A Mole by Any Other Name
In the summer of 1988 there was a terrible drought in Peoria. That fall, I received an interesting phone call at the Nature Center. A nurse wanted to know if I could explain why there had been a 500 percent increase in wasp stings showing up in the Emergency Room.
In fact I had noticed something I’d never seen before… there were a lot of dead moles. Tree leaves had wilted allowing sunlight to penetrate to the ground. Wild ginger had formed pathetic green mats on the forest floor. Soil was like concrete. The soil was so hard the moles couldn’t hunt, and many had starved.
Moles tunnel and prey on worms and insect larvae, including yellow jacket wasps. They dig into underground wasp nests and eat the developing young. Fewer moles equals more yellow jackets, and with the impacts of the drought, that meant there were more of these armed insects, hungry and ranging far and wide searching for food. Hence far more wasp/ human encounters.
If we think of moles as biological pest control, or lawn aerators, or kin to bats, rather than as pests … we can benefit with greener lawns to fewer stings. If you don’t like the mole hills and hunting tunnels, put mole hill soil on your compost pile or under a shrub and step the little ridges down. Most homeowners erroneously label moles as destroyers of garden plants and lawns, and even misidentify these little carnivores as rodents.That’s why mole traps are so popular. The words that are associated with moles mislead. In reality, they usually have only two offspring in a year and are territorial.
Words have IMPACT. For example: Tuna is not “food,” it’s wildlife. Coal isn’t just “fossil fuel,” it’s a reservoir of carbon removed from the atmosphere. Trees are not “timber,” they are the foundation of forest communities. Our finest natural areas are often called “undeveloped.” With many thousands of species in a complex web of life, in reality, they are highly developed. Forests are not merely “resources.” A better word is “communities.” We kill trees and say we “harvest” them. This implies they are there for us to take with impunity. Trees comprise less than three percent of the vascular plants in a forest, but a huge complex of species, which are unknown to most of us, depend on them. Our language, and hence our behaviors, suffer from a case of “consumption.”
Words are CRUCIAL. There are pools of crude oil found deep within the Earth’s crust. As with coal, by identifying it as fuel, we fully expect to tap it, burn it, and simply release the carbon to the atmosphere. Since the byproducts of burning don’t just go away, a better term is, “sequestered carbon.” This carbon had been removed from the atmosphere countless millions of years ago and tucked away. By releasing it, the resulting greenhouse effect threatens to disrupt all life. It’s one of the most dangerous and foolhardy practices mankind has ever done … and yet our political powers that be are preventing us from saving our own future. “Drill Baby Drill.” Trouble is, the world is so big, it’s hard to appreciate how small it truly is.
Words CONFUSE. I don’t think we would knowingly put endocrine disruptors, estrogen mimicking compounds, or other cancer culprits, in our landscapes to control dandelions. These compounds could trigger childhood leukemia, disrupt a child’s development, or could have other impacts on human physiology… all to reduce a little clover. But that’s not how we see these chemicals. Since they are marketed as “broad leaf weed killer,” it’s easy to apply them to merely get rid of clover and dandelions. It’s what else they do that is of concern. As Henry Thoreau said … “what are we to think of the doctor whose cures are worse than the ills he treats?”
Some refer to Darwin’s “theory of evolution,” as if it’s a mere hunch about the origin of species. The word, theory, is the problem. The colloquial definition implies a mere guess. But a theory in science is a very different matter. It’s the product of hypotheses that hold up under extensive examination and scrutiny. There are many examples of scientific theories that we simply don’t question. The Heliocentric theory states that the sun is the center of our solar system. Cell theory states that living things are made up of cells. Atomic theory asserts that matter is composed of atoms. Germ theory identifies germs as a cause of disease. The theory of gravitation explains how gravity works. None of these (including evolutionary theory) are considered merely a hunch or guess.
Words can be SCARY. Up to a quarter of the population has a significant fear of snakes. Think of a snake not as a scary reptile, but as a passel of rodents (which it consumes). If a snake is killed, those rodents survive and are busy producing more rodents. Because they mature so quickly, a single pair of mice can theoretically give rise to several thousand offspring within a single year. Therefore the loss of a predator, such as a rat snake, can be a serious matter.
Words could go a long way toward modifying our behavior. He didn’t say, “I have a concept,” or “I have a notion, or “I have an idea.” In his “March on Washington” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King said… “I have a dream…” His famous speech inspired a nation. Words paint pictures, they motivate, they provoke, they console. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Learning to use proper terminology is to understand the vital connections between ourselves, animals, plants, and our living planet. This is ultimately in our own best interest. “Man did not weave this web of life. He is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” … Chief Seattle