A Parting Look

IMG_3596 (2)You’ve seen those bumper stickers: “I brake for wildlife.” I’m one of those people who stop for wildlife. But I have a confession: I am as likely to stop for a dead animal as for a live one.

I know: Eeew. But it’s not as unsavory as it might sound. Sometimes we happen upon animals from whom life has only just departed. Aesthetic reservations aside, these encounters provide an unparalleled opportunity to closely examine animals that we usually see only from a distance, if ever.

I’m thinking, for example, of the badger I saw one morning on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 6 in eastern Nebraska. The hour was early and traffic was light. So I pulled over and got out for a closer look.

The animal’s long, coarse fur stirred in the breeze, exposing a soft undercoat whose delicacy seemed strangely at odds with the formidable two-inch claws on its forefeet. I stayed for several minutes, knowing I might never again see a badger at such closer range…and hoping that nobody else would drive past and observe my strange behavior.

On the trails I walk in Wisconsin, I regularly find small creatures that have recently expired, sometimes without visible cause. The poor shrew I found one day appeared to have just fallen in its tracks. I paused to consider the tiny beast, with its dainty paws and infinitesimal teeth. I brushed a small twig against the thick, dense fur. What a marvel was this tiny vessel. And how fortunate I felt to have seen it.

Nature writers often extol the beauty of our planet’s vast wonders. Here, in contrast, is a chance to contemplate nature on a much smaller scale, to see the world through a shorter lens…and to pay final respects to a fellow traveler.