by Danielle Owczarski
I am standing on a deserted public beach in Burlington, VT, situated west of the bike path and the Burlington Electric Department. My husband and I, dog in tow and cameras in hand, are in pursuit of stories told by the natural world; those neglected by people behind weatherproofed door jams. During the winter months, protected by the shelter of my apartment, I cannot tune out the arctic breeze whooshing against my door. I imagine the biting wind flowing through my veins, breathing life into my limbs, pushing me to be a part of the world beyond my warm, snug box. Once outside, the indoor fog in my mind lifts and my periphery expands initiating a new awareness. I enter the natural world to feel alive.
From the shore, I scan my surroundings for photo worthy subjects. A ragged chain link fence that catches my eye disappears gradually into the water, splitting the beach in half. My husband Jim calls my name and my gaze shifts along the shore. I move toward him, climbing cautiously over the fence. Looking to my left, I see three manmade shelters spaced along the expanse of sand. The first, constructed of driftwood and the second, of red blocky boulders. I assume they serve as fair weather refuges for transients in the warm months. When I reach Jim, he points to the third shelter, and asks if I see it. I reply yes, but he shakes his head and says to look again. I scan the tangle of vines on the willows hanging over the red blocks. Four feet above the crimson asylum, held precariously amid the bittersweet, is the limp body of a Mallard duck.
Despite its lifelessness, the body of the duck seems vibrant. Its translucent green neck and head, lemon-yellow beak, indigo wing bars, and lone orange webbed foot reflect the midday sunlight. I step carefully through the network of branches and look closely at its wounds, its breast is split, exposing the inside of the ribcage and its right wing is torn and broken. There is no blood spatter or flaccid viscera hanging from the gaping cavity and the vital organs are absent. I raise my camera and center on the bird being careful everything is in focus. Click!
I am not reluctant to touch the bird. The flesh is cold but the joints are still pliable and I am able to move the wing, which implicates a fresh kill. I look for its missing foot and see no sign of it. The left wing is intact and the neck is stretched beyond its natural form. I imagine a predator latching on to it, a lengthy struggle followed by an exhausted surrender, a forced drowning by an eagle for a day’s meal. I reach for the yellow beak and hold it between my thumb and fingers. It is smooth and I pull it open. Inside I see its sharp pointed tongue and on the beak edge a comb-like structure similar to the mouth of a baleen whale. These teeth, called pecten, groom feathers and filter the lake water keeping in the nutritious animals and plants. I scan the perimeter looking for the executioner’s footprints, a mink perhaps, but the surface of the white snow is desert-like, ethereal, and touched by no tracks but our own.
The presence of the duck in the bleak landscape reminds me that death is inexorable. No creature can escape it. As animals, we recognize it as part of a natural cycle. As humans, we fear it. Despite the common belief that we are higher beings, we all face the same end. I am not eager to concede to my fugacity, but I can accept that the duck and I are one in the same, both mortal, flesh and bone.
The mallard was the first of the dead bodies. Soon after, I acquired the intact remains of a male coyote, road kill offered up by one of my professors. The coyote’s coat was soft and thick, disguising its death, emulating a sleeping canine stretched out in the back of a pick-up. Soon after transporting the body to a friend’s camp in Jeffersonville, Jim and I hung the coyote from a gambrel and skinned him. The fat exposed along his underbelly suggested he was not starving, but well fed and healthy. His teeth were perfect, with no sign of age or degradation, perhaps a young male on his way to establish new territory. Soon his pelt would be curing in the camp workshop.
The third body revealed itself to me while driving down a mountain road in Northern VT, a Turkey Vulture off on the shoulder atop a heap of plowed snow. I stopped the car to study the bird. There was a gaping hole in its chest. The rest of the body was untouched, with smooth, soft feathers, long talons and a curved beak for ripping the tough flesh of carrion. I pulled select feathers from the tail and the wing to use for a medicine shield, a form of sacred art regarded in prayer and ceremony. I knew as weeks passed the eerily magnificent looking bird would deteriorate becoming food for a scavenger such as itself.
Back at my friend’s camp, I found the fourth body, a fully splayed out Common Redpoll, a victim of optical illusion, a window, a solid surface, and then down, face down in the snow with wings and tail feathers spread out on the cool white exterior. Another small male redpoll hopped on the railing above the body chirping and flapping anxiously. I carefully climbed under the railing and walked over to the limp body, slowly sliding my gloved hand under the bird. The worn leather of my glove startled the bird from its spell and it hastily flew to an overhanging branch of white ash. The male redpoll and I, bewildered, were both unwitting spectators of an illusory death.
The fifth animal was not as fortunate. Large flocks of crows were roosting in Burlington during the winter and thousands of the birds moved south around sunset each day. I watched them in silence from locations around the city, an endless ribbon of movement across the sky, no end, no beginning, a constant flow of black flapping wings and diamond bodies muted in the low angle sunlight.
I hovered over the shadowy carcass. The crow was lying in the playground on milky ice under a young maple tree. There was no contorted look on its face and its greasy black wings were lying neatly by its sides. Its protruding black eyes were not the sunken filmy holes of the dead. I touched its body, still soft and malleable. The bird did not look sickly, but plump and robust, just hours before, alive, and gliding along a weak winter thermal.
I am generally accepting of death, only during the long hours of the night does it trouble me, when the darkness seems too close. They all, except for the redpoll, lost the inertia of being. Life departed and only the physical body remained. I knew the bodies would begin to break down, without pause, into smaller and smaller bits of matter aided by living organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and insects, busily eating away at flesh and plumage. Scavengers would filch meals and roots would slowly penetrate the leftovers, each molecule separated and recycled back into living beings, forming a chain of chemical reactions. In the end there would be no landfill of the dead, no plastic or toxic refuse, nothing wasted.
The more I ponder this dying world, the more explicit life becomes, the ebb and flow of my breath, the dull intermittent ache in my shoulders, the exhilaration of warm hands on my bare skin. Despite my heightened awareness, life is still fleeting. My life, like the animals, is transitory and when the spark withdraws, I am gone. I become the seed of life to other living beings, the scientific form of reincarnation. Although I sometimes fear death, I am comforted to know my body will continue to sustain life.
When I visit the corpse of the coyote, I see that the ravens and nearby fox have gradually picked it apart; with pieces of its intestines strewn about the frozen ground. I will come back again in the spring and retrieve its skull, burying it in the ground before unearthing and cleaning it for use as an outdoor learning tool. I will describe the parts to my students, the shape of the head and the strength of the jaw, the arrangement of teeth and the calcium and phosphate composition of the bone. They will be intrigued and fascinated by the life of the coyote, but few will be inclined to contemplate the utility of its death.