Stumbling Upon Death

On days where my field work consists of plant surveys and general observations, I walk several miles across various habitats – dunes, grasslands, and steep rocky cliffs, to name a few. Those days are remarkably peaceful. That feeling might be expected given the rhythmic lapping of the ocean waves and general solitude. I get lost in my own head, where I create complex stories where I help Kanye West be responsible for water bottles or save the world from an army of robot-Santorums using only my wits and my stunning good looks. Nothing rips me out of that reverie faster the death.

The clean postcards of Yosemite never feature deer carcasses and while photographs of the Mohave sometimes include a particularly interesting cow skull, they do not show the hoofs, half covered in strips of skin and flesh. And yet, death is ubiquitous in nature. Logically, everyone knows that every living thing must die, and again logically, everyone knows that unless forest creatures learn to craft small coffins or build small crematoriums, the bodies of the dead animals will be left out in nature. But the effect of groups marketing nature as clean and pristine managed to erase the logical knowledge that it must be full of death, and so stumbling across a gull, ripped in half by something ferocious and much bigger than it, is a shock.

Actually, hold on, maybe “shock” is not the best way to describe the feeling. Surprise comes into it, the cool shiver of being unexpectedly close to something that used to be alive. But deer bones, dead gulls, all those signs that a death happened, are not out of place among the tall grasses and pale yellow sand. Just as those animals belonged there in life, so do their bodies belong there in death. The nutrient cycle says as much. The dependence of scavengers on the remains reinforces just how natural that death is. In nature, seeing how death fits into the cycles that dictate all life on earth is easy.

I walk the same survey routes every few weeks, so I get a chance to see the movement and changes in the bones I find. Some of them bleach, some of them disappear, and some remain constant, thin white spokes I can count on greeting me the next time I come by.  Those bones fight the Disney-fied version of nature that I have been fed through films and photographs and replace it with something altogether more awesome and more beautiful.

5 thoughts on “Stumbling Upon Death”

  1. I remember being in grade school and finding a raccoon that had been hit by a car dying in our flower bed one morning. His legs were all messed up but he had somehow dragged himself up there to slowly die amid our tulips. I took him out some cat food, not really sure what to do for him. He was gone by the time I got home from school, I think my mom called the Humane Society. It totally retooled my perception of road kill. I never really noticed road kill before that, and then suddenly every dead animal felt kinda tragic. I still feel sad when I pass by dead animals on the side of the road.

  2. I’m not particularly well-experienced with death in any form, but I will say this: having stumbled upon my dead grandmother as a child, and then having watched my grandfather die a slow, awful death from cancer as an adult, I have gained greater acceptance about my own eventual death than I would ever have imagined possible.

    I think I would be less complete, somehow, without those experiences. Less equipped.

    I’m not shielded from the pain and the anxieties of death, but I can honestly say that I have seen at least its aspect, if not its exact features.


  3. Last spring, I found three different nests of dead or dying baby birds. One was where the baby had fallen out and I never could find the nest. The bird slowly died and it was awful. The other two were whole nests that were blown out of trees in storms. I haven’t found any this year and I’m relieved.

  4. I never saw the carcass of a mammal (all right, except for a skull and three bones in a wild park), but dead birds have fascinated me for a long time. I brought wings home and pulled it gently apart to see how it worked.

    I think the idea of death could be made smaller and ..easier to handle when confronted with death and decay from time to time. Not to push the big We Will All Die button, but more for the realization that no matter how some people don’t want it, we’re just a part of nature.

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