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Last week, the boys and I did an overnight in the White Mountains. We broke what is generally a day hike for adults into two days, staying overnight at the Nauman tent site down the shoulder from Mt. Pierce. We arrived at 2pm, with hours to go before our supper, and still longer to sleep. Boredom sets in, and they whittled sticks into supports for a tiny lean-to, and Simon found a slug to live in it. He built a bridge of sticks and then smashed it. He found a spoon in the woods.

Malcolm, at nine, can hike at an impressive speed, but his seven year old brother still whinges and foot drags if given too ambitious a course, or too heavy a pack. We modulate, though he too is remarkable in what he can do. They are of an age now that I think I might possibly miss one day. So far, I have never felt that sensation. I have never missed having babies or toddlers, and have found the ever increasing freedom of older kids to be liberating. Both kids are now in the window of elementary age where they are easy to tend, independent, but still unabashedly enjoy our company. They still want to be read to, and the books are actually good.

IMG_8442.JPGIn the tent that evening, Simon sat next to me silently, looking down at the New York Times word puzzle we were working on. He made “clout” and “trout” of the letters after several minutes of hard staring. They read by headlamp for a while before sleeping.

In the morning, Malcolm was trying to zip his pant legs back up and couldn’t get the zipper to unjam. Exasperated, he threw up his hands and said, “Mom, can you help me?” and I found myself leaping to the task. He is nine, and almost preternaturally self-assured and mature. To be asked for help by this boy particularly sprang something inside me. I know the times when he will think to ask me for help are dwindling, as are the nights I will spend reading to him of bands of pirate ghosts and teenage boys in perilous wilderness situations. I don’t know if either of them will continue to want to join me on these trips. I suspect Malcolm, at least, will, but I have seen enough craigslist ads for youth backpacking equipment “used once; he didn’t like it,” to be a realist.

As we ate our breakfast, I heard sounds in the trees unlike the red squirrels and usual birds. This was a purposeful sound, and I turned to see six or seven gray jays gliding down the ridge and into the spruces around us. The first dropped onto Simon’s arm and lunged at his food. One jumped to me and jabbed a chisel beak into my granola. Malcolm mantled like a raptor over his own energy bar, but Simon gleefully offered up our expensive dried figs and apricots. A boy from the next site stood staring and I gestured to him to see if he wanted to offer them a morsel. He mutely shook his head, mouth open.

After a few moments, I thought to take a picture or a video of Simon’s beaming face, giggling as the birds leaped between his hands and the trees. But my phone was frozen. I pressed the button over and over, and could watch Simon through the screen, but nothing was captured. I powered the phone down, thinking a restart would help, and went back to watching Simon while I waited.

The birds yanked a few more bits of food free from our hands, but then, suddenly as they had come, they moved on to the tents further down the ridge. It was clearly their daily routine, arriving and making their systematic plundering, moving on.

After they were gone, my restarted phone had indeed regained its photographic capacity. It was as if the birds had drawn an electronic disturbance in with them when they came, and that dissipated once they left. The birds had broken the ice between Simon and the boy who’d been watching, Henry, who now became his fast friend for the morning.

We packed up and headed off for our seven mile trek up over Pierce and Eisenhower, plodding at our 1 mile per hour pace in the humid day above treeline.

IMG_8460I thought about the gray jays all day. I thought about all the people who say, “cherish every moment,” about raising children as Simon and Malcolm bickered, and Simon whined for snacks, and Malcolm strained at the bit to walk faster than his brother was able. Children plunder you, ransack your life. They are messy, boring, tedious, and exhausting. Not every moment is precious. If I’d been told my children would remain toddlers forever, I would have wanted to die. The gray jays didn’t stay as long as I wanted them to, sweeping in from the trees, bead-eyed, the youngest one disheveled in molt. They moved on before I was quite ready. Their presence was outsized; they seemed larger than they were, more than their weight, which was never greater than when they pushed off us to go.

Solitary animals

Last week, I went off on my annual solo overnight backpacking trip in the time between when I finish teaching and when my kids finish school. I headed up to the trailhead on Haystack Rd. to hike over North Twin mountain on my way to Garfield Ridge. Easy walking brought me to a crossing of the Little River that, though not at all high water, looked daunting. This was not a dry footed crossing. A sign across the water clearly indicated where the trail picked up again, but on my side, a bootleg trail ran up along the water’s edge where countless hikers had paced up and back, nervously scouting for a better crossing spot. There were none to be had, but I also followed the worn herd path out of the same vain hope. I passed a garter snake, to which I spoke briefly. I turned back after a while, trying to find the main trail and the official crossing spot again. The trails faded and reappeared, approached and left the river’s edge. I looked for the turn where I had taken a little connecting path, and saw the same snake. Normally, animals make poor landmarks, but this one was distinctively teal blue in its markings, and was sunning himself just where I’d left him. I thanked him and faced the river again.

