I saw a stomach the size of an overstuffed sofa cushion lying by the side of the road the other day. Literally. And it wasn’t alone. It had a partially eaten liver on one side of it and a long, flattened tube of intestinal tract trailing off towards the middle of the road like it was trying to crawl away. Nothing else though. No legs or body or head, hair, skin or anything. Not even blood stains. It looked so displaced.
I realized immediately that it was, to use the hunting vernacular, a gut pile.
I’ve heard of such a thing but, not being a hunter, never seen one. It was the entrails of somebody’s freshly killed and dressed deer. Usually these are left out in the field and I’m not sure why this one was plopped down on the side of a very public, albeit dirt, road. But there it was, just sitting there. Nonchalant and relaxed. Looking for all the world like a great round, hairless hitchhiker slouching against the bank between rides.
I was upset. At first, I thought it was because somebody might have shot the deer from their car. This is an unfair practice and a big no no. Then I thought it was because they left a gut pile right on the road which (I think but am not certain) may also be a no no. (I’m very rule conscious and tend to ruffle and quiver when they’re not followed, especially where killing is concerned.) But looking back now, I think I was mostly upset because a big, beautiful deer had just died and the evidence of its death was graphic and shocking. It took me by surprise and knocked me off center. I wasn’t prepared for it.
I was just out for a hike.
You’d think that in my preoccupation with all things dying, I couldn’t ask for a better topic than hunting, and it’s true. It has everything to recommend it, from the complex, physiological processes involved, to the ethical considerations that so endlessly fascinate me, to its profound and shaping influence on each and every person engaging in it. Even so, I don’t want to talk about hunting today. People tend to react very strongly to that subject, one way or another, and right now I feel like the controversy would swamp me.
I just want to remember that stomach.
Two crows were on the pile when we were first drove around the bend but they flew away as soon as they saw the car. I was with a friend and we stopped briefly while I got out to investigate. Even upset I was mesmerized, because other than the displacement it looked absolutely perfect. Round, intact, smooth as a baby’s skin. There was an intricate web of capillaries tattooing the surface like some kind of primeval artwork. It was still fresh. There was no smell yet and aside from the liver, no evidence of wildlife depredation. The stomach looked achingly exposed and yet…a little jaunty. Like it was enjoying it’s day out.
I named it in my mind, Sy, then said sorry buddy and climbed back in the car to drive on to the hiking trail.
Hours later on our way back down the mountain we’d both forgotten about it so it took us by surprise all over again, when we drove around the bend and saw three or four crows and an eagle lifting off of it and flying into the trees. Sy was fast turning into the Monday buffet and there was something really comforting about that. The Cycle Of Things is always comforting to me. We stopped again and I admired him one last time before we headed home.
And I’ve wondered ever since; why is it that the sight of a single stomach by the side of the road impacted me so much more than the sight of all the constant roadkill I see scattered along the highways and byways of this country? I mean, it’s not like any of us are strangers to seeing gruesome, shocking examples of violent death on a regular basis. With our national infatuation with the automobile, smeared animals are about as American as apple pie.
In fact, most of us who drive for any length of time will ourselves kill animals that way. Perhaps, if it’s one that’s either meaningful to us (like a dog) or big enough (like a deer or a cow) we’ll have to stop and do something about it. But otherwise we’ll just bump, thump, and drive on, leaving it behind us fluttering or trembling or limp, helpless or suffering or dead. Most of us will feel a little bit bad (none of us wants to hurt these critters) but essentially absolved. These accidents are just part of the price we pay (excuse me…we?) for mobility, our own domestic type of widespread, collateral damage.
It’s not the fact of all this graphic, useless dying and death that eats at me. It’s not. I don’t have a problem with the fact that everything dies (although I’m forever interested in improving the quality of the experience.)
No. What gets under my skin is our pervasive denial about it. We argue over the ethics of hunting or vegetarianism or industrial farming or habitat loss like we really care, but then we watch a finch bounce off our fender or a raccoon lumber under our tires and barely slow down. Or we pick up a package of ribs or ground beef, pop a chicken nugget or fish sandwich into our mouths, and don’t even think to connect it to the beautiful, sentient beings that gave up their lives so we could be nourished.
We don’t cast back in our minds for a moment, and remember them alive. That makes me sad, even though I do it, too.
I wonder what the world would be like if we quit trying to hide, pretend, and compartmentalize about all the dying and killing so much, and just willingly received it instead. Each time. Opened our hands, bowed our heads, and said I’m so terribly sorry…and by the way thank you so much. I think it might change us all in big ways, and quickly, if we let ourselves recognize and care about every last, small death we’re personally involved in as much as we care about the big trends.
