On roadkill, biking, and idiomatic English

On roadkill, biking, and idiomatic English

My mom says, “I want to start a blog of pictures of roadkill. Just pictures of roadkill, and that grimace they all have. I’ll call it ‘The American Face of Death.’” I am in high school, and this both shocks and delights me. I start laying out the blog for her in my imagination. I know exactly what Blogger template I’d use.

Roadkill is easy to justify. It’s safer to hit the squirrel or possum than swerve to miss it, which might cause you to lose control of the car. I and all my classmates learned that in driver’s ed. Killing something on the road was an accident, and in accidents you are absolved of all guilt—even of the need for absolution from guilt. You can’t beat yourself up about them—it fixes nothing, and usually amounts to little more than exaggerated self-aggrandizement by way of the noxious humility of Uriah Heep. The deer, the raccoon, the squirrel, they are crimeless victims. When my mom hit a deer on U.S. 131, we sat by the side of the road and waited for my dad to come pick us up, and a friendly and competent man stopped in his black SUV, asked if we wanted the deer, and when we said no, proceeded to drag it into the ditch, gut it, and load it into his back seat on a blue tarp. I was glad that someone was going to be enjoying the unexpected and unearned bounty of our accident.

I’m still glad that people regularly take deer killed on the road and make meals out of them—it’s a redemptive action in a situation that we as a culture don’t really know what to do about. We have built roads and roads and roads, and the question of who was going to take responsibility for the habitats they cross and re-cross was never answered, or even asked. The U.S.’s transportation infrastructure is amazing, and