On a recent trip from my home in western Oregon to San Francisco, I removed probably two dozen dead animals from the road. This has been my habit for as long as I have been driving, nearly 30 years; but these incidents of ministration, if that is what they are, weigh no less now. The form of death is monumental, A federal Highway Administration study in 1978--the latest study from which figures are available--concluded that about 1 million animals a day are killed on the country's roadways. A Humane Society official told me recently that he feels the figure is still valid. He estimated that about 600,000 of those killed each day are birds.
Most everyone I know who hits an animal on the road is saddened by the encounter, feels guilty about the haste and insouciance of his driving, bewildered by the suddenness of the accident. But as a culture we seem inured to these deaths, regarding them, however reluctantly, as the inevitable price of doing business, of living expeditiously. We simply ignore the stains that discolor every road in a ghastly pattern of dark nebulae.
I remove animals from the road, large and small, as a spiritual exercise--a ritual of apology and an acknowledgment of my own complicity. I want to remind myself of this specific, terrible cost for a way of life we insist upon. Many of these animals are felled in accidents that, I presume, the responsible driver was aware of; as many, perhaps, die unnoticed. More unsettling, like many who drive in the countryside, I see people lunge deliberately at animals with their cars, swerve to strike down raccoons, slow-moving possums, stray dogs, snakes and rabbits that often have the unfortunate habit of trying to outrun a vehicle closing in.
This impulsive behavior and profound indifference, some would argue, represent a dark strain in human society. We are as heedless, as aloof, navigating the sidewalks of our cities, the aisles of our supermarkets, the various corridors of business. We ponder the death of a million animals a day as little as we ponder civilians dead in Iraq or Panama, the deaths of environmental refugees in famine camps in Africa.
Of the bodies I took from the road in a few days of driving, I remember most vividly three. At dawn, south of Ukiah, Calif., on a broadly curving and deserted section of U.S. 101, I removed a fawn. Its back had been broken and its abdomen exploded in the same accident, I thought, that close by had smeared a wide trail of blood from a larger animal, probably its parent. (I assumed it had been hauled away to feed farm animals or people.) I remember the fawn not for its frailty but for the dew that had settled on its hair, glistening with the oranges and yellows in the sunrise and magnifying the myriad browns, reds, blacks and silvers in its hairs.
On U.S. 97 north of Klamath Falls in eastern Oregon, I stopped for a porcupine and found its battered companion dead in the brush nearby. Farther on, I removed a badger whose face and front legs had been torn away. She lay across the fog line at the edge of the road on her chest, the gesture of supplication so pitiful it made me angry. I dug her legs, her larynx, out of the roadbed and took all of it away with her into the ponderosa woods.
A friend of mine, a successful musician and television writer, who lived in Hollywood some years ago, used to swerve his car deliberately on his way home from work, trying to hit birds. In his large house was a picture window. Birds, confused by its reflections, would fly into it and die. One afternoon when he saw a bird kill itself he began to think about his driving on Sunset Boulevard. He decided that the birds slamming into his home were trying to tell him something, that his life was going too fast. He walked away from the house, from the way of life he'd fashioned, and settled outside a small city in a neighboring state. It took him several years, he told me, to learn how to drive in such a way that he no longer hit animals, even inadvertently. It was not so much a matter of speed, he thought, though slowing down was important, especially for him; what made the difference, he said, was concentrating on where he was, not on where he was going.
The highway in front of my house runs along a river through a Douglas fir forest in the Cascade Mountains. A commercial thoroughfare across the mountains, it is plied daily by log, lumber and other trucks. It also carries a heavy load of seasonal tourist traffic--motor homes, pickup campers and cars with trailers.
This region is still a regular haunt, however, of wild creatures--black bear, elk, mountain lion, beaver. For them, the road is a corridor of death. To tourists, it's a road that provides intimate views of a primitive landscape. For some truckers, it is often no more than a blurred means to an end.
To me the road has become poignant over the years as an implacable servant of society. It is a gray, not shining, symbol of progress. It gleams at dusk from the polish of tires and the stain of animal grease. It seems caught up, as were prison guards at Treblinka, in righteous expediency, the impunity of destiny. Some evenings, I feel as sorry for the road as I do for the hundreds of creatures that will die on it before sunrise.