Summer World: A Season of Bounty - Bernd Heinrich (2009)
Chapter 15. Deaths and Resurrections
5 August 2006. I’M MET BY THE SMELL OF ROTTING flesh, and it’s not hard to find the source—the remains of a half-grown wild turkey that had been killed and partially eaten by a coyote or a hawk. The coyotes here in these Maine woods are nocturnal, and the turkey had been killed next to where it was taking a dust bath on an anthill by my maple grove, so it was killed in the daytime. A coyote would have dragged it off; maybe it was killed by one of the pair of red-tailed hawks living in the area. I lift the carcass and find meat left on it. To my surprise I also find a horde of hundreds of shiny black beetles, which scuttle off and burrow into the duff of dead grass and decaying leaves. They are shiny, streamlined, and fast. I dig after them with a stick, and discover also two species of boldly marked orange-and-black sexton (or burying) beetles. They tuck in their legs and play possum as soon as I expose them. These beetles are monogamous and care for their young, which they rear in a small nest. The parents gather meat and, in response to their grubs’ begging, regurgitate the half-digested food to them. The father repels intruders, mainly other male sexton beetles that try to kill the babies and try to mate with the female to get her to produce a second clutch, with them.
As I dig deeper under into the soil, I see no sign of the black beetle horde. But along the way I discover two species of sylphids. These are round, flattened black beetles with rough upper surfaces; one species has a thorax edged in yellow, and the other is edged with orange. Less numerous but also prominent are two species of staphylinids, or rove beetles. These lithe, elongated animals with tonglike pincers don’t look like beetles, because their elytra (wing covers) cover only a small portion of their backs. Their wings are folded up into a small package and tucked underneath those small elytra. One of these staphylinids is black; the other is brown and dotted with shiny gold-yellow flecks. In flight, they sometimes resemble wasps.
Fig. 29. Some of the beetles found at the turkey carcass.
When I came back to the turkey carcass twenty days later, the meat was all picked off and dermestid beetles had come and taken their share of the drying remains of skin and bones. No more beetles were visible, but down in the soil I unearthed a gem—a beautiful, iridescent, shiny purple dung beetle that I had never seen before.
EVERY SUMMER THIS HILL BECOMES THE BIRTHPLACE OF countless mammals that range in size from pennyweight pygmy shrews to moose. It is therefore also, necessarily, the dying place of, on average, the same kinds and the same numbers of animals. Most of the small mammals and birds are quickly buried, each by a pair of sexton beetles. This is summer work. The big animals die mostly in the winter, and they have other agents that bring them to the beyond. I think of an old bull moose. His fresh tracks showed that he had staggered through my pine grove; then he collapsed in the snow by a stone wall almost within sight of the cabin.
The moose first became food for coyotes that tore him open, and then several dozen ravens feasted. After the snow melted in the spring there were still plenty of pickings left for the beetles and the flies. Within a month, though, I saw only a pile of hair and bones. Chickadees, and undoubtedly other birds, had come to gather hair for their nest linings, and over the next few years the bones were gradually chewed up by porcupines, squirrels, and mice. There was no waste.
Recently I got a letter from a friend, a former student in California. He wrote:
I’ve been diagnosed with a severe illness and am trying to get my final disposition arranged in case I drop sooner than I hoped. I want an Abbey burial. A green burial—not any burial at all—because burial is an alien approach to death.
Like any good ecologist, I regard death as changing into other kinds of life. Death is, among other things, also a wild celebration of renewal, with our substance hosting the party. In the wild, animals lie where they die, thus placing them in the scavenger loop. The upshot is that the highly concentrated animal nutrients get spread over the land, by the exodus of flies, beetles, etc. Burial, on the other hand, seals you in a hole. To deprive the natural world of human nutrient, given a population of 6.5 billion, is to starve the Earth, which is the consequence of casket burial, an interment. Cremation is not an option, given the buildup of greenhouse gases, and considering the amount of fuel it takes for the three-hour process of burning a body. Anyhow, the upshot is, one of the options is burial on private property. You can probably see this coming…. What are your thoughts on having an old friend as a permanent resident at the camp? I feel great at the moment, never better in my life in fact. But it’s always later than you think.
As far as I was concerned, his feelings exemplify the real and only true religion that I can, in good conscience, honor. So I replied:
I read you loud and clear, old friend. And how amazing to hear your thoughts, when I was just thinking and writing about such things, prompted by a dead turkey that I found in the woods by my field. I was observing the burial/recycling of it by many different beautiful beetles. I was moved to sketch them all, to make it more real, although I’d pass on the art and stick to the ecology when it’s my turn, when I’d want no less for myself. I never thought about the cremation part—using up fossil fuels. Thanks for a reminder on that bit. One must live morally toward the Earth, the Creation—burning on a wood pyre is unfortunately not practical anymore. A casket would be for you, as it was for Edward Abbey, our hero, an unacceptable cage for our otherwise free and ever-recycling molecules that would soon become incorporated into Earth’s ecosystems.
I’d also not want a spectacle, except possibly by those who sang the Maine Stein Song, even if they sounded like they were trying to raise the dead.
I think I also told him that the practical aspects of his wish are daunting, mainly because overpopulation compromises all our freedoms, from birth to grave. It had not been so in the past. Other friends, perhaps even humans, are already permanent residents here. I once found a piece of worked flint on a little knoll by the brook next to our swimming hole near the beaver lodge. It was revealed on bare earth scratched by my recent logging. It had been deposited during a time when, unlike now, we took it for granted that we were a part of nature. They were of the caribou and the bear. What are we part of now?
No hunter ever had a quarrel with a deer so as to deprive deer of forest, or ducks of marshes. The perceived gulf of separation of “us” from “them” resulted in spiritual isolation from our ecology and our birthright, and it happened only in recent times, at almost the last moment of our existence. It resulted from agriculture, fences, and now also technology that threatens the very last thread of connection. We fence ourselves off from nature. We draw lines and make boundaries. Rather than harvesting our meat from vast herds of bison on the prairies, we destroy the prairies to raise cows and chicks in pens for slaughter only. We destroy prairies and lowland forests and every living thing in them to grow corn and sugarcane to fuel our cars. And then we think we make amends by declaring prairies and lowland tropical forests sacred, and build a fence around a patch here and another one there. We plant trees in rows to make sterile plantations, on the grounds that we should not harvest trees from forests—with the result that forests become fewer as plantations and farms become more numerous. The coffin is a last attempt to place a boundary between ourselves and nature.
Morality, it seems to me, concerns not only doing unto others, but also being unto others. I try to connect through a deer in the fall, and perhaps some fish and berries in the summer; and, yes, I do harvest trees and maintain a beautiful forest. The one and perhaps only true religion that I can in good conscience honor is one that encompasses the Earth we walk on and that promotes our well-being and our physical connection to it. Such a religion is based on reverence and respect for maintaining the Creation—whatever origin one either knows or wants to believe. As my friend from California concluded: “Offering oneself to the ravens when the time comes is to me religion at its best.”