Row versus Wade
BY C. L. BOTHWELL
Two-hundred-and-nineteen years ago, George Washington, the father of our country, decided to attack Hessian troops stationed in Trenton, N.J. Hessians were German soldiers hired by the British to fight in the colonies.
You've seen the famous portrait of George standing in a little boat crossing the icy Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776. You can bet his troops were happy campers when they learned that George had decided to row versus wade.
This week I met a fellow who is very unhappy about Washington's row versus wade decision, and we had a chat.
He said the decision violates the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." I tried to point out that it is impossible not to kill. Even if you don't eat animals, you eat plants, and they're alive, too. And if you don't count plants, you still kill critters when you walk or breathe or drive a car.
When you toss a log in the fire, a whole ecosystem of mites and book lice and termites goes up in flames. If you cut yourself and don't die of an infection, it means your body has killed an invading army of germs.
"No, no, no," he said. "It means, thou shalt not kill humans." And I asked if that meant Washington and his troops shouldn't have killed any Hessians. Maybe they should have delivered a sack of toys and Christmas cookies and asked them to surrender?
"No, no, no," he said. "There are times when there is no alternative to killing humans. Like self defense."
So now the commandment reads, "Thou shalt not wantonly kill humans."
Pretty quick, then, he changed the subject. "The real issue," he said,"is that human life is sacred."
"Unless you're a Hessian?" I asked.
He ignored me and went on, "Once a human life begins, it is sacred."
When does life begin? At 40? When the kids leave home? When you draw your first breath or your first pay check? When you finally get your driver's license? At conception? When your parents started making eyes at each other? Or when their parents did? Or theirs?
Paleobiologists say life only began once. That's why we share the same chemistry with viruses and wombats and whales and even newts. It isn't accurate to say that life began again after that.
Life is a vine that branches and branches and branches, with curlicues and tendrils that wind down through billions of years to become you and me.
In that sense, when we say "killing," we really mean "pruning the great grape vine of life" a leaf here, a branch there.
And what is life other than a wildly complex, self-pruning vine? A lot of our moral codes and laws are really rules for pruning.
Don't prune your neighbor's shrubs. Don't prune your neighbors, either, unless they attack you first.
If one part of the vine chokes another, it's okay to whack it off. Sometimes we wage war and prune a whole hedgeful of people at once, and sometimes we use birth control technology to inhibit growth.
The real measure of success is whether the pruning works. Ask a farmer. A little pruning can stimulate growth, induce flowering and fruiting, and make the vine healthier. Quit pruning altogether and the vine will grow wild and unproductive. Too much pruning and you can kill it.
So our commandment should be, "Thou shalt not overprune."
Washington probably thought about that when the row versus wade business came up. The Hessians cut down perfectly good American pine trees and turned them into "tannenbaums." Pine trees don't grow back after they're cut, like, for instance, cherry trees, with which George was said to have some experience.
Hessians were overpruning. Washington decided to row versus wade, and the rest is history.
When it comes to your family tree, you ought to be allowed to make your own decision. I won't prune your tree, if you don't prune mine.
And let's, both of us, agree not to impose our gardening rules on each other.
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When does life begin? At 40? When the kids leave home? When you draw your first breath or your first paycheck? When you finally get your dirver's license? At conception? When your parents started making eyes at each other? Or when their parents did?