The costs of maintaining human right-of-way are often invisible until we have to face them head-on.
I killed a dog the other day on the county road near my new house; a black,
mixed-breed male named Coal. He was the second—at least I believe so, for I
never found out what happened to the first. I hit that one in Baja California
in the middle of the night many years ago on an isolated stretch of what was
then a narrow, shoulderless road leading from Tijuana, on the northern Mexican
border, down the spine of the peninsula. If driving through the arid Baja
landscape seemed strange and otherworldly by day, it became altogether underworldly
by night, crowded with fleeting shapes, odd sounds and alien scents. As the
miles clicked by, macabre images from Mexican folk art kept popping into mind.
Open graves, cadavers strumming guitars. Then, suddenly, a canine
form—emaciated, sallow, grim—shot across the headlights. Thud. The station
wagon shuddered as I pulled hard left to keep it on the road. Regaining control
and slowing, I decided not to stop, knowing full well no mortal creature could
have survived the impact of a fully loaded Chrysler doing, what, about 65.
Asleep in the back, the kids hadn't stirred. Good. It would remain a private
matter between me and the authorities of the night, local deities who I assumed
were used to this sort of thing. I never mentioned to the kids later what had
happened either, afraid, I suppose, that dog death would disquiet them or that
they might see me in a different, more lethal light. I was also surprised by
how quickly and guiltlessly I was able to dismiss the incident, reassuring
myself that I could never have stopped in time and that, anyway, it was
probably a feral dog whose absence would be felt by no other living thing in
this world. Thus absolved, I coaxed the Chrysler back up to cruising speed and
started thinking about huevos rancheros and a tequila sunrise.
Coal, by contrast, met his end in broad daylight amid the most benign,
loving and familiar landscape on earth, both to him and to me. Instead of
yuccas, cacti and century plants, it was oaks, maples and spruce that stretched
westward down to the river, the Hudson, while to the east orchards and
vineyards covered patches of rolling hillside like crocheted Dutch tablecloths,
laundered and pressed. Though this is a poor county and physically unkempt in
spots, wildness, chaos and the old menace lurking beneath the surface have been
largely groomed out of existence, replaced by terra domestica,
achingly beautiful in its way, particularly in the full grip of spring.
Miracle-Gro seemed to gush through every section of vascular tissue in the
valley that day, I remember thinking. North of my townlet, as I like to call
it, the county highway department had just groomed the shoulder along Route 9G,
and the fragrance of grass cuttings still saturated the air. In the back, my
own dog, Arthur, sat with his head and shoulders poked out the window, his
pinkish nostrils busily sampling the flood of information-rich molecules
streaming by. We were doing about 40, not in any hurry. Ahead, on my right but
out of sight atop an embankment, Coal's nostrils also quivered, detecting his
"home," the weathered farmhouse that fatefully sat across the road.
He bolted, allowing neither of us time to get out of the way. This second thud
traveled the same path: from the left-front Michelin across the axle, up the
steering column and through the wheel to the nerve endings in my hands. Where
it went after that I can't precisely say, but the effect was primitive, and
sickening. I pulled over and stopped, court already in session in my brain and
nearing a verdict. "There was nothing I could do," I pleaded
The postmortem formalities lasted perhaps 20 minutes, focused on Coal's
body, which straddled the double yellow line. The driver behind me, the only
witness, had also stopped and at once took up my defense. "You didn't have
a chance, buddy," he told me, repeating his testimony when the dog's owner
appeared, and yet again when the sheriff pulled up. "Thanks for
stopping," is `all the owner said to me, accepting my regrets and the
offer of a blanket. He cradled Coal in it and walked slowly toward the house.
"Any damage to your car?" asked the sheriff, ever vigilant toward
private property. Soon I was under way again, found not guilty, but this time
in a case in which the victim had a name and would be deeply missed. I wore my
innocence in less than total comfort.
One of the pleasures of moving into a country place is getting to know the
plants and the animals. For me, trees and shrubs take patience. Animals are
easier, both because there are fewer and more different kinds, and because I
learned to recognize them instantly in the cuddly, picture-book days of
prekindergarten, as we all did. Yet animals—small wild mammals, in
particular—are mobile, secretive and resistant to quick census. Indeed, my list
of local species would be only half complete were it not for route 9G. The
truth, of course, is that road kills allow me to flesh out my picture of the
zoological neighborhood. In the first two weeks of residence, for example, I
came upon just about everything, including a tawny fox (or what was left of it:
an irregular golden shadow on the pavement), in the few miles between my house
and the townlet.
Anyway, after Coal's death, it occurred to me how inured I had become to the
costs of maintaining human right-of-way. But, here again, my conscience simply
shrugged. At about this time I had fallen in love with a couple of nearby
frogs, or rather with their throaty serenade, which rose each evening from the
ephemeral minimarsh that had collected over the winter on the tarp covering the
swimming pool, not yet opened for the season. One of these dazzling tenors had
even taken to posting itself at the rear of the skimming chamber. Since part of
the chamber's opening reaches above the tarp level, the effect was that of an
amplifier. The decibels, as a result, rattled the kitchen window and shook the
trees. Surrounded by such amphibious glissandos, I might well have been sitting
in a tropical rain forest, an audience of one in a throbbing green hall. It was
pure magic, night after night.
Then, following a short, two-day, trip, I returned home and saw that the
tarp was removed. The pool service people had scrubbed, vacuumed, de-algaefied,
chlorinated, and turned on the filter. My chemical bath had been duly prepared.
That night I sat outside in silence, missing the frogs, whom I had not
thought to name.