Considering How My Light is Spent

The spider came out of the molding in the bathroom, saw me, and scurried back into the jamb. It meant me no harm, and if given voice might even admit I am of some use in it making a living.

We serve other creatures in many ways, some of them surprising. The latest research from UC San Diego shows that our bodies are only 43 percent human. The other 57 percent of what we think of as “us” is nonhuman microbial cells—bacteria, viruses, fungi—and skin mites. Kiss me, darling.

If you view a house as an extension of the owner, what a provider I have been! Wasps make their pueblos on our outer walls; termites are now in joyous swarm. The ants, flies, and mosquitoes; the geckoes and the skinks; the half-feral cats and armadillos and raccoons and squirrels; the herons in the ditch; the frogs on the deck furniture; the turtle laying eggs under the bottlebrush trees in the driveway; not to mention my neighbors, whose lives are enriched discussing my yard—all fail to give a single word of thanks, but I know their gratitude.

(The term for this arrangement, in which others gain by the interaction, but we neither benefit nor are harmed, is Commensalism, which has roots in Medieval Latin’s “sharing a table.”)

The farther our service beyond our bodies, the more abstract it becomes. When present, we can help our children, family, and friends with real, physical tasks (lifting the car off Uncle Joe), but in absence what we provide becomes more symbolic (thoughts and prayers, and lots of money).

We serve our communities, often anonymously (did it matter I picked up trash on the first Earth Day?); we serve the economy as data points; we serve our enemies by uniting them against us. In the end our unfaithful atoms will recombine, as they have so many times before, and someone will not even know who to thank.

None of what we do is likely to escape the planetary membrane, so I cannot be said to matter to the universe, any more than I value an individual chloride ion in the sea. This is not to downplay my role, or yours. I am cheered we play our parts.

Well done, good and faithful servant!

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.