IMG_8297 2There was nothing for it but to roll up my pants, unbuckle my pack straps, and pick my way across. For part of the way, there were rocks to step on just under the surface, but most of the time, I had to cross in water mid-way up my shins. I gripped my trekking poles, probing with them into pockets in the rocks, and I heard the Voice of Authority in my head saying, “Six inches of fast moving water can knock a person over.” Stepping down in places, my leg went sideways. Moving up river, I fought the drag of my waterlogged shoes. I reached the other shore. There were two more crossings like this, and I cursed the trail, and tried to trust in the wisdom of the trailwrights. After the second crossing, I met a woman coming down the trail toward me. “Have you seen a bald guy?” she asked. “I haven’t seen a soul,” I told her. She kept going, and then five minutes later I heard her behind me again. “No sign?” I asked. “We’ve been crossing back and forth at different places. We were scratching notes in the dirt, Bs and Es, but I haven’t seen anything in a while.” I didn’t see her again after that, but I did come upon her symbol in the dirt: a capital E with an arrow showing which way she’d gone. I decided her name was Evelyn, though this was ludicrously old fashioned for how young she was. Her hiking partner was Bald. I never saw his sign in the dirt. After a mile, even her signs disappeared. I wondered about Evelyn and Bald, star-crossed river crossers braiding their paths into the mountains. Was Bald her friend? Husband? Father? I was alone on the trail again, thinking solitary thoughts about what I would do if I were the last person on Earth. Probably commit suicide. Though how to know you’re the last? What if there’s a small, tenacious community somewhere in Mongolia and you go and kill yourself? But then, they’re dead to you because how would you reach them? There are no pilots, no captains to bring you across, and the Bering land bridge is currently closed.

IMG_8300 2I got up over North Twin and then to South Twin, which had been socked in by fog when I last came through a year or so before. I stopped in to Galehead Hut for water and to talk with passers-through and to choke down a meal bar that gave a chemical burn sensation in the throat. Then I headed for Garfield Ridge campsite a few miles on. My overnight there was quiet, and I was up at 4 to head back down. I’d decided I never wanted to cross the Little River again, so I took the Gale River trail down instead, electing to take a long road walk at the bottom to my car. For the last two trail miles, I followed moose tracks in the mud, smeared over and fresher than any human ones. Big as plates, each a cloven heart, they pointed down the trail where I looked and looked, hoping to see my first ever of the giant creatures. By 7:15 I was at the Gale River trailhead, crestfallen at the kiosk map that indicated a much longer road walk than my map had shown. I began trotting down the road, walk-running and calculating how long it would take to cover the five or so miles. A pickup truck came trundling up the gravel and a man leaned out the window to ask the way to Galehead parking, and I told him he was very nearly there, and then, making a fast assessment, determined him to be neither rapist nor killer, and asked if he’d give me a lift back to my car.

IMG_8302 2His name was Stephen King, a name, he tells me, that gets hotel clerks’ attention when he calls to book a room. The cab was strewn with hiking gear, maps and old water bottles. I’d never been as grateful for transportation. On the slow ride over dirt roads, he told me about his misadventures—hypothermic staggerings in Vermont, a November fall into the icy, cursed, Little River, sleeping on the porches of empty summer cottages along the Appalachian Trail, encounters with many, many snakes. On Route 3, just as we prepared to turn off onto another dirt road, I saw a moose loping across the road into the woods on the far side. We were pulled over onto the shoulder, and other cars slowed to look.

When we got to my car, he asked if I wanted to go hike Mt. Hale with him, a summit we’ve both, as it turns out, been avoiding or putting off. Reluctantly, I declined, having to get back south for an appointment. He went barreling down the road in his truck while I cautiously picked my way down in my low-slung Prius. I was back home in southern New Hampshire by 11am, unpacking my things and stowing them away. I thought of the solo hiker, a woman, who’d drowned in the Gale River last fall, swept miles down in the rain-bloated current. She was found eventually, after a protracted search, snagged up someplace near where we saw the moose. Maybe she’d have died anyway, even if she’d been with a companion, or a group. But at least someone else would have known where to look for her. Lone hikers lost are found by bands of searchers. Search parties. More eyes to see with.  I went into the woods alone, but when I saw the moose, I had someone to show it to.

