The casual violence of driving

  • batwrangler, cc via flickr
 

Slow is not always beautiful, but it's the best way to experience the West -- for better or worse. When I'm cross-country bicycling, I'm out in the air where I can smell everything, including the road surface, petroleum exhaust and carrion, especially deer that have died after being hit by vehicles.

Of course, roads are necessary in the rural West -- without them we'd be even more isolated than we are -- but they are also one of the most disruptive events for wildlife in the history of evolution. Zipping along at 65 or 75 mph or even higher speeds, we become agents of death to all manner of other creatures, whether they walk, fly or slither. And sadly, we don't even realize what we're doing. What happens if we try going slower? If you really want to know a place or a road through a landscape, walking or riding a bicycle is the way to go.

Once, on a cycling tour that took me up the Pacific Coast into Canada and back through the Rockies, I traveled through the Northern Sierras. The day was hot, the asphalt was sticky and I was irritable as the evening came on. Worse, the only campsite I could find was sandwiched between the highway and the shore of a lake. Though the occasional car would burst past, I was able to doze off, but then the full moon started to rise, the wind shifted, and the breeze carried the sickly smell of carrion.

The next morning, I was on the road early, and I paused to rest before I tackled a steep hill. Suddenly, a strangely dressed man stepped out of the trees and walked to the edge of the road. He was a curious sight. A big, fully bearded fellow wearing a white cotton robe that fell to his ankles, exposing bare feet in flip-flops, he also wore a poncho cut from a brown wool blanket.

He thrust a piece of paper into my hand, and I read the message written in big type: "We're monks who don't believe in violence of any kind to animals or humans. Don't eat meat and throw away your leather. Goodbye and good luck."

I must have seemed like a poor customer for his message as I thrust my leather bike shoes into the pedal clips. Struggling to shift gears, I sat back on a leather seat and gripped the handlebars with my leather gloves as I pedaled hard up the hill. Then, at the top, I smelled a dead deer before I even saw it.

I was pedaling through continuous violence, I realized: Every day, I smelled carrion and saw dead birds, skunks, beaver, chipmunks, snakes, dogs, cats and other animals mashed into the road's surface or lying just off it. In Montana's Bitterroot Valley, I even spotted some flattened fauna that looked like it might have been a mink.

Name an animal, and a car has probably killed it.

But probably the worst of it was my realization that most of us never seem to give it any thought. There are exceptions: I heard a story about a Zen teacher at Tassajara Monastery in California's Big Sur, who would ask his driver to stop at every dead animal. The monk would get out, bow and bless each roadside carcass.

One time, my wife hit a small deer on the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona. I got out and decided to move the poor thing off the road. I grabbed two of its legs and swung it off to the side, but was surprised when the small deer uttered a moan. I left it along the road, thinking it was going to die, but feeling certain that it was better if it didn't get run over a second time. I stopped at the same spot days later and there was no sign of it. I hope it survived.

I know that sometimes hitting an animal smashes a car as well, and I know that sometimes people are killed in such collisions. I've come close. One dark night, my wife and I were driving our pickup down that same Kaibab road when we hit a cow. It was a big cow, which, I guess, turned out to be lucky for us, because it stood so high off the ground. When we hit it, our radiator and hood took the impact, and we were unhurt. Of course, the cow didn't survive.

Now, whenever I'm in a car, insulated by metal and the power to speed through the world, I try to drive more slowly than almost anybody else. And I bow, or silently nod my head, to all the destroyed creatures that I know are lying on or just beside the road.

Tom Carter writes in Kanab, Utah.

Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin Subscriber
Aug 22, 2011 11:45 AM
I always set my cruise control on my truck for 2-5 miles below the speed limit and let everyone else pass me. For some reason a whole lot of people are in a really big hurry, I've noticed. Anyway I can't say I've never hit and killed an animal but I've tried my best not to.
martin weiss
martin weiss
Aug 22, 2011 09:05 PM
I drove a semi for many years across the lower 48 and some of Canada. It seemed like there was a dead animal every mile. I gave drivin' up and went back to college in 2002, and had to commute forty miles to the university. One day in summer I was nearly home when I saw some kind of canine out in the median between the traffic flows. I couldn't tell whether it was a dog or a coyote, but I'd seen enough dead animals moldering at the side of the road to last me, and if I could save one, I was prepared to try. Turned out to be a weak and meek husky/hybrid pup about four months old, trying to live on grasshoppers, or maybe contemplating suicide. I've seen animals do that. Anyhow, I got her home, picked ticks for two days and she turned out to be a sterling companion and a good friend. So smart she talks, alpha female. We've been to all 48 states together now, and we mostly stay home. I got her a Golden Retriever puppy. It is extremely satisfying to me that humanity is finally coming of age and taking responsibility.
kyenne williams
kyenne williams
Aug 23, 2011 09:03 PM
I don't drive; not the story. An essay by Barry Lopez made a huge impression on me many years ago when I was in my teens, about taking the time to stop and remove the bodies from the road. I don't want to misquote him and it changed me (and not a few friends). I remember a midnight winter night pulling a dead deer off Hwy 20 in Oregon with another woman, both of us sad and overwhelmed and scared and wanting to get it off the road; about learning to carry a bag with me, usually recycled from the trash to pick up every dead animal I come across and lay it to rest off the road. My friends have learned to carry shovels in the trunk as well because I will always ask them to stop. There is some echo as well to Joan Didion's essay about not leaving a dead body alone out in the wild. For me, it's about making time, some moment of grace and reconciliation with death, about returning animals to some semblance of the earth (even in the city), about recognition of some connection.
charles fox
charles fox
Aug 24, 2011 12:15 PM
If you stand near the highway (not "freeway", it's not free in any sense) and listen to the trucks rip past at 85-90 mph, you should be disturbed. The speeds and vehicle weights are lethal. The violence here is profound and yet it has become normalized. It is absurd what we sacrifice for mobility: air, water, land, wildlife, climate, our health, wealth and future. Where are we going in these giant, luxury trucks? Motoring in comfort across abused land, shattered bodies from coast to coast, and a ruined future. As we drive, we miss almost everything on the way, disregard and disconnect. I have read estimates that 1 million animals are killed on roads every day. That number is likely higher in spring when the youngsters climb out of their burrows and nests. The slaughter on our roads is an obscenity in every definition of the word.
Barbara Christine Hoekenga
Barbara Christine Hoekenga
Aug 24, 2011 04:03 PM
Sometimes when driving I imagine what it would be like--really like--to be hit by a car on a highway, and it's terrifying. Very thought-provoking piece.
martin weiss
martin weiss
Aug 24, 2011 04:19 PM
kyenne, you speak eloquence.OK, there's this asphalt plant out in the boonies and it's spring and turtles are crossing the road. All of the drivers of the twenty-ton dump trucks to and from the plant miss the turtles, even though they barely fit on the two-lane road. When you go in turtle, when you go out, turtle farther. Made me proud. kyenne, what you do is a very humane tribute to the sanctity of life. It's so stunningly cool, I don't know what to say.
kyenne williams
kyenne williams
Aug 24, 2011 04:59 PM
Martin, I am not eloquent (really); as my dad would say, go to the source:

It starts with two raccoons "sprawled still as stones in the road."
"I carry them to the side and lay them in sun-shot, windblown grass in the barrow ditch." Then it's jackrabbits and a "crumpled adolescent porcupine" who "leers up almost maniacally over its blood-flecked teeth." "I carry each one away from the tarmac and into a cover of brush or grass out of decency, I think. And worry. Who are these animals, their lights gone out. What journeys have fallen apart here?" So begins "Apologia," Barry Lopez's haunting and famous essay about driving across the roads of America and stopping to lift and move and apologize to roadkill.

