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Does a Small Life Matter?

A long time ago I saw a small creature die. I could have prevented it, but I didn't. This is what happened:

Lou and I were sitting beside a stream when we noticed a large white millipede. The creature was headed toward the edge of the water. We watched as it tentatively dipped its front legs in the water. It arched its body, testing. I expected it to back up and go another direction, but instead it continued on into the stream. Soon it was swept under by the current and drowned.

I was disturbed by the incident. We could easily have rescued the millipede but instead chose to watch its demise. I regreted it and have never forgotten.

You've got to be kidding!  It was just a wormy thing with lots of legs. What difference does it make?

In the scheme of the whole wide world, it meant nothing at all. To the millipede, it meant everything.

And that is the thing. How important is life? Does it matter when it is small and insignificant to our eyes? Do we treat life carelessly, except when it's important to us? I'm not an extremist. I think human life is most precious, and I would kill any animal to protect a human life. I kill mosquitoes around my house, and I will get rid of roaches that invade my home. But I'm not careless about it. I don't nuke every insect in my garden or sterilize my lawn. I think all creatures are on earth for a purpose. One of man's purposes is to manage the earth and its resources wisely and to respect and protect life whenever possible.

I remembered the millipede when more recently I came across two turtles engaged in battle. I was in the woodland garden, and I saw a large turtle climbing onto the back of a much smaller one. At first I thought I had come across a mating couple; but as I watched, it was clear the smaller turtle was attempting to escape. It was able to get out of the larger one's grasp and headed across the woodland path. But the large turtle was soon upon it again. It was clawing at the smaller one's shell, trying to flip it onto its back, nipping and pushing at its prey. The little one was desperate and managed again to get out from under the large one. 

I don't know much about turtles, and I was fascinated. I wondered if the small one had wandered into the larger one's territory. Maybe they were two different species at natural enmity. Who knows? I did realize the little one's life was in jeapordy.

The turtles were a couple feet apart when I stepped forward and stomped my foot between them. Caught up in their struggle, neither had seen me coming, and now they both were quite surprised. They stopped in their tracks to look at me. The little one glanced from me to its pursuer, then recognized the opportunity. He turned and skedaddled out of there, as quickly as he could. I watched as he fled into the woodland undergrowth.

Meanwhile, the large turtle backed away from me. He observed the little one's escape, then glared at me. I think he was sizing me up, trying to decide if he could take me on. Minutes passed as we confronted one another. I stomped my foot again. Finally, the turtle turned the opposite direction and soon disappeared into the plantings.

I felt good that I had saved a small life. Did it matter? It mattered to the little turtle, and that is good enough. 

This is the path in the woodland garden where the turtle battle occurred:

And couple of photos, evidence of other small creatures in my garden:

Is a small life valuable? Does it matter at all? What does it say about us, if the answer is no?

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Reader Comments (22)

aloha deborah,

what an interesting point you address, i think when it hits your conscience is when it seems appropriate to do what is right at the point you were able to come into the picture for the smaller turtle...if only we can think consciously 24x7 of all these moments when to do the right thing....unfortunately i guess it depends on the priorities. fortunately for the turtle you were there at the right moment thinking the right thoughts to come to its aid....bravo

June 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternoel

I just saved a worm who was rain drenched in a puddle and I always catch spiders, moths, etc. that are inside and set them "free" outside. One of the (Reiki) principles I live by "Show gratitude to every living thing." I'm glad you "stepped in" and broke up the turtle fight. I didn't realize they battled, either. I really enjoyed this post.

June 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterthevioletfern

Love these philosophical musings. I have often felt conflicting feelings while watching life "happen" and just letting nature take its course. I agree that we should control the beasties to protect human life, but we should do so without upsetting the balance. Love those feather and zig-zag photos!

June 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFloridagirl

Dear Deborah, I totally sympathise with everything that you have to say in this posting. I firmly believe that all life is precious, human or otherwise, and that we should, as responsible individuals, do all that is possible to preserve it. I totally applaud your action over the turtles.

One of the things which so disturbed me when my cats were young, both now dead and not replaced, was the way in which, although properly fed, they would hunt birds and mice and voles simply for the game. Often I was able to rescue the victims, but not always.