Last week, I was sitting outside a classroom at the community college where I teach. My eyes were leveled at the floor, watching student and faculty feet pass by in sneakers, or heels, or grimed Ugg boots. Then, a pair of sockless feet slipped into worn boat shoes, and above that, bright red chino shorts. I looked up and watched this out of place prepster pass down the hall and disappear into the crowd, and then I trailed this ghost back to Phillips Exeter.

I was fourteen when I started classes there, a smart kid from a run down former mill town ten miles from the Academy. I was a day student, driven to school each morning and then retrieved by my father each night while the boarding students remained in their stolid walled dorms. I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into. In our class portrait that first year, I am in the front row, flagrantly violating dress code in a faded flannel shirt and jeans, the thrift store blazer that never fit me well tossed somewhere out on the quad.

People didn’t talk much about money directly at Exeter, but we knew who among us went on the day trips to Boston to shop for clothes on Newbury Street, and whom one might see in the lending library in the basement of the admissions building borrowing a paperback copy of Hamlet instead of buying one.

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1st year, class of 1998

I was in agony in most every class at Exeter. Classes there are discussion based and small, and the oval tables at which we sat had no corners and thus, no places to hide. Cripplingly shy, I rarely spoke, and every semester took my grade reports with their tone of head-shaking bewilderment that I would not open my mouth even to save my GPA. I sat through every class sweating, heart pounding, willing myself invisible.

The past few weeks, stories have appeared in the local and national press about teachers at Exeter who had sex with students decades ago. We have received several carefully worded letters from the school administration attempting to explain to us what happened and why it was handled the way it was. On the closed Facebook groups for alumni, the tone is varied. Disappointment, anger, frustration, defensive crouching, but also frequent pleas to our better natures and to the training we were taught there–to assemble, to listen, to argue from evidence.

I was listening to NHPR the other day, and a guest on the show, speaking about these cases at Exeter said, “Well, you have to understand, these schools are a different world.” I know what he means, having been an alien in that country. The money flowing through that place, and the power, and the privilege that I cannot resent because without it, they would not have their stockpiles of scholarship for a kid like me. The reserve, the hush, the eye to reputation and name, the Latin above the great doors, the cupped divots worn into the marble stairs in the Academy Building by generations of students, the instinct to “handle it quietly.”

At the very beginning of my first year at Exeter, we gathered for Assembly and to sing “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” It’s a plodding Protestant hymn I’d never heard before, and I had never learned to read music either, so I kept my head low until it ended. I knew Catholic hymns, post-Vatican II 60’s style guitar and choral numbers, and the chanting of the priest while I stood by his elbow as an altar server. The secret, sanctified dark of the sacristy where I pulled my robe on and cinched and knotted my rope belt. Where I learned the names of all the vestments, the chasuble, the alb. Where I learned poetry.

My father grew up in a parish that Father Geoghan rotated through as he was passed from place to place abusing children. I read about the priest sex abuse, watched Spotlight and all that, and felt my guts twist. As a child, I was alone in the church with the priest many times before the early morning services, in the broken, multi-colored light through the stained glass. I fetched and carried, eager as a dog, and I would have done anything I was asked by this man who was our magical bridge to God, who whispered words only I could hear as I poured the water to wash his hands before communion.

I know many people, wearied of these abuses, want to throw off all the tradition and ritual that surround them, and oftentimes obscure them from view. These institutions are slow to change if they do at all, and quick to draw in and protect themselves. They are conservative in the original sense of the word. I know that, if not for pressure to modernize, liberalize, I would never have worn those server’s robes in the Church, and I would never have set my shabby sneakers into those marble toeholds at Exeter. The feet on those stairs over the last centuries were all Wasp boys’ first. Then they were the feet of a black boy in the 1860s, and of the four white Kentucky boys who demanded (unsuccessfully) that he be expelled. The feet were boys’ feet exclusively until the school turned coed in the seventies.  In 1996, while I was a student, a new Latin engraving added girls to the summons to come and be educated.