I wonder if we’d wake up, really see the world around us, and and maybe ache more but also fall a little more in love with life each time.
Here’s a blog post and comments from Going Gently with a beautiful example of compassionate culling. John raises (and rescues!) a bewildering array of poultry and other animals for both farming purposes and pets. And as anyone who does this for long quickly discovers, dying and killing are an inevitable part of the project. A while back he rescued a few chickens that, in the process of being selectively bred for meat, had become so deformed they could no longer survive very long in a natural state. He took them on as pets and let’s them free range and, not only have they survived longer than expected, they’ve even started laying eggs, something he hadn’t anticipated. This post tells the story of one who finally succumbed to the inevitable fate of her breeding.
copyright 2010 Dia Osborn
Your post reminds me of the opening scene of “The Last of the Mohicans” where after they kill the stag, they pray over the animal as it dies. I also recall Joseph Cambell explaining the purpose of these prayers is to absolve the guilt of something dying so we can live.
But even in my few times of saying grace before I eat a meal…I don’t conect this fact…that others have died, that I might live. Oh, that a simple prayer would make me okay with that. Suddenly, I am so understanding of my denial.
Great post, as always extremely well written…not so sure I’m glad you “stirred” my day up with the content…so I hesitantly thank you.
I forgot about that scene! I love it, how they acknowledge and honor the life they just took before they set about dressing the kill. What would it be like, if we all took a moment each time? I think it would change the rhythm of everything, slow us all down enough to start breathing again. Just saying’… 🙂
thank you for the big up
I am with cal
you write very well!!!
as for your question
Historically soldiers were notorious for becoming engaged in silly and most times (e.g. the game of the “bisquit”) non-sense games to kill the time, practice that over time gave them a poorly credible connotation and stereotype. Hence this old fashioned colloquialism (the original version was Sod this for a game of soldiers) compares the foolishness of a certain action/thing with that of “a game of soldiers”
Well, I’m putting that expression in my pocket and looking for a conversation to slip it into around here. It would work for so many things these days wouldn’t it? 🙂
As always, Dia, your descriptions are priceless. The simple fact that you could hang a name on a disembodied deer gut is a measure of your ability to humanize the events of your life, be they good or bad.
I grin at your examination of things like Sy. I am still being teased mercilessly for spontaneously picking up the silky, disembodied leg of a deer that I found along the hiking trail one day. The result, of course, was horrible smelly-hand for the remainder of the hike. Ugh. I am always fascinated by the parts inside, those hidden parts that function like clockwork to keep us going. Most people think I’m a lunatic for poking around in carcasses.
Having grown up around livestock, I do actually think about the beings who’s precious bodies sustain me. I have eaten all kinds of meat because, frankly, if you eat one kind of animal, how can you say its not ethical to eat another kind of animal? How can you rank expendable versus cute? But always, I know there were soft eyes and a beating heart that brought nourishment to the flesh I eat.
And as always, you gently steer us, your readers, back to the topic we read you for…the one that lies hidden away like the guts inside, there, important, inevitable, but uncomfortable. You make the uncomfortable less frightening. Thank you for that.
I think you and I need to head out into the wild together sometime, Linda. A kindred soul! I love that you’re fascinated by the inner workings of bodies, too, and still find them worthy of attention even though the life they once housed has journeyed onward. Thank you so much for your insightful comments btw…I learn something new from them every time. You write really, really well.
“How can you rank expendable versus cute?” This question has kept me in quite a puzzle, too. I’m always floored to hear people condemn a particular treatment where one kind of animal is concerned then excuse it with another. It illustrates for me how truly subjective and unexamined a lot of our values and beliefs really are. More like prejudices and biases really.
Never more so than around the topics of dying and killing, let me tell you. (Except maybe with sex… 🙂 Which is why I keep writing about dying. As long as we won’t talk about it, we don’t examine our own beliefs about it either, and a lot of the simple ignorance about dying is causing unnecessary levels of suffering these days. All I really wanted to do here was make it a little less scary to talk about. Thanks for letting me know it’s working for you.
I’m always game for a walk on the wild side, Dia. Thanks for your kind comments about my writing. They say we all have stories. I do have a hell of a time finding mine and they seem to come only from the way-far-back time.
By any chance do you know Kate Riley? She is an “educator/advocate/author/certified death midwife.” Her card says, “Passionate Living Conscious Dying.” I think you would have lots to talk about with her. And actually, our writer’s group is going to meet with her at David’s house in the Northend on December 1st. She’s going to provide some strategies on publishing. I know you’re not quite ready for the publishing part yet…neither am I, but I still think you’d find her fascinating if you don’t already know her.
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