When I was eleven years old I convinced a friend of mine to trade me his Daisy Model 25 Pump Action BB gun for my comic book collection. I didn’t tell my mother or any other adults that I made the trade. I kept the rifle hidden under my mattress and made trips to the woods surrounding our housing project carrying the gun in two pieces inside a trench coat that I had cut the bottoms of the pockets out of.
Several times a week in the spring and summer I would silently stalk prey during early mornings and sometimes in the evenings. After the first few outings, where I managed to shoot a sparrow or a chipmunk, the inhabitants of those woods apparently sent the word out: the idiot kid with the gun is on the prowl – head for cover. I rarely came upon anything else game-worthy again; mostly I found myself reduced to trying to shoot minnows and water bugs resting on top of the deepwater pools in our brook.
Bluebird Singing in the Dead of Morn
But one chilly late summer morning, after a long, mindless, tiring trek up and down the whole woods with no murder-success, I spied a small bluebird about 25 yards up ahead. She was perched upright on a blackberry bush. I took careful aim and shot. Nothing happened; the bluebird just sat there. Again I took aim, and fired once again. Still nothing happened. I decided to move closer and take one final shot. As I began making my way closer, suddenly the bluebird leaned over and toppled forward, never letting go of the bush branch it was feet were wrapped around. She was now simply hanging there upside down, perfectly still.
I walked up next to it to take a closeup look. Her eye was open and except for one small ruffle at the base of her neck, she seemed to be in perfect shape. And then, with absolutely no warning, she released from the branch and dropped into the thorny thicket below. Witnessing her topple and then sudden fall caught me off guard – I unexpectedly burst into tears, catching myself completely by surprise. An embodied awareness somewhere within me knew instinctively that the bluebird was dead and what I had just done was deliberately anti-life. And that I had not just taken life from this bluebird, but I had also taken some small karmic bit of my own life with that BB gun. It was a lot for an eleven-year-old to fully grok. It bypassed all cognitive considerations and stabbed me right in the heart.
Repaying Karmic Debt
Fast-forward 40 years: One of my favorite places to walk on the San Francisco Peninsula is out on the Sawyer Camp Trail that runs along the Crystal Springs Reservoir. The water that fills Crystal Springs travels 167 miles through the Hetch-Hetchy Aqueduct near Yosemite and supplies all of San Francisco with its drinking water. On this particular Spring morning, walking with a friend of mine, I came over a rise on the paved trail and spied a group of people standing around in a circle down at the bottom. I assumed that a runner had fallen and was being given aid or that a dog had been injured, but when my friend and I arrived at the gathering, we encountered a different scenario altogether. Coiled protectively in the middle of the circle of people was a baby rattlesnake. With my brain producing absolutely no conscious thought, and without so much as a single word, my body immediately stepped through the people into the center of the circle. My right hand took the plastic water bottle I was holding and aimed a stream of water directly at the baby snake’s head. It oriented towards me, but simultaneously backed up in response. Another squirt and it backed up further. One more and it was now off the trail and into the underbrush where it then turned and silently slithered away.
Then, with nary a word, my friend and I simply turned and continued on with our morning walk.
Although my brain gave it no conscious thought in the moment, three things were immediately bottom-up clear to me as I came upon the collection of people encircling the snake. One was – baby rattlesnakes in Springtime are the most dangerous, since their newly composted venom is at its toxic peak; two – while they didn’t realize it, the people surrounding that snake were within reach had it become threatened enough to re-actively strike; and three – there was an action and an outcome that might prove beneficial to all living beings in that moment – me and my available water bottle.
In truth, I can take no credit for what unfolded on the Sawyer Camp Trail that morning. There was no conscious actor driving the action potential. What there was was simply life’s impulse to protect life. An impulse whose roots grew out of an anti-life action that took place 40 years earlier with me and a Daily Model 25 BB gun. That impulse was thankfully alive and well and stored forever strong in the neural networks of my brain and the myocytes of my heart.