In the country one is rarely
sheltered from an overwhelming and perhaps unpleasant truth: death is everywhere,
and often intimately connected with life. The dance between predator, including
human ones, and prey often takes place in the open. Yet sometimes these dramas
are well hidden, requiring searching and perhaps an alert nose.
opossums, skunks, foxes, deer, and even turtles are the most obvious deaths, generally
on or beside the road, often victims of their nocturnal habits and attraction
to light. These bodies generally don't stay long on the road out here, though.
Vultures, crows, and even eagles patrol, following their keen senses and voracious
appetites, generally within hours. So death fuels life, with some help from the
wheeled machines flying in the night.
must admit to a certain fondness for the black and turkey vultures which ride
the winds with such grace. On the road they are awkward, bold, and usually bloody,
fearlessly daring cars to interrupt their feast. They seem to be comic characters
hopping about, but once aloft they swoop and soar tirelessly, fueled by their
Still, vultures bear watching.
One day I stretched out on my pier, looking for crabs swimming in the marsh creek,
when I suddenly felt I was being observed. I looked up to see seventeen vultures
soaring in diminishing circles overhead, and realized they might consider me a
target. It was definitely time to move!
are communal birds, rarely alone, but they seem to know their place in the larger
community of birds. One fall afternoon, a drama played out on a nearby harvested
corn field. On center stage was a raccoon, perhaps brought down by the two bald
eagles pulling away its flesh. Hopping around in a large circle were seven black
vultures, keeping their distance. Soon the eagles had their fill, leaving the
rest to the vultures while they watched from high branches of trees on the field's
edge. None of them paid any attention to their human audience.
also comes on a small scale. I have a collection of the remains of small creatures.
Right now there are seven crouching tree frogs, whose skeletons appear in the
dust on the sun porch or caught in the gazebo. There are butterfly wings and the
preying mantis who finished her job of laying eggs for the spring, and flipped
over to die at my door. Then there are the hundreds of ladybugs who in occasional
winters cluster on the skylights until their pungent bodies fall to the floor.
surprisingly, the neighborhood wildlife sometimes presents itself in death. One
morning I found a young raccoon dying on the grass; it looked as if it had been
dropped from above, with only a wound to its foot. But there's always the threat
of rabies in the country, and shortly after it was collected by the county official,
a sign appeared on our road warning of rabid animals in the neighborhood, so perhaps
that was reason it died. But I remember spending an afternoon watching it and
its sibling carefully strip the crabapple and Bradford pear trees of their fruit,
dangling at times by their toenails as they reached to the ends of branches.
wonder about the hidden deaths of many. There are times, for example, when rabbits
seem to be everywhere, and then suddenly there are none. I once found the body
of one which was evidently the prey of a hawk, but that was unusual. Where do
they go to die?
Birds also disappear,
and not because they have migrated. Sometimes we find their bodies, crashed into
the grass, victims of our large windows. There are a few cats around the neighborhood,
and I have seen figures suggesting that cats typically kill many birds, though
I have never seen a murder. We watch the hawk that lurks over the bird feeder,
but he rarely seems to succeed.
are the trees that are downed, gone to the chip mills to help feed our hunger
for paper. Trees are a prime crop here, ideal because they replant themselves-life
out of death. But I wonder-what about the life that was dependent on those trees,
from the microscopic to the megafauna, the deer, bobcat, bugs, birds, even flowers?
Their homes and nourishment are disrupted for a while-surely whole communities
die among the stumps and freshly dozed hills, especially if they are not mobile
enough to find new homes in fast decreasing forests.
fall, as we drive an isolated country road, we have been surprised by the vibrant
purple berries of a bush beside an abandoned driveway. It's called an American
Beautyberry bush, and it is, quite simply, stunning in the sunlight. But this
year the VDOT crew got a bit enthusiastic in their clearing, and somehow reached
up the three feet to destroy the bush in full bloom. What a useless death of beauty!
How could they have missed seeing it? I found out how to turn some of those berries
into small plants next spring, but still-the place which once blazed is hauntingly
I am more comfortable with the
seasonable and natural dying of plants, as the corn, soy, and winter wheat turn
yellow and dry, ready for the harvester. One must admire the young corn coming
up so bravely in a harvested field, only to be cut down by frost into fertilizer
for next year.
The marsh thrives on the
cyclic death of the grasses and creatures. That rich rotting smell of the mud
is the scent of life and death combined. The grasses which die and rot in the
winter turn into those fresh green stalks which signal the true beginning of spring
and the millions of fiddler crabs living and dying in their regularly flooded
barrows. The great blue herons and their smaller cousins stay healthy on the crabs
and fish, leaving only a few clawed leftovers.
may seem tragic to us, but it is a base for new life in nature. Do animals grieve
losses at all? Perhaps, to a degree. When the female bluebird disappeared after
laying her eggs, we knew it for the male was singing loudly and ,it seemed, sadly.
Another spring we heard the bluebirds
chattering excitedly, and saw that they were attacking a black snake whose head
was in the birdhouse hole, eating their newly hatched young. But after the snake
left, they were quiet, and within a few weeks, another brood hatched. And the
snake had his dinner.
So life goes on.
Living Magazine, September/October 2007