Posted by: ACRES Land Trust

  • 06/16/2023

Expanding Empathy

Written by ACRES member, Joanna Stebing

“To meet all things with recognition and empathy”

This line from a podcast I listened to recently has stuck with me, and I think it’s a fitting way to start an article about “unloved” or underappreciated species. We might be apprehensive toward these plants and animals for a variety of reasons — maybe it’s how they slither or crawl, sting or bite. Whatever the reasons, I encourage you to gently put them aside to see these species in a new way.

I was asked to share my perspective on “unlovable” species because of something I mentioned a couple years ago when I was being interviewed about a floristic survey a friend and I did at an ACRES preserve. I mentioned that I feel a deep love and sense of kinship with poison sumac (Rhus vernix). Yes, the same plant that causes a nasty rash when your skin comes in contact with its urushiol, an oil the plant releases when the plant is bruised or damaged.

You see, I adore wetlands — bogs and fens in particular — and poison sumac is commonly found around the peripheries of these high quality habitats. This “edging” presence led me to describe them as “bog guardians.” These words transform poison sumac from a static, unfeeling plant to a character that protects and feels love for its home.

What was originally so “othered” in our minds edges a bit closer because we see it as inhabiting a role that includes others. We may still feel apprehension (it can cause a serious rash!) but maybe a bit of appreciation too. Given enough time and attention to detail, we may even come to love the poisonous and dangerous and the understated.

I don’t think we’re supposed to love only what’s beautiful, soft, pleasant and safe. Ecological values are often separate from what might benefit us. I would argue for creating intentional practices of inquiry and understanding. Just as learning more about a person makes us rethink initial assumptions, so too can learning about the species we share this planet with.

I personally have grown to appreciate the grabbing spines of native Smilax vines (they serve as food for many non-human species, including larva of the turbulent phosphila moth!) the spiny micrathena spiders that accidentally get stuck in my hair when they string their webs across trails (I usually gently extricate them and apologize for the inconvenience), the scurrying mother wolf spiders that are often carrying their babies in egg sacs — and the increasingly rare and beautiful massassauga rattlesnake (I saw a mother with her five babies in a fen last year, and it was a truly honorable experience — she posed no threat to me as long as I respected her space and motherhood — and isn’t that absolutely fair?).

Even the wee rat snakes sunning themselves in the middle of our walking paths shouldn’t be viewed as anything but a joyful reminder that we are in the natural order of things — and the more biodiverse, the better! Isn’t that why we belong to groups like ACRES? We can’t remove the components we don’t like without causing the harm of many others that we hold dear. Everything we see on our walks in the woods, prairies, fens and elsewhere exists in a messily entangled system that is so very relational.

Cultivating a wider sphere of appreciation really does matter. By intentionally choosing to widen our range of kinship, we increase our humility, which makes it easier to think and behave ecologically. (Humility is derived from “humus,” which implies that humility means drawing nearer to Earth!).

John Muir said when we try to remove one thing, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. Every species we dislike relies on and is relied upon by species we find “prettier” or more “cute.” But aesthetics can be trained by knowledge! Sitting down and getting to know a thing through reading, direct observation and contemplation can change our views. It’s easy to consciously accept, less easy to put into practice, but we have nothing to lose and everything to gain when broadening our view of what kinship with the world really looks like.

Ideas for engaging in this practice of expanding empathy:

  • Next time you’re in the woods, make it a point to choose a species (or two or three) that you would normally avoid or think isn’t as pleasant as, say, your favorite of that particular grouping.
  • Figure out what it is and do some research into what species it is, and what role it plays in the community.
  • Try “systems thinking.” That is, instead of viewing the landscape as a static background into which various organisms are embedded, think of everything as being both foreground and background. Including yourself. Consider what the relationships are and why that matters.