"Our Absent Friends" Archives

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).


Further Reading


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Oct 25 2010

Beyond the Beauty Strip for October 2010
Hidden in Plain Sight

When we’re behind the wheel, it’s easy to fall into “Don’t look, don’t see” mode. A car enwombs driver and passenger alike, insulating them from the many of the sights, sounds, and smells of the world around them. Not long ago a driver ran down a cyclist, dragging her several hundred yards. The driver continued on without stopping, thinking, she later said, that she’d just hit a deer or a dog. Only when she got home and discovered a bicycle lodged under her SUV did it dawn on her that she’d struck a human being. (The cyclist died of her injuries, by the way, but the driver wasn’t charged. Apparently, this was a mistake any driver could make.)

Only a deer. Only a dog. Only a cyclist. Life is cheap on America’s highways, and the open road is littered with the bodies of the ones who didn’t get away. Not many cyclists are left where they fall, of course. We still have enough respect for human life to collect their remains, if not enough to prosecute their killers. (A mistake anyone could make.) But our other victims mostly remain on the asphalt where they died, food for crows and other scavengers. Which is, after all, only the natural order of things. Still, it’s hard not to be struck by the evidence of the automobile’s power to kill and main.

Unless, of course, you choose not to see. But this easy option isn’t open to cyclists. We can’t help but see what lies on the road we ride on. And if the dead have lain in the sun for very long, we can smell them, too.

Which means that many cyclists only know our rarer and more elusive species of animals because they’ve seen them lying dead on the highway—or struggling to get across a busy road before a speeding car crushes them beneath its wheels. How many riders have seen a snapping turtle anywhere except on the highway? Or a living shrew, darting in and out of the deep forest duff, in its never-ending quest for enough food to fuel a heart that beats hundreds of times a minute?

Me? I’m one of the lucky ones. I know these animals when they’re “at home.” But I still see far more of them dead on the road before me. Maybe you’ve never made the acquaintance of a shrew. OK. Here’s one that didn’t make it:

Too Small to See

Or maybe you’ve never seen a weasel going about his business, sinuous and sleek, patrolling the rocky shore of a river or hunting under the pines? Well, if you haven’t, it’s not really a surprise. Weasels move fast, and they hunt by stealth and guile. They’re not easy to see. But this one—a least weasel—had no trouble holding still for my camera:

To Hunt No More

Then again, he didn’t have much choice, did he?

And what about birds? Cedar waxwings aren’t rare, and while they prefer wild fruit, they’re sometimes seen at feeders. But they’re shy. It’s hard to get near them. I didn’t have any trouble getting close to this one, though:

To Sing No More

He died in my hands after being struck by a car.


Don’t get me wrong. I like riding. I really do. But each ride adds to an already overlong list of absent friends. And each small body that I scoop up and carry off the road to some grassy patch on the verge reminds me just how vulnerable we all are. A fumbled cell phone, a flirtatious tickle in the ribs, the cry of a colicky child in the back seat… Too many drinks, too many hours without sleep, too many pills,… And then it’s Did I hit something back there? Must have. Helluva bang. Still, it was probably just a dog or a deer. Too late to stop now. Couldn’t do anything, anyway. I’ll check out the damage when I get home. Have to keep the wife (or the boyfriend or the boss or the insurance) from finding out, too. Damn!

Meanwhile, a few miles back, something unseen drags itself slowly and painfully toward the refuge offered by nearest roadside ditch.


Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were it’s teeth concealed?
You seem to ask. …
        I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws your were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.

      Philip Larkin, “Myxomytosis”



How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? And how many of us really want to? After all, it can be downright painful to see what lies just outside the frame of the photos in the tourist board’s brochures. But if you ride a bike along the highway, hike less-traveled trails, paddle on public waterways, or just walk the city streets to do your shopping and pick up the mail, then you really can’t avoid seeing what lies in front of your eyes, can you? And maybe that’s a good thing.

In any event, we think it’s worth the effort. To that end, Tamia Nelson’s Outside will take another look “Beyond the Beauty Strip” every month. And any number can play. So if you have an example that you’d like to share, please send it along.

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