Transfixed by the Headlights of the Hurtling Machine

When I’m on the road, I always carry a baseball bat in the back of my truck to use each time I see a snake. If the snake is sunning herself, I stop the truck and use the bat to shoo her to safety. Sometimes, if the snake is especially sluggish, I loop her over the bat and carry her out of traffic. If she’s already dead I don’t use the bat at all, but carry her to my truck, then take her to some quiet spot where she can lie to decompose with dignity.

But most often when I stop I have to use the bat not to save the snake but kill her. Too many times I’ve seen them live and writhing with broken backs, flattened vertebrae, even crushed heads.

I hate cars, and what they do. I do not so much mind killing, if there is a purpose; if, for example, I’m going to eat what I kill. But I despise this incidental killing that comes each time a soft and living body happens to be in our way. Such a killing is without purpose, and often even without awareness. I have driven through swarms of mating mayflies, and have seen a windshield turn red blotch by blotch as it strikes engorged mosquitos. I once saw a migration of salamanders destroyed by heavy traffic in a late evening rain. I leapt from my car and ran to carry as many as I could from one side of the road to the other, but for every one I grabbed there were fifty who made it not much further than the first white line.

A couple of years ago someone dropped off a huge white rabbit near my home. Knowing the cruelty of abandoning pets into the wild and the stupidity of introducing exotics did not lessen my enjoyment of watching him cavort with the local cottontails a third his size. But I often worried. If at one hundred yards I could easily pick him out from among the jumbled rocks that were his home, how much more easily would he be seen by coyotes or hawks? Each time I saw him I was surprised anew at his capacity to live in the wild.

I needn’t have worried about predators. One day I walked to get my mail, and saw him dead and stiff in the center of the road. I was saddened, and as I carried him away to where he could at last be eaten by coyotes, I considered my shock of recognition at his death. I had, as I believe happens constantly in our culture–in our time of the final grinding away at what shreds of ecological integrity still remain intact–been fearing precisely the wrong thing. I had been fearing a natural death. But in one way or another, most of us living today–human and nonhuman alike–will not die the natural death that has been the birthright of every being since life began. Instead we will find ourselves struck down–like the rabbit, like the snakes, like the cat whose skull I had to crush after his spine was severed by the shiny fender of a speeding car–incidental victims of the modern, industrial, mechanical economy. This is no less true for the starving billions of humans than it is for the salmon incidentally ground up in the turbines of dams, and no less true for those who die of chemically-induced cancers than it is for the mayflies I killed by the thousands, blithely driving from one place to another.

All of us today stand as if transfixed by the headlights of the hurtling machine that inevitably will destroy us and all others in its path. Oh, we move slightly to the left or slightly to the right, but I think, as I carefully place the rabbit in a tufted hollow at the base of a tree, that even to the last, most of us have no idea what it is that’s killing us.

Originally published in the September/October 1998 issue of “The Road-RIPorter.”
Republished in the January-March 2007 issue of “Carbusters.”

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