One ends up, like you, doing what one can which is, at the end of the day, all there is to be done. I shall much look forward to catching up with you on my return in mid July.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEdith Hope

Deb that was an amazing story .. and I do NOT use that term lightly !
I think as gardeners we hold a quality as observers and some what as activist for the most part as well, because we are closer to "life" in many more forms than other people who do not follow the cycle of life and death as we do, watching it happen in our gardens.
And YES ! I think many of us see these types of incidents and ponder them greatly during our quiet moments .. I know I do ..
I'm glad you stepped in , literally and helped the smaller turtle .. as more the millipede .. think of a bird finding its body as an easier meal than usual .. its energy is used efficiently even while dead .. nothing is wasted !

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoy

Enjoyed your post, Deb. I think it says a lot about someone's character that they are compassionate about living things. The other day, I saw my son rescuing bugs from the pool. He set them out and let their wings dry and watched them. I just smiled because it just reinforced his caring character.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Quite a question you ask and I think ultimately a small life does matter because like you said, the millipede's life was everything. All living things have the innate need to live and fight they will to do so. I'm glad the little turtle got a way. The big one probably wanted to eat it for lunch.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertina

A great thoughtful post. It is odd - I tend to get upset when I find dead butterflies or bird feathers where it is obvious that the cats were at fault (that really puts me over the edge). On the other hand, I despise ants and often wonder what purpose they serve. One thing I've wondered about - if there were huge giants living on earth and we were tiny in comparison, what would we think?

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhillip

Deb, I love your story and the save of the turtle. it is most difficult to accept some things in nature: a Cooper's Hawk going after one of the smaller birds in our garden; a neighbor's cat threatening the quail; the Stellar's Jay eating the eggs from House finch nest... I do become upset and attempt to intervene. Yesterday, a small lizard had trapped itself in some netting in the vegetable garden and there I was with scissors cutting away the little pieces until finally it was freed. I do believe we have an innate instinct to protect, especially those which cannot do for themselves. As with the honey bees we found in a broken limb from one of our fallen trees, "they were not going to die on my watch" in the dead of winter, and indeed we found someone who could help us.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDiana

Hi Deb, I enjoyed your very thoughtful post and agree with your observations. I often question the same kinds of things and have many times intervened. We encountered some ducklings --without their mother--last year while out on a large lake. They were swimming in the middle of the lake with large boats zooming all around them. Two of them were separated from the 'pack' so we attempted to 'herd' them back to be with their siblings. Their siblings kept swimming further and further away while we tried to get the 2 headed in the direction of their 'brothers and sisters'. We did what we could but weren't able to bring them all together. We left with the 2 babies swimming alone and wondering if we should have even intervened at all. Perhaps they would have managed better on their own? That was the one time I regretted intervening. I guess it's a judgement call...as sometimes, nature has reasons that we don't always understand. I hope the babies found their siblings and that their mother was 'somewhere' but we think the mama may have been dead. Nature sure can be cruel sometimes. But like you, if given the opportunity, I will still do my best, in the future, to help if I can.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJan (Thanks For Today)

I happen to think all life should be precious, of course in the case of the Turtles one could argue it was natural selection if the larger had killed the smaller... But yes it's difficult to watch animals killing another, especially when it didn't seem to be for much reason.

It always annoys me how on our News channels we hear about this celeb dating another or whatever other rubbish I couldn't care less about yet we never hear when yet another species is announced as extinct. It happens on a weekly basis, yet when was the last time you heard?! I don't care whether it's a flower, bacteria, beetle or elephant - we should be told.

Just then, people may wake up.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterliz

Sometimes I think that it is good to intervene, sometimes I think it is best to let nature take its course. The millipede would have most likely just tried to cross the water at some other time and drowned and by letting it, you would have possibly prevented it from siring other water daredevils that would have also died - so maybe you actually saved lives.
The turtle on the other hand was a bully. Nothing good would have come from allowing it to continue bullying the smaller turtle other than leaving room in the world for more bullies.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSylvana

You were blessed to witness the turtles battle, and the small turtle was blessed to have you there, too.

