[Caution: This blog entry deals with the realities of animal life in the Northwoods and may contain pictures and commentary that are unsettling to some individuals.]
A casual afternoon ski last Sunday became the start of a unique learning experience for the students at Conserve School. Cross country skiing around a corner on the green trail Elaine, Moses, Maria, and Rose came upon the body of a deer that had obviously died a few hours previously. Most likely the deer was killed by coyotes who rely on winter weakened deer for sustenance at this time of year. Whether or not coyotes had been the cause of death, they had clearly been feasting on the deer. The students respectfully examined the deer and discovered that she had been pregnant. Upon returning to campus they shared their experience with English teacher, Jeff Rennicke who walked out to see the deer on Sunday and then used this opportunity as a teachable moment for his classes on Monday and Tuesday.
Jeff features that class experience on his teacher page this week. You can read that page here. I had the privilege of joining one of Jeff’s classes on Monday. As we neared the deer site we could hear birds chastising us for intruding. Coming around the corner three bald eagles who had been eating off of the deer rose into flight. One turned down the trail toward us and passed ten feet above us. Arriving at the site those who had visited it the day before commented on how much it had changed and the fact that so little meat remained on the carcass.
After allowing the students some time to respectfully examine the deer site Jeff brought the class together. As part of the class Jeff read an excerpt from an essay of his that was recently published in SMOKIES LIFE magazine.
He then asked the students to ponder two prompts and reflect upon them through a journaling exercise:
- How death in the natural world – either the infliction of it or the avoidance of it – has shaped life in the natural world.
- How literature depicts death in the natural world: symbolically or realistically.
Here are a few excerpts from that student work:
“Death: A five-letter word that means both the end and the beginning, an exchange, a fresh start and a better finish.” ~ Hannah
“It reminds me that death is the inevitable challenge. Everything benefitted from its death and yet it is still dead. Another mystery for the world: the meaning of life.” ~ Luke
“Death in nature is a rebirth. While one creature may cease to exist, the predators, scavengers, and decomposers all benefit and are able to continue living. From this carnage, a flower may grow in spring, a jay may get energy to build a nest, a coyote may have a pup. Life is a constant cycle kept going by the natural process of birth and death.” ~Maria
This was an incredible learning opportunity for our students and they were fortunate to have a teacher like Jeff to help take them through it. Let me close with some of the words from Jeff’s essay which was written on the subject of “how we need, if we are ever to understand fully the circle of nature’s cycles, to look straight into the dark eyes of death in the natural world and not turn away.”
Everything that lives, dies. It is among the oldest and most universal of natural laws, the one irrefutable fact that binds together all living things. Yet still the sight of something dead in the woods jars us. It is unexpected and unnerving, a mixture of awe and repulsion that wells up in us from places we don’t often talk about. We cannot look away. We move gracelessly, stiffly, unsure of what might be proper, safe, or expected of us. Stumbling upon a carcass on the trail leaves us secretly hoping for a circling of vultures to spirit away the remains, to pick clean the bones of death from our minds and from the landscape.
Death is a fact of life. It surrounds us. Yet we too often avert our eyes.
Perhaps we shouldn’t. There may be value in confronting death face-to-face, being brave enough to look it in the dark eyes. There can be no rounded knowledge of natural cycles without the understanding of the role of death in nature. Looking only at the brighter side – postcard views of wild flowers in spring, the cuteness of newly-hatched chicks in a nest, the playfulness of bear cubs – leaves us with an unfinished and incomplete vision. Predators kill. Scavengers pick apart the dead. It is an untidy system yet death, with all of its blood and gore and unpleasantness is a part of nature too.
Our stomachs will always wobble at the sight of something big and dead in the brush ahead of us just off the trail. That is human nature. But perhaps too there is a place for not looking away, for swallowing hard and facing the unbending, sharp-edged reality of death as a part of life. In that way there is as much hope as despair in the sight of bones bleaching in the sun, a tuft of feathers beneath a nest, or the black circles of a kettle of vultures spinning slowly in the sky.
So this spring as I revel in the many signs of rebirth that grace this campus, from bear cubs to fawns to spring flowers, I will also remember thankfully this deer that reminded me of the importance of all the points around the circle of life.
~ Stefan Anderson