Dead or alive

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it. ~ Henry David Thoreau

I keep forensic evidence of the two murders I’ve committed hanging in an art gallery in the corner of the cabin.

The first murder happened when I was doing 55 miles per hour in a 35 zone, within a mile of arriving home after another long day of work, taking the curves of the canyon a bit too fast in an attempt to shorten the hour-long commute by a minute or two. The twists and turns of that road were so familiar, having driven it hundreds of times in all conditions, that my confidence sometimes got the best of me. I must’ve picked up that strand of DNA from Mom. We always accused her of driving fast in the canyon, but it wasn’t until I began to spend long stretches of time at the cabin that I realized she drove fast in only one direction. She loved the mountains and couldn’t wait to “get there,” but when it was time to close up the cabin to go home, the drive back down the canyon was languid and melancholy and pedestrian.

I knew from the moment the red fox bounced from the right shoulder of the road, given the lack of time I had to react, it wasn’t going to turn out well for him. We surprised each other at the same time. He was running straight into the lane but seemed to sense there was a chance to turn back, which he did. For about half a second. Inexplicably, perhaps confused at how quickly it all transpired, his fight or flight response misfired, and at the very last moment, he veered back into my path. The right front tire, turning at 750 revolutions per minute, rolled him with a thunk.

My heart sank.

As a conservationist, fly-fisherman, and erstwhile mountain man, I love wild animals, dead or alive. Of course, I’d prefer to see them alive. Sure, I’ll knock a fish on the back of its skull with the handle of my knife if I’ve decided to have it for dinner, which may happen once or twice a year, but for the most part my experience is always better when wild animals are doing what they are meant to do. Living their life in the woods, doing what they need to do to survive. Killing each other if necessary. I remember finding a deer carcass in the yard after being away from the cabin for a few weeks. Well, hardly a carcass. There were shreds of skin and fur, a femur, pieces of backbone and rib cage. And cat prints in the snow surrounding the carnage. Big cat prints. It reminded me to keep my eyes open whenever I headed out to the river or up a trail.

The morning after hitting the fox, I walked the mile down the canyon road to find him still there, pretty much undamaged with the obvious exception of being dead. The area is fairly remote, and it was late in the day when we met, so there had been little to no traffic in the interim. I pulled him to the edge nevertheless so he wouldn’t be flattened and where he would serve as nourishment for magpies and crows and maggots, all of whom would be out of harm’s way of the humans who drive the canyon too fast. His tail was beautiful, bushy and colored rusty red from his back, mixing with white strands of fur further down and ending in a black tip. I walked back home, picked up a pair of large shears, and returned to sever the tail, figuring that keeping it was a gesture of honoring a creature that met his demise by my hand.

His tail now hangs affixed to a club-shaped piece of wood in a gallery of art pieces that I curate just inside the back door next to the fishing closet. These artifacts, about four or five that hang there, all have animal parts woven into their design. It’s a collection of so-called “forest weapons”, as they all seem to have utility for some sort of rustic-style hand to hand combat in the woods. I happen to think the pieces are quite lovely. Then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I have a club fashioned from a malignant tree burl, a hatchet of twisted driftwood, and a talking stick with beady eyes and devil’s horns. A couple of the forest weapons are adorned with wild turkey feathers from a big tom I found one morning along the road, that apparently had been struck by a vehicle the evening before. There are also bones and leather wraps and beads worked into the motif of most of these pieces. My family tolerates this odd fetish, allowing me to have a few square feet of space in the cabin to express some primal desire to imagine myself a hundred years ago running around a remote wilderness in a loincloth, counting coup when doing battle with the other tribes. It is not normal. What self-respecting individual would see dead animals as a salvage opportunity, and to repurpose them into strange looking pieces of art that cause sensible people—meaning most everyone else besides me—to do a double take and worry slightly about how intact my faculties really are? But then I have never claimed to be normal.

Finding the dead turkey and his array of long, beautiful feathers was a bit of a surprise as I don’t believe they are actually truly native to this neck of the woods. Years ago, a local handyman, Gary Armes, introduced a small flock, technically a rafter, of wild turkeys on Bliss Ranch a couple of miles away where he was caretaker. Gary apparently thought they were interesting and fun to watch and occasionally put out feed to sustain the flock and keep them close. This was a clandestine operation. My guess is he surreptitiously harvested one every year around the holidays but was careful enough to keep that under wraps as it was certainly illegal. And just plain unethical the way I see it. Feed ’em enough so they’re semi-tame, then take one out with a Remington .410 from a sitting position on the porch rocking chair. Doesn’t seem fair. Like shooting fish in a barrel. Like careening around a corner at 55 miles per hour. At least my murder was unintentional. The story goes that the Division of Wildlife caught on to his routine and told him to cease and desist, which he did. But life finds a way, and the flock has maintained a fairly robust presence in the canyon.

