On a garden tour in June, I saw a gray birch in the corner of a suburban yard. The write up on the garden reported that the homeowners had been working hard with an arborist to keep the tree going. It sounded generous, but looking at the tree was unsettling. The trunk was easily twenty inches across, the lenticels drawn tight across the bark. The top of the tree was less a canopy than two bifurcating branches veering away from each other, each with a straggled tuft of leaves at their ends. It looked like the still photos of the Challenger explosion–a white slug of smoke forking into two. My sister, also on the garden tour, gave me a dubious look as we gazed up at the tree. “It’s grotesque,” she said. These trees aren’t meant to live long. Springing up after a disturbance in the forest, they live fast and die young while the sun lasts, generally not surviving past twenty years or so. “I think it’s saying, ‘kill me,'” I answered. Frowning, we moved on.
I’ve killed more things than I could count. Before my training as a veterinarian, I worked at a wildlife rehabilitation center. It’s something of a misnomer, by the numbers, since we had to euthanize far more than we released. The injuries and illnesses were often too severe by the time the animals reach our hands, to be saved. I’ve killed with carbon dioxide, with syringes full of barbiturates, with knives, with shovels, and with my hands. They are intimate sorts of killing, at close range. Sometimes they are outside my professional capacity. Once, while out on a run, a phoebe came fluttering out from the bushes. Chasing it, I caught it up and found a purple swelling of blood and muscle overlying a catastrophic break in the humerus right at the elbow. It would not be repairable. I knew I would have to kill this bird, but I kept walking for a hundred yards or so, the bird cupped in one hand. It takes a moment of preparation to ready myself for this sort of killing. I had only my hands, so I would have to break its neck, a technique in which I am confident, but which still makes my hands shake. Mercy argued for immediate dispatch. The bird in my hand was undoubtedly in the seizure of terror that comes with being clutched by an enormous predator. Some people say that wild animals feel fear, even desperate fear, but not fear of death because they don’t understand that death exists. That may be so, but when we fear death, acutely, immediately, not as an armchair musing, but as a flashing, tires screeching, dry-mouthed, dilated pupil fear, it’s not consciousness of mortality or oblivion coursing through us. It’s something much older. Something from back when the amygdala first evolved, those malevolent clenched fists in the center of the brain that existed even in the ancient armored fish, and the enormous carnivorous salamanders before the Permian extinction. Our consciousness and self-awareness, and existential dread, are elaborations, not replacements. They are the gloss on the old text. The fear you feel in your body is the fear, we must presume, that a phoebe feels in its body in my trembling hand as we walk together down the road.
At last, I was able to stop, lay the bird on a stump, set my fingers to the base of its skull and, with my other hand, grasp its body and pull until the release that signals the separation of the first vertebra from the occiput. This particular bird did no kicking or spasming, though these are common after cervical dislocation. This bird just lay there. I waited, just in case, and before I went on, I arranged it at the very center of the stump, hoping the little altar would draw the attention of a scavenger who might put it to some use. Though even if the larger scavengers didn’t come, the small ones, the ants and the burying beetles, would be by in time. Nothing goes to waste. I didn’t check the bird’s belly for a brood patch, the warm, edematous skin on the abdomen that indicates the bird has eggs or young in the nest. It was more than I cared to know, whether under the eaves somewhere, a clutch of phoebes had now begun dying, without even knowing it.
We learn, in vet school, that euthanasia comes from the Greek eu and thanatos: “good death.” I have meted out countless deaths to wild animals suffering grievous wounds. Some seem like good deaths, though the standards I have are rough: quickness, minimal pain, as far as I can tell. By those standards though, I think I have never administered a good death to a turtle, and if the standard is speed, then maybe turtles never die well. Turtles do everything slowly. In medicine, they heal slowly, recover from illness slowly, and when they die, they die slowly too. Turtles are otherworldly this way, and though their species group is ancient, it seems that every turtle individually is ancient too, as if each once had seen the whole unfurling of the world since the beginning of turtles, plodding through the ash and past the litter of dead dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, “hardly affected at all,” say the paleontologists. Plodding is no way to deal with cars though, so we often received turtles smashed into smithereens, loops of intestines and livers and eggs nearly ready to lay spilled all over the road, but with front legs still trying to haul the wreckage around, and the eyes still bright. One snapping turtle’s demolished body had to be brought to us in a tote bag, blood seeping through the canvas, and the parts all unrecognizable but for the head and neck still fearfully snaking around. How do you give a good death to such a creature, who does not need a functioning body to be alive? We can inject our good drugs, that kill birds in a moment, but a turtle will walk around for hours with the medicine in its veins. They may appear dead, lying immobile on the table, but the heart still thuds at long intervals, and a tap on the surface of the cornea elicits a blink. I found a painted turtle on the road once, mortally wounded, but likely with days yet to go before death would come, on turtle time. I had nothing but a shovel, and could sever its head if my aim were true. My aim was not true. The first blow only sheared the front of its face. The second hit home. But even then, it’s unclear when a turtle is dead. Fellow vets will often give the death drug, and then, when the turtle appears dead, introduce a metal probe into the brain and scramble it, whisking at the tissue until no further messages may be conducted. That must be death, we presume.
