Caught in the interstate web

Flies gathered where the doe’s eyes had been. Two days dead, she lay sprawled on the edge of the cul-de-sac's woods. Beside her lay a deer skeleton, picked clean by what passes for nature on this little parcel. Past that another deer carcass, and then another, each in a different stage of decomposition. My first thought was that this was the cervine equivalent of the elephant graveyard in The Lion King, but the next body complicated matters.

Its internal organs had deliquesced, and the remaining flat patch of fur resembled a shag carpet with a set of permanently bared teeth. I wouldn't have known what it was if not for the collar: somebody’s family dog. Next around the circle were another deer, another dog and — my hand to God — two black bears. In a panic, I began to wonder if I was in danger. What had killed these animals? Contaminated ground water? Irradiated food supplies? An airborne supervirus?

And then I spied the work gloves — a dozen-odd pairs or more, scattered among the bodies. The realization hit me like a plot twist on a police procedural: These bodies had been dumped here. In this tiny tract of land at the intersection of two interstates, I had stumbled upon a roadkill graveyard: a mass animal grave for the victims of our highway system. I almost expected to hear the satisfying “bum, bum” from Law & Order.

Once I grasped that, everything else came into focus. The Department of Transportation has to do something with animal corpses. They can't just let them attract crows, vultures and butterflies as they rot beside the highway: We, the people, wouldn't stand for it. So it's someone's job to scrape up the bodies, load them in a truck and dump them here. And what is that person going to do with their gut-stained gloves? Certainly not take them home; they're going to leave them with the bodies and buy a new pair.

But something about that deduction didn't sit right. I mean, why haven't I met this guy at a cocktail party?

"And what do you do?"

"I'm the I-40 district manager of roadkill and detritus."

"Oh. I teach English."

Furthermore, why haven't I seen this guy driving around in his animal hearse, hauling bodies off the highway? Does he operate only under the cover of darkness?

But here's the thing: We've all seen the corpses, there one day and gone the next. Somebody must be moving them, and they must be going somewhere. So here they are. The reality of the situation seems absurd only because it's been hidden from us. This is not The Lion King, and it's not Law & Order: It's the very logical corollary of an interstate system that crisscrosses the country like spider silk. These hapless animals were caught in that web.

It would be easy for me to wash my gore-free hands of it all and say, "I've never hit an animal." But if the deed was done by the 18-wheeler that was bringing my breakfast cereal to a grocery store, am I not equally responsible?

Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting that we shut down all roads or outlaw automobiles. I simply think it's important to bear witness, to be cognizant. We live in a world in which our decisions and their repercussions are so far removed from each other that we believe we can live without consequences. So we need to be reminded: We live in this world; our actions trigger reactions; our causes generate effects.

If we choose to eat conventional meat, we should be familiar with feedlots. If we decide to shop at Walmart, we should know the working conditions of the people who make all that stuff. If we invade a country, we should look its citizens squarely in the eye and listen to what they have to say about it.

Conspiracy theorists proclaim that shadow governments and clandestine cults hide the truth from us, but society’s underbelly really isn't particularly well-hidden. Our ignorance is of our own choosing. Many deem the truth depressing — an apparent justification for ignorance — or else they cynically embrace reality as a sort of surrealist joke, like those folks who get enthusiastic about the 64 percent of Taco Bell “meat” that's not meat at all, or who laugh about global warming without denying it.

So how about a little honest acknowledgment? Our system does have real-world consequences. If we're not the ones feeling the effects, they're almost certainly being felt by someone or something else; and if we were in their shoes, we’d most definitely take action.

For me, it began with the unpleasant task of checking the dog collars for tags, so I could call their owners.

— Asheville resident Christopher Arbor teaches English at Asheville School.


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2 thoughts on “Caught in the interstate web

  1. chops

    This commentator seems to feel guilty about living with privilege, but ironically writes with a tone of helplessness.

    Modern society and its foibles (including superpowers) allow for advantaged cultures to abuse the disadvantaged of the world. None of this will change as long as those who are advantaged retain their empowerment, because people are “spoiled”. Not because there is any lack of compassion, but just because humans are weak.

    Ignorance, I believe, is a defense mechanism for shame. At least it is for me.

    Denial, on the other hand, is for those who are so burdened with shame, that they cannot even look.

    We need each-other’s help in order to see our world for what it truly is, and this is what I think the writer means by “honest acknowledgment”. It’s all about opening the dialogue.

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