This essay is inspired by the ten years I spent in Western Massachusetts studying writing and biology.
The road is always lined with dead animals. Beneath the red maples bursting into velvet blossoms: groundhogs, possums, squirrels, rabbits; soaking into grass and pavement. Sometimes there’s a porcupine with its quills accusingly pointing in all directions, or a skunk I can smell from a mile away until I pass what’s left of its body, torn bits of black, red, and white. If I don’t see any animals on the road home from school, I feel a strange disappointment. Not because I want to see them dead, but because where else do I see so many? I’d miss the foxes and turkeys and coyotes if they weren’t turned over on themselves, dead and pulled at by crows.
I’m in school for writing and biology. I study the scientists and their strange motions and theories. These are crazy movements that wouldn’t make sense anywhere else, like spinning bits of mouse thymus gland in a machine. Or tearing the hindguts from termites. Hold the termite with tweezers and pull the long string of its guts out, then examine it under a microscope. There are important questions to be answered.
When you kill an animal in a lab, it’s called “sacrificing.” But sacrificing to what? To which god?
I don’t know, but it’s necessary, we say.
I know that you can’t always swerve your car on the way home to miss all the animals. Not at night, when the moths smack against my windshield, lured by the beauty of red and white headlights. The wings disintegrate into scales and dust, and the legs stay smashed and stuck until you smear them into oblivion with the wipers. Or when it rains and the black slip of road is covered in frogs, looking for food and each other. They burst so easily under the tires, that I don’t even know I’m hitting them. I know it’s happening, but it feels like nothing, and I can’t help it. Nothing should have to die that way.
At the Harvard Museum of Natural History, there are blown glass flowers, bird’s nests in glass cases, and huge and humbling dinosaur bones. In the lobby, there’s a greying skeleton of a sabertooth tiger. You’ll walk in, past the skeleton and the man at the desk will smile at you.
Here’s what else you’ll see: A hall of taxidermy. You’ll walk through quietly, because if you’re too loud, you might rouse the dead animals. There are heads on the walls. White rhino heads, water buffalo heads, bison heads. There are antlers that seems as long as you are tall. The air smells like sawdust, and everything is seized in place. You will think, at some point, I do not want to die alone.
The animals are grouped by family, not habitat. The polar bear is next to the grizzly and black and sun and sloth bears. The maned lion and its stuffed cub are propped up next to tigers and a leopard. There are cats you’ve probably never seen, nor even heard of; jagurundi, ocelot. Perhaps you will walk by them, look into their plastic eyes and still not see them. They’re posed in angry gestures, and their teeth are bared. They were fearsome
before they were killed. You’ll wonder if these were the looks on their faces before their faces went slack.
Next room, ungulates: black buck, oryx, eland, impala. Horns twist up and away in different paths toward Heaven. The ungulates look noble, even now with straw poking through the seams in their skin. Seams in their skin; lines you’re not supposed to see in the skin, the revelation that they’ve been emptied out.
You will feel unlucky.
To pass through the shadow of these animals is not something you’ll want to do. You’ll be captured and curious, but only if you’re a scientist who sacrifices animals each day will you feel immune in the shadows. The shadows are like doorways to a Wrong Place.
Did I say that the animals are dead? I take it back. They’re beyond death. Either more than dead or less.
And then you’ll find yourself in the hallway of extinct animals. There are no living versions to compare these to. The great auk – its beak could have been funny, it’s such a huge beak. The Eskimo curlew is here, the reconstructed dodo skeleton. At the end of the hall, two passenger pigeons huddle next to each other as if in love or cold.
You’ve seen pictures, maybe. Flocks of them so huge and dense that they blocked out the Sun. And in the pictures, too, are men with guns pointed up, trying to make a hole for the sky to come through.
The passenger pigeons are unremarkable. Pink feet, grayish feathers, nothing special if you’d see just one. But when they lived, you wouldn’t see just one. Like weather or a flood, they’d come in waves of thousands. Then they started to evaporate. There were ten, then four, then none.
The exhibit sits as if innocent. When you walk by, the fake black eyes of the passenger pigeons follow you. Your image walks upside down inside of them.
Sometimes I wonder why the animals don’t just kill us all. They could destroy us utterly in just a day. And on that day, every dog turns on its owner. Every insect flies into our homes and sinuses, every bear pushes down our doors and does away with us. One violent swipe, that’s it.
Maybe they’d begin to speak, to notice our habit of speaking, notice how it organizes us.
Imagine a word from the throat of something that has never spoken a word before.
The fish would flense our bones clean, the starlings and seagulls and hawks would smash our windows and kill our planes. The moose and antelope would pound our cars in, the snakes would snap at us. Even the snails and the slugs and leaches would patiently creep down our sleeping throats.
Soon our dogs would meet the wolves; our cats would go feral. Every building would be vacated and overrun with green grass, and deer would walk in calmly and eat there.
The road from school to my house in the woods is split each day by a huge train. When it passes, there’s no seeing to the other side; just a thick, blurring line and a loud, moaning whistle.
I’ve taken this train from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, and it makes its way through woods and past water. The ride is beautiful, but people don’t take the train much anymore. Why get onto a train when you can have your own little environment? You could have a car with a stereo or a truck you can put your stuff in. So across the country, there are dead tracks everywhere, like ribs sticking from sand.
Some people are wondering: what will happen if we need that railroad again? When cars can’t run because there’s no more gasoline or oil or rubber, maybe the train could save us from whatever mess we’re in. But maybe the tracks for trains are all torn up, and the blueprints for the tracks are torn up too, unreadable now, like our thoughts.
And then what?
