The Bricks vs. the Green

by Kyle Teamey | 5/7/98 5:00am

As a part of the construction of Berry Library, the big elm tree that stood at the northeast corner of Baker was recently cut down. It was an American elm much older than Baker itself, a grand old tree that we've all walked by many times whether or not we ever noticed its existence. There was a small amount of protest from Hanover residents over the taking of the tree, but the final decision to cut was made since the tree probably would not have survived construction without library blueprints being altered. The fact that Berry was essentially designed on top of this tree got me to thinking about how we value living things in general.

What if the elm tree had been a more charismatic organism? If the falling of a mature tree barely raised a fuss, removing grass, saplings, moss or any other inanimate organism which seems more a landscape feature than a living thing would not have caused a stir. What if, instead of a tree, there had been a den of cute and fuzzy woodchucks? Sure, woodchucks are garden pests, but if the people opposing the destruction of the woodchucks played their cards right, the construction of Berry over the spot would have met much more resistance, and the further existence of these animals would be much talked about on campus. Why? Simply because the organism in question was "cute." If you have a slug or a slime mold, people point and say "ewww" as they reach for the Raid. If it's a sea otter, they all point, reach for their cameras and say, "ohhh, how cute," instantly giving the cute animal much greater status.

Even cute animals seem to have a PR stratification of sorts. At the top of the cute animal heap are our pets. We put up with them soiling our rugs, chewing up our furniture and eating food we labor to provide. This just because they are loyal enough to hang around for the food, and they're (usually) cute. If I were to guess, I'd say that we love our dogs the best amongst our pets. These are animals that people like to kiss even after they've been running around all day sniffing each others' behinds and literally eating crap.

Last term, however, I learned of something that led me to question this assumption about dogs. Some dogs that belong to friends of mine were "arrested," because they were seen in the vicinity of a dead cat and thereby blamed for the cat's death. The dogs were held for several days, and the dogs' owners threatened that their pets would be put to sleep if they were ever again implicated in any misdoings. This case can only lead me to believe that the value of the life of two dogs is equal to or less than the that of two cats. Like dogs, though, cats are hunters. They kill mice, songbirds and all manner of insects, rodents and most anything else smaller than they are. Despite being cited as a major contributing factor to the decline of native songbird species, cats are not much maligned for their bloodlust, which can only lead me to conclude that the value of a cat's life is greater than that of a bird or rodent. We feed songbirds seed, though, and like to watch them and hear them sing, while rodents and insects nearly universally receive a shriek when they intrude upon our daily lives. Thus I can only conclude that birds are more valuable than rodents and insects, which fall even lower than plants, as plants receive little or no love but minimal hatred.

Now we're beginning to see how things stack up in the world. Pets are first followed by cute animals (especially otters and baby seals), followed by birds, old trees, plants and finally insects, rodents and other creepy crawlies. Obviously, people must be on top of the list as we are the ones who make the list and we are the ones building Berry library on top of what is left of the elm tree. Are we really on top, though? There are exceptions to plants' place on the list. The way I figure it, if people are willing to kill one another to get drug-producing plants, then these plants must be more valuable than people. Right?

So, given the somewhat questionable reasoning used, here is the final top-10 list of how living things stack up from our point of view: 1. Cannabis/Coca, 2. people, 3. dogs = cats, 4. other pets, 5. cute safari park animals, 6. birds, 7. mature trees, 8. the kingdom Plantae, 9. mice, rats, mosquitoes, spiders, snakes and sharks, 10. the ebola virus. Given that we live in an age of increasing drug use, exponential human population growth and rapidly declining native flora and fauna, this list looks to be pretty close to the mark. If that is so, it is an unfortunate comment on the values of our society.