October 13, 2013

North Cairn: Animals do deserve a brake

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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