THAT is what moved me in my small way; and what allowed me to do something I don't do very often (comment online). Go to the public library and find the essay - I live in the land of Powell's Books if you can't find it elsewhere!
martin weiss
martin weiss
Aug 24, 2011 05:32 PM
kyenne, the absolutely heartbreaking thing about racoons is that when one is hit by a vehicle, another one will go to it and get hit, too. And these are often way out of the traffic lane, as if someone intentionally swerved to kill. The basic common denominator of existence is life, not money, and the racoons are faithful to each other. In today's human society, you can cry, but nobody's coming. Violence is daily fare and love is obscene.
kyenne williams
kyenne williams
Aug 24, 2011 06:40 PM
Okay, this is an interesting conversation - I'm thinking that the common denominator is death. Given that we're here, so to speak. For me, the question is not why so much as how, and life is full of wonder and beauty as well as violence, and I choose to honor the former and not the latter. Love is grace; bigger than fear and violence and death. Words if used properly can invoke, evoke and transform - as can actions. So (to come full circle), I honor the passing of all creatures and am glad for our all too brief time here. All we have is now.
martin weiss
martin weiss
Aug 25, 2011 06:42 PM
We are almost alone among sentient creatures to believe ideas trump the heart. It's a weakness and a strength. But all the other mammals I know of are impelled by their connection, visceral and emotional, with their world. Maya Angelou, I think, wrote: "Love holds the stars in their courses." The big bang was a heartbeat. Growing up is earning enough self respect to value another. I spent years trying to accomplish personal goals, but nothing ever satisfied me so much as taking that dog, Dixie, named for the Dixie Chicks, home and keeping her alive. You do an immense service to life. I do stuff like that, too. I often stop traffic to carry a turtle across the road. It's impertinent and so contrarian, it's gratifying. Yes this is an interesting conversation. But I can't call the basic common denominator death. That's a short-term view. Certainly there's a dichotomy--life and death, but death is a temporary stasis and consciousness rules. That's why a healthy psyche is responsible for what she knows, and humanity is on a learning curve. People are emotionally invested in each other, but economics dictates a beggar thy neighbor veil on interaction. At essence, we are democratic, we must get along with others to survive. We are taught by example to be self-centered and we are motivated by our individual qualities, but we are a part of something socially, psychologically and emotionally, that can't be denied. Thus caring becomes a statement for life and against indifference. Honoring life celebrates conception. And, centrally, those groups who lived here for thirty thousand years without a dime exemplify that fact. Caring is living.
kyenne williams
kyenne williams
Aug 25, 2011 08:21 PM
I am reading this dirty, hot and tired from working outside and my brain doesn't easily move from the smell of dirt to articulating deep thoughts (guess I'm not Wendell Berry). I like what you've said and at the same time, if I weren't tired hot and dirty (I'm starting to feel like ACDC here) I'd likely ask "hey, where do you get off speaking for sentient beings?". Death is a constant and it's one way of measuring - I didn't say the only, or best. It's the one that seems to be effective in getting attention. But I digress (a lot) and I'm guessing there's more than one common denominator. So I will think on this, likely much later this evening, and get back to you. Perhaps this is a conversation that we could have without logging in to HCN (unless we have a silent but fascinated audience - hello????). You can find an email address for me fairly easily online, if interested. A thoughtful examination of the last dozen lines or so of your post will be forthcoming. Give my regards to Dixie!
martin weiss
martin weiss
Aug 26, 2011 05:42 PM
dirty, hot and tired sounds good to me, no disrespect. I tried, but my info-mining skills are primitive. So in order to pursue this exchange, I'm at martiweiss@gmail.com. Your ideas are edifying. I hope to offer you a unified field theory, with heartbeats.
When I worked for the city gov't. here, building stuff, I occasionally saw a squirrel run over in the street. I knew of a fox den and so I shoveled those little guys up and left them for the mother fox. I get a lot of pleasure out of feeding wild animals. My heart goes where the wild geese go.
Pamela Bond
Pamela Bond Subscriber
Aug 30, 2011 01:56 PM
Mr. Weiss - As an advocate for keeping all things wild you should not feed wild animals. They only wild animals I advocate feeding are birds and only in the spring and fall during migration when every little bit helps. What happens when people feed wild animals? They forget to listen to there internal clocks and compasses and are no longer wild. One persons "pet" deer is anothers garden destroyer. One persons "pet" fox is anothers gateway to a rabies shot. Keep it wild.
martin weiss
martin weiss
Aug 30, 2011 04:56 PM
