Heaven and Earth


Here is the original version of “Heaven and Earth” I submitted to the Globe and Mail, Facts & Arguments earlier this year, which we then edited. The link to the final Globe and Mail version is below this article:
When I moved to the country seven years ago the locals took pleasure relating gruesome stories of deer being hit on the highway, or boasting of the number of deer they themselves had hit, totaling their vehicle while managing to survive, which then led to stories of the people they knew who had tied the trophies to the hoods of their cars, which led to stories of road kill, which led to stories of those who ate road kill. I’m sure all of this was geared to elicit a reaction on my stone-cold expressionless, nonplussed, city face. (Even though I hadn’t arrived from Toronto, that was the noun, used as an adjective, to describe me, and the likes of me, whether from Edmonton or Halifax. He’s Toronto. Not, he’s so Toronto. Just he’s Toronto.)

And behind my glassy stare I secretly dreaded the day that I would witness the inevitable deer in my headlights, seconds before it smashed my windshield and I met my maker, perhaps arriving at the pearly gates with the deer at my side, as we escorted each other into the unknown.

So far most sightings have been at a distance, and I have learned that they rarely travel alone. And recently I came between two deer on our crossroad, one had leapt well ahead of the car, allowing me time to slow and keep an eye out for others. I found myself between the deer and its kin, mate, fawn, whatever, and I stopped, rolled down the windows and took pictures of both lovely creatures as they stared, doe-eyed, at one another, through the windows of my car.

I am not guiltless. Since arriving, I have had the misfortune of colliding with a few wayward birds who did not know whether to hit the ditch, the road or the grill on my car. Those seconds of indecisiveness cost them their lives. Forgive me, but the amount has been less than I could count on the fingers of one hand.

There has been a rabbit I partially rescued from the road. As I slowly approached, it seemed to be lying there enjoying a summer day, much like a dog might. But when I lifted this dazed being off the road I saw that, sadly, his insides had been shoved out his underside. It was the kind of situation where you aren’t sure if they know the gravity of the damage, and you don’t want to be the one to tell them. I gently placed the wide-eyed creature in the tall grass. I hoped that he would be a fresh and quick meal for a hungry coyote. I wish I could have had the guts, my own guts, to kill him and put him out of his misery right there. He was warm, he was trusting, and it was probably the only time I would ever be able to hold one of those elusive beauties in my hands –– or make that dreaded decision.

Riding my bike on another section of country road I came across the cracked and thankfully dead, corpse of a turtle. It was the kind of road kill you don’t want to see, the kind you view through the light between your fingers as you cover your eyes. Suddenly dead, I hoped, out of his misery. Most of the time I have had the good fortune and foresight to recognize the turtles –– and we have many –– and not mistake them for rocks or dirt, and stop and lift them towards the side of the road they seem to be traveling. They always come across a bit cranky, regardless, as if to say I can do it myself, while they shift stubbornly toward the marsh.

There are hot foggy summer nights near that same marsh that sound absolutely tropical, as they bring out hundreds of frogs onto the road, which you don’t realize, nor do they, until it is too late. Then the challenge is to weave slowly, hoping to be out of the thick of things, and try to forget the earlier popping sound, as you come to understand the source. Again, locals do their best to shake my foundations by telling me frog-popping was entertainment for their friends when they were younger.

There are days too, when there seem to be many more corpses, a fawn, a few raccoons of course, a skunk, all within the short space of time or distance. It can just seem like a bad day for wildlife. On those days you try to think happy thoughts.

But when I am out walking my dog, there is a smaller world we see, not something that you notice from the car. Yes, there are the flattened rabbits, a solitary wayward dog, dead, lying with his back towards us, as if sound asleep in the grass. There are messy squashed bullfrogs of course, and a large fish that some passing heron, I imagine, has dropped. But from there the world gets smaller, tinier, and more demanding of closer inspection.

Each day we pass what I believe to be a spot of tar, but I see this morning it is actually a flattened baby turtle, the texture and size of its shell no rougher than that of a large coin. Further along, on the shoulder, is a hole, freshly dug with soft white eggshells littered nearby, of more misfortunate turtles no doubt. It doesn’t officially qualify as road kill, but literally seems to. Was the perpetrator a raccoon? Coyote? Fisher? We pass a beautiful snake, dead, whole and perfect, Garter with bright yellow-green stripes, and further, on a Diamond Back, copper and gold, like decorative bands woven around Nefertiti’s neck, wrist or waist. I love snakes, they let me know the land I am on is nourishing, safe, and full of life.

On our noontime walk we come across a rare treat, a tiny live salamander, bright orange like a child’s sticky sweet jelly candy, but it is real, and alive, and has found itself on the asphalt. I coax him onto my hand while my dog comes in, big wet nose for a closer sniff at this tiny creature. The eyes blink upward, tiny fingers support its barely wavering body. I find some cool grass, congratulating myself for saving the day for this gem.

I remember, as a child, seeing a dead porcupine, robin, or skunk, and wondering what its family was going to do tonight when they realized Mom or Baby Number Six wasn’t coming home. It’s funny how we keep those thoughts at bay the older we get. It makes life easier.

Late afternoon, we head towards the sunset. Waves of heat rise off of our crossroad. As orange as the salamander was, a brilliant sliver of green catches my eye. It’s not a leaf. We are too far into the season for a green this bright. I come close to what could be a bent blade of ditch grass, the kind you hold between your thumbs and whistle through. Reluctantly my brain assembles the evidence: it is a Praying Mantis, and I perceive it as half squashed and struggling, until I realize it is whole and beside the flattened corpse of another. It appears to be keening, arched skyward in a silent scream. My heart breaks to see this pose, something so familiar to me, a memory in my own body from the deaths I’ve mourned, as if there is not enough air to fill our lungs, feed the wailing, dilute the pain and take away the suffering for the moment.

Once again I am convinced that intellect is not confined to brain size or size of being, nor is emotion solely a privilege (or curse) of the human condition. I slip a leaf under the reluctant jewel and a small rage fills him, as though he refuses to be taken from his dead mate. His front legs –– those used for praying –– are now boxing the air in a silent tantrum. I am not endowing this living emerald with human qualities, I am merely observing. Say what you will, I know mourning.


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