"Our Absent Friends" Archives

Oct 06 2017

What Good is a Dead Tree? by Tamia Nelson

The Others have an answer to the question in the title. But is anyone listening? Tamia is.

The Expert looked at his watch, and gave his companion a thumbs-up. The job wouldn’t take long. A flight of finches exploding into the air. Neither man noticed. The Expert eyeballed the old pine. He didn’t see the red squirrel clinging to the trunk. He saw only the brown needles and the bare limbs.

“What good is a dead tree?” the Expert asked, not expecting an answer. His companion knew the question was purely rhetorical. And he marked the pine for removal.

The two men thought they were alone. But they were wrong. And the Others who were present did their best to answer the Expert’s question. He wasn’t listening, though. Perhaps he never had. In any case, his companion was anxious to get going. Time is money, after all, and the Expert had more trees to condemn.

Yet the dissenting voices of the Others continued to make their case, long after the Expert had gone. It’s too bad that no one stayed around to listen to them. Blue jays would have told him that they took shelter in the pine whenever an icy norther blew down from Canada. As so would the Nashville warbler who often found a meal among the dead and dying branches, too. Nor were they alone. The Others included red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, hairy and downy woodpeckers, rose-breasted and pine grosbeaks, black-capped chickadees, common redpolls, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Not to mention a chipmunk, and the red squirrel — the same red squirrel the Expert didn’t see.

What good is a dead tree? The Others know, even if the Expert does not. Their pine is a home to some and a source of food to many. It offers a refuge in storms and a vantage point in all weathers. And as it decays, it returns nutrients to the soil, nourishing the young pines that will shelter and feed generation upon generation of Others.

Another dead pine, not far away from the Others’ tree, give turtles a place to sun themselves after the spring has freed them from their icy prison. They tunnel up from the black ooze into the light.

What good is a dead tree? Now you, too, can answer this question. The Others won’t be heard. You will, though. But only if you choose to speak.

A Living Dead Tree (c) Photo by Tamia Nelson

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Jun 25 2013

The Kill Zone Claims Another Victim

She was an old hand, with many years’ experience. She’d learned that the asphalt was a death trap, and that safety lay in staying on the sandy verge. Though I often rode past her home waters, I met her only once, just after she’d laid her eggs. At other times, I saw only her tracks. As far as I could tell, she never ventured onto the roadway. So I thought I’d be seeing her — or her tracks — for many years to come.

But I was wrong. The last time I saw her, she was dead, crushed beneath the wheels of a car whose driver couldn’t be bothered to stay on the road. Or — and this is about equally likely, I think — a motorist who swerved off the road deliberately, welcoming the opportunity to kill without consequence. I’ve known a lot of motorists like this, and I’ll bet you have, too. For far too many citizens of the Republic of Happy Motoring, a driver’s license is a license to kill. Provided, of course, that no one is looking. Other than your buddies (or your girlfriend), that is.

I say “girlfriend” advisedly, because a lifetime of experience suggests that the majority of avocational highway killers are male — and usually under the age of 25. Not that there aren’t a lot of lethally bad women drivers around. There are. But few women (or girls) seem to revel in the role of casual killer. They’re happy just to look on and applaud while their boyfriends do the killing for them. It’s the gladiator-spectator thing brought down to date, I suppose.

Be that as it may. I wasn’t on hand when the old turtle met her end. But I happened by not long afterward, and I moved her shattered body into the ferns that abut the road. Now the scavengers who will come to pick her bones can do so at little risk of ending up under the wheels of a car themselves. It’s not much as last rites go, but snappers aren’t sentimentalists. The old girl would understand.

I’d like to be able to end this by saying that her eggs survived to carry on her line. But I can’t. After I carried her into the ferns, I looked at her nest, and sure enough, someone — a raccoon, probably — had dug it out. I found rubbery sherds of eggshell scattered all along the verge. Still, some eggs may have survived, so a few of the old girl’s offspring may emerge from their earthy crèche in due course. I hope so, at any rate.

As I got ready to go, I was suddenly struck by a sense of déjà vu, and sure enough, I realized that it was almost a year ago to the day that I found another dead snapper on the same road, but on the other side, not 20 feet away. Were these two old girls in fact sisters? Or were they mother and daughter? I’ll never know the answer. But either could have been the case. Or neither. And anyway, the question is moot. Both are now dead.

Another Life Cut Short

Cyclists see more than motorists. I’ve often said this, and so have many other writers. Indeed, it’s become something of a cliché. And it’s usually a good thing to know what’s happening in your corner of the world. But not always. There are many things going on along our roads and highways that most of us would prefer not to see. The wanton destruction of wildflower communities, for example. The senseless felling of healthy trees. And, of course, the never-ending ritual of casual blood sacrifice. Today it’s “just” a snapper. Tomorrow, it could be you, or someone you love. After all, a driver’s license is a license to kill, and quite a few of our friends and neighbors really wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Aug 14 2012

It’s a Less Than Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood

First things, first. I’m not what you’d call a bleeding heart. I eat meat—though a lot less than I used to—and since I once worked in a cattle auction barn I understand where it comes from. I’m also a lapsed hunter. Plus I ride the mean streets on my bike most days, which can be a pretty Grand Guignol experience in its own right. So I’m no stranger to killing. Killing for food. Killing for sport. And the incidental, “accidental” killing that’s the hallmark of any transport system based almost entirely on the private automobile. But I’m not often privileged to see killing done in cold blood, killing done deliberately, maliciously, and with no other purpose than to eliminate something that just happens to be in the killer’s way, by whatever means lies most readily to hand.

Last week was the exception. Here’s the story: A town road runs past my office window. It was once a quiet byway, but in the last few years it’s become what the Brits call a “rat run,” a shortcut for impatient motorists who want to avoid a few seconds’ delay at the stop sign where the two state highways meet. And more recently, it’s also become a gathering place for a motley contingent of pigeons. Now as it happens, I’m not a pigeon fancier. But the pigeons were displaced by construction work nearby. They had to go somewhere, and they ended up hanging out in a bit of open land opposite my window. They scrat for grit in the road, too—and thanks to the town’s overgenerous application of sand throughout our largely snowless winter, there’s still plenty of that to be had.

The upshot? Sometimes motorists making the rat run have to brake in order to avoid striking a pigeon who’s in no hurry to move out of the way. And wonder of wonders, they almost always do. But last week one driver didn’t. In fact, when she found a pigeon scratting on the shoulder of the road ahead of her, she accelerated and jerked the wheel to make sure she stayed on target.

And she hit what she was aiming for, too. So there’s one less pigeon in the world to inconvenience motorists. The bird wasn’t killed outright, I’m sorry to say, but that didn’t seem to bother the driver, whose satisfied smirk was evident even at a distance of 30 yards.

My conclusion? Some motorists—a very small proportion, no doubt, but there are a lot of us around, so the total must run into the tens of thousands—are quite happy to use their cars to eliminate sentient obstacles in the road ahead of them. In other words, they’re convinced that a driver’s license is indeed a license to kill. Last week the obstacle in the road was a pigeon, but what about next week? Then it could be a cyclist. Me, for example. Or you. Or a five-year-old on a tricycle. Would the fact that her target now happened to be human make any difference to the smirking killer I glimpsed from my office window? What if she felt sure no one was around to hear the thud as her car struck flesh? Would it matter to her that the flesh was human flesh? I wonder.

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Jun 19 2012

Life Cycles: Reflections on Life Lived Amongst the Dead

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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