It's kind of appropriate that it happened on Good Friday. For all the joy of the spring season and the hope it brings for new life, every now and then we need a reminder: before rebirth must come death. But that does not stop us from celebrating. The poet Hart Crane calls this natural inclination our "compulsion of the year."
The further a people move from their literal and spiritual connections with the earth and the outdoors, the easier it is for them to ignore the fact that in nature, things die, whether man is present to witness the deaths or not.
One spring morning in the 1990s, I noticed a clump of feathers in our driveway as I left for work. This was during a period of one of the earlier debates about dove hunting in the state, and opponents of hunting were painting some kind of an idyllic image of animals and nature, one that implied basically that "if we don't kill them then they don't suffer."
Looked as if the dead dove in our driveway had wrung its neck on the telephone wire. A couple years later, nobody did anything to the little, bald bird that had fallen from its nest onto our deck. I tried to warm it and make it comfortable, but it was a goner, too.
So much for idyllic images.
Last Friday as I gathered kindling, I noticed a clump of feathers, kind of pretty, blue and white, huddled in the sunlight on a small patch of snow. So tightly was this little tree swallow holding itself that its head was tucked way down beneath a wing. It appeared to be shivering.
Hoping all was not lost, I found a small stick and touched the bird lightly. It flew off about 10 feet away. Good. It could still move if it had to.
I left it there and headed to the garage where my office is. On the way in, passing the beer refrigerator, I recalled the bird that has remained in a plastic bag in the freezer since last spring. We had found it dead on our deck, and I couldn't identify it. I haven't made the time to contact the local Audubon Society representative to help me identify it. And so it sits in frozen repose. As cold and impassive as nature itself.
In my office, I tried to put the swallow out of my mind, but the other images that took its place did little to help.
On my desk sits a form, an autopsy report on a little raccoon I shot in the spring of 2006. It was hanging around, looked sickly and was much less active than its two siblings that would scamper away as we approached. We thought we needed to insure our dogs' safety in case the little guy was rabid. The DNR classifies raccoons the same as skunks and opossums: "nuisance animals". Gotta' deal with them on your own.
So I did. And our rocky shore made it unwise to try to plug the little fella' with a .22 bullet. So I shot it with something else. And even though the DNR's autopsy found an unidentified "dark substance" in the raccoon's belly, the thought that "it would have died soon anyway," remains conjecture, and its blood remains on my hands.
And just a few weeks ago, we discovered a grown raccoon in our garbage dumpster. After two days of thinking about it, I finally realized I could put a tree limb in there at an angle and the raccoon could climb out. Trouble is, the temperatures went down to zero the second night, and I arrived with the tree ladder only to find the raccoon curled up and dead, having frozen, apparently, during its night in the cold steel box. Not my fault, but I can't help but feel guilty.
On Friday after a couple hours' of work, I decided to go check up on our little swallow. As I approached the spot where I had left him, I couldn't see him. Good! He had flown off. But then I noticed - feathers. Iridescent blue feathers spread out over a three square foot area. Wing feathers and breast feathers. Something had found the little bird. And the bird had died so that something else could live. Yeah, yeah, the circle of life. I get it. But the bird still had to die.
By this time each year, we have usually been blessed by two of my favorite harbingers of spring, the woodcock and the cranes. Not this year though. And though the sun has made its way back around the point and is heading north on the horizon, without the dance of the woodcock and "karook" of the cranes, spring and the new life it brings remain indefinite nouns in my notebook.
The turkey vultures have returned. But of course they feed on carrion. So as long as they remain in the area that means things have died to becoming their lunch.
It's difficult to develop an idyllic image of nature when you live so close to it.