Is it speed? Is it painlessness that matters? The fox in the yard killed ten of our chickens. Some we never found, but others were headless on the lawn. The fox possessed expert speed. The chickens likely felt little pain, and in the moments of chase, were they more afraid than when a child chases them with a stick and they run? If that fox had not killed them, I would have, though not for a few more years of egg laying. Whether with a knife or the needle, I’d have dispatched them for their age and declining utility. But when the fox trots around the yard at night, and I see its dark tail disappearing into the grass, I will it not to look at me with its yellow eyes. The fox is beautiful, and I don’t begrudge it its fairly taken meals, but standing between the coop and it, I feel the shepherd’s dread.
I am not a student of philosophy to even a limited extent, but I am a student of death. I’ve read this bit of Seneca on the subject. “If someone pities those who have died, let him pity also those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor an evil; for only that which is something can be a good or an evil but what is itself nothing and reduces everything to nothingness, delivers us to no category of fortune.” (Seneca, Consolation to Marcia, 19) The state of nonbeing from whence we came, and back to which we must pass are not supposed to be different on either end. But they are. There was an eternity of non-being for that phoebe before it existed. There is an equal eternity now that it does not. What I did was shorten by less than a hair’s breadth the span of time the phoebe had to exist. The earth is the same; we are the same. There was darkness, then there was all this, and ultimately, when the sun dies, there will be nothing again. No humans, no turtles, no foxes, no chickens. We will all have been restored to the nothingness by then, and who would want to stick around for the heat death of the universe anyway?
Cling to that, be comforted by the abyss. Deliver unto it swiftly those whose suffering you may end. Does it matter what the last moments are like? The Challenger astronauts, we know now, survived the initial breakup of the shuttle. So much of the investigation afterward focused on when or if they might have lost consciousness. The NASA report reads, “It is possible, but not certain, that the crew lost consciousness due to an in-flight loss of crew module pressure.” Possible. We hope. Please let them have lost consciousness, we think, and not have felt the arc, and then the drop, and the freefall to the ocean where, at last, the impact shattered them, shearing their hearts from their aortas. Massive violence ending the terrible suspense. Is that a good death? The fox snaps the chicken’s neck expertly, with no thought of mercy. Cafeterias of school children and their teachers watch the smoke plume split and one side has people in it, alive, and possibly conscious. A phoebe sits inside the loosely closed fingers of a runner who lacks the courage to kill it right away. What do we do when we will one thing to die, or will another to live? Move the needle just a bit this way or that between the daylight and the dark. Oblivion chews too far into the brief bright band of a life; a child dies. We wish for a few hours more, or watching someone struggle for breath, for even a minute less. “Possibly conscious” might be the last shred of hope you cling to, or the most terrible torment that you can’t stop thinking about.
Oblivion claims nothing so absolutely as a wild thing. Nameless, leaving no stone or sign, no papers and whatnot. The paradox is that we fear death, or the state of being dead, partly because, we think, we’ll miss the people we leave, and partly because we will be annihilated. How can we hold both thoughts in our heads at once? Wild things die and are obliterated utterly. The unmourned, unnoticed, and unremembered dead. What was the phoebe’s last thought? Most likely the possibility of escape, even still. What is a birch tree’s last thought? Absurd to even consider. A birch tree springs up, gathers sun to make a body, collapses and rots. Twenty years. A turtle may live longer than an old, old person and take days to die, maybe longer. The inscrutable turtle smiles and I imagine our conversation as I carry him across the road to safety, “You know that story. There was that jolting, swaggering, pent up hare. He thought it was a race, but we all get to the same place eventually. It’s like your Goethe says, ‘Do not hurry; do not rest.'”