Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Death on the Prairie

Our hearts go out to animals with large eyes. It’s a human response, and we want happiness for them.

This will be a blog of gore and recycling that might be hard to take, for some of us with sensitive souls. If you prefer to stick with the beauty and romance of nature, you might want to skip this one.

Any abandoned organic material in the ecosystem gets recycled. While we’re alive, our bodies’ defenses ward off the agents of decay. But a return to the ecosystem is a trip we all make, sooner or later. In fact, you accomplish a preview if you ever pee in a forest preserve. From that act on, a part of you will be cycling through the plants and animals there for a long time. If you eat a berry or a walnut from the preserve, a part of that preserve will become a part of you.

Piles of bloody feathers or the remains of a rabbit, perhaps a foot and some skin, are commonplace along the trails at Somme. Most local deer, shy and beautiful animals, die from collisions with automobiles. The death of a deer is a big event, ecologically. 

On the morning of July 3rd I head out, lugging four gallons of water for endangered orchids that deserved help to survive the drought. (Is that nature? Watering plants in the wilderness? I’ll reserve that question for another blog.) But while innocently lugging water, I find the kind of nature that’s red in tooth and claw.

The body of a handsome young buck is lying near my path. The buck is newly dead, doesn’t have a bad smell, but is covered with flies.
Flies lay their eggs on death. Out hatch maggots, which eat the corpse. I decide to return, to think about this death, and take a photo every two days, to share with you the natural drama, whatever that turned out to be.

When I walk to the other side of the animal, I see more drama already. The coyotes had found this body on its first night. I apologize for writing this next grim fact, but coyotes start eating a deer at the easiest place to get through the skin. That’s the butt hole. They aren’t all
that squeamish, and they get meat where they can find it.

The butt meat (should I write “top round”?) that had been exposed by sharp coyote teeth is literally black with flies, laying eggs, not as romantic to us as speckled eggs in a bird’s nest. But if you’re a fly, and a good mother, that’s the environment you entrust your kids to.

This is a lot of meat. It feels odd that this graceful animal was transformed into so much meat and that I’m standing by it with my cell camera. We’re more comfortable with uncooked meat on white plastic trays, with price tags, and sealed in shrink wrap. This isn't that. It's nature’s meat in the ecosystem.

Two days later I return 
for the next photo.
What happened? 
The deer is gone. 
The patch of grass 
where it had lain in state 
is matted, 
lightly greased perhaps, 
but nothing more. 

Following a trail of disheveled vegetation brings me to a second surprise. After just two days, there really isn’t much left of this large animal.

The coyotes had eaten all the big chunks already. Forget my theory of coming back every two days for a long story. This story is nearly done.

Yes, there is a strong odor, but it's more the smell of meat and blood than of putrescence. This body never had time to rot. This was quick.

The whole coyote family must have been hungry. They often drag carcasses around. Perhaps they fight over who gets what – pulling this way and that. Or they just chomp down on a mouthful and pull to rip it off. Perhaps the body gets moved when, for whatever reason, the strongest ones are mostly pulling in the same direction. Patches of vegetation are matted down in all directions. A lot happened here.

Romantic words could be written about how a deer returns to the ecosystem, and its substance nourishes the flowers. But the reality is that the deer goes through the bowels of a coyote and emerges as scat. Like the deer, the coyote is a beautiful animal. It may be noble, but it still turns meat into excrement on its way back toward the elegance of the plant kingdom.

On one level, the death of a deer is a tragedy. Do I feel compassion for the deer? Yes. I say internal words of blessing and respect. But at a higher level, over-populated deer have been wrecking this rare ecosystem. Fewer deer is ultimately better. I once felt so bad whenever I saw a raccoon squished on the road. It still seems wrong, but I also now know that the over-abundance of “meso-predators” (in the absence of wolves, cougars and bears) is another major and undesirable stress on the nature. When I see dead raccoons on the road, I feel bad for the animal but happy for the ecosystem.

Four days after that first visit I take my last photos of this drama. Little is left but thinly covered bones – scattered over a wide area. The skin and hair will be eaten too in time by wild relatives of the pests that eat holes in our sweaters and rugs.

The deer is fading back into the Earth. Before long, if the tour guide stops here at all, it may be to tell the group, “The plants blooming in the foreground are Indian hemp. Native Americans used the fibers to make rope.”

Soon, it will be hard to find a trace of this disturbance. The plants will hide the bones until a fire sweeps the vegetation away, and then pieces of scattered skeleton are for a while visible here and there. I will remember this drama when I see a bone. A process like this – grisly or profound, depending on your perspective – preceded every bleached bone we come across from time to time.

This death is gradually becoming an abstraction. When the bones are white and clean, it will seem pure and distant. I don’t want my emotions so abstract that I forget the tragedy of an individual deer. But my tenderness for the ecosystem, with all its hundreds of species of animals and plants, definitely supersedes as time goes on. That seems good. 


In Beauyt I Walk said...

Such a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it with us. I had posted a photo of a mother owl with part of a rabbit in her mouth, and someone said the photo was obscene. Later they commented on how cute the baby owl was. It's an interesting perspective to only want to see the pretty. Yet the pretty could not survive without the other.

Stephen Packard said...

Carol, that's a compelling story that goes right to the heart of this challenge.
It wasn't long ago that most conservationists condemned predators. Bird lovers supported killing hawks. Everyone supported killing wolves, bears and mountain lions. Many people now see predation as part of the what's good and right about nature. But it's a psychological challenge for all of us to deal with many aspects of sex, excretion and death.
The "Peaceable Kingdom" vision of nature doesn't work. But it's a major challenge to conservation to establish a public ethic that understands the role of predation (including by people) in the balance and conservation of nature. I hope these conversations contribute.

orchidartist said...

What is it about the raccoons that makes them more of a disturbance than a benefit to the prairie grove, I wonder?

Stephen Packard said...

Ah, yes, raccoons!. They too are wonderful animals, like possums, and skunks. But many studies have shown that the medium-size predators increase to unnatural densities in the absence of wolves, bears and mountain lions. As a result, the "preserves" lose many species of ground-nesting and low-nesting birds as well as frogs, snakes, turtles, small mammals and other species that deserve a place in the ecosystem. The presence of coyotes at Somme helps a bit with this problem.

orchidartist said...

I'm sure many of us are familiar with the resourcefulness of raccoons, and when we camp have learned to stuff our coolers under the seat of a picnic table to deter little curious paws. I can see how, when overabundant, they could be the reason we lose ground-dwelling birds such as Henslow's sparrow and nests of woodcocks.

Karen Glennemeier said...

Speaking of decomposition, a few weeks ago on a very hot morning I discovered a dead possum near our house. I tried to just leave it there, figuring that's the natural way of things, but every time I went out into the yard I smelled it, and I kept thinking of my poor neighbors and how they would probably think it was my compost pile. So, I decided to bury it. When I first saw it, it was covered in fur. An hour-and-a-half later, it was covered in maggots, which had completely stripped it of its fur. I was so impressed by their speed and efficiency. I was also terrified that this animal was going to "pop" or otherwise come apart as I scooped it with a shovel into its grave. I kept willing myself to be a biologist and appreciate the biology, and not be grossed out. It didn't pop, it went right into the hole, it no longer smelled, and it was really, really cool.