Wednesday, December 11, 2013
The last week has been overrun by natural -- and unnatural -- encounters.
Before Sunday had even gotten under way, death put in an appearance, not just in the falling leaves and the splendid colors of decline, but in the large, stilled hump of a once-live mammal. I saw it on Freeport Road on the way to meet a friend for dinner, an inert form big as a boulder and roughly round, rolled into something like a fetal position as it left survival behind and expired, becoming remains for the flies and worms, the carrion birds and curious onlookers like me.
I looked quickly but didn't stop because I had my own lively schedule to keep and was, as usual, running late. But the shape of the unidentified carcass stayed in my mind, remembered images running like the pages of a flip book through which I was skimming to find a form that matched. Muskrat? No, too small. Woodchuck? Wrong habitat. Porcupine? Unlikely. I had seen no quills as I sped by.
I didn't figure out the minor mystery until the following day when I piled the dog in the car and made a mission of the search for the identity of the carcass.
It took a while, though I knew that somewhere along several miles of road, I would locate the particular culvert or small bridge, set off with concrete and steel pilings. I stopped at two without luck, then recognized immediately at the third that I had found the right place, vacant though it was.
A large half circle of blood smear was spread on the edge of the road, but there was nothing visible that, prior to the evening before, had been a powerful living animal.
I assumed that someone feeling as compassionate or crazy as I had the previous night had dragged the body off the road, so I walked slowly down the edge of the pavement and the scant shoulder alongside until I saw it: a beaver -- had to have been nearly 50 pounds -- its hind paws drawn out behind it, the scaly tail as intricate as tapestry and as impervious to water as a rubber boot, its fur still glossy with its own oil and matted with blood.
Sudden death like that offers an intimacy with wild animals that we ordinarily cannot experience, and should I admit, perhaps ghoulishly, appreciate?
I stayed for a long time at the side of the road, taking in the details of the scene and the adaptations of a creature that no longer needed them, since a sinister, throttling machine, hurtling above the stream, had made a mockery of the complex, perfect skills and design of this partly land-based, largely aquatic animal that had evolved physical characteristics and special abilities to make a clever life in, along, under and on top of water.
I never saw clearly the head, the mouth, the teeth -- most of the essential attributes needed for its tree-felling, bark-eating, dam-building existence; but the thick coat helped me understand how the beaver had been able to survive the vagaries of climate (rain, snow, ice) only to be pursued for its pelt, so prized in trapping, sought by furriers and preserved in taxidermy.
The link between how animals evolve and humans exploit thudded on my mind, the evident consequences of our shared space and interdependency snapping me out of sentimental appreciation and into harsh realism like a trap's crushing clatter.
Some live, some die; but all things prevail, finally to perish in time and return to the earth. In acknowledgement of the harsh fact I did little, except leave things alone.
I walked quietly away, then resumed the killing machine, revved the motor and motored on.
The following morning, nature -- in the form of 13 wild turkeys -- almost got the upper hand on me, and nearly outsmarted the car, as I maneuvered down the same road, different stretch, another direction. I had come up over the knoll of a small hill, thinking no danger lingered nearby, and almost burst into the gaggle of birds as they strutted in broken formation across the road.
They were enormous. And indifferent to the threat that I, and then another motorist coming from the opposite side of the road, posed. They seemed to have their awareness focused somewhere else, another dimension almost, fiddling around, back and forth, as though gossiping among themselves.
People say turkeys are stupid birds, and you might have concluded that, seeing them take their own sweet time, clearing the road for commuter traffic to get going again. But I'm not so sure.
Observing them, I sensed they simply might have had their heads in different clouds than ours. Not hard to imagine of those long-legged wild birds with relatively tiny heads atop extended necks, eyes peering with a double perspective that our own myopia misses.
After all, we're the animals who are so certain we are the center of the universe, day to day.
We might pretend in our philosophies or cosmologies that we know better, but everything about our imprint on life, the earth, each other, tells the truer tale.
It doesn't help that we have the intelligence and tool-making skills, the opposable thumbs and steely emotions to be egocentric demons or self-sacrificing spirits of the air. All those just complicate things.
Good we have "foolish" birds to stop us in our tracks and mammals so unlike our similar selves for comparison. Good we stop from time to time and take notice. Otherwise we might actually come to believe, in our heart of hearts, that we're in charge.
North Cairn can be reached at 791-6325 or at: