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Archive for July, 2015

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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For four days, my six year old son Simon and I lived in the woods in the North Country of New Hampshire. My older son was at camp down the road, and Simon and I moved into a primitive campsite at Milan Hill State Park for the duration after dropping him off. A few days spent camping is really nothing like being homeless, except that it does alter one’s way of thinking along that bent. We hiked, but that took up only a few hours after Simon protested over the mud and the endless stream crossings, and the wet ferns higher than his head on the Mill Brook Trail. We turned back and instead ate sandwiches beside the ponds of the Berlin Fish hatchery, watching the enormous trout eat in the round pond, catching the scent of something marine among the balsams. When it rained, which it did often, we looked for places to pass the many hours. Each thing we did only took up a little time, and the day still stretched until it was time to go read in the tent and sleep.IMG_6992
I carried my pack everywhere, with our raincoats, our food, our water, and books and paper for drawing. We ate on the steps of little historical buildings, in parks, on the porch of the camp store at Jericho Mountain State Park.
I had not seen myself in a mirror in days, though I knew by feel that my hair was standing up wildly. Simon was delighted to be unwashed, his skin mica-flecked and sandy after so many swims in Jericho Lake. There, we often ate our supper, watching the RV campers having cookouts and the ATV riders circling the parking lot. As it began to rain one evening, we saw two men walking with flaming logs on boards from the beach toward their campsites. A park worker in a golf cart came skidding up beside them, I assumed to chastise them, but instead, he loaded the logs into the back and off they rode, sparks and flames trailing behind them.IMG_7009
We were almost never under a roof. Traveling the public thoroughfares and parks, we met the same pair of Mormon missionaries in two different towns. In Berlin, we lay in the shade near the ruins of the old paper mill, with the Presidential range hulking to the south, the dam to the north, and the blue-green penstock carrying the water that used to be in the Androscoggin River past where the Androscoggin meets the Dead. From the vacant park with its fruit trees and gravel paths, we could see the empty buildings, windows missing or boarded up, a mannequin vigilant in one on the upper floor. A few locals sat outside the Family Dollar and hailed each other as they smoked. We crossed the street to a small patch of grass with two sculptures on it. One, a misshapen male figure standing above a female one. Simon stood beside it and said, “It’s a woman. I think she’s dead,” and he reached out and cupped the pockmarked and pitted marble of her breast.

Among the ruins in Berlin.

Among the ruins in Berlin.

We went back to Milan Hill and I climbed the fire tower for the views while Simon whittled a stick down below. All was silent. The thrum of the ATVs at Jericho was replaced by the muffled drumming of ruffed grouse in the woods. The phoebe stood on a stump beside us, and a red-eyed vireo scolded us from its nest slung from a birch branch above.
It rained all night our last night, though we stayed dry in the tent. By morning, the wind was buffeting the rain sideways. We ate quickly in the only brief lull of the morning, and I looked at all the hours until we could pick up Malcolm from camp at four.

Simon was selected to aid in the bending fork trick by magician Norman Ng.

Simon was selected to aid in the bending fork trick by magician Norman Ng.

We drove the longer way into Berlin, past the ruined ski jump and rusted staircase up the hill. The steps themselves are rotted away and you can see the sky through the missing pieces of the jump’s decking. We drove through Berlin looking for someplace to pass the time, but their library was closed. I considered sitting in a church for a few hours, but drove on seven miles to Gorham instead. There, the library was just opening; Cora was putting out the flag and there was to be a magic show in half an hour. In gratitude, I set my things down and Simon and I settled in. Every time we moved, a high stench rose off us. Simon’s arms and legs were grimed, and he was wearing a torn fleece and rain boots with shorts. We lived at that library for five hours, doing a puzzle, paging through magazines in high-backed armchairs, reading every volume in the “Fly Guy” series.
Gorham is a town on the Appalachian Trail, so the people there are no strangers to dirt-smeared, ragged travelers with all their things in a pack on their backs. People who, even if not in their real lives, are temporarily homeless and sleep on the ground every night. Who rely on public spaces and the occasional beneficence of strangers. A woman and her son moving into the library for the day didn’t seem unusual to anyone.

Preparing the burnt offering on Milan Hill.

Preparing the burnt offering on Milan Hill.

We picked up Malcolm in the late afternoon from camp as the rain finally stopped. The car smelled of rancid socks and spilled tea as we wound down through Pinkham Notch and then the ever more civilized stretches of North Conway and the Lakes region. Places where there are, a man in Gorham had said, “You know, Connecticut types–they don’t have any mud on their hiking boots.” I grinned, pleased to be passing, unwilling to admit to being Massachusetts born myself.
Back at home, on our small private parcel of land, a fox had killed nearly all our chickens in my absence. The survivors were hunkered, silent, in the coop, looking haunted. Our house feels enormous for a while after being outside so long, and simultaneously hemmed in. It feels absurdly luxurious, the kitchen richly appointed with a refrigerator and a coffee maker.
Even under lesser circumstances, public libraries, public lands, are always my third space. Pocket parks, trails, places with no admission price and no one documenting my presence or recording exactly what I do there. These places are necessary, and not just for people sheltering from the rain, or passing inordinate numbers of empty hours. For four days, we navigated public lands, trails, buildings, almost exclusively, coming home just before Independence Day. We could move freely, without trespass, without questioning. Coming back to my home reminded me of my great good fortune in all the things that are mine. Our four days spent in the North Country reminded me of my equal fortune in everything that is no one’s particular possession, but all of our birthrights. Even if we do come from Massachusetts.

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