Of Sympathy and Stink Bugs

First posted October 23, 2015

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The brown marmorated stink bug is an invasive species with a wide range in the US. Likely transported as a stowaway on a shipping container, the bug first appeared in the mid-Atlantic two decades ago and has spread to the west coast and into Canada, causing huge damage to crops and native species. 

I know these dime-sized bugs very well. In our last apartment, in Maryland, they used to cluster on the screen of the window above my desk. I’d be writing, and my cat, Creature—like Pangur Ban, all fur and focus—would bat them off. Ross and I flicked them off, and I can recall the satisfying thwunk of the screen and the feel of a hard little body bouncing away under my fingernail. The stinkbugs would fly away, only to return after a little while. Often they would get in the house, and Creature would follow them for hours until Ross got home to drown them. Normally I hate it when he kills bugs, but with the beetles I let it go. After all, they’re an invasive species.

Now that we live in DC, we don’t see the beetles as much, and I save my ethical exceptions for the mosquitoes that breed in the parking lot and appear in the apartment for a few weeks each year. So I was surprised, and a little confused, to see a lone little brown marmorated stink bug on the Metro last week. He or she was perched on the seat next to mine, crawling slowly along the yellow vinyl and watched by the old woman across the aisle. I watched him, too, and wondered about him. How did he get on the Metro? Did he fly all the way down, through the escalator tunnels and over the gates and in through the doors? Did he hitch a ride in the folds of someone’s clothes? Or did he come from the suburbs, before the train descends underground? How long had he been there? Mostly, though, I wondered what would happen to him—specifically, I wondered how he would die. Would he be sat on by accident, or purposely squished? Wondering turned to worry, and just as quickly to resistance. I was on my way to a friend’s apartment for a few days—to care for a less ethically sticky creature, her corgi—and I had more bags than usual. My hands were full. The bug would have to find his own way out.

My ride with the bug happened a few days after the University of Maryland’s symposium on “Nonhumans and Sympathy.” A full day of thinking about sympathizing with the nonhuman—“including the most difficult, challenging, and hostile nonhumans”—the symposium had me thinking about care in all of its queer, precarious, dangerous, and radical forms. Is there a wrong way to care for the nonhuman world? Does it care for us? What are the dangers and limits of sympathy, and what happens if we blow right past those limits?

Reader, I rescued him. Maybe. Juggling my Smartrip card, my suitcase, and a bag, I scooped up the stinkbug and left the train. We touched; I felt his little feet as he crawled up my hand towards my elbow, and I carried my arm at an awkward angle in an attempt to get him to move back towards my hand. For just about a minute we were together, not in all senses of the word, probably, but at least in some of them, the trajectories of both of our days altered by each other. My plan was to carry him up to the surface, but he disappeared before I made it through the escalators, and for all I know he was immediately stepped on by a commuter. At best, I aided and abetted an invasive species, a small-scale version of the carrier ships that brought brown marmorated stink bugs to North America in the first place. So I don’t mean to say that my act of sympathy, of carrying and care and love, was a harmless one. The symposium, two weeks ago now, proved that sympathy is never clean, never without power and unintended consequences and some darkness. But I can’t help wondering if there might not be something to be said for the impulsive, affectionate action anyway. Maybe, when faced with the impossibility of caring for a species, for a planet, or even just for an ethical stance; when all care is suspect, and predicting the outcome is impossible; maybe then the decisions we make in moments of intimate encounter—the sympathies we feel, one-on-one—might still count for something.

Haylie Swenson