Monday, May 05, 2003

Wisdom of the Grasshoppers

or Zen and the Art of Grasshopper maintenance

As part of my official lab duties, I am one of the Keepers of the Grasshoppers. Ours is a spider lab: and at any given time there are hundreds of spiders in the midst of experiments. Most of these spiders are Stegodyphus lineatus.
These spiders need to be fed. Because spiders eat live prey, we maintain a series of prey items. We use Grasshoppers, Crickets and Drosophila flies to feed the spiders. I am one of the three in charge of the Grasshoppers, the other two being Alex and Michal. Over the last one and a half year I have grown accustomed to feeding the Grasshoppers and maintaining the cages etc. We have 5 cages for Grasshoppers: 2 juveniles, 1 sub-adult, 1 Adult,1 breeders. Because the spiders are rather small, they cannot handle large Grasshoppers and hence we feed them with Juveniles only. My duties involve cutting grass from the campus, putting grass in cages, transferring the Chosen Ones- the individuals that go on to become the Breeders and once a week, cleaning the cages and transferring the Egg-laying containers for the Juveniles to hatch. The following is a set of 9 benefits of Grasshopper Maintenance, which will help you to attain Zen-like enlightenment.

1.Humility: Nothing teaches you humility better than the realization that you are cleaning out Grasshopper Shit. There is a famous episode in Indian History wherein Mahatma Gandhi taught humility to his wife Kasturba by forcing her to clean out toilet bowls (forbidden to Brahmins). Well this is one step higher.

2.Cycles: You learn to appreciate cycles in nature. Things are born, they grow, the lucky ones are transferred, they mate, they lay eggs, and they die. It is all part of the Karmic worldview.

3.Freedom is Illusory: Famously known as the Maya principle by the ancient Hindu sages, the fact that Grasshoppers live their entire life cycle, generations after generations within the cages show you that all existence is illusory. You may think that life is good: free food, free sex and good company, but true freedom lies outside the confines of the glass cages.

4.Humans can get used to anything (or This Too Shall Pass): When I came into the lab, every time I had to feed the Grasshoppers I had an allergic attack. But with time, this too faded away and now I can do the treatment without a face mask. With time, everything becomes tolerable and everything ends.

5.Awareness of the surroundings: I live in a small campus. But even in this small bubble, I know people who have not ventured out beyond the usual commute from home to office. But because of the Grasshoppers I have been forced to avoid this monotonous fate. In order to cut grass, I need to find grass. For this, I needed to roam all over the campus, discovering so many pleasant things and places that would be invisible to the normal desert dwelling sedeboquerian. I also realize the passing of the seasons, the times when grass is plentiful and times when they are not.

6.Responsibility: The knowledge that several hundred creatures depend upon you for their food and that several hundred spiders depend upon these for their food brings responsibility and a profound respect for living beings. Even a single juvenile that has escaped the cage for the nth time is important in the grand scheme of things.

7.Small changes have profound consequences: A different grass species can bring death in its wake. Forgetting to water the anti-ant guard can result in an invasion. The system is sensitive and reacts like a living being. A butterfly flapping its wings in the Pacific can bring about a hurricane in the Atlantic.

8.Respect: So they eat their siblings, they eat their dead siblings, they have orgies like never before seen by human eye, so they mate with dead females…so what. Respect other cultures. Never mind if you occasionally find heads lying among the grass. Its part of their culture. You are just the keeper, the god outside the machine.

9.Team Work: No man is an island. The Grasshoppers are maintained only due to the work you put in, and the work of others. Good communication is vital. Row together and you will reach your destination. Row alone and you upset the boat.