Monday, May 18, 2009

The Dust Bunny National Wildlife Refuge

I am not a messy housekeeper. Instead, I am promoting biodiversity. Hey, where will all those molds and mildews go when disinfectants have scoured everywhere else? Why not spare the dust mites the vacuum, at least for awhile? We are helpless to exclude nature completely from our lives anyway, so acceptance may be in our best mental and philosophical interest.

Obsessive-compulsive personalities need no help in exaggerating the threat of “germs” and other health hazards, real or imagined, but the rest of us need substantial coaxing. The commercial media are only too happy to oblige, bombarding us with advertisements for all manner of caustic chemicals, air filters, and disposable cleaning gadgets. Since by themselves microbes are relatively innocuous, they must be digitally morphed into something more menacing, anthropomorphosized into growling, English-speaking monsters that make overt threats to life and limb. It would be comical were it not so crass.

Perhaps I am blessed with a good immune system, but I have decided that the threat from bacteria in the bath and kitchen is grossly overrated. As an entomologist, I have known for a long time that cockroaches are, at least at normal population levels, little more than a cosmetic nuisance, a reminder that you are leaving too many crumbs about, and not doing the dishes frequently enough. I approach fast food restaurants with far more trepidation than I do my own crusty basin and range. At my present apartment in Tucson, Arizona, a Mediterranean house gecko once happily devoured the German cockroaches. How cool is that, having a food chain on the premises that does not involve you and the refrigerator?

Mind you, I am not one to live in total filth. When the opportunity to entertain others presents itself, I do make an effort to cull the herds of dust bunnies that normally roam freely. As stewards of real estate indoors and out, we do have an obligation to “wildlife management.”

It is not a stretch to consider a dust bunny a living creature. They seem to reproduce quickly, lending a serious argument to the theory of “spontaneous generation.” They even come with their own parasites, as it were: dust mites. There are at least two types. One feeds primarily on the tiny flakes of dead skin cells that we humans (and our pets, also) shed constantly. The other dust mite preys on the former dust mite.

My bathroom tends to breed its own flora and fauna. Molds and mildews are rather problematic, even in an ostensibly dry climate like Tucson’s. Still more astounding, I have found that tiny creatures called springtails regularly appear in my shower. These are certifiably moisture-loving organisms. I would not have thought that even daily showers would create such a hospitable habitat for something so dependent on water. Oddly, I rarely see moth flies, those ubiquitous little flying furballs usually seen perched on the side of the bathroom sink, or a wall. Their larvae develop in the residue of the drain trap, and probably do a better job of preventing clogs than any dose of Draino. Now and then I see root gnats, little black flies that inevitably commit suicide by diving into the soapdish.

The kitchen must be domestic ecosystem central. After all, it is where the food is prepared. I am constantly astonished by the ability of mold to overtake refrigerated bread, invade the last dregs of the sour cream and salsa, and almost instantaneously rot a tomato. I love bananas, but must share them with the pomace flies (“fruit flies” to most folks, but a different creature entirely) that hover around the bunch. Knowing that these flies have contributed greatly to our fundamental understanding of genetics makes it easier to tolerate their appearance at breakfast.

As my rent goes up annually, and my wages stagnate, it occurs to me that it may be time to seek public assistance. Considering the menagerie of organisms I sustain and manage, it seems that compensation is due. Perhaps it is time to apply for federal recognition of my apartment as a wildlife refuge. Depending on your definition of “dependent,” I could probably take a tax write-off already.

I am convinced that if more people felt honored to host a diversity of living things in their own homes, sheds, yards, gardens and garages, then there would be a collectively different attitude towards biodiversity in general, one that embraced all manner of creatures. A true reverence for life does not exclude things that are ugly, or mischievous, or that are simply products of our own fears and biases. Removing the stigma of an untidy abode, a weedy lawn, or a yard planted with mundane but native flora would go a long way to improving the health of the Earth as a whole.

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