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I recently spent $511 on long-overdue servicing for my ride-on mower. Then I got busy with work for a couple of months, spent a lot of time out of town, and finally got around to mowing this weekend. The mower didn’t start. I briefly entertained the idea of pushing it up onto the trailer and hauling it back to the service center, but decided to first disassemble it and see if I could figure out what was wrong. The problem seemed simple enough: the starter clicked but wouldn’t turn the engine. I’m not mechanically adept (my engineer clients worry whenever I pick up a screwdriver, and with good reason), but I thought it was worth a quick look since the machine had worked when I drove it into the garage just a few weeks before.
The problem, it turned out, was that a family of mice had taken up residence in the engine. The mother had built her nest precisely at the point where the starter gear engaged the flywheel (or whatever you call it) on the engine, and the dry matted vegetation was sufficiently dense to prevent the starter from spinning.
I removed the nest, trying unsuccessfully not to dislodge the mother mouse and her two tiny babies, one of which fell to the garage floor. As I retrieved it, I wondered: just how big is a life, anyway? I mean, look at the thing. It’s as alive as I am, though no bigger than a large grape. It’s a simple-minded little animal, but it’s still miraculously alive.
I have a mechanistic sense of things, a belief that life is the wildly improbable energetic organization of molecules in precarious balance. In that sense, every living thing expresses that improbable order, and so is an instance of something as far removed from inanimate nature as I am. This isn’t a theological or spiritual understanding, but a recognition of the vast category difference between something alive and something inert.
In his novel American Pastoral, Philip Roth described the religious practice of Jainism. Non-violence is a prominent component of the Jains’ religion and, according to Roth, they carry it to seemingly absurd extremes: not only are its adherents vegetarians, but they eschew washing their bodies to avoid killing whatever invisible organisms might inhabit their skin. I thought of that as I mowed the lawn today, sure that I was ending an uncountable number of lives visible and invisible.
It didn’t bother me, not really. I’m not overly sentimental, however much I might appreciate life in the abstract. The lawn has to be mowed, and most creatures face unpleasant ends: being run over by a Husqvarna ride-on mower likely has the virtue of being quick and unexpected.
Still, life is amazing. If our planet were the size of an apple, the entire habitable portion, the area where we know life exists, from the highest mountain peak to the deepest ocean trench, is about as thick as the skin on that apple. That’s it: in all the universe, that thin patina is the only place which we are certain contains the unique dynamic organization we call life. Everything else, however cosmic and dramatic, however vast and energetic and mysterious, pales in its simplicity when placed beside the still-developing Mus musculus I held in my hand.
I hope, and more than half expect, to have confirmation during my lifetime that ours is not the only life in the universe. I think we’ll find its remnants on Mars, or find it still living on a moon of Jupiter or Saturn. That will please me.
I put the nest, with its mother and babies, in a back corner of the garage. I don’t know if holding the infant doomed it, or if the mother will take it back — or if they’ve all already fallen victim to the numerous predators my son’s game camera routinely reveals to be living on our property in the woods behind my house.
It’s surprising what goes on in the wee morning hours, fifty yards from my open bedroom window.