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Exeter’s student body, ca. 1903

The teachers at Exeter who admitted to the sexual encounters with students claimed they were consensual. In at least one case, the student was under the age of 18. Some of the voices on the alumni fora online decry the sullying of the the school’s reputation over questionable circumstances. In any context, sex between a teacher and student is beyond questionable. At Exeter, where the majority of students live on campus, teachers serve not only as teachers, but in the place of parents. All the usual teenage angsts and anxieties are compounded, breathing that rarefied air while scrambling to keep up. It’s high altitude education. The normal susceptibility of adolescents to special attention from a figure of authority is greater in such a place, with parents nowhere nearby, and those authorities must therefore be even more restrained. There were so many days I felt erased at Exeter, trailing my scraps of self confidence behind me, swooning in my juvenile crushes on teachers. To feel seen, recognized, by one such man would be heady enough. To feel desired by one would be another order of magnitude, overwhelming the capacity of an adolescent frontal lobe. Exeter students often seem unusually poised, the way precocious children so often seem old for their age. The ideas and arguments they make in classes are sophisticated and intelligent and they are young and beautiful to look at. And of course, teenagers all think they’re adults, that they can handle it, that wisdom does not exist, or, if it does, that it is doled equally to sixteen year olds and sixty year olds alike. For a young teacher, it’s not hard to see where temptation might creep in along with a retinue of justifications. But where the individual is weak and cannot take the strain, the institution must step in, must be the conscience of the place, and must be the absolute defenders of these vulnerable kids. The Church’s failure in this is utter and obvious. Exeter’s is less so, but still, there have been failings.

Despite everything, all their failings, I love the Church I grew up in, and I love Exeter, which changed the whole course of my life. I met my husband there, and our children came to be because of Exeter. My elder son serves at the altar now, though in the Episcopal Church of his father’s upbringing. Though I am lapsed, I feel the memory of all those Sundays, kneeling, attentive, in service to the Mystery, then standing, ready to wash the priest’s hands, our heads bent toward each other, I would tip the silver ewer as he said, “Lord, wash away my iniquity and cleanse me of my sins.”

The year in trails

I know this blog has been something of a fallow field lately; this has been partly an ebbing of energy as the semester wore me down, and partly a deliberate effort to focus on a larger writing project I am drafting which I hope many of you will enjoy just as much once it is finished.

In the thin slivers of free time I do have, I try to make sure the boys and I get outside as much as we can. On the first of January of this year, I decided to document that time, taking snippets of footage while we were out and about. I compressed it into a mere four minutes, and I hope you might watch it and be swept along with us from sea level up to Mt. Washington, and from our little, local town forests to the far jutting point of Quoddy Head, Maine, and a short jump from there over to Canada.

They traveled in snow hip deep and through teeming mosquitoes. Malcolm acquired the set jaw and horizon staring mien of an adventurer; Simon sobbed through part of many trips and skipped through the other half. In wilderness are their personalities revealed. And I took up all the positions I hope to hold as long as I live–sometimes ahead of them, sometimes behind, sometimes beside them setting their feet, and ever curious where they’re about to go.

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

One way radio

IMG_7091In July, Christophe and the boys and I spent an overnight at the Cutler Preserved Lands in Way Downeast Maine. It was a bit more than a four mile hike in on the inland trail, through spruce and spongy peak, across nearly continuous bog bridges until we came out onto Fairy Head where three campsites edge on the rock slabs and cliffs down to the ocean. We chose the farthest south of the three, it being closest to the tannin-steeped pool that would be our water source. We made camp, and spent the evening climbing, reading, or, in the boys’ case, standing at the edge of the surf in their underwear yelling at the waves to come hit them, a prospect that grew ever less likely as the tide was going out, and the tides in that part of the world are notoriously extreme. Eating our supper out of cups on the rock verge, we could look across to the tidy, red-roofed Little River lighthouse and all the corrugated coast jutting out and then receding. South of the light, there was Western Head, Great Head, and then around Dennison Point into Little Machias Bay. Protruding up above the land all that way off were three or four visible upthrust structures, thin, but vastly higher than anything else around them. They looked almost like the masts of a tall ship at anchor in the Bay, but sizing them up against the cliffs nearby, themselves a hundred feet above the water, these slender spikes had to be at least five times that. We finished our supper, washed up, and as the sun faded, retreated to the tents.

