Sunday Sermon: You Can’t Own All The Problems

You can’t own all the problems; sometimes the best you can do is give a small nudge and let nature take its course.

Lately, however, “let nature take its course” has a cruel and dishonest ring to it. I can hear it in the nasal tones of Jordan Peterson or the mellifluous self-deception of Lou Dobbs. It’s a reminder that the world is unfair and nasty; that that is why we should not simply throw up our hands and let the rich and powerful do what they will, why we suffer what we must. Here’s one good reason, off of the top of my head: if we let the rich and powerful do that they will, they’ll usually end up attacking and obliterating someone helpless. After all, if they wanted a fair fight they wouldn’t be trying to get increasingly powerful, they’d compete fairly. What a silly idea – fair competition is for losers.

I went to haul a trunk-load of stuff from the shop (welder, mask, gloves, steel stock, rebar, chopsaw, etc) in the back of the Tahoe and, as I was passing by the puddle in the woods, I slowed down, thinking “I wonder if there is any more ill-advised frogspawn?”

tailgating: it’s how I roll

There was so much that I had to bring a 5-gal bucket with a lid, and more or less drained the puddle, which had receded considerably and consisted mostly of frog eggs. The hero of the story had arrived just in the nick of something. I’m a bit unsteady on my feet right now because my left big toe is having a gout attack, and it’s throwing my balance off and causing serious pain. Naturally, I shambled and stumbled and wound up standing in the middle of the puddle, from whence I was perfectly positioned to collect all the spawn.

Something had been nagging my subconscious about the last round of frog spawn: I had made no attempt at all to see how it was doing.

Normally, I would not mention a little detail like the gouty toe; I wouldn’t want to be a complainer. I know people who constantly suffer much worse pain and refuse to let it slow them down. On the other hand, my pond back there is rough terrain and walking was painful; I was sitting in a great big V-8 powered American 4×4 and, instead of walking, I could just hit the “4W HI” button and drive down there, dump the spawn, and head back. Normally, I’d feel lame driving the 200 yards from my house but on the day I was actually lame. By resisting my natural stubbornness, I was striking a blow against toxic masculinity, or something.

I parked and scrambled, teetered and tottered and made my way to the lip of the pond then peered down into the water looking for the first spawn mass. And, there it was – about 90% consumed by salamanders; a small army of salamanders was crawling all over the remains.

“Out of the frying pan, into the fire” is the old expression – except that in this case those tadpoles had no agency at all, they were just along for the ride. But what could I do? The salamanders were there, first. One could get all heavy and metaphorical, and I did. I sat there for a bit thinking about America’s non-crisis of migrants – people who are so unhappy with their current situation that they’re willing to undertake a dangerous trek up to the North, to a land where the anarcho-capitalists have already created a berth for them as part of the permanent underclass. After years of backbreaking labor milking soy beans for the Whole Foods customers, your kids may someday grow up to pack boxes at an warehouse. I had forgotten that my little pond is Hobbes’ playground, a battle of all against all where superior force wins. Wishing for the heron (who sometimes shows up to eat “my” frogs) to come take the salamanders down a peg simply would not be fair either.

Naturally, it makes no sense at all to judge a bunch of salamanders by my standards – they’re not Spartans, Nazis, or Israelis, they’re just salamanders and some idiot had dropped a load of yummy eggs right in their laps. The gods have taken sides and this week it’s the salamanders’ week. As Abbe Meslier wrote [stderr]

Through an effect of Thy Providence which watches over Thy creatures, these, our destroyers, murder each other, and thus furnish us with sumptuous repasts. O Allah! HOW GREAT IS THY GOODNESS TO THE CHILDREN OF WOLVES!”

banksy, of course

At some point, I must have gone through realizations similar to Meslier’s, rejecting morality as saying little more than describing our starting-perspective. The salamanders are not going to establish a United Nations of Marcus’ Pond safety zone for the tadpoles; they are not equipped to read Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape and, uhm, discard it as a bunch of retreaded virtue ethics and circular argument. Since nature did not equip them thus, they are beyond such reproach. But, careful, that same argument exonerates republican lawmakers just a well – it goes like this: having been raised in an environment of religious and political propaganda designed to stunt their growth as moral beings, we cannot expect them to display a fully-matured moral sense. Therefore we cannot blame them any more than we can blame the salamanders that eat the next generation of their competitors. I can’t make a good moral argument for any of this stuff; I no longer try. All I can say is that I tried to save some frogs. It made me wonder if someone should be warning the migrants, “beware, you are heading into Hobbes’ playground, where man exploits man” and naturally, they’d drop the punchline of the old joke, “back where we came from it was the other way around.” America ought to come with a warning label. It’s a country where the most vicious and corrupt rise to the top and they won’t hesitate to have their private security gun you down if you ask for a seat at the table.

