The weather was unseasonably warm. After a relatively cool spring, the rising temps and unstable air had ramifications. As I drove south, my nose was assaulted by the rapidly decaying carcasses hidden in the growing grasses of the ditch by the side of the road. The stench was incongruent with the verdant green grasses waving in the wind.
A mated pair of giant Canada geese, flying side by side, just managed to clear the tall sleeper cab of a tractor-trailer rig barreling north on 380. They gained altitude steadily on strong wings, heading northwest while honking in romantic counterpoint. The sleepy sun bathed the rolling hills in pinkish amber light. Last years Indian grass and bluestem persisted on the hillsides in irregular patches, while new green growth was bursting forth from the soil beneath. The sight reminded me of horses shedding their winter coats—not an unreasonable analogy, I suppose.
Over the shedding hillsides skimmed five shadows. Changing size as they flowed over sheds, tractors, houses, and barns, the phantoms chased each other like peas in a shell game. These phantoms turned out to be the cast shadows of turkey vultures as they circled overhead deciding which fragrant rotting carcass to visit first. Tipping left, then right in the wind, their little red heads almost invisible, they are all wings and tail, surfing the rising thermals like the masters of the air they are.
Earlier, I had come across a painterly scene by the side of the road. In a deep ravine, with light pouring through backlit trees, a tom turkey, also backlit, stepped into a clearing looking fit and sleek. It was a moment to savor—an image that asked my mind to consider what other moments of unbearable beauty we miss while tending to human and urban tasks. These moments could renew us, revive us, and soothe our tortured souls.
On the other hand...
Her lifeless eye remained permanently fixed on the sky, as people whizzed by in cars, largely oblivious to her final resting place, not to mention her terrible final moments. She had fallen into that undesirable category that humans have come to dismiss what they would rather not think about—road kill. She was a mature doe, and although I'm not sure she was carrying another life within her, it was likely. Where had she come from? How many young had she raised? What did she prefer in a buck? What accumulated knowledge was lost with her sudden death? Who would lose out? Will my death be sudden and violent like hers? Questions. Humans are always asking questions. Does it help us, or is it just part of being human and so inevitable? Her struggles were over. She will hunger no more. I think about her life, her death and bear witness to her and her kind.
We kill many creatures with these mobile chariots of ours. Frogs, skunks, cats, dogs, deer, raccoons, elk, owls, toads, coyotes, squirrels, turtles, snakes, mice, hawks, moose, bear, and even the occasional human. How do we feel about this? Do we feel? As a person who loves and has studied wildlife, when I see a creature lying dead beside the road, I can fill in some of their general natural history and life ways. I can see them alive and healthy, going about their daily (or nightly) activities. What about those people who don't have such a background? What do they think? What do they feel? The wheels of my mobile chariot continued to spin along the concrete ribbon bisecting passing farm fields.
To the south and southeast, the sky grew darker as a wall of clouds built ever higher on itself imperceptibly. In direct contrast, the western sky deepened and intensified it rose blush, punctuated by "happy little clouds" of the Bob Ross type. An object lesson in balance and contradiction, like ominous double basses with skipping flutes in a symphony movement. The sky ahead darkened still further as a few random drops of far-flung rain hit my windshield for a quarter mile and then stop. For a few moments, the apparition of a mountain emerges from the purple sky as the setting sun illuminates a portion of the thunderhead through a fissure in the cloudbank. It looks like a Chinese drawing of loess hills—an ancient fictional dynasty that momentarily revealed itself to me before disappearing again in the mists of updrafts and roiled moisture. Magical. And then there was light.
The sky exploded with lightning, throughout the clouds at first, then with rattlesnake strikes to the earth. Some critical mass had evidently been reached. As surprising as the onset of the lightning, was its frequency. It was as if the Norse god Thor had begun the battle of his life—his hammer landing blow after blow, yet strangely, I could hear no thunder. A massive bolt of lightning traversed half the sky and struck the earth west of the highway, lighting up the rest of the sky. I was very glad to be far away from the target of that strike, whatever it was. No sooner did I have that thought, then it happened again, along the very same path. This happened again and again, as the interior of the cloud flashed like paparazzi at the Oscars. The fading light of the sunset emphasized the massive size of the storm even as it started to blend in with the growing dark.
My own mother had come up with the operative phrase on a trip to Boulder, CO when, during a lightning storm, she watched long fingers of lightning streak down to the foothills from the sky. She said it was "come-to-Jesus lightning." Right you are mother. Whatever was at the end of these massive strikes was having a serious come-to-Jesus moment. I'm glad it wasn't me, but I was driving directly into the storm and it wouldn't be too long before I was exactly where I didn't want to be. Fortunately, I turned east on a county road before I had to "meet my maker." I felt relatively safe, but not too safe. We can have our "moment" at any point in time, whether we are ready or not. Despite our large brain case and our outsized self-esteem, we're small, insignificant, vulnerable, subject to the same laws of nature as all other living beings, and what's more, most of the universe is indifferent to whether we live or die today. It's a good lesson to remember. Especially when we start getting a little too big for our britches. Despite what we tell ourselves, we are not "all that."