This is not a polemic, it’s only a eulogy for the animals; we’ve all got little extinctions we take part in. There are the animals I’ve killed indirectly by eating. There are the animals I would say I’ve killed by accident, as if driving a car were an accident. There are the animals I killed on purpose, as if anything I’m about to tell you is a “purpose.”
I shot a dove with a bee-bee gun once when I was twelve. It was sitting on a branch, and then not. I walked to the tree it fell from, and it had curled itself into a prayer. Its head fell to the side when I picked it up.
With that same bee-bee gun, I shot a snake. I was fifteen, not twelve, and I should have known better. I caught it from a river and threw it on the ground and shot it in the head. It flipped and twisted like a fish held at the end of a line. But it didn’t die. It bared its little fangs and I shot it again. It didn’t die. I shot it again. The gun kept snapping the pellet out, but it wasn’t enough to kill the snake, which was not fragile like a dove. This is the hardest story for me to think of. That snake. Eventually my cousin pounded its head in with a rock and asked me why I’d done it. He hunted deer every winter but couldn’t understand why I’d shoot this snake. I mumbled that I thought it was killing the chickens on my father’s farm, but that was a lie. This little ribbon of a snake, cooling itself in a river. You can spend your whole life paying for a moment like that, for when you close your eyes, you think of it.
In between on purpose and by accident are my pets. My sister and I were allergic to fur, so we always had “exotic” pets. None of them died nor lived naturally.
One turtle was left in the car overnight. It froze to death. Another, the reverse: we left it in our backyard kiddie pool on a hot summer day. We came back to its dessicated husk. The lizards were poorly handled. They’d stop eating for some unknown reason or blackness would develop on their toes and spread up their legs.
My mother kept buying these animals for us to thrill at and feed crickets or mealworms or fruit to. And then we’d forget about them.
In the woods behind my house are all sorts of animals, and most of them stay hidden. At night, I’ll hear a coyote gurgle or a shuffling in the leaves and needles. Mostly they won’t come out from the tree line or from under the stones or from the branches. When they do, it leaves me breathless. I’m sitting on the steps to my back door and a deer emerges casually from the thick line of trees. He lowers and then lifts his head, then strolls away. A tree frog crawls up the side of my house and looks over its tiny shoulder at me. The screen door is covered by an explosion of green katydids, clicking and jumping onto my shoulders. A little snake comes to visit from under the steps.
How can they not care, I wonder. Why is everything in the world so forgiving?
The bees are dying. Maybe cellphones, but who cares, forget it. The cellphone towers are surrounded by the bodies of birds. Go to one and wade through their frail bodies. The fish are dying. Not just the overfished oceanic ones, but the fresh water ones too. Viral hemorhagic septicima, melting them from the inside. Maybe from the run off of shit from pig farms, where the pigs are stuck in hot metal cages, too small for them to turn around.
Hornets touch the window of my living room, but I’m not going near them to try to let them out. What if I get stung? They fall to the sill, so weightless that they could be blown away by an exhale. Just breathe and they’re gone.
When I’m at my most hopeless, I imagine the animals killing us. I imagine the world going back to what it was, only a few people left, huddled and figuring out what’s next. But if that happened, all these disasters and extinctions would show up again – because that old world, that world of grass and calm, is where all our errors emerged from in the first place. Disaster came from peace. But at least they’d have some time to rest. At least there would be no hornets in the sills or moths on windshields, no turtles left in cars, and no snakes shot and smashed.
* * *
I don’t live in the woods anymore. I’ve moved to San Francisco, maybe to get away from all those dead animals. Here, all the trees are gone, so you don’t have to worry about hitting animals. I’m sure some people consider this sensible. It’s the reverse of wanting to go back: Go so far forward, paving over everything, that you don’t have to think about animals anymore.
The sky is open and often cloudless. There are parking meters instead of saplings. There are billboards instead of mountains. There are flashing lights instead of birds chirping. What we can’t replace, we make a steel version of. When I tell people I miss the woods, they tell me about the mountain range, a forty minute drive from here. Or they tell me to go down to the docks by the shops and the tourists. Or they tell me to go to the park. The trains here seem more alive, but they don’t pass through woods. They slip into huge tunnels we’ve dug under the ground and lined with cement and tile.
The animals here are mostly pets. There are dog parks everywhere, and on the sidewalks there are people bending over to clean up after their dogs with plastic bags. Men stride through town with birds sitting on their shoulder and the birds are restrained by tiny leashes around their legs. Cats look lazily out of windows but never go outside.
The animals that are not pets are considered dirty and repulsive. People barely notice them, except when they’re avoiding them: Seagulls and rats, raccoons and mice. Roaches, house spiders, crane flies, sparrows.
Not passenger pigeons, but enough of them to darken the sky if they wanted to.
On that day they’ll refuse to clean the streets for us, to eat our garbage, refuse to have their toes mangled or to run away from our feet.
They’ll take to the sky together, and blot the Sun out like we’ve blotted out the stars with all our evening electric light. Swimming in and out of each other, feather touching feather, wing touching wing. The mass will be dotted with pink feet, pulled up close to their bodies. Thousands of them, farther than anyone can see, threading through the space between buildings and splitting the Earth from the sky like the train splitting my old town. They’ll whistle and coo, beaks open and drinking air. The wind will be musty and thick and smell like sawdust.
And on that day we’ll turn to our friends and loved ones. We’ll look up and scratch our heads and breathe the hot air. We’ll believe and not believe all at once. Then we’ll turn to our pets, who are looking up too. Our dogs will be fixed to the sight, and we’ll wonder why they’re not barking. We’ll reach to pet them.
“Hello,” they’ll say.