After the Plague
On the ground was a young woodchuck. It lay on its back, feet spread evenly as if for dissection, fur still lustrous, bright curving teeth. There was also a profound hole at the base of its neck and a collar of blood. Behind me in a birch tree stood the vulture that had flushed when I came around the corner. It seemed to be trying to stand on one leg with its wings raised, tipping side to side almost the way a vulture does in flight. Sometimes it nearly lost its balance. A pair of crows complained from a higher branch. I had nothing to add.
What was interesting wasn't the dead woodchuck. It would have eaten my beans later this summer. What was interesting was seeing the vulture come out of its column of flight and make a long, curving landing behind the barn. I knew there was something dead in the grass only because of the vulture's hunching presence. Death to me is still a curiosity, even after all this time here. To the vulture it is simply a way of getting a living.
There was nothing mournful in any of this, and cruelty isn't really a word worth using when talking about nature. The death of that woodchuck seemed surprisingly economical, considering what was happening on the rest of the place. The forest tent caterpillars — who knows how many of them? — have made their way up into the canopy of the trees, and they have simply erased May. Where there were young leaves there are now nearly empty branches. The roses are bare, and so are the blueberries. So is the paper-bark maple. The walk down to the barn is littered with precisely scissored leaf fragments, like a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be assembled. A strange light makes its way down through the trees — not spring, not summer. I can't quite capture the mood the light causes because I've never seen its kind before.
And yet some plants have gone untouched — the hydrangeas and a striped-bark maple. Perhaps there's something unpalatable in their leaves, just as there seems to be something unpalatable in the caterpillars themselves. Nothing wants to eat them or to bother them in any way. Their destruction lies in their own numbers, I suppose. I heard the electric fence snapping clear across the pasture the other night, grounding itself on a fallen tree limb, I thought. But no. The caterpillars had crawled up a neutral brace wire at the fence corner, so many caterpillars that the current leaped from the hot wire into the gob of them, sparking.