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl

What a brilliant post. And what an inspiring question! Like you, I believe that all creatures are on this earth for a reason -- Nature doesn't make mistakes, in my opinion. Also like you, I will kill a mosquito, squish a large ant, earwig, spider, etc., but I must admit that most of the time, I feel a twinge of something close to guilt about it. As annoying and (::shudder::) ugly as they are, do they not have as much right to be here as I do? Great post!

June 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Bond

I think that in both cases it was a nature’s way to choose ones that are strong enough to survive and have young ones equally strong.
But I find myself rescuing little sparrows that fall out of the nest. So yes, I intervene, but if I don’t, I justify it by "survival of strongest".

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commentervrtlaricaana

I've never witnessed a turtle battle. I'd have been tempted to break it up too, as I highly doubt the large turtle was foraging for food! I'm glad the little one escaped. It's always difficult in nature though, and here I battle my conscience daily. But if a creature is stuck somewhere odd, like a lizard that finds its way into the house, I interfere. 'Food chain' events I don't interfere with. We lost our, well...technically not 'our'...flycatcher hatchlings to a predator last week on the porch. That predator was doing what predators do, and likely was feeding young of its own. I've photographed a Bobcat while it repeatedly returned to a nest, taking a nestling, carrying it off, and going back until the nest was empty, and I didn't step in. How often do you see a Bobcat hunting? Some friends were aghast I did that, I was surprised I did that. We have a Cooper's hawk terrorizing nesting robins and quail at the moment too. Doing what Cooper's hawks do. I feel privileged to watch, to be a part of it all here, and tell myself I have no just cause to interfere. But then, last week I found, as a hysterical quail family is desperately trying to defend their new brood, I'm running down the hill toward the hawk! Then caught myself, and asked myself, why? Life does matter, it all matters, large and small. Sometimes, it's just difficult to watch...

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCurbstone Valley Farm

Does small life matter? My answer is a definite yes. All life has a purpose. Certain bugs send a chill down my spine - spiders are one and I can't stand roaches. So, when I crush one with my shoe, or smash one with a rolled up magazine, this question is not even a consideration, but I guess it should be.

Just sayin'

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

Fabulous post. Thank you. I had just been listening to my car radio - about the Pope's attack on the Dictatorship of Relativism. Your empathy and moral action prove him (relatively) wrong!

How exotic to have wild turtles in the garden, as far as I know we only have the odd terrapin on the Norfolk Broads.

June 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarian

My mum told me that when I was younger if I saw anyone kill a little insect I would go up to them and tell them that they were killing one of God's little creatures.

I think the more you learn about nature the more responsible you feel for the little creatures you come in contact with. I was really saddened when I watched the crow take one of our fledglings away to a neighbour's roof but I accepted that it was a cycle of nature and that that crow probably had little fledglings of its own to feed.

Bullies I don't accept in my garden and I too would have come to the rescue of that little turtle Deborah. I've sometimes come to the rescue of a female mallard when the poor thing is being roughly treated by the male ducks. Spiders I would never crush in the house - they always are shown the way out through an open window. Local moggies get chased if they are threatening the birds around the bird feeders. Most greenfly outside are left alone so that their predators have a nice banquet - but indoors I will crush them with my fingers.

But little beasties that could hurt me or any other member of my family don't stand a chance if they venture into my home - like wasps or a mozzie. Wasps nests are destroyed if found but bee's nests are left alone.

You're a good steward Deborah.

:) Rosie

June 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRosie

This was such a good post and I really enjoyed reading all of the comments too! It really is a good question and yes, I do think that small life is valuable. It drives me crazy when I see our neighbor cats lurking under a bird feeder or the time one actually had a hummingbird in it's paws (it luckily got away), and as much as I like cats I always chase them away when I see them in "hunt mode". I've tried to teach my daughters that even little insects are important and we don't just squish them, especially if they are outside.
I know I would've tried to stop the turtle fight too.

June 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

I loved your post about caring for the small critters. Just today I was talking with someone about "stepping on bugs". I have seen little kids want to squish a bug with their foot. I will not hesitate to ask them to imagine another animal a thousand times taller than them. I ask them how they would feel if they look up and saw a GIANT foot hovering above them. Usually they think twice before squishing that bug. GOOD JOB on saving that turtle!

June 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Wonderful post. Thank upi for your kind remarks on my last post. it is appreciated. jim

June 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjim groble

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