by Martin Murie
(Swans - September 25, 2006)
On my morning outing today I found a dead frog on the asphalt, so squished I couldn't get a positive ID. I think it was a wood frog. Also an orange eft, alive, heading north. I tossed it into the woods on the north side. Also two squashed beer cans (Busch Light and Coors Light), a large paper cup, a bottle cap, a smashed plastic bottle, and a crumple of wet tissue.
Yesterday a dead bullfrog, its head arched up from its thoroughly smashed body, eyes wide and fully open in a steady stare at me. Over a span of a few days further back I had noticed a dead green frog, a dead garter snake, and a dead ringneck snake.
Though the bullfrog's stare lingers I don't feel reproached, nor do I mean its death will be mourned by other frogs, nor do I mean that he/she had plans to live a few more years but was tragically cut down before her/his time. All I can honestly say is that I keep seeing those eyes.
One day, walking in the woods, I noticed fallen leaves moving. It was a mole out of its tunnels, travelling on the surface, sheltered by leaves. I pounced, killed it. Even as my grasp ended its life I said, out loud, "You stupid jerk, why'd you do that?," and then a silent thought, "No reason, no need, what the hell got into you?" Am I a genetically programmed killer? I doubt it. I think that a history of setting mole traps in gardens and never getting a single mole had some influence on that impulsive pounce: here was my chance! The ethical, or responsibility part of the anger at myself was that I have this notion that a kill ought to be reasonable, that is, needful, necessary.
Most deaths are not witnessed by drivers of trucks and cars at 55 or 60 mph on these back roads commuting to work and other urgent destinations, smashing earthworms, butterflies, moths, frogs, toads, squirrels, mice, skunks, beavers, cats, dogs, birds. On the roads, killing is no longer personal; the driver of a speeding vehicle usually misses the privilege of making the kill decision. This feature of modern life has been slowly creeping up on us; now it's in full bloom. Even the deaths of deer and elk on highways are accidents, institutionalized collateral damages.
Locked into the highway system, lifeblood of the nation, we endure one of those distancings from individual lives of others, from nature, the world beyond highways. Well, it's the way things are. We can, though, if we want to, be aware of these narrowings, and think about what they might be doing to us.
The life and death of that bullfrog has its full meaning, at least in the limited scope of a human's reasoning, when the forested and bouldery swamp comes into focus: the frog's habitat, its special places where it was a member of a frog tribe existing in complexity among other species, other lives.
Reflecting on habitats and the actual lived lives of others can keep us from mounting a high bench to act like impartial judges. That is a wonderful, burden-shedding avoidance; makes us a species among others, not obliged to pass abstract sentence on all of creation. Saint Francis, friend of animals, overstepped comradeship when, in Gubbio, he persuaded a wolf to quit killing and eating sheep. There is still a lot of that going on these days, specialists managing animals, expecting them to observe guidelines. Wolves and grizzlies, to give two examples, are endangered species protected in certain areas. If they cross the boundaries and harass dogs or kill livestock they are trapped and "re-located." If they persist in ignoring our property lines, they are executed. Jack Turner puts all this in a neat nutshell. "The rhetoric of preservation implies separation: we belong here, grizzlies belong there." (1)
There is, however, one amazing story about our species stepping down off its high horse. It has to do with roads. At a public meeting of the Regional Park District Board, East Bay region of California, someone asked if something could be done to reduce deaths of newts crossing a road in winter to reach their breeding places. The board closed a part of the road during rainy spells. Protests resulted. Dr. Robert Stebbins, herpetologist at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, U.C., Berkeley, suggested a study of newt deaths. The board agreed. Stebbins and another naturalist, Jessica Shepherd, found that newts crossed the road during the winter, whether it rained or not. The board -- can you believe this? -- decided to close the road all winter, five months. What happened?
Public reaction was mixed, but at least now drivers knew when the road was to be closed and could plan accordingly. This unusual management tactic to help newts move back and forth between their breeding stream and upland non-breeding habitat continues to the present time. An unanticipated benefit of the plan is that when the road is closed, it becomes a favorite route for hikers, dog-walkers, cyclers and even equestrians. The public has accepted it as the normal course of the annual cycle of Tilden Park. (2)
By the way, recovery from Nature Deficit, contrary to much rhetoric to the contrary, does not necessarily require immersion in wilderness with a capital W. We need wilderness, and there are good arguments for that, but nature is everywhere. Walk the roads, watch your back. It's there, the whole scheme, us and The Others.
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