Creek Running North

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November 24, 2003


Lisa writes in Gary Snyderesque prose of finding a roadkilled raccoon over in west Marin, and moving it off the pavement to the side of the road. This is a wise and humane practice: roadkill attracts scavengers who become roadkill, which attracts scavengers, and the wheel goes round and round.

I’ve done this a few times, including one episode I describe in a comment on Lisa’s blog.

A few years ago, in the East Mojave after a day of freeway driving, I was heading up Cima Road toward Sunrise Rock when I saw that sickening flash of fur in my peripheral vision: something had decided to cross the road at exactly the wrong time, and there was no way I could avoid it. I felt the thump of tire against animal, saw nothing in the rearview, and was a half a mile up the road before I was able to stop.

I turned around and headed back – slowly this time, at less than freeway speed - turning one scenario after another over in my mind. If the poor animal was dead, the long-handled shovel in the pickup would probably prove adequate to disposition of the carcass. But what if the animal wasn’t quite dead? From the way it had moved – a sinuous galomping across the pavement – it could only have been a badger. Tangling with a large injured weasel didn’t seem to me the most relaxing way to end a long day.

And what exactly was I supposed to do? I suspected that park rangers would take a dim view of any attempts to put the thing out of its misery, even if I could do so with a garden shovel. And transporting an angry, maimed badger – even with a pickup and a camper shell – seemed unlikely, especially as the nearest veterinarian was about a hundred miles away. Option the last – finding the wounded badger, maintaining a respectful distance, apologizing for the pain I had caused it, and then leaving it to its own devices to live or die - seemed vaguely honorable, but also ineffectual and horrible.

And a sudden memory came of my father, in the vegetable garden in the first yard I remember, standing over a mortally wounded woodchuck, holding a shovel. I was three years old or so, and was standing back some distance insufficient to keep my mother from fretting: maybe a hundred feet. I don’t remember the denouement, other than that the woodchuck died. It was the first animal death I’d experienced that didn’t involve butcher paper: Mom had dutifully swept up and hidden the occasional mouse or bird or tom-eaten kitten, the natural accumulation of corpses that comes from life in the country.

There’s an old picture hanging in my hallway: a man in his thirties, a three-year-old boy, and a dead deer hung from a sugar maple. The boy is my father, the man his father, the maple on their tenant farm just a few miles from that woodchuck hole three decades in the future. Grandpa Clarke dutifully went deer hunting every year. Then, finally, he got one; his first, the buck in the photo. He never went hunting again, sated and I think a little repulsed by his trophy – though the antlers still graced his wall after I was born. Grandpa was a farmer, and thus no stranger to killing animals, but I imagine he found a difference between a penned sow or a veal calf and a wild deer, born to a life outside the feedlot. A man’s gotta do what et cetera, and he would send my tender-hearted father off on a lengthy errand to the farthest corner of the farm when it came time to butcher a hog.

I suddenly felt an odd bond with my woodchuck-killing father, ten years younger on that day in the early 1960s than his son was as he rolled back down Cima Road. Somehow, without ever saying so, my father and his father induced in me commitment to a troubling notion: killing is a tragic event even for the smallest of creatures, and I must neither shirk from my responsibility to kill or my responsibility to feel for the creature being killed. Make quick work of the mouse in the trap, and then allow yourself time alone to mourn that bright-eyed spark.

At the bend in the road where I’d hit the badger, there was no body, no blood on the pavement, no fur, nothing to indicate impact or suffering. I looked for some time, walking wider and wider circles in the Joshua tree forest along the road, but found nothing at all in the way of crime scene evidence. Eventually, I retreated back up the hill to the campsite, where I drank my two nights’ ration of beer in one night and apologized instead to the campsite woodrat, and to the Pleiades and a few friends who’d died along the years and later the next morning to my aching head.

Posted at November 24, 2003 02:56 PM | TrackBack


I was thinking the same thing (about our being on the same track) when I saw your post last night). we also seem to be frequenting the same places a lot recently. Sometimes I wish all these people I've found among blogs would be close by... including you. It would be great to go for a walk in the woods all together and share these conversations in person. I miss such good company.

Thanks for all your words and thoughts until now. Hope we all keep at it!

Posted by: Miguel at November 25, 2003 08:10 AM

I concur with Miguel that it would be nice to have a group of us around in person -- it'd be great to go on long hike/conversations and sit talking over cider in a cabin afterward.

(A friend and I did try to organize a "conference" like this once; we only tempted four people besides ourselves to attend, but it was great.)

I think also that I may have to add an entry in this theme of coping with the death of animals -- particularly ones in whose deaths we played a role -- each person's entry has triggered something different in my memories of such things. Yours called to mind my experience hitting a huge raccoon in Minnesota -- I too turned around to see if it was still there and to see what, if anything, I could do -- and, similarly, there was no sign of it anywhere. If it were not for the extensive cracks running through the plastic housing on my bumper, it would be easy to believe it had never happened. (Perhaps I should be glad of those cracks -- such reminders seem valuable, though I don't really fear forgetting such encounters!)

Posted by: Rana at November 29, 2003 03:31 PM

Miguel, it would be nice but we'd all commisserate so much. Not sure how we would get over stuff.

This is very distressing stuff that we are addressing. So often it remains private and long term. One thing that has changed for me is the idea that one should move road killed creatures out the way to prevent further deaths. Now I have to find the courage to move things.

Posted by: Coup de Vent at November 30, 2003 02:51 AM

Well, Coup, I think hiking until we're out of breath, joking at hill's top until we're out of breath again, and then sharing a beer (or the equivalent) would get us a lot of the way to getting over stuff!

When you're moving those roadkills off the road, mind you don't get hit yourself...

Posted by: Chris Clarke at November 30, 2003 10:56 AM

A recurrent topic, Chris, thanks for the post and the link to Lisa's. A few weeks back, I wrote a short paragraph on the tragedy of road kills after a trip to the big city:

"So much death comes from our travels. Grim greasy spots and a smear of hair, enough to name the deceased only to type. Raccoons, possums, groundhogs, squirrels. Nameless vagabonds, their mother does not even mourn them. There near the Feed and Seed lay the north half of someone's German Shepherd just on the edge of the hiway--a red rag of raw hide wrung where a tail once wagged and strong legs frisked when the back door opened. How numb and callous of me, of all of us, to drive past, swerving slightly, in a hurry. The dog had a name. Later today in a black moment someone will find what is left of him and be undone."

Posted by: fredf at November 30, 2003 05:11 PM

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