Red in tooth and claw

Wednesday night I spent over an hour burying my dead sheep Ermie. Damon had offered to help, but I hated to burn more of his time, so assured him I had everything under control. I fed all the animals and walked my cow Katika (blowing nervously at the smell of blood) back up to the pasture in the falling dusk. Then, hitching Ermie’s body to the bumper of my old truck, I slowly dragged it into the low field near the giant dirt piles by the driveway. The truck lurched alarmingly, its underbody grinding on boulders that I couldn’t see in the dark. I pictured Allen’s expression if he could hear the sound. I hoped I wouldn’t get stuck.

Though Ermie had been desperately thin, her corpse — literally a dead weight — still weighed almost as much as I do. I untied it and, sweating, grunted it heave by heave under the shadow of the closest dirt pile. Then I picked up my shovel and began pitching. An hour later the body was covered eight inches deep with dirt followed by a layer of rocks. I knew it wasn’t a proper burial, but on this cloudy evening there were no stars or moon and I could barely see. I figured when Allen next came with the excavator he could re-bury her with two scoops of the big bucket.

Lucy was at a school function, DH was in New York City. I’d missed eating dinner with Jon and was late for the monthly meeting of our book group. I cleaned up around the barn quickly, shoveling sand over the small pool of blood where Ermie had fallen, and raking away the thin trickle along the drag path. I drove home, too tired to be hungry, and showered the smell of death off me before going out to discuss light fiction.

Yesterday morning when I drove in to milk, I glanced over at the big burial mound. It was gone.

The mound was gone. The ewe was gone. The entire area looked as if it had been neatly excavated.

Coyote prints were everywhere.

I’d known we have a large coyote pack working the neighborhood. Three weeks ago the school lost 56 pastured laying hens overnight. Nevertheless I was surprised at the efficiency of the job.

The single sign left of Ermie at the burial site was an enormous heap of half-digested grass, enough to fill a 5-gallon pail. For a moment I thought it might be bear scat, but of course bears don’t graze to that extent. Then I realized it was the contents of Ermie’s rumen, or first stomach. (A cow’s rumen holds 40-50 gallons.) The coyotes weren’t interested in fermented grass, and had cleverly dumped the weight before removing the body.

As I followed the trail of broken weeds and small tufts of wool, I could picture the coyotes bracing their legs, bunching their necks, and working together to drag the heavy corpse with their teeth. The trail led under a single strand of electric fence at 4,000 volts. “Watch it, boys,” I imagined one coyote growling to another. “This part is tricky.”

Fifty feet away I found the remains. The skeleton had been picked clean. There was nothing left but the skull and ears, the white spine and rib cage, the front hooves, and the white wool pelt, now resembling a dirty grey rag. Both haunches were completely missing.

Now, as I’ve noted before, I am not sentimental. Suffering is terrible but after death, dealing with a body is, in my opinion, basically housekeeping. Except that I don’t want predators to think of my barnyard as a snack bar, I have no real objection to feeding coyotes above ground rather than microbes below. In fact I like the idea of recycling. When the bears and coyotes dug up the rotted corpse of my donkey Job last spring, I’d been disturbed by the stench and mess, but not much more. At the time I had mentioned to Jon that the coyotes had unearthed Job’s skull.

“Oh, how sad!” he exclaimed.

I had tried to explain to him my feeling that Job was past knowing or suffering, that all life was circular, and that I wouldn’t mind being composted myself… it made more sense to me than soaking my body uselessly in formeldahyde to poison the ground in a cemetery.

However Jon is upset by talk of death.

“Oh, great, Mom!” he said furiously. “Mom’s dead, let’s let the dogs gnaw on her bones!”

But that is how I feel. Over the summer, weedwhacking and mowing, I’d uncover bits and pieces of Job’s bones, bleached and clean in the underbrush. I would pick them up, look them over carefully, and marvel at the intricacy of creation. What hath God wrought! And then I’d put them back, imagining the happiness of a field mouse, coming upon this mother-lode of calcium.

I know other people find this detachment odd. Giving a tour of Allen’s stonework at my birthday party back in June, we had stumbled over a bone in the driveway. I recognized it as a piece of Job’s pelvic girdle. Alison, who knows me very well, just laughed: “Yes, pragmatic is the only word!” But recently she made the suggestion that the next time Allen comes with the excavator, I should have him dig a burying hole, and then cover it with boards, to have ready just in case.

It’s a very good idea. Not having these occasional “treats” around to be discovered would keep my living animals safer. (I can imagine the cows standing at the fenceline in the dark, listening to the coyote pack snap and snarl as they ripped at the meat.)

However yesterday I enjoyed watching the flying ravens and the crows tell each other of their find. Cronk! Cronk! Good news! Scavengers’ delight! Blue jays hopped from branch to branch nearby, calling in lower tones. The foxes will get the word… the chipmunks… the mice…

Within a week I’m sure there won’t be a trace.

Edited after morning chores: I severely underestimated our wildlife. Overnight there is no trace. In that great old rural idiom, neither hide nor hair — I would add: nor hoof, nor bone. Everything! Vanished!

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3 Responses to Red in tooth and claw

  1. Jane Wellker says:

    OK, now that’s a little scary. I don’t care if it is the circle of life. I hope they aren’t as prevalent when you are living out there! Wow! I just lost two of my beloved cats to those damn animals in July. 😦

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      It’s definitely different to think about when I’m thinking about my LIVE animals becoming part of the circle! Cats are taken all the time up here. Jon’s cat, Tam, is 13 and I’m sure part of the reason she’s still with us is that our apartment has a deck on it. The deck is low (6″ off the ground?) and so she can run underneath it but a coyote couldn’t follow her. But we worry about Toby, who is not much bigger, and for that reason among others we never let him off leash. I’m sorry about your kitties!

  2. Joanne Sv. says:

    Take a look at the local regulations regarding burials and cemeteries — you might well be able to have yourself composted. Well, maybe not composted, but buried in a pine box without a cement vault or formaldehyde. If local cemeteries aren’t willing, perhaps you can have part of your land declared a private cemetery. Just an idea! Thanks for letting us read about your homesteading dreams.

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