It's late august and the wild birds are already leaving the British Isles. Here in Missouri, there are families that will stay the winter. I feed them during blizzards and in spring, but once food is available as insects I let them remove the ticks, etc, that plague my yard. This spring one of these wild animals was caught by a domestic cat and roughed up pretty good before escaping. By early august all his red cardinal feathers were gone from his head and shoulders, so I started the birdseed again and left out some olive oil to help him heal. His flyway goes through the BP-desecrated Gulf and I'd like to keep him from that sad fate. What you say about feeding wild animals is true but only conditionally and relatively. I won't let them die to stay wild. The fact is I may need to help him more than he needs me. I'm wild, too. I've seen too many red fox run over on the highway not to help them expand their numbers so as to even the odds of there being some left. Leaving a dead squirrel in a remote place hardly qualifies as taming, though, as St. Exupery might say, I am tamed by this wild critter. The wild deer around here are thicker than Republicans at a bank because the farmers feed them by growing crops. Foraging on domesticated agriculture hasn't tamed the deer. Birdseed won't tame my family of Cardinals. Salvaged squirrels won't tame the family of fox struggling to survive in a semi-urban environment. It is I who have been tamed by the wildlife.
martin weiss
martin weiss
Aug 30, 2011 05:13 PM
I think humanity needs to adopt the metaphor of the good shepherd regardless of religious connotations.
Carson Lindbeck
Carson Lindbeck
Sep 01, 2011 10:58 PM
It is good to hear that a writer has brought attention to this. I often wonder why the human can drive by a dead animal on the road and barely have a thought register, while I would assume the same would not happen were it a human. Furthermore, I see added insult when a squirrel is turned into a pancake by repeated drive-overs. I am glad to hear that the writer acknowledges this fact as he passes the corpses of the innocents while driving in his pickup. Me, well, everytime I see an animal lying lifeless adjacent to the roadside, I say this: "I'm sorry that you died because of human ignorance. This is a little prayer for you so that your soul may find a better place." So, I am glad that there are others who also consider this to be a problem, and seek to make changes to their lives in order to make the world safer for wildlife and domestic animals alike.
martin weiss
martin weiss
Sep 03, 2011 08:41 AM
I know some roads are being built with bridges and tunnels specifically for animal passage, and that's a start. But are there any ideas out there to protect these little guys that can be applied to all roads, both cheap and ubiquitous? (There's a word I never thought I'd use.)
JAT
JAT
Sep 06, 2011 07:11 PM
I too read Apologia,and was stricken with grief for all the animals lost to vehicles. It affected me so profoundly that I too bought a small shovel to keep in my car. For some reason, I rarely take the time to stop and use it. This has inspired me to remember why my shovel is there, and to honor those animals I find.
There's a UC Davis project on documenting roadkill in California and Maine, and I urge everyone to get involved. You sign up online and just post whenever you see an animal. www.wildlifecrossing.net/california/
martin weiss
martin weiss
Sep 07, 2011 03:02 AM
In the end, caring seems to be more about self preservation than having any significant effect on the numbers of animals slaughtered on roads and in "animal control" projects. I am full up on rescues. They outnumber me in my home and are an exercise in eternal vigilance to address their concerns. I can't take in any more and when the ones I have are gone, I'm tempted not to replace them in order to be free to come and go. That remains to be seen. As one of seven billion, all I can do is a little, and that mostly to preserve my own humanity. But for me, caring is living and I believe it is the emotional investment that keeps my heart beating. As St. Exupery wrote, "What is most important is invisible to the eye." If there are any solutions or suggestions to help prevent senseless mass slaughter, please publicize them here. Living things are under assault from the engines of commerce, and I am on the side of life.
David M. Delo
David M. Delo
Sep 07, 2011 07:36 AM
Ever consider the on-going problem of killing Yellowstone National Park animals in snowmobile trails? The animals, including buffalo, find the packed snow easier to walk on. It's also home to thousands of care-free hit-and-run snowmobilers. The park considered the problem. Period. David Delo
JAT
JAT
Sep 07, 2011 08:43 AM
Not sure if this point was made above, but the main reason to move victims off the road is to prevent predators from also being hit as they come to feed. And I disagree that caring is about self-preservation. What a cynical viewpoint, and sad. But understandable I suppose.
martin weiss
martin weiss
Sep 08, 2011 01:59 AM
There's a toll of suffering taken from our collective learning curve. The animals cannot comprehend roads and vehicles and even doves can't react fast enough to avoid impact. There's very little one can do directly to ameliorate the carnage. So I muse on possible solutions, but the net result of my concern is that I, myself, maintain the emotional connection, and with it, my own acceptance of responsibility and sanity. I have to accept your conclusion about cynicism, but because I don't just shrug my shoulders and dismiss all these little guys, because I insist that none of us is alone in the final analysis, I can hold onto some confidence that this is an anomaly which must eventually be resolved for the common good of all. Today I drove to Hannibal and back and saw dozens of victims of senseless violence lying at roadsides all along the way. I insist that caring is the first step to prevention and an essential element of human stewardship and well-being. In protecting the least among us, we accept the responsibility of our full inheritance, we come of age. It is a small step for each of us, but a huge leap for our species that death be not proud, nor go unmourned.
JAT
JAT
Sep 08, 2011 10:07 AM
Amen, Martin. Well said. Now go buy a small shovel for your car. :) I promise to use mine. We carry on.