IMG_7113By the water, the mosquitos hadn’t been too bothersome. At our campsite, just in from the woods’ edge, they abruptly descended. They seethed, they teemed, they swarmed in a plague, settling on the least flash of exposed skin. Even the memory of skin attracted them; I set down a mug and came back to it a moment later to find it studded with mosquitos prodding its impervious surface. Diving into the tent, we zipped shut the door and listened to the high whine as they arrayed themselves in phalanxes on all the outer tent walls. For twenty minutes or so, we slapped at the ones that had followed us in, and then read, and then readied for sleep. Until I admitted to myself that I needed to pee. The usual mental dance had gone on, “it’s just my position. I’m imagining it. It’s psychological. If I can just go to sleep and stop thinking about it, I’ll be fine.” At least, I was forced to exit the tent, drop my pants, and crouch in the bushes. The mosquitos were so thick upon my rump that, slapping at them, I looked at my hand to see it fully blanketed in dead insects. Where those dead had been taken away, endless reinforcements took their places. I hauled up my pants and tried to dart back through the tent door. Even a momentary opening of the flap inhaled great gusts of them and for the next several hours, I heard intermittent silence and then slapping as Christophe nodded off between bites. I watched the stars and lightning bugs, doubly obscured by the tent mesh and the scrim of insects wing to wing and tail to tail. Eventually, I did sleep, and in the morning, the mosquitos, though not gone altogether, had dissipated some.

IMG_7117We packed up and walked the five miles back out, seeing almost no one until we were fairly close to the trailhead. Few people, it seems, venture all the way down to Fairy Head. We stopped on cobble beaches tucked between gray cliffs, and then climbed back out again and along trails that came within a foot of the sheer cliff edge. Spruce skeletons stood where they’d died, among their still living brethren. A moth so still and unperturbed by our presence we thought it was dead at first, livened up and hauled its furred legs over our hands. Simon whined, and Malcolm was sullen. We finished our snacks. Far down on the water, it was hard to tell what was eiders or cormorants in the water, and what just nodding lobster buoys in the waves. Simon had to be carried. Our pace quickened once we turned from the sea onto the trail back into the woods and out. Sweat-sodden, stinking and hungry, we drove south toward Machias. As soon as Christophe could get a signal, he looked up the tall metal masts we’d seen from Fairy Head. They were, he read to me, part of a vast array of radio antennae broadcasting very low frequencies for the U.S. Navy submarine fleet all over the Atlantic. The tallest of the towers are nearly one thousand feet high. The setup encompasses an entire peninsula in Cutler, the ground beneath the towers flat and bare.

I thought about the submarines out there, plying the dark waters. I know those things are not small, not a single man, or maybe two, crouching inside a metal bubble the way I imagined them I was a kid. I grew up near enough the Portsmouth Naval shipyard to see their arched backs above the waterline. Once, standing at Odiorne Point, I watched as one sailed out to sea, though “sailed” never seemed so inapt. A friend and I stared out at it, watching the malign beast slip slowly under. Only as the tip of the conning tower disappeared did we seem to shake ourselves awake. My friend said, “I wish I’d gotten a video of that.”  I hadn’t thought of it either, and we both stared at where the big metal dorsal fin had disappeared. The sailboats coursed into the harbor, and the flare-bowed lobster boats trailed their kites of gulls behind. No one who hadn’t been looking would know what was under there. These big nuclear subs hold more than a hundred men, some of them, so it’s not want of human company that would trouble the submariner. Quite the opposite, being sealed up in a drum with the same few dozen people like that. It’s not so much claustrophobia either, but almost the opposite–the knowledge of the mass, and volume, and extent of the oceans piled above, behind, and to all sides.

The radio antennae in Cutler are only capable of sending one-way, encrypted text messages, Christophe read to me from Wikipedia as we rode along the coast. I know the subs must have other ways to communicate, at least these days, but I could not shake the thought of that, of one way radio messages cast out over the North Atlantic to hold the fleet together with the slimmest strands. Messages received, but none sent back. A thousand foot high flinger of messages in bottles.

My mood improved a bit after a roadside lunch to raise my blood sugar, and we drove on down to the crowds at Acadia to spend one night there before the final leg home. Minor irritations, and some more substantial ones left me breathless with screeching at times, but Christophe was unflappable as ever, though he winced and turned down the volume on a Dylan song on the radio when a long, held harmonica note whined, it seemed to me, in the same key the mosquitos had during his long night of the soul in Cutler. I drove, and he occasionally read me a few lines from some article or other. I pointed out roadside oddities. We made it home and I unpacked and put our things away. A few days later, I picked up the book I’d been reading up there, and saw what I had not been able to in my headlamp’s light. Between several pages, I found the smeared bodies of mosquitos, and blotches of my blood, and his.

Killing time

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.

IMG_3621At 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.

2500105847_4503a1c72b_oI 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.'”

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