“Out of the frying pan, into the fire” – it’s easy to forget that, for the saying to make sense, you first must recognize that you’re in the frying pan.

I feel like I ought to be able to sort out how I feel about the frog eggs, but I can’t. I guess “let nature take its course” is where I’m coming down, but didn’t Benjamin Netanyahu just say more or less the same thing about the west bank? Poor Nietzsche tried to sort these things out as his brain was collapsing all around him, and he was a better thinker than I’ll ever be. It’s something I will never figure out; I may not even figure it out enough to have an opinion about it.

We cannot judge them by our morals, because we have none

Because of the water-flow in the pond, the new egg clusters fetched right up next to the old one (pictured above, with salamander eating the lone remaining few tadpoles in the eggs). The gods are cruel. Oh, wait, that’s me.

With a feeling of less certainty I returned to the car. My foot hurt and it was getting late and I still had a lot of welding to do. But that was not going to happen, either: I had forgotten I put more road-worthy tires on the Tahoe and it’s no longer carrying great big cleated mud-stompers. While I was standing around judging the morals of salamanders, my truck had found a nice soft resting-place and snuggled right in. Monday, I will have to go ask my neighbor to pull it out with his tractor.

And that got my mind whirling again. What would it be like to have to worry that my neighbor would call ICE instead? Some of my neighbors probably don’t like that I’m an atheist. If it were Hobbes’ playground up here, what could I expect if I asked a neighbor for help? The veneer of civilization is not thin, it’s nonexistent.


  1. says

    I feel like I ought to be able to sort out how I feel about the frog eggs, but I can’t. I guess “let nature take its course” is where I’m coming down, but didn’t Benjamin Netanyahu just say more or less the same thing about the west bank?

    I’m perfectly happy to say “let nature take its course” when it comes to wild animals. A human observer might feel sad while watching some predator kill and eat another animal, but this is all part of a finely tuned food chain. If humans intervened and removed the predators, the whole ecosystem would collapse or at least suffer significant problems.

    However, the whole argument about nature taking its course is utter bullshit when it comes to human societies. There’s nothing “natural” about a society made by humans. We decide under what kind of rules we choose to live. There is no “natural order.”
    One potential set of rules isn’t any more natural than some other alternative. Capitalism isn’t any more natural than, for example, socialism. Nor is there any natural law that says that some people ought to be allowed to accumulate more wealth than others. Nor is there a law mandating that stronger people should be allowed to abuse those who are weaker. After all, a bunch of weaker/poorer people can theoretically join forces and defeat some strong bully. If a society chooses to either facilitate or prevent certain kind of behaviors, that’s not an inevitable natural law, that’s an intentional choice.

    Some of my neighbors probably don’t like that I’m an atheist.

    Where I live, neighbors dislike each other for things like making loud noise at night or parking their car in the wrong place where it disturbs others. Nobody even asks their neighbors about religion. I actually have no clue what any of my neighbors believe.

  2. Jazzlet says

    Don’t forget that the reason the frogs produce so many spawn in the first place is to allow for all the ones that will be eaten before sexual maturity. The frogs only need two to survive from all the batches of eggs they produce in their lifetime. There is more chance of this in the pond than in the dried out puddle.

    I hope your gout is easing off, pain is horrid whatever the cause or length of time you suffer it, and I understand that gout pain is among the worst.

  3. says

    gout pain is among the worst.

    It’s about 1/10 as bad as my kidney stone was. At least I am still coherent.

    Now, we need a rosetta-stone: someone who has both experienced child-birth and a kldney-stone and we can start to scale these things semi-accurately.

  4. ridana says

    I think after seeing the first batch decimated, I’d have just kept the second groups in the bucket and let them hatch (and looked up online to see what sort of care they might need). If they can swim away, they at least have a fighting chance.

    On the other hand, maybe the frogs that laid the eggs knew what they were doing. Mom might’ve even been hanging about to care for them. If the puddle remains for a week after spawning, or even 4-5 days, that’s probably all they need. The eggs won’t dry out as quickly as the open water, especially when laid as a mass like those, as they’re protected by a jelly coating.

    If you find more after you get your truck out, leave them and see how they fare. You can rescue them if it looks like they’re in trouble.

    Between you and PZ’s spider ranching…babbeys ain’t safe nowheres!