The best thing about dead animals and roadkill, especially if you can find the animal fairly unsullied, is the opportunity to get up close and personal. No way to hold a fan of turkey feathers or stroke the softness of a fox tail if the beast is alive. For the most part, the live version has to be observed from a distance, and in the places I explore, the best time to see animals are at the peripheries of light at daybreak and dusk, where they are drawn to the relative safety of the shadows. Relative being the operative word. I believe the mule deer taken by the mountain lion in my yard was attacked at dawn or dusk rather than in the stark light of midday. Predators find the shadowy moments of the passing day productive for the same reason prey find they offer a bit of protection. That’s the way it works in the wild. We’re all trying to find the advantage required to survive.

So, the first murder was unintentional. In human terms I suppose it would be classified as manslaughter by culpable negligence. I’m convinced had I not been speeding, the fox would have survived. The fifty-five pound beaver I killed in a snap trap was murder in the first degree by any definition, premeditated and intentional. At the tail end of an Indian Summer, the beavers in the yard were active, damming spillways and creating marvelous beaver habitat. They are a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and I welcomed their presence. Five weeks later, upon returning to the property following a short sabbatical in the desert southwest, I counted sixty aspen scissored down by my web-footed neighbors. The yard looked a hell of a lot different with sixty trees missing. It reminded me of a joke my buddy tells, a boast from someone who has developed decent skills with a chain saw.

“Have you ever heard of the Sahara Forest?”

“You mean the Sahara Desert?”

“Yeah, well…now it is!”

I had tolerated the growing family of beavers in the water around the cabin. They are rodents, after all, but some of the most intelligent creatures and talented engineers. Native Americans revered the beaver. They knew that the habitat beavers created are the ‘kidneys of the earth’, purifying water and regulating its flow. They noticed that beavers are highly social creatures that develop extended family groups, where aunts and uncles from earlier litters share in the colony’s caretaking responsibilities for the youngest kits. Adults carry their kits away from danger, clasped to their chests with their front paws. They warn them of aquatic predators by slapping their tails on the water. They bring green food to the kits, when they are too small to leave their lodge. They cuddle them and call gently to them. For these reasons, Native Americans called them the ‘little people.’

But looking over the damage to the yard, I was in no mood for sustaining my compassion for our coexistence. I felt I was being taken advantage of and my yard was being compromised. I mean, that was sixty knee-high, sharpened spikes that took a chain saw and a couple hours of work to mitigate the risk of being skewered while putzing around the yard. A good friend and I set the trap and got him the first night.  I marveled at the size of him, his orange incisors, soft fur, and rubbery paddle of a tail. But once again, the guilt of committing murder on something that was only trying to do his job and provide for his family was deeply impacting. A sense of shame washed over me.

Wildlife encounters offer an incomparable sense of connection to the natural world. Moose and mule deer walk through the yard, depending on the season, on a nearly daily basis. It may have something to do with the salt lick in the gully next to the stream formed from a network of seeps converging from the slopes above. The deer are pretty cautious, but the moose don’t spook easily, and why would they? They’re the biggest creature around with few natural predators in the canyon. They have this attitude like “what, you gonna come at me…?” Maybe the big cat that killed the deer could make younger moose skittish, but there’s nothing or no one that would tangle with the massive, mature bulls that occasion the lick.

On those mornings where I’m up and out the door early, when the gray-blue pre-dawn light nudges life awake, I see more animals than at any other time of day. I’ve watched a mother river otter with her trailing pups, staying a step ahead as they tried in vain to grab the rainbow trout that dangled from her jaws. Elk trot through the tall grasses of a marshy meadow, spitting up sprays of water. And the beaver continue to multiply, constructing dam after dam along the streams of the valley. I allow them to ply the still ponds of their domain, loudly slapping their paddles when they spot me, before diving quickly to their multiple pathways of ditches and holes and underwater refuges.

When I’m out the door early enough that a headlamp is needed, I will occasionally catch a glowing, orange pair of eyes, appearing suspended in midair as the dark masks the animal itself. I have learned to identify the species by the movement of the two beady reflections. Bobcat eyes are steady and purposeful as this efficient hunter pads surreptitiously through his domain, confident in his position on the local food chain. Coyote eyes move quickly, furtively. I pick up their beady glows here, then a few yards away in a matter of seconds, then again further down. Their nervousness and caution are at the heart of their survival mechanism. One early morning I caught two gleaming points halfway up a bush across the road, thinking it was a castaway bauble caught in the branches. I approached slowly and ended up eye to eye with a pygmy owl about four feet away. We remained still awhile, each considering the other, until she lifted away.

Magical encounters with wildlife offer connection. Even the random discovery of bones or other remains stirs a primal instinct.  I have a nice javelina skull from the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona, a couple of canine skulls, perhaps coyote and fox, and the skull of the beaver I trapped is an excellent specimen, stripped of the last vestiges of fur clinging to the bone, boiled in the turkey fryer to loosen the remaining dried brain matter, and finished with a brush to smooth the bone and brighten the long, burnished orange incisors. The friends I can count on I can count on one hand, but fewer yet of those would understand this madness about me. But I’ve never questioned what could be considered the inanity of harvesting dead animal parts. I think it is just. A favor to the spirit of the animal. Something of a reincarnation. As I ultimately face my own demise, I will pay no heed to being judged, knowing that if I am, I will be acquitted by all of this circular energy of life and death and resurrection moving haphazardly through time and space.