Death in the Woods

The other day there was a foul stench in the woods. There’s something dead in there, I said to my son on the first time noticing it. As the days went by, it grew stronger. This is how the smell of death works: you smell the first whiff of it and recognize what it is. Then it rises to a crescendo that lasts a few days, a strong message of death emanating from its source. I was thankful for the bandana I wear when I’m on the trail–this time I used it to protect myself from this smell.

At one point, I was looking for a chicken of the woods mushroom I had found once, wondering if it had reappeared. I walked around the oaks interspersed with hemlocks aimlessly until the smell hit me, and I realized I must be close. I stood still, worried that I might walk too close to the dead thing. I turned a circle in this spot until I saw it almost completely camouflaged in the leaf litter under a dead tree. A young doe covered in flies deep in the early stages of decomposition. I covered my mouth reflexively, and hurriedly walked away, unable to look any closer or any longer.

I wondered about the doe–what happened to her? Why hadn’t she been eaten by other animals? Had she been hit by a car? Sick with disease? Though it is now hunting season, this happened just before the season opened. I then started thinking about how much death I actually see while out walking. Just recently I happened upon a large black crow’s wing surrounded by lots of little feathers. It prompted so many questions: who killed it and how? Was it a hawk or owl? These are generally the main predators of crows.

When I walk on my road I encounter death all the time, of course. As drivers we don’t see these dramas quite so closely. After a rain, there are many casualties. There are always frogs and worms. There was a snake the other day, my guess it was out sunning on a last bit of warmth in the road. Among all the frogs, I also saw a yellow spotted salamander–which hurt a little to see, I guess because it was such a rarity. The amount of chipmunks and squirrels I see is high; their leather skins pave quite a few bits of the road. Lately, as it is the season, there have also been quite a few deer carcasses on the sides of the roads.

Fall is the season of endings. It feels especially poignant right now, as the world is starkly facing death on several different levels. Part of our collective anxiety of late has been brought on by this inability to put death off in a corner. It is front and center. Will the pandemic kill us? Will it be climate change?

Time has passed since the high point of that awful smell, which only lasts a few days. But still death marches on in all its other forms: as the vegetation dies back, the leaves pile up, the understory and canopy thins. I often forget that death is part of a cycle. I have to remind myself that in the autumn seeds form and fall to the ground. That ground is fertile with the compost of dying matter and marks the beginning–however subtly– of a new year.

  1. LOVE this post. I feel like you should post all this to Medium where you can develop more of a following. Or see if outside magazine wants to publish this one, in particular. I was walking yesterday and was startled by a little movement on the pavement – it was a garter snake with it’s head sticking up that had just been run over by a car that had passed me maybe 30 seconds earlier. It was bleeding from several points on its sides but still trying valiantly to slither away. I got a stick and picked it up and moved it to the leaf litter on the side of the road to at least avoid being run over again before it finally was able to move on. Made me so sad. The leather hides of the chipmunks and squirrels really are paving the roads these days. They are on overdrive, frantically gathering nuts and burying them with even less caution about road safety than usual.

    Did you ever read the kids’ book Cactus Hotel to your boy? It’s so good and does a fantastic job of illustrating (I love the pix) the cycle of life through the life story of a saguaro cactus in the desert. Check it out if you ever can.

    1. Eve! Do you know that right after I finished this post, I drove out to go for a hike and in the middle of the street was a huge black rat snake that had just been struck by a car! Its tongue was flashing out, and it was bleeding and writhing. I must admit, I wasn’t as brave as you. I did not pull the snake out of the road, but I should have. Poor thing!

      I will order Cactus Hotel from the library–thank you. Maybe more for me than him! When I was a kid, my favorite book was The Dead Bird by Margaret by Margaret Wise Brown. I read it over and over again. I was fascinated by it. I’m not sure it’s still in print, but maybe the library has a copy.

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