Amongst the foolish endeavors I attempted this summer, trying to grow a vegetable garden ranks high on the list. Other than providing a tasty buffet for the local deer, and giving me an opportunity to free a rabbit that through some silliness got itself stuck on the plastic netting I protected our beans plants with, it was a largely futile, time consuming effort.
But we did have a few plants survive the onslaught of the “giant rats-on-stilts”, (my term of endearment for the stupid deer), most notably some tomatoes here and there. Thus my frustration with the tomato hornworms.
“Manduca quinquemaculata”. or tomato hornworm, is the caterpillar form of something called the hawk moth. Don’t ask me about the hawk moth, because I don’t know what one is, but I do know all about tomato hornworms. They are big, green, disgusting worm-like caterpillars that ravage your tomato plants. Actually, they may also be a closely related cousin, Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, which also munches tomato plants, and has an almost identical appearance. Either way, they’re a repulsive nuisance.
Imagine my dismay when, on one of the few tomato plants that had not had all its leaves eaten off, I found a disgusting hornworm. My first thought was to crush it, but, being a bleedy-heart wimpy type, I simply picked it up and put in on one of our tomato plants closer to the woods, that was little more than a stem and a few branches. “Let it slowly starve,” I thought to myself, unwilling to acknowledge I was unable to kill it.
Then, a week later, I found ANOTHER hornworm on our best tomato plant. Now I was angry! I got a pair of scissors, and cut a huge gash in its side, just below its head. I tossed the dying caterpillar to the ground, and watched it curl in agony as its innards gushed out through the wound.
I know it isn’t human, and I know it doesn’t even have a self-awareness, but I imagined how that worm suffered as it died. And I felt bad about it.
This desire not to hurt other living things, unless they are hurting me or another human being, may or may not be a good thing. But I do know there is one aspect to it that is suspect, namely, to attribute to non-human critters the thoughts and feelings that, most likely, only we humans have.
To consider that all of life thinks and feels as we do is a normal, natural trait, I suppose. Consider all the animal creatures who, in myths and fables, perform as stand-ins for people. While it’s extremely unlikely that any other animal, even other primate species, has the advanced capability of thought and self-awareness that humans have, it is somehow more comforting to consider that they do. We derive comfort from others sharing our systems of beliefs and ethics.
But this anthropomorphism can go to absurd lengths. For example, can human thoughts and feelings really be applied to a tomato hornworm?
Meanwhile, back in the garden, one poor tomato plant was struggling to survive. It was leaning way over, almost on the ground, and had one tomato on it. I put a rock under the vine near where the tomato was, and waited expectantly for it to ripen. The plant reminded me of the Christmas tree picked by Charlie Brown in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. I was impressed by its will to live, and took a liking to it.
So picture my ALL CONSUMING RAGE then, when one afternoon I went to check on it, and found a hideous tomato hornworm chewing away on its solitary tomato. The worm had consumed about half of it already, and was eagerly eating the rest. It’s little green body was bloated from its feast. (Remember that – it’s important.) I stormed into the house, got a pair of scissors, and charged back out to the garden. This evil hornworm must die!
Grimacing, I positioned the scissors around the caterpillar, then vigorously cut into its body.
I fully expected that its innards would slowly ooze out, as happened with the other hornworm I sliced. This did not happen. Remember that this caterpillar had been actively eating the tomato, stuffing itself with the fluid of the ripe fruit. When the blades pierced its body, it exploded, like a popped balloon!
Red caterpillar innards flew onto my face, almost getting into my left eye, (the one that had almost been damaged by shingles), and sickeningly landing in the corner of my mouth. (Safety tip – don’t grimace while cutting caterpillars!) A huge blob of red guts landed on my shirt.
I raced into the house, and washed out my mouth with soap and water. Yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck, and more yuck!!
Human emotions, and empathy for all living critters, is almost always a positive thing. But when cutting caterpillars, keep your emotions in check and approach your task with an aim for efficiency and safety, and you will not need to experience the creepiness of tasting raw caterpillar soup.