About a month ago, I came across a tomato hornworm on my cherry tomato plant. If you haven’t seen a tomato hornworm (and I don't intend for this to be a long, boring diatribe about a worm, but you need to read the story to get my point), it’s a really large, green worm that is about as big and thick as my thumb.
As is often the case with Mother Nature, these worms are cleverly made to blend in with their target plants and are therefore extremely hard to spot. For the previous 36 hours, I’d scratched my head and stared at the plant, wondering what could possibly have decimated it so quickly. A third of the leaves were gone, half of the fruit was gone, and the stems were eaten down to nubs. I looked and looked but couldn’t find any anything out of the ordinary.
I’d learned a few months back that sometimes cutting off all the injured or diseased parts was step one to a plant’s healing, much like how we humans start to heal when we treat our underlying disease or remove things that are broken (like my poor gallbladder, may it RIP). And it was when I went around to prune off the jagged stems and half-eaten fruit that I suddenly spotted him gnawing contentedly on one of my green tomatoes.
I dropped my pruner and ran inside the house. Yelling up the stairs to my husband, who was working in his office, I requested that he come down immediately to provide moral support while I attempted to remove a huge worm from my plant. He was unsure of why I needed such support, but as good husbands do, he came outside.
“I don’t see anything,” he said.
“Right there. Look. There.” I pointed.
“Right here, see? He’s on the stem,” still pointing.
“I don’t see it…”
And then, “Ohhhhh. Wow, they sure do blend in.”
As someone who likes to be thoroughly prepared so as to assure my own success, I’d already researched every possible tomato plant (and pest) issue – including the tomato hornworm. And the internets had told me I should remove said worm and throw him into a bucket of soapy water to snuff him out – much like stink bugs and caterpillars and the like.
So I went and got a clear plastic cup, added some water and dish soap, put on my glove like a surgeon, and went back outside to attempt to pull him off while proclaiming, “Yuck yuck yuck!” audibly enough for the neighbors to overhear.
Except he wouldn’t come off.
I tried, he clung tight. I tried harder, he didn’t budge. Eventually I realized I wasn’t going to squish him if I gripped and pulled him off like Velcro, so I finally won the battle and quickly heaved him into the cup.
“Phew,” I said to my husband, relief washing over me that I’d done this necessary gardening thing and therefore was probably legit initiated into it now.
But then I looked over and saw this poor worm struggling, drowning, suffocating in a soapy swimming pool with insurmountable walls. And I felt my heart start to crumble.
“Gawd. I just can’t do that to him, Jason,” I said, and quickly dumped him out onto the grass. “It makes me really sad.”
“Yeah,” he said, understanding what I meant.
I thought for a moment about what I ought to do next, with said worm now squiggling around on the grass helplessly near my back gate. So I scooped him up in the empty cup - which had small soap bubbles still clinging to the rim - and then I marched out of my backyard, around my house, and down the street to a little clump of native brush that somehow hadn’t been destroyed by the construction of our neighborhood about 12 years ago (Texas has a nasty habit of bulldozing everything to the ground). I then heaved him into said brush even though I’d come to realize he’d likely die anyway from the soap residue, and I sent a silent well wish and an apology to his little soul.
Maybe my behavior sounds a bit nonsensical because, after all, it's just a worm. But I tell you this story because the worm changed how I see the life around me. It made me realize that we often fear the things we do not understand - and this fear response is an important behavior for us humans (myself included) to learn to manage properly.
I feared him because he looked different than any bug I’d ever encountered. He was large, he was green, he had a little horn on his back, and there were multiple sets of feet clinging tightly to a branch that was half the diameter of his massive body.
I also feared him because I did not truly see him. What I mean is, I didn’t see him as part of the same life that exists in me, nor did I see him as an important part of the well-oiled mechanics of our planet. He was just hanging around, doing what he’s supposed to do - which is, yes, eat my tomatoes - but I didn’t acknowledge that he has as much right to the plant as I have. We all share this planet and its resources, and I really had enough tomato plants left over that I could have given that one to him and been just fine.
I think we do this fear response thing a lot, fellow humans. I think this is why we have so much prejudice, and intolerance, and lack of understanding, and weird behavior. It’s because we don’t understand the “other” and therefore we are afraid of that thing or person or animal or way of life.
And what do we do when we’re afraid? We self-protect. We mount our defenses. We turn our heads in disgust, we kill, or sometimes we just run away. In other words, we lose ourselves in some weird egoic protective instinct instead of clearing our heads and seeing the world for what it really is: a place where we are all kind of the same.
Back in grade school, I was fascinated to learn that everything is made up of atoms which are then comprised of sub-atomic particles. A recent Google search says the smallest currently known particle is a quark (these are sub-atomic particles that combine to create protons and neutrons), and that we don’t yet have the ability to break these particles down further.
So we are ALL comprised of this stuff at our core – and it’s true as much for you as it is for a rock, a bird, a tree, or a worm.
I feel like once we get in touch with what this really means, we can start to rethink some of our behaviors. This is why I felt sad for hurting the worm and had to abort the mission: killing him was killing a part of myself, a part of my essence, because we are formed from the same stuff. And not everyone is going to be able to follow me when I say that (it's okay if you don't). But I try very hard not to kill anything and this little guy was new to my world. So I got afraid and lost my center until I looked, understood what he was, and immediately changed course.
Have you lost your center with people who aren’t like you? Or maybe with that little rat who lives outside your house, doing nothing but trying to live life just like you are, but you simply don’t want to share the space with him because you’re afraid he’ll <fill in the blank>?
What this time in our history has taught me is that so many people live their lives in a fear state. It’s MINE. They’ll TAKE what’s MINE. There’s not ENOUGH to go around. I’ve got to have my SHARE. They’re coming to take my LIFE, my PROPERTY, my LIBERTY.
Me, me, me. But what about others?
What about this planet of ours that is smoldering? What about the humans who are starving? What about the ecosystems that are collapsing?
What about the trees that are eaten by big machines to make way for MORE buildings? And what about the animals that are killed with poison, with shovels, with guns simply because they want to exist just like you do but landed in your space by chance?
It’s not all about us, fellow humans.
So I can tell you exactly how I'll react the next time I see a tomato hornworm: I’ll look at him with kindness and I’ll tell him hello. And then I’ll tell him I appreciate that he’s visited and has found some food, but that this is my food, and I hope he has had a good helping and can find more food elsewhere.
And then I’ll glove myself again like a surgeon to pry him off the stem, but this time I’ll place him gently into an EMPTY cup. I’ll walk down the street to that patch of brush, drop him there carefully to give him his best shot at survival, and wish him well as he goes on his way.
This is how life should be, guys. This is how we should be to each other – to other people, to animals, to birds, to bugs, to plants, to the planet. Let’s not forget that we all need each other in order to exist. Too many people don’t seem to understand this anymore, and if we don’t get it together…well, I don’t want to think about that. We’re already seeing it on the west coast, and with storms, and with temperatures rising, and with…so many things.
Let’s all just try to do better.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife (Warren Publishing), was released on August 18, 2020. To read an excerpt, check out reviews, see the author Q&A, or find links to buy, click the Learn More button.
The Big Pause