Ritual

Calliope Hummingbird
Sketch of dead female Calliope Hummingbird found outside my house window, Eugene, Oregon, U.S.A., 1981.

Lisa of Field Notes posted an account of her encounter with a dead raccoon that had been hit by a car and how she was moved to stop and take it off the road. The story reminded me of Barry Lopez’s essay “Apologia”, from his book, “About This Life: Journeys to the Threshold of Memory”, and both Lopez’s essay and Lisa’s struck a recurring chord in me.

Just the other day I was walking to work and passed the crushed and flattened body of a pigeon that had been hit by a car and run over multiple times, until it was recognizable only by the splash of its grey feathers.

So many animals I’ve seen downed by cars, all over the world. In Japan it’s mainly birds and large insects, hit by cars or ramming into windows and street lights. In America it’s raccoons, squirrels, skunks, armadillos, deer, opossums, seagulls… In Europe it’s hedgehogs, badgers, pheasants, foxes, jackdaws… I still remember finding a badger in Northumberland, its paw still soft and warm, like a baby’s hand, and blood leaking out its eyes. I called the animal rescue service; there was, of course, nothing they could do.

On my walks I try to keep an eye out for where I step and for creatures that might benefit from a bit of helping hand. Grasshoppers, spiders, cicadas and cockchafer beetles sprawled on their backs, even bold-faced hornets, all get the tip of my finger to grab onto and hitch a ride into the verge bushes. On the trains, when a butterfly or hoverfly find themselves baffled by the false lights and cannot find their way out, I will swallow my embarrassment in front of all those unconcerned people (who nevertheless shriek when the insects get too close) and lift them to safety. Bees and wasps always present an entertaining diversion, because no one around me can understand how I would risk getting near them. It’s not risk for me, though; if you know how to move and to anticipate them there is no danger. I have never been stung. Can’t say the same for the people…

But the numbers of the dead always outnumber the living.

Perhaps the most searing memory of roadside death occurred while I was still living in Oregon, back in 1984. I was driving with a friend around the Dexter Lake area just after sundown. My friend was talking and driving and not keeping her eye on the road. Suddenly there was a loud thump on my side of the car. My friend slammed on the brakes and the car screeched to a halt. We opened our doors at the same time. I stepped out onto the tarmac and looked back. From the darkness came a high pitched screaming, like a woman with a very high voice. I trotted toward the sound and came upon a raccoon writhing on the ground, her stomach split open and her guts spilled over the pavement. I kneeled down, horror struck. My stomach heaved.

From behind came my friend’s voice. “What is it?”

“It’s a raccoon.”

“A raccoon? Is it hurt?”

“Yes. It’s not going to make it.”

A short pause. Then, “Well, let’s get out of here then. It’s cold. And that sound is awful!””

I didn’t say anything. The raccoon continued screaming and writhing, aware of me, and attempting to drag itself away. Its urine had spilled out. Suddenly across the road, from the grass I saw two pairs of eyes… her cubs. They watched unmoving, without a sound.

I stood up.

“What are you doing?” asked my friend. “Come on, let’s go!”

“I’ve got to do something.”

I stepped into the grass opposite the cubs and felt around for a stone. I quickly found one that fit in my grasp like a loaf of bread. The screaming behind me cut off, followed by quick gasps.

I stepped back onto the road, wielding the stone, and made my way over to the raccoon, who was sprawled halfway across the road now, a trail of blood painting a wet swath on the asphalt. I knelt down beside her and reached out to touch her fur. It was warm and soft, like down. Her ribs heaved quickly. Her tongue lolled from between her teeth. Her breath wheezed now.

Closing my eyes I lifted the stone and brought it down on her head. I felt the crunch of the bone and the jerk of her muscles. I lifted the stone away and stood up. Silence. An awful, nauseous hole bored into my stomach. I lifted the stone and tossed it into the grass, then kneeled down again, ripped out a wad of grass stalks, and then lifted the limp, wet body. As gently as I could, I carried it toward the cubs, but they dashed away at my approach, one of them mewling quietly. They disappeared into the surrounding shadows.

I lay the body down in the grass, away from the reach of car-strewn dust, under a blackberry bush. With a stick (I just couldn’t bring myself to do it with my fingers) I did the best I could to push the innards back into the gash in her abdomen. I sat back on my haunches and silently apologized to her, tried to find words to make some kind of recompensation. What came out was an awkward, self-conscious prayer. Then I stood up and headed back to the car.

