Boyle's latest novel, When the Killing's Done, explores the ethical dilemmas involved in trying to save one species by killing animals of another.
Despite his sentence-by-sentence relish for the physical world, we don't usually think of T.C. Boyle as a “nature writer.” Is it his heavy irony that disqualifies him? One of the heroes of his novel The Tortilla Curtain, soon after his two terriers are eaten by coyotes, is obliged to write a nature column. He rhapsodizes about “the coyote chorus. The song of the survivor, the Trickster, the four-legged wonder who can find water where there is none and eat hearty among the rocks and the waste places…” We're left uncertain whether the columnist is just giving his audience what they want, or if at some deep level he sympathizes with the predator that's devoured his dogs Osbert and Sacheverell.
Boyle is scornful of the kind of writing that keeps Nature at a safe distance. In his introduction to Doubletakes, a story anthology he edited, Boyle notes his taste (one that I share) for endings “in which the tragic mode is forced down the gullet of the comic.” He can be relied on to empathize with the coyote, the hyena, and the rat.
In “Thirteen Hundred Rats,” a story from Boyle's 2010 collection Wild Child, a widower is urged by his community to acquire a pet. Being allergic to dogs and cats, the man opts for a python, which he names Siddhartha. But when the time comes to feed it a live rat, the man identifies with the rodent over the snake. He saves the rat's life, feeds it, sleeps with it nestled in a fold of the blankets besides him, bonds and plays with it and names it Robbie. He buys it more rats for company. His last recorded words are, “It's nature. The force of nature. I'm overwhelmed.”
After he dies, rats overrun his house. “Thirteen Hundred Rats” works as an allegory about grief, but also makes us attend to contradictions in how we think about rats -- Robbie in the story starts out as pet food, then becomes a pet, then a pest.
There are lots of rats in When The Killing’s Done. This novel is inspired by two recent projects to eradicate invasive species from California’s Channel Islands, island ecosystems not far distant from the university where Boyle professes literature. In 2001 and 2002, the National Park Service poisoned the rats on Anacapa, an island off the coast of Ventura, in the interests of ensuring “a diverse, naturally functioning island ecosystem.”
Rattus rattus is the major worldwide cause of island species extinctions, and on Anacapa was a threat to several indigenous species. In Boyle's novel, Alma Takesue is a self-righteous park biologist supervising the poisoning, an operation which Dave LaJoy, a testy animal rights activist, is attempting to sabotage. LaJoy’s initial actions are inspired by the actual case of a man accused of scattering an antidote to rat poison on Anacapa.
The fictional Takesue and LaJoy subsequently face off over the extermination of feral pigs on the island of Santa Cruz – also based on an actual species eradication program designed to restore former ranchland to a pristine ecosystemic state. “These animals have to be eliminated and if you stop to see them as individuals you're done,” Takesue reflects of the pigs, while LaJoy believes in “the simplest clearest primary moral principle: thou shalt not kill.” At one point he asks Takesue, “And who exactly was it appointed you God, lady?”
From these themes, Boyle crafts a symphony of ironies. Both Takesue and LaJoy are somewhat delusional, each occasionally fantasizing about being the first human on Anacapa. Like other characters in Boyle's work, they will learn that nature is unpredictable and not under their control. Some of Boyle's environmentalists will get killed by the nature they’re trying to protect. The larger irony is that Homo sapiens is of course the most invasive opportunistic species of all.
Takesue reflects ruefully that she is “a killer in the service of something higher, of restoration, redemption, salvation, but a killer all the same.” When the Killing's Done often made me think of Alistair Graham's classic work The Gardeners of Eden, a book that explores the paradoxical relationship between conservation and aggressive killing, chronicles the inconsistency of park managers over time as to which species warrant protection and which extermination, and goes so far as to argue that the ostensible love of animals may cloak repressed hatred! LaJoy might argue that Takesue's lofty environmental rhetoric boils down eventually to Kurtz's “Exterminate all the brutes!”
It cost $5 million to slaughter the pigs on Santa Cruz. Michael Pollan defended this eradication program against the advocates of pig's rights in The Omnivore's Dilemma --
“But just as we recognize that nature doesn't provide a very good guide for human social conduct, isn't it anthropocentric of us to assume that our moral system offers an adequate guide for what should happen in nature? Is the individual the crucial moral entity in nature as we've decided it should be in human society? We simply may require a different set of ethics to guide our dealings with the natural world, one as well suited to the particular needs of plants and animals and habitats (where sentience counts for little) as rights seem to suit us and serve our purposes today.”
With that disturbing parenthesis, Pollan is trying to bracket away the whole issue of animal suffering. What sense does it make to claim that a habitat has needs? What is simple about postulating the need for a “different set of ethics to guide our dealings with the natural world?” Is Pollan suggesting we drop the idea animals have rights whenever we find this idea inconvenient?
The scientific case for protecting biodiversity – as presented for instance by E.O. Wilson -- is an overwhelming one. There are also compelling aesthetic arguments, although some critics have protested that the pigs of Santa Cruz were largely killed for being a reminder that, before becoming a park, much of Santa Cruz was farmland rather than pre-Columbian wilderness. And Jo-Anne Shelton, criticizing the pig eradication project, points out the inherent contradiction in supposing that:
“Nature is, on the one hand, something separate, autonomous and undisturbed by humans, but also that Nature is, on the other hand, something able to be (re)constructed and managed by humans.”
But ethically, the problem is whether we can accept in this case that “sentience counts for little,” and that's where we have to take sides between Takesue and LaJoy.
Some of Boyle's most powerful stories are suburban comedies strengthened by a foreshadowing of ecocatastrophe. In “Sinking House,” a widow leaves her taps and sprinklers on until her neighbors have her taken away -- the flooding she causes is a commentary on her unsatisfactory marriage and life, grief portrayed as apocalypse. “The Extinction Tales,” begins with the case history of the Stephens Island Wren – an island species rendered extinct by feral cats, a bird that also gets a name check in When The Killing’s Done -- and ends with the narrator contemplating his father's grave. Extinction is just death writ large, Boyle seems to say here, as inevitable for all species in the long-term as death is for individuals in the relatively short-term. Adopt a large enough timescale, and the distinction between indigenous and invasive species collapses.
The conflict between Takesue and LaJoy is a natural conflict too. In the novel, LaJoy goes to the extreme of introducing new invasive species to the sanctuary of Santa Cruz, starting with raccoons -- since he needs to get some out of his garden and cannot think of a more humane place to give them sanctuary. Takesue sights a raccoon but, having now become a mother, cannot bring herself to kill it. If Takesue has tired of playing God, LaJoy's last blow is struck for the other side – his final achievement is to introduce rattlesnakes to Santa Cruz, a reminder that there will always be serpents in Eden.