  5. says

    I have a largeish pond elsewhere on the property but someone stocked it with fish so they could try to catch them (thanks!) and they completely eradicated the frog population down there. I nearly moved the spawn to the bigger pond but it would have just been a bigger frying pan.

  6. Jazzlet says

    Warning, the following paragraph contains reference to extreme injury, no blood.

    Pain seems to be impossible to measure so far, even within the same person people come up with different answers for the same conditions when they’ve experienced more than one. So much of our response to pain depends on our previous experiences which makes comparison between people hard. And that’s before you get to the odd things nerves can do to complicate matters. When explaining that nerves could learn to transmit pain constantly with the right stimulus my Pain Consultant talked of a patient of hers who still felt the moment liquid steel poured over his foot (!!!!!!!!!) despite the foot being long gone. Your nerves can do the same with a chronic pain which is why it’s so hard to treat, there may still be pain generated, but it may also be that the nerves spent so much time transmitting ‘!pain!’ that they are stuck in that position, or it may be a mix of both.

    Incidentially you do treat your gout don’t you? *nag nag nag* because if you don’t those attacks are causing more damage to your joints every time they happen *nag nag nag*

  7. voyager says

    Sorry to hear about the gout. I’ve never had it, but I’ve seen plenty of other people suffer with it.

    The phenomenon that Jazzlet mentions is called ‘phantom pain’ and it’s as real as the original pain and often requires exactly the same treatment. One of the goals of amputation is the elimination of pain and it must be a torture for patients to find no improvement post-op. As I recall, there is a correlation between the duration of pain prior to amputation and the likelihood hood of developing the condition afterwards.
    There’s also a phenomenon known as ‘referred pain’ which is having pain somewhere that there isn’t a problem. Left arm pain during a heart attack is a referred pain. Same with gall bladder attacks which usually cause pain in the shoulder or neck.

    Also, Jazzlet is right about treating the condition. Around here they mostly use allopurinol, but there are other drugs, too. A damaged toe can be hard to repair and left untreated gout can develop into crystals called tophi which collect in the joint. Nasty stuff. Don’t do a you tube search.
    I know you know this stuff, but I’m feeling like a nurse so I’ll caution you to avoid meat (especially red meat), seafood, spinach and peas. Have you had bloodwork done in the past 6 months?

    I can’t help with your moral dilemma. My go to ethics code is pretty simple. Examine your motives and do what will allow you to look yourself in the mirror.

    Open yourself to the Tao,
    Then trust your natural responses;
    And everything will fall into place.
    Tao, 23

  8. Owlmirror says

    I wonder if it’s possible to do something with a bucket, and some mesh that’s tight enough to keep out salamanders and such, but loose enough to let in insects (so that the tadpoles can feast on insect eggs — there’s another circle-of-life thing).

    If you felt up to it, but you might not be feeling up to it.

    If you really felt like a project, you could put some eggs in an aquarium with a camera pointed at it, and either livestream tadpole development (which I suspect could be pricey — didn’t you say you had bandwidth issues with your ISP?), or just take a few minutes of video each day, and make something to eventually upload to youtube.

  9. says

    Jazzlet @#6

    So much of our response to pain depends on our previous experiences which makes comparison between people hard.

    Personally, I cannot even compare the severity of pain I have felt in separate instances. If my tooth and my toe would hurt simultaneously, I could tell which one hurts more. If my tooth would hurt right now but my toe had been hurting two weeks ago, it would be impossible to make a comparison, because my memory is extremely unreliable when it comes to recording pain. A fresh memory of being hurt is simply much more vivid than a memory from several years ago. All my old memories of pain can only be described as “it probably didn’t really hurt that much, because I have partially forgotten it.”

    My memory does a good job at recording facts. I’m capable of remembering, for example, “Yesterday I went to a dentist, at the time it seemed painful.” But the actual memory of feeling pain is gone. My brain simply doesn’t record feelings very well, if at all. All my memories of being in pain consist of words and facts, I don’t remember the sensation itself, I don’t remember how it felt, instead I can only remember what I was thinking while being in pain and what words I used to characterize that sensation.

  10. woodsong says

    If you see more spawn in the puddle (or another puddle), I’d recommend leaving it in place. There are a number of amphibians that lay their eggs in vernal pools to avoid aquatic predators. The parents of the eggs you found are probably of a species that does this.

    That said, it would be helpful to the puddle-dwelling spawn for you to monitor the water level in their pool, and add a small amount if it looks to be drying up too fast. This shouldn’t be necessary in normal weather conditions, but may be beneficial during a drought.

    Just my two cents. I’m not an expert, just someone who has always found wildlife (especially frogs!) fascinating.

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