I said nothing to my friend, just wiped my hands on the dry grass, got in and waited for her to join me. Without a word she started up the car. We made a u-turn and headed back to town.

Nineteen years later that event still flashes through my mind. It was perhaps one of the most authentic experiences I’ve ever had with a wild mammal. And one of the most troubling.

I am still unsure how to utter a proper prayer.


Raccoon Skull
India ink and scratchboard drawing of young male raccoon skull. Body found and moved off the road in Lincoln, Massachusetts. A year later, returned and found the skull. Cleaned it in bleach. Drawn in Watertown. Massachusetts, 1988.

8 Responses

  1. A very evocative post — thank you. The sketches remind me of one walk along the Oregon coast during which I found myself photographing dead sea birds and fish and crabs — so beautiful, but so dead. It was unnerving, but I felt compelled to record their deaths somehow.

    I too pick up bees (on leaves — I’m still timid) and worms and other creatures that have found themselves in the wrong part of the world and move them to safer havens, and worry about ants that hitchhike inadvertently on my backpack to a place far from colony and kin. I used to be embarassed by this; now I am only self-conscious. Someday, perhaps, I will not think about it, but simply do it, with no concern for the eyes of watchers, both external and internal.

    The world lost a lot when we began to imagine animals as things or, worse, as irrelevant.

  2. I think we’re on the same plane today, Miguel. I was moved by Lisa’s post as well, with a resulting blog post.

    How did a great Red-tailed Hawk
    come to lie – all stiff and dry –
    on the shoulder of
    Interstate 5?

    Her wings for dance fans.

    Zac skinned a skunk with a crushed head
    washed the pelt in gas; it hangs,tanned, in his tent.

    Fawn stew on Hallowe’en
    hit by a truck on highway forty-nine
    offer cornmeal by the mouth;
    skin it out.

    Log trucks run on fossil fuel.

    I never saw a Ringtail til I found one in the road
    case-skinned it with the toenails
    footpads, nose, and whiskers on;
    it soaks in salt and water
    sulphuric acid pickle;

    she will be a pouch for magic tools.

    The Doe was apparently shot
    lengthwise and through the side-
    shoulder and out the flank
    belly full of blood.

    Can save the other shoulder maybe,
    if she didn’t lie too long-

    Pray to the spirits. Ask them to bless us:
    our ancient sisters’ trails
    the roads were laid across and kill them:
    night-shining eyes

    The dead by the side of the road.
    – Gary Snyder

  3. I was deeply moved by this post, I found myself standing with those wee ones watching your dispair and confusion and feeling their want.

    I am known to turn round and go back to what may be a road kill to check and then pick it up with the spade I carry in the car and carry it to a bush to join the Earth. I too have killed a half dead creature to lessen it’s agony more than once.
    I always just say “May your energy be enlarged and joined in the Whole” as way of marking the death even if I am driving past an already very dead creature.
    I talk to the wild birds and other small creatures I meet when I am out and about, always ask a worms forgivness when Idisturb its home and thank it for it work in my garden. When I pick flowers fruits or vegetables I always say thank you and do try to make all the creatures who share my garden and the places where I walk lives I honour.
    I cannot say I as considered as a Jain but I like their philosphy of taking care of all life.

  4. My daughter, when little, had to rescue every single earthworm from drowning or stranding on the sidewalk when there had heavy rains. Took us half an hour to walk a block. I don’t know if it was delightful or infuriating. Depended on how much of a hurry we were in, I guess.

    It is really nice to be with my Buddhist sangha, here in town or out on the retreat land, and have the rescue of insects be a matter of course.

  5. The proper prayer? This post comes pretty close, Miguel. I love the scratchboard drawing, also, and together, I think it’s done. All those you have touched with it have spoken the prayer also, by reading it, by seeing, hearing what you heard, wondering if they might have had the courage to find that stone and then wield it. With a mouse, I would. I’m not sure about a raccoon. But I think I will if I ever have to, now, thanks to you.

  6. What a moving story, it is no surprise that the memory has stuck with you for so long. It seems to have been a defining moment of sorts, as the decision to euthanize that mother raccoon, in the presence of her cubs, was certainly discomforting. I think that you made us all wonder if we could have done the same, and as such to question our own sense of empathy.
    The fact that this happened in the presence of a friend made it interesting as well. I wonder if your friendship was ever the same…

  7. This was very touching. Your beautiful writing and drawings show how deeply you care about nature and life…

    Thanks for sharing.

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