Nic and I linger over breakfast during the autumn, entertained by the squirrels playing, forgetting where their food is, getting fat. We root for them to make it across the street, cheer when they’ve lived to cross another street. It’s the same every year here in the Midwest. This year, however, those little rascals seem to be particularly abundant. And this means that squirrel demise is on the rise: hawks, cars, falls from trees, loose power lines dangling from our utility pole listed as the cause of death in the coroner’s report. More than usual, the dead rodent this year dots my consciousness like spilled ink. Or a spreading pool of blood, as it were.
I once knew someone who, for religious reasons, travelled with a shovel in the trunk of their car, giving roadkill dignified ceremonies for undignified deaths. I was never sure how this person got their PhD—or ever made it to work on time: stopping for every dead animal they drove past. I am fairly certain this person did not grow up in the Midwest, where the accidental slaughter of wild animals is part of the landscape.
I do understand the sentiment, though. So on the several occasions in the past year when a fallen (but completely intact) squirrel lay lifeless in the street in front of my house (victim of a slippery utility pole or its stray electrical current), I have scooped up the rust-and-beige body with my yellow snow shovel and transported it to the wooded areas behind the property. I don’t go so far as to bury the poor bastards; but in my mind, it is more dignified to return the little guys to nature; at least then all the fat that they worked so hard to pack on in the closing days of autumn will not have been for nothing. I mean, isn’t there more dignity in being a snack for a turkey vulture than to be a pavement Jackson Pollock, innards forced out of either end?
The latter seems like a waste (unless you’re a diehard art fan), while the former seems to serve a purpose.
Just the other day, I transported the second little body of the week to the long grasses just beyond the 3-foot fence at the back of the yard, an offering to scavengers or worms. And today I worked from home. My office commands a fantastic view of the park, the capitol building seeming to sit atop the tree line. Backyard tree now with bare limbs, I had a clear view of a well-fed red tail hawk. We’ll call her Queen Lizzy.
In the past couple years of mostly working from home, I have never seen Queen Lizzy in our tree; she lives in the park trees a good 100 yards distant from my office window. She is graceful, soaring high on warm drafts in summer and darting at lower altitudes in winter. So to see Queen Lizzy not 20 yards from me—her white breast contrasted with her brown feathers and the gray day—brought my work to a grinding halt.
Perched 15 feet up in the tree, she rotated her head 180 degrees each way. Then she spread her wings, quickly alighting on the 3-foot fence below. For several minutes, her head was on a swivel. She could not believe her good fortune, or she didn’t want anyone to see what she was about to do, or was looking at me incredulous at the stupidity of whatever animal she was hunting.
In a flash of brown-red-white, she hopped into the grass below, flew a few more feet and landed. It didn’t seem likely that the squirrel corpse I had laid there the day before would still be around: fox and coyote sometimes saunter through the park and they surely would have caught the scent of an easy meal. So I assumed Queen Lizzy had made a fresh catch of some living thing and was waiting for it to gasp its last under her death talons.
My curiosity got the best of me, as all I could determine from my vantage was that she was just standing over the body of her kill. I figured if she was startled by me, she could take her meal elsewhere in those death talons. I was a mere 15 yards from her when I stopped at the back fence line. She did not fly off immediately. Her dignity had suffered a blow: she was embarrassed for having thought the squirrel was alive, mortified to have been seen with a squirrel she herself had not caught. More than anything, though, she was unimpressed with my offering.
Queen Lizzy flew off, mumbling something about how dining al fresco didn’t mean the meal had to be cold, too.