It’s not sleeping: science, nature, and death

We rounded the corner on the trail and immediately knew something was odd. There were tufts of white and brown fur spread across the ground, tons of it, blowing gently in the breeze. Was that… deer fur? And what was that in the middle? That weird-shaped pile? What was that?

“I think that’s dog poop, Mom.”

“Actually, I think it’s coyote poop.”

And just like that, we were talking about death again.

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Five years ago we got our first batch of laying chickens: six chicks from an acquaintance. It had long been a dream of mine to have chickens, and here they finally were. They were cute and fluffy, the very essence of barnyard innocence. We named them, babied them, and cared for them in our downstairs bathroom until they were big enough to move out into the new coop. A few weeks after they moved out, we noticed that one of them was a bit unsteady on its feet. Then it couldn’t walk. Every time it tried to stand, it would fall over to the side. Gradually it couldn’t even stand. After extensive googling, we figured it out: the chicken likely had Marek’s disease. A degenerative virus, Marek’s causes lesions through a chicken’s nervous system. There is no cure and it is eventually fatal. It’s also highly contagious to other chickens. There was nothing else to do. We had to kill the chicken, just a few short months after getting it.

That was the first time we talked to our daughter about death. She was two.

Since that first unfortunate one, I’ve lost count of how many chickens have died in our care. We’ve lost most to predation: foxes, raccoons, and a northern goshawk that treated our yard like an all you can eat chicken buffet one winter until we were able to get predator netting up. We’ve lost a few more to disease, a couple to the cold, and some because they were roosters (*cough*). One or two even died of old age.

When I bemoaned the loss of that first chicken way back when, a high school friend quoted his grandfather’s saying: “If you’re gonna have livestock, you’re gonna have deadstock.” It’s as true a homesteading aphorism as you’re going to get. As a protective measure, we’ve stopped naming our chickens–though a few earn them by virtue of having particularly quirky personalities. We are fond of the girls and take good care of them, but they aren’t pets. They exist in a state halfway between our dog and the red squirrel out back. They’ve opened the door to talking about death with our kids.

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If you spend any time outside, you are going to see death. A flattened squirrel that’s been hollowed out from the inside, a mummified baby bird left behind in a nest for no known reason, a picked-clean vertebrae found in the back woods, the deer hanging from the porch that will feed us through the winter. Because our kids have been able to see chickens come and go, we’ve been able to present death in the natural world as it is: part of the cycle. Everything dies. Some sooner than others. Some cruelly. All things that die feed something or other, so that the something or other can live. We don’t romanticize death, we don’t fear it, we don’t excuse it. It just is.

That’s why, when we come across clear evidence of a deer kill on a beautiful spring hike, our kids aren’t upset by it. Instead, they track into the woods a bit and recreate what happened. They ask to touch the fur with curiosity, not sadness. We debate what happened to the rest of the carcass (our conclusion: rangers took it away since it’s such a popular trail). We talk about how coyotes live and hunt–and poop. It’s a learning opportunity. After all, not all science happens in a lab.

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A few years ago, our daughter had a pet turtle that she named Purple. Purple was a Floridian box turtle brought up to Maine by my in-laws. Despite our best efforts with a heating mat, she was just never able to adjust to Maine’s chill and, her second fall with us, she went into hibernation and never came out. We buried her in the backyard and my daughter stared mournfully at the spot for a bit.

“The bugs and worms will eat her,” my husband told her. “And then, if you want, in the spring we can dig up the shell and look at it.”

I shot him a look and started to prepare an indignant lecture about sensitivity in my head but then I saw her face light up. “Wow,” she said. “That would be really cool.”

“She’s got ice water in her veins!” someone said when I related that story.

No, I thought. No, she doesn’t. She’s just a scientist. She  just understands death.

Deer fur

Cherie Galyean

About Cherie Galyean

In a perfect world, Cherie Galyean would spend hours every day chasing her kids up hiking trails, pretending to garden, and baking things. Instead, she works full-time in the non-profit sector and fits those other things in-between loads of laundry in her free time. A Maine native with multiple hometowns, she currently lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old son, and the best shelter mutt in the world.