by Glenn Reed
(Swans - June 30, 2014) Mid-July.
The day is steamy. Haze blankets the surrounding hills and weighs down the whole landscape.
This particular spot. This stretch. The sun bakes the dark, flat surface and the heat rises in waves, helping to saturate the air more.
Ribbon of highway. Taut. Across the landscape. A wound. Suffocating and cancerous. Connected to others. A web without real form.
The burrow is about twenty feet off the road surface. It's dug into the deep grass, just where the ground slopes upward to the edge of some woods. It's much cooler in there, under the earth, out of the sun, away from the dangers of circling hawks and sly foxes peaking with keen eyes from a stand of white pines and young poplars.
The heat forms temptations for the woodchuck. Her stomach is empty. The air above is redolent with the sweet smells of bursting, early summer growth and it seeps down into the burrow. Enticing. Whispering of moist, sweet flavors.
She is drawn upward, hunger in her belly, but delight in her nose. Carefully, she peaks her head out of the hole. Her ears twitch and nostrils flare, seeking to detect anything alarming.
Nothing obvious. Nothing known deep in her bones, from eons etched into her brain, her very cells. Nothing obvious that makes sense.
The smells sweep over the woodchuck. There's red clover (her favorite), the timothy grass, the tangles of blue vetch, the yellow kidney vetch, the fleabane. Standing, still and watching. All seems clear. Taking the opportunity to lumber forward to the edge.
Wary of exposure and looking again. No movements anywhere.
Venturing out on the hard, black surface. Exposed rock has always demanded this vigilance. The stretch, wide open, making her extra alert. To the sky for movement. To the tall grasses on the other side, where predators may hide. To the ribbon of highway. Where the loud noises seem to come out of nowhere and where the monstrous creatures pass at speeds that utterly confuse and terrorize her. The noises that never completely disappear. Except at night. And only for short periods of time.
Beginning to cross. A whine rising steadily from constant, low din of noise.
She pauses and looks.
A puddle of red. A few streams following the slightly rough surface and making patterns. Losing momentum, coagulating, evaporation. Into the air bursting with the odors of sun-baked, humidity-filled landscape.
Soon, a trail of ants. Soon, the first flies.
"Caw, caw, caw." Abrupt in the immediate quiet.
Swoosh of black. Spread then folded. Dropping at the edge of the stretch of road. At the point where a bunched-up McDonald's bag straddles the border of hard surface and dirt. Poking beak at the bag, then hopping to the hulk of fur. Checking out the body collapsed around the shattered bones. A mouth frozen open as if in a last screaming. Glazed eyeballs in final incomprehension.
Hop, hop, hop of the crow. A few tentative steps. Jabbing carefully.
No breaks in the inert body. No place to begin to stab and tear. Then noticing.
A loud roar breaking through the background din. Coming closer. Harsh sound. Recognizing the object rapidly approaching. The crow hop, hop, hopping then taking off. The crow swooping over to a white pine branch. Surveying the scene. Waiting. Watching.
The noise overwhelming all. A massive tractor-trailer. Drowning out the chickadee-dee-dee-ing in the nearby woods. Drowning out the "chur-ee, chur-ee, chew, chew, chew" of the serenading cardinal. Drowning out the "peep, peep" of the tiny baby mice, still blind and helpless in their hole as their mother's eyes widen.
The ground shakes as the behemoth passes.
An eighteen-wheeler. Grinding gears and heartless engine. Barreling forward. Beyond speed. Beyond any reason. Beyond the earth feeding the grass, the bacteria decomposing, the robin yanking a worm from the dirt, the odor of grass luring the deer, the sunlight breathed in by the daisy, the ants hauling away a dead caterpillar.
The ground shaken. Field mouse frozen in place, eyes wide with terror. Sparrows shooting out of the tall grasses in haphazard flight patterns. One miscalculating in a scenario without logic. Shattered in an instant. The dragonflies and bees and butterflies splattered mid-flight to drop to the hot road surface, if not left coating the passing vehicle in liquid splotches.
A few minutes later, still another. A fuel tanker.
It's late summer. Early morning. The ceaseless whines and screams and boom of thunder, but no storms, not rainfall, no relief. A ceaseless rumble that doesn't entice mouths to open to taste clean water.
