Dead things

A few days ago, I hosted my neighbours for an afternoon get-together. We wanted to take a hike through our bush to see the “huge disgusting dead thing” our kids had come upon during a hike a few days earlier. The way they described it had me thinking it might be worth a phone call to the prehistoric remains society!

In the city you might happen upon a squirrel freshly flattened onto the road or, if you’re up before the clean up crew, a cat or a raccoon.

Here, there is death everywhere.

It is part of the rural culture. Animals are raised for slaughter, men hunt and the general landscape of bush and acreage allows for nature to take its course in the circle of life. Coyotes can be heard hunting in packs in the night and the fox on our property has taken it upon himself to reduce the rabbit population.

A disturbingly fabulous image by Sally Mann.
A disturbingly fabulous image by Sally Mann.

Hawks and vultures circle above, barn kittens die of neglect; nests are raided leaving bits of pretty shells scattered about…and all these things, both big and small, have been significant learning curves for me. In the city we lead a fairly protected existence from all of this. Our road kill is quickly cleaned away; our meat is presented to us in clean, wrapped packages. This certainly didn’t prepare me for farm life.

Broken shells and a nest collected from my property.
Broken shells and a nest collected from my property.

The country is full of dead things. This is a fact I learned very quickly. And, it’s often dramatic. Last year there was a dead pig on the side of the road. A large, dead pig. Of course road kill here is varied and abundant, but the pig was a shock. This spring there was a severed rabbit carcass at my door step. A rabbit. Severed. (Thanks to my neighbour Ann for cleaning that one up for me!)

Out for a stroll a few days later I found its wee tail. How nice. Then there was the huge jaw bone on my driveway…that was special. And how about the head (of what might have been from above mentioned rabbit, but hey…) poking up from the melting snow next to the crocus?

The spring has also awakened the serial killer instinct in my “barn” cats. They are killing machines, bringing home quantities of mice, moles, chipmunks and snakes.

Back in the bush, we found the remains the kids had discovered, and it was a deer. Nothing nearly as dramatic as we were anticipating, but impressive nonetheless. It had been dead for some time with most of the bones already clean. It was both fascinating and morbid to look at, actually (I have an interest in skulls and may end up keeping this one for my collection). As I stood there, I wondered how many other “dead things” this bush had claimed over the years. Things, gone to ground, that I would never see.

Country living will toughen you up, there’s no doubt about it. But I don’t want to toughen up too much. I appreciate the circle of life, but I hope I never get to the point where I see death and don’t feel it.

I have a coffee table book, What Remains by Sally Mann. It contains a collection of photographs she took of people and places, post-humus. It is beautifully done, and absolutely captivating to look at. I will give the final words to her:

“When the land subsumes the dead, they become the rich body of earth, the dark matter of creation. As I walk the fields of this farm, beneath my feet shift the bones of incalculable bodies; death is the sculptor of the ravishing landscape, the terrible mother, the damp creator of life, by whom we are one day devoured.”

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