Life Cycles: Reflections on Life Lived Amongst the Dead by Tamia Nelson

If you’ve read The Raj Quartet, Paul Scott’s epic tetralogy about the last days of British rule in India, or if you watched The Jewel in the Crown, the miniseries that was made from Scott’s books, you may remember Sister Ludmila, the eccentric woman who gathers up the dead and dying from the wastegrounds and shantytowns around the fictional city of Mayapore. It’s not a role I’d ever covet, I admit, but it’s one I seem to be destined for, nonetheless. Just last week, only two days after celebrating a snapping turtle’s narrow escape from the fate that all too often awaits any creature unlucky enough to have to cross a roadway, I found her lying dead in the grass near the very spot where I’d last seen her. She’d been alive and (very) lively when we last parted company. Now her shattered remains made a meal for a turkey vulture.

She’d been killed not long before I came across her corpse, and the tire tracks in the sandy margin of the road made it clear she’d been struck when she was at least two feet off the asphalt. Was she targeted by someone who glories in the many opportunities that a driver’s license affords the holder to take life with impunity? Or did she simply fall victim to an “inattentive” motorist who drifted off the roadway while looking at her mail or texting her boyfriend? If this latter scenario seems far-fetched, it’s not. On the very same day that I found the dead turtle, an oncoming motorist crossed over into my lane and continued toward me at speed, her eyes fixed on something in her lap. Was the engrossing object her cell phone? A love letter? An unexpectedly large cable bill? Whatever it was, it was more important to her than my life. Luckily for me, I saw her coming in time to swerve onto the shoulder. If I hadn’t, I, too, might have breathed my last on the edge of the road, a crumpled mass of torn flesh, of no use to anyone but the vultures.

Anyway, the discovery of the dead snapper would have been more than enough to put a damper on the day all by itself, but my mood soured still more when, not much farther down the same road, I spotted a dead red-eyed vireo in the middle of the opposite lane, with a dead moth lying not far from him. Was he taking the moth back to the nest for his offspring when he was struck? It seemed probable, and if so, his mate would now have her work cut out for her. A single parent’s life is never easy, and there are no childcare centers to ease the burden borne by widowed birds.

There was nothing to be done for the vireo. I just carried him off the road and placed him on the grassy verge. I did this for two reasons: First, it goes against my grain to leave any creature’s remains where they’ll be ground to a pulp by the passage of car after car. But more importantly, a corpse draws scavengers, and if these opportunistic feeders are lured onto the roadway, they, too, may soon become victims. I like to do what I can to limit the body count along the byways I frequent.

After this melancholy duty was performed, I rode on. The weather was nearly perfect: sunny and cool, with just enough of a breeze to dry my sweat without impeding my progress. And the scenery—apart from blood sacrifices to the God of Internal Combustion, that is—was delightful. But I can’t say I enjoyed the rest of my ride. Life is cheap in Scrag End. All life. I know that. And a driver’s license is a license to kill, here as everywhere else in the States. I know this, too. Still, it’s wearying to be constantly reminded of these two unpleasant realities. To be honest, it’s almost enough to put me off cycling altogether, at least for anything other than utilitarian purposes. At a rough guess—actually it’s more than that; I’ve been keeping a tally—at least half the motorists I encounter in my rides are now dividing their attention between the road in front of them and something else. No wonder one American in 100 will end his or her days as a roadside sacrifice. That’s the figure I’ve seen, at any rate.* Working with more recent data, Farwell came up with a different number (one in 130 or thereabouts), but he’s quick to point out that this doesn’t include the many tens of thousands who are crippled every year in crashes and then left to cope as best they can with what are accurately, if somewhat euphemistically, called “life-changing injuries.” Of course, nobody even bothers to count the toll among non-humans.

Do I have any answers to this problem? Nope. In fact, given the manifest indifference of police, legislators, and the American public, I only see it getting worse. Cyclists, in particular, are likely to remain targets of opportunity, to be killed or maimed at will by anyone behind the wheel of a car. That’s an honor we share with snapping turtles and red-eyed vireos. It’s not exactly a cheery prospect, I admit, but at least we know we’ll be in good company when our number comes up. And if, as happens with increasing frequency, our killer then drives off without bothering to stop, the vultures will get a chance to take their time over a hearty meal. That’s something, isn’t it?

*See the table on page 221 of Perils of a Restless Planet by Ernest Zebrowski (Cambridge University Press, 1997).


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For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.