Sunday, July 21, 2024

A butterfly alights in a Thai forest in June. (Photo: Greg Harris)

At a forest monastery in Thailand last month, as a participant in a course on conservation biology, I learned something unexpectedly close to home. We were assigned an “ecoquest,” which involved spending four hours alone in the tropical forest out of earshot of any other human being. Meditate, we were advised. Observe. “You’ll be beset by insects,” the monk leading this experience warned us, smiling, “And perhaps by fears. Breathe. Stay in the experience as it is. Allowance, not annoyance.”

I wasn’t so sure about this. I’d spent time before in tropical forests. I was aware of their beauty, the soaring buttressed trees, the organic profusion of vines and lianas. I’d also encountered their leeches, fire ants, termite mounds and mosquitoes, none of which were conducive to deeper reflection. In fact, on previous treks, I’d taken great care to armor myself against the forest with a veritable ring of poison: noxious malarone, permethrin, DEET. Now we’re supposed to sit on leaves armed only with a mild Thai herbal repellent and “allow”?

The monk led me to a secluded hillside spot and filed away with the rest of the group further into the forest. Once the last trace of russet-colored robe had vanished and I stood alone, things went about as well as I’d expected. Sitting and breathing lasted, well – not a breath. We’d packed lunch. I boredom-ate it within 10 minutes. I paced (let’s not dignify it with the term “walking meditation”), whacking fitfully at the air while mosquitoes found everything down to the holes in my sandals and flies harassed from behind.

When I finally tired out and sat down to observe, I saw the insects had afflicted more than just my presence of mind: the green of the forest, up close, betrayed signs of massive predation. Every stem bulged with bolls, every trunk was scarred, leaves were chewed to lace, or folded over and webbed with spittle to incubate larvae. A caterpillar bristling with poisonous-looking spines trundled straight at me and forced me to stand back up; I swear he was grinning with enthusiasm.

A Thai monk leads a lesson on conservation biology. (Photo: Greg Harris)

And there was beauty, of course. A soundscape of whirring cicadas, birds calling each to each in the canopy. Most of all, since this was midday, an astonishing pilgrimage of butterflies – blue tigers, great Mormons, dozens I couldn’t name, iridescent, frenetic. Somewhere in hour two or three I noticed one investigating the small backpack I’d used to bring lunch. It alit with the gentleness of a sigh, its wings, sunset-colored and patterned like sand painting, opening and closing. I knew nothing mystical was going on – butterflies absorb minerals and salt through their feet – yet it was impossible not to feel blessed.

That’s when the vision shot through me. Or if that’s too dramatic, call it a realization of something that should have been obvious, but that in my irritation and fear I’d lost sight of. You don’t get the blessing without the risks. That is, bugs aren’t bugs – they’re a feature. The spiny menace grinning at me as it forced me from my meditation spot was the same creature bringing me this silent blessing. The ratty-looking leaves are the ones that have sustained a web of life. Had they remained perfect, it would be a sign the forest was perfectly dead.

The butterfly flirted with my knee several times, but my insect repellant, sadly, did its job, and the butterfly would not land. It hovered and left. Others came, though, each soaking in the ample seasoning that years’ worth of hikes had lent my backpack, the sweat-salt of being carried across the peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. All of which got me to thinking – or, you could say, my consciousness expanded – to consider the rings of poison surrounding our homes here in Cambridge and elsewhere in America. How we treat our foundations to repel termites, seed our kitchens with ant killer, place boxes of neurotoxins along mouse paths and rat nests, light our porches to electrocute flies and mosquitoes, lather our yards with herbicides against crabgrass. Yes, there are practicalities: We want spaces of focus, and don’t want our joists to be termites’ next meal; neither do we want to risk encephalitis or resurgent malaria. But our poisons go beyond that. We wield chemicals against mere annoyances, create a sterile perfection of grass leaf that amounts to a dead zone, sit watching our simulations of life on black-mirror screens while real life withers around us.

We can change this, and we don’t even have to give up our comforts. We can foster the richness of life the way my backpack inadvertently did, by creating spots of invitation where creatures can find what they need. Grow pollinator gardens of native plants, milkweed for Monarchs. Capture rain in a barrel and lend water through the dry spells, build permeable patios and driveways for resilience against floods, and protect healthy soil ecosystems by refraining from chemicals. Sign up for Green Cambridge’s free tree-planting service, and devote part of your yard to restoring Cambridge’s canopy.

With more creatures living by us, will there be moments of annoyance? Yes. I recall with gritted teeth the summer that rats, feeding on my cherry tomatoes, established themselves in burrows beneath my raised-bed garden.

But there will also be more beauty. More threads in a tapestry of living things that, in the end, supports us, too. Despite my misgivings, the monk’s message proved to be right: Allow.

Greg Harris is the founding editor of the literary magazine Pangyrus and the founder and co-director of Harvard LITfest. His essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard Review, Jewish Fiction, Earth Island Journal and elsewhere.