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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Nature of Death

Air Date: Week of

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Given our complex language and reasoning abilities, do human beings understand more about death and mortality than other animals…or do we just think we do? Upon witnessing the death of several small creatures, commentator Tom Montgomery-Fate reflects on what we may not know about the ending of life.


CURWOOD: Human beings care a great deal about how they die, about who is present at the moment of death, about the ceremony afterwards and about what happens to the body. Commentator Tom Montgomery-Fate has these thoughts on how other creatures might understand their own demise.

MONTGOMERY-FATE: Last week, I woke to find two mice sitting on the workbench, noisily munching on opposite sides of a ripe Red Haven peach. Each had chewed away a tablespoon or so of the flesh and left a tiny pile of fuzzy peach skin gnawings.

The next day, I bought cheap wooden traps, smeared them with chunky peanut butter, and set them on the trails of excrement the mice left along the floor. The two neck-cracking snaps I heard that night felt like success, not cruelty.

In “Leaves of Grass” Walt Whitman claims “A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” I agree intellectually, but what of reality? Two turn into ten, and then ten into fifty in a month or two. It gets crowded. Recently, I agonized over a fleeing mouse that somehow jumped a foot off the ground into the crack between the hinged end of the door and the jamb just as I was leaving. I nearly cut him in two. Grossly pinched in the crack, his bulging black eyes pleaded with me, but it was too late. I killed him quickly with a brick, but felt his desperate gaze all day.

Last month, I witnessed the death of another small creature. This time, though, it seemed holy rather than tragic. While pumping my bike along two-lane blacktop, I noticed a glint of yellow on the road ahead. I coasted up near the ditch to find a goldfinch lying in the gravel, upright. The feathers were bright and clean, no evidence that it hit a windshield or been raked by a crow. A perfect specimen. Yet it was not flapping or trying to escape, and its eyes were closed. It lay in the gravel softly breathing. I got closer, put my face down near its feathers hoping to find out what was wrong, and then this: its eyes opened. Two shiny black beads peering at me for several seconds. I felt it sensed that I was there and had used all of its energy to confirm its suspicion, to see what I was. Then the eyes closed, the breathing slowed and stopped. The goldfinch died and I had no idea why--disease, poison, or hopefully, a natural end.

I’m still wondering about that open-eyed instant of connection, about being the last living thing that an animal was to see. Does dying alone matter to creatures that live by instinct rather than reason? Perhaps the goldfinch didn’t even notice me in its last moment but was looking beyond at the empty sky, the dried rustling weeds, the stark silhouette of a maple tree, sensing not aloneness, but belonging.

[MUSIC: Sigor Ros, “Svefn g englar” Agaetis Byrjun, Pias America (2001)]

CURWOOD: Tom Montgomery-Fate teaches writing at College of DuPage in Glen Elyn, Illinois and is author of “Beyond the White Noise,” a book of personal essays about living in the Philippines.




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