The woods and prairie of the Missouri bluff are full of life—and death. That, of course, is by design. No organism survives forever. The life of some, including many insects, is measured in days. For annual plants, our growing season is six months at best. Burr oaks can live hundreds of years, and though native grasses are perennial, everything but the roots dies away each fall. Each organism, including human beings, returns in its own way to the Earth, our decomposition restoring the minerals and resources we have borrowed for a time.
So death in the woods is not new, and not necessarily a cause for sadness or concern. Frost ends the life cycle for annual plants, and even before frost, tree leaves begin to fall. When fungi grow on an ash tree, I suspect its days are numbered. Many a raccoon fails to make it across the road from Clay Creek to the bluff, but I also find dead animals in the woods, sometimes just feathers or fur and inedible parts of birds, rabbits and rodents that have fed a larger predator, sometimes the decaying bodies of creatures that may have died of injuries, disease or old age.
But now and then I find death that fills me with sadness or anger. Once I found the carcass of a red-tailed hawk, cradled in the jagged top of a rotting cottonwood. I could not reach the hawk for examination, but a natural death on that pinnacle seemed unlikely. I had just read that two men in the service of a local pheasant-shooting preserve had been arrested for shooting protected birds of prey.
This week brought another discouraging find. Passing the pond, I saw something large floating near the north shore. I walked upstream and crossed the creek to investigate. It was what I feared I had seen—a half-submerged whitetail deer. I went home for a rope, paddled the raft out to the carcass and dragged it to shore, then up the hill to where the body can feed coyotes and other scavengers and carnivores without polluting the water. I examined the deer, a young antlerless buck. Just behind the front leg was a half-inch hole. I grasped a hoof and turned the body over. Opposite the hole was a bloody gash, apparently ripped by an exiting bullet.
I do not oppose ethical hunting, and every winter we enjoy venison jerky passed to us by a friend. But our piece of the bluff is clearly marked as a wildlife preserve, no hunting allowed. The pond and the creek are not unusual places for wounded animals to die; they instinctively seek sanctuary and the water that a bleeding animal needs. The pond is a quarter mile from our boundary, but a wounded deer may run that far, so it is quite possible that whoever shot the young buck and failed to follow the trail of blood fired from outside our fence. But what is more disturbing is that I found the carcass on November 17, four days before rifle season began.
There is nothing magical about November 21. A deer shot that day is just as dead. But those who disregard the law and the science behind it to kill animals out of season are among those who give ethical hunters a bad name, like those who kill eagles and hawks and owls, and those who every fall cruise county and township roads, shooting from vehicles and tossing beer cans in the ditch.
I know hunters whose respect for nature and for fellow creatures is similar to mine. One friend, who ranks among the top archers in the state, spent dozens of hours of last year’s deer season in his stand, but never released an arrow because he wasn’t sure of a killing shot. Unfortunately some who hunt—and some who do not—have not learned to respect either the laws of the state or the higher laws of nature, to recognize their essential kinship with other animals with whom we share our Earth.