubiquitous, and our cats frequently find and play with the critters. I’ve seen several different types myself (long-legged, tiny, big-bodied & furry), and I’m sure that many more types (with actual official biological names) manage to live out their entire lives and reproduce their next generation undetected by any of us. They transform our house into their own hospitable home.
Cockroaches are perhaps the very best at this, being able to survive on nearly anything (including cardboard and, apparently, rust), and make nearly any place “home” including (based on my brother-in-law’s personal experience during his summer job during college), inside the steam pipes of radiator/boiler heating systems, where, in the absence of light, and in the presence of 212-degree water, they evolved over generations into colorless beasts that poured and scurried out of the radiators when he smashed them open with a sledge hammer.
Even smaller creatures take up similar residence in a more intimate “house”: my body. They are parasites in both name and behavior, and they live inside all of us as uninvited guests who transform our reluctant host bodies into their personal space. Hookworms just latch onto a chunk of our intestinal wall and happily suck blood from the wound, while Toxoplasma gondii actually manipulates the personality of its host to serve its survival needs. Parasites care about the health of their host, but only until it no longer provides food, or until it has been depleted by the parasite, or until it dies and a new host is needed.
Anything that survives as an uninvited guest by living off a host is a parasite. Given our planet-wide behaviors (overgrazing, overuse of farmland, fishing out the oceans, eliminating rainforests, and burning enough fossil fuels to change an ecosystem), are we ourselves uninvited guests like hookworms and Toxoplasma, setting up house here on Earth and using its resources to serve ourselves? Are we living on and in this organism at its expense? Are we parasites? Even though there doesn’t seem to be another available host planet at this time, there certainly does seem to be evidence to support that hypothesis. And why not? There should be no shame in being a parasite; it’s a valid life form.
And yet, I wonder if this is the most useful perspective. Although we clearly exhibit parasite-like tendencies, there is a flaw with that model. It’s not as if we moved here from another spot in the universe to feed on this planet.
Instead, we are part of its evolution. We are not separate. We emerged (and continue to emerge) from the stuff of Earth itself. I believe that there is a better model: since we emerge from the planet, it seems more helpful to refer to the Earth giving birth to us. We are a part of it, and at the same time we possess what appears to be separate consciousness, similar to a mother-child relationship.
We’re literally from here, and although we appear to be separate from it, we are made out of raw materials from the crust of this planet. Our resource-depleting behavior might reveal our stupidity, but we don’t actually treat Earth as a host.
Still, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an alien parasite out there that wants to feed on our planet. I always keep my towel close by, just in case.