A van advertising plate glass experts. Rusty pick-up, with prominent gun rack and dying muffler. Shiny, light-green Prius with more subtle whir, but passing hulk of Explorer belching toxic brews uninhibited. Caravan of pick-ups, SUVs, fuel-efficient compacts taking turns at stabbing this stretch with tire tread, gaseous entrails of nitrogen oxide, ozone, soot, carbon monoxide that drifts and settles, microscopic, clinging, smothering, insidious and unfeeling.
On blade of grass. Rich detritus. Pine cone. Nostril of fox. Beak of thrush. Eye of bumblebee.
On dried puddle of red. Pattern like someone finger-painting. Story of one afternoon.
The flies swarm. Sun-baked odor pulling them from the edge of highway.
Landing in their multitudes. On the dried husk.
On what remains of her. Shrunken. Dried, collapsed, form losing definition. Buzzing over remains. Alighting. Vomiting. Depositing.
Fur coated in dust and the luster gone. Outlining the shapes of the bones. Some poking through the thinning layers of skin and flesh.
Evaporation. The last of the liquid sucked from blood and individual cells rising into the atmosphere. Mixing with carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide that engulfs in clouds. New molecules dropping to the hard surface, poisonous, out of sync, in wait for an afternoon thundershower to wash and deposit them in the succulent grasses that grow with slightly less inhibition.
Another row of vehicles zipping by. A plastic, Price Chopper bag drawn out of tall grass by the backdraft. Inflated with air, particles of soot, smoke, the belching bits of smokestacks 500 miles away. Ballooning manufactured cheek full of hydrocarbons.
Bouncing across the road. Getting caught in the choking, lime-green shoots of wild parsnip that has overtaken the native grasses. Burning, poisonous secretions.
Later. In mid-day. Road crew cutting with whining machine that thrashes all to bits. The particles of vegetation swirling in the air. Mixing with sweat, exposed skin, and breathed in with the heavy, summer air.
Like a dirty rag. Dragged across a filthy attic floor. A bit of hide. Ignored now. Some scattered bits of bone.
The late September afternoon. Crickets chirping of shorter days. Purple asters breathing deeply of late afternoon and rations of sun.
Cricket chorus lost in the harsh crescendo of motorcycle acceleration past speed limits. A tractor-trailer downshifting somewhere towards the horizon, where the distant hills are lost in thick haze.
Siren cuts through winter stillness.
Snowplow shoves white, glistening accumulation of Nor'easter many feet deep over woodchuck burrow.
Bits of gravel, bits of cigarette butt, bits of blown tire, bits of spilled oil, bits of bone mix with the countless shapes of crystal, the microscopic couplings of yin with a Yang on steroids.
The tanker truck splattering the new layer of salt on the road surface, haz-mat placard blood-red on its silver body. Splattering the Honda windshield as it roars by.
Dirty snow in diminishing piles. Ice patches glistening with higher, late March sun. Swatches of flattened brown grass expanding on the roadside. The heat radiating in waves, increasing the snowmelt, exposing debris all jumbled and pointless.
The chunks of road salt migrating past the highway's shoulder, across the border of asphalt and earth, dissolving with snowmelt, filtered into the earth.
The brown needles on the nearby white pines, killed by the winter snowplow spray of salt, where a crow alights, surveys the scene, then heads elsewhere.
The burrow exposed. A din of noise layered with a constant whispering of everything out of tune, cuts and fissures through whines, whirs, drones, roars, and screams.
The burrow exposed and a head poking out, unaware of myths and target markets and ledger lines and deadlines and thresholds and politically correct and speed limits and representative samples and stocked shelves and trade agreements.
A head poking out, surveying the scene with eyes alert with centuries and millennia. Eyes that move with a synchrony that in the arrogance of those who dismiss its lumbering before tractor trailers as the limits of intelligence and the dominance of animal instinct.
A stretch of road where all is offered on an altar in an endless sacrifice without the coming of any spring.
Mid-July. A shadow of the past year barely visible, soon to be covered. Hot tar. Road crew resurfacing. Coming closer.
One more day hotter than usual. One more invasive rooted in the roadside. One more of a mouse's newborn litter gasping with a cancer.
One more woodchuck venturing forth, lured by sweet grasses and old songs rapidly being drowned out.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)