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The beauty of roadkill

John Burnside's nature column.

In 1989, Barry Lopez wrote a short book called Apologia, in which he described the ritual he had gradually developed of stopping for animals he found dead on the road and removing them, gently and with great care, to the safety of the verge.

To each dead creature he encountered, Lopez offered a few words of apology, something akin to a prayer, not only as “a mark of respect”, but also as “a technique of awareness” – and, as any serious practitioner of religion will readily confirm, the end purpose of ritual is exactly this heightened awareness, in which the imagination is freed to reconnect with something larger than its usual concerns and, by so doing, to remember its moral and aesthetic responsibilities to the creaturely. There are those who will dismiss Lopez’s ritual as a futile or romantic gesture but, to me, it is meaningful in several ways.

First, on a practical level, to remove new roadkill from the path of future traffic is to help prevent further deaths: all too often, roadkill leads to roadkill as scavengers are struck down by high-speed vehicles while working the remains of the original victim. More importantly, however, it reminds us that, as Robert Louis Stevenson remarked in a letter to his friend Sidney Colvin: “It is the proof of intelligence, the proof of not being a barbarian, to be able to enter into something outside of oneself, something that does not touch one’s next neighbour in the city omnibus.”

To handle another animal in this way is to reassert one’s own, usually concealed bond with the creaturely. Because such handling demands tact and real tenderness, it becomes a highly charged event, an assumption of responsibility and a declaration not of guilt, which is something else, but penitence.

Compare Lopez’s Apologia with the Roadkill Bingo game, in which, as the name suggests, players score by spotting dead animals on the road and ticking them off on a bingo card, the winner being the first to get five different animals in one row or column. North Americans have known about Roadkill Bingo for years, but it only became a news item after US troops described playing a modified form of the game during the Desert Storm campaign. Yet the mere fact that the game exists is an indication not only of the vast numbers of animals struck down on the roads worldwide (in the US alone, more than one and a half million deer are killed by motor vehicles every year), but also of our growing desensitisation to the mayhem.

In his moving and unsettling long essay “The Star Thrower”, Loren Eiseley paints a picture of a solitary man on a beach, rescuing starfish washed up by the tide and returning them to the sea, even though he knows they will only wash up again in the powerful waves further along the beach. It’s another futile gesture, no doubt, yet one that moves Eiseley and, in turn, his readers to wonder at the depth of our creaturely fellow feeling.

A taxi driver once told me that, in his own variation of Lopez’s ritual, he sometimes goes out in the early morning, in secret, to gather dead birds from under the wind turbines near his home and lay them out in clusters on a grass verge some yards away. He doesn’t know why he does this, but I suspect that, like Eiseley’s star thrower, or like my sons, who can spend hours on beach walks searching for stranded crabs to carry back to the sea “so the gulls don’t get them”, he feels a need to remember – and to reassert – his own, nearly extinguished creatureliness in whatever tentative marks of respect and awareness he finds himself able to contrive.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran