Life and Death on the Trail: Learning From Nature
Updated: Jul 28, 2022
On this morning’s walk I witnessed something more often seen on the National Geographic Channel or PBS’s Nature.
Jojo, my walking companion, senses people, animals and birds before I do. She is part border collie, part Australian shepherd. For lack of sheep to herd, her job is to protect us and our bird feeder from the numerous nefarious squirrels in our yard. After the chase, she sniffs and dances at the bottom of the tree as the rascally rodent looks down, fluttering its tail and chattering its taunt. Jojo delights in this game, and the squirrel appears to get a bit of fun out of it, too.
On the snow-covered path below the UW-Platteville stadium, Jojo stopped in her tracks, her right ear erect. A squirrel scampered over the snow across the partially frozen stream about 70 feet away. I didn’t want her getting any wild notions about dashing in mad pursuit. “No, no, no, Jojo!” I told her. She was on her leash, but leashes can succumb to a strong enough tug.
Then a large animal leaped from the brush onto the squirrel and shook it violently. A soundtrack of low growls and high squeals made it chilling—and exciting. As fast as it began, it was over. The predator disappeared with its meal as I fumbled for the camera app on my phone. If Jojo ever caught a squirrel, I thought, she would likely do the same thing. Her genes carry this instinct her ancestors needed to survive in the wild. She can afford to chase squirrels for fun only because I provide her with food.
I wondered if the predator might have been a wolf. It was not thin and mangy like the coyote images I’d seen. Gray-furred and bulky, it was bigger than Jojo. On the internet I read that coyotes grow thick, wooly coats in the winter. Wolves rarely venture into urban areas, so it was likely a coyote. In the evenings I’ve heard high-pitched yowling coming from that area near Rountree Branch. The plentiful deer, raccoons, groundhogs, possums, rabbits and squirrels certainly provide them with a plentiful food-chain menu.
Yes, death happens along the trail. Last summer while clearing honeysuckle, our Platteville Community Arboretum (PCA) work crew came upon a lifeless opossum buried in a clump of weeds. Opossums eat ticks, beetles, and slugs, as well as rotting vegetation, a wonderful service to us all. But they also eat chicken eggs—and sometimes chickens. I keep backyard chickens, so I’m not partial to their ugly snout-nosed mugs. I’d rather encounter a dead opossum than a live one any day.
Last spring Jojo alerted me to the sleek body of a deer lying on the southern bank of Rountree Branch near Katie’s Garden, the current spilling over her lifeless legs and hooves. No blood. No apparent disfigurement. Maybe she’d been hit while crossing the road before making her way down to the water. I notified the police, and later that day her body was gone.
In his book A Thousand-Mile Walk To the Gulf (1916), naturalist John Muir stated, “Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.”
I heartily agree that children should enjoy nature and learn from it. However, that squirrel’s death, that opossum’s death and that deer’s death seemed anything but “stingless,” “joyous” or “beautiful.” Maybe I have more to learn.
On the life side of things, yesterday, we spotted a herd of twelve deer. Their eyes, ears and bodies froze as we passed. Thank goodness Jojo does not bark when she sees other animals—unless they’re in our yard. One November day an eagle swooped toward Jojo and me and alighted in a tree on the opposite side of the stream. The eagle took a seat on a limb, and there, waiting, was her mate. A bicyclist approached, and I pointed. He stopped, and in silence we took photos of the pair until they tired of posing and left in search of breakfast.
Richard Louv, a journalist and author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, wrote: “Ironically, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, as tragic as it is, has dramatically increased public awareness of the deep human need for nature connection, and is adding a greater sense of urgency to the movement to connect children, families and communities to nature.” Louv also noted that when young people “spend less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, both physiologically and psychologically.”
Our grandchildren visited over the holidays in December, reminding me of Louv’s quote. “What happened to the trees?” our grandson asked as we walked Jojo on the trail one morning. He was kidding—and not kidding, and I laughed at his wonderment. His home for his thirteen years has been a California city. When he’d been here in June, the trees and flowers and grass were ripe with chlorophyll. It occurred to me he’d never experienced the fall and spring in Wisconsin. The stark transformation from a landscape of vibrant color to black and white and gray had startled him.
One evening we walked through Katie’s Garden as we’d done in June. We took photos in front of the giant air-filled snowman and under the tunnel of colorful lights, as well as in the sleigh under the gazebo. Artificial color had replaced the blooms of the fairy and rose gardens. “Will they have to replant all the flowers, Grandma?” our twelve-year old granddaughter asked. I explained about perennials and how they didn’t die but slept in the winter and magically awakened every spring. “The annuals,” I told her, “have to be replaced every year.”
Again, the metamorphosis intrigued them.
Joni Mitchell got it right in her song “Big Yellow Taxi”: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”---or—until you’ve reawakened to it anyway. Their awe renewed my appreciation for our Wisconsin seasons. The week before New Year’s it snowed, and they were able to go sledding for the first time and have hot cocoa afterward like I’d done as a child in Wisconsin.
Sometimes vegetation not only lives but thrives—and we wish it wouldn’t! Innocently introduced to our area from Russia and Eurasia for its beauty, the honeysuckle shrub blocks sun and uses up soil nutrients, thus snuffing out the native plants. PCA volunteers have spent hours removing honeysuckle so natives may have a chance at life. After the bush is cut, the stump is dabbed with a glyphosate herbicide, which kills only the target honeysuckle. If not treated with this solution, it will produce a thick shock of new growth the following year.
Desired vegetation is not only threatened by invasives—but people as. On October 1, 2019, I came home from a walk and immediately sat down to write this poem:
The Death of My Catalpa
At the bottom of the path
from the bridge to the main trail
Lived my catalpa—or bean tree, as it is often called
Because of white blossoms that transform into long seed pods.
It’s not my tree, per se,
But on my walks I admired its saucer-sized heart-shaped leaves
Flapping in the wind and the sound of raindrops splatting on them.
Intertwined trunks of fissured bark formed
A sculpture holding a large umbrella of foliage.
Yesterday, the sound of machinery rose near the Branch
A bulldozer clearing debris from the recent rainstorm?
No. I found my catalpa butchered.
One whole side of her lopped into a pile.
Doing your job? Clearing vegetation for power lines? I get that.
But, can’t they teach you how to properly trim trees?
Instead of destroying them?
I was disgusted and disappointed. Catalpa trees are not common on the trail. I’d miss watching her change her seasonal clothes: leaves, then blossoms, then pods.
Alas, I learned nature can be a wonder. Resilient, even.
My catalpa, mutilated as she’d been, not only produced leaves the following spring, but this past summer she looked healthy. Not as large as before, but denser. I’ve not yet written an apology poem, though, as I’m sure they’ll be back to have another go at her.
Henry David Thoreau lived in a cabin in the woods for two years near Walden Pond in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s. In his journal he often applied his observations of nature to humans and human nature. About death, he commented, “When the leaves fall, the whole earth is a cemetery pleasant to walk in. I love to wander and muse over them in their graves. Here are no lying nor vain epitaphs.”
We can learn so much from nature about life, death, survival and resilience. And, about ourselves. All we have to do is take the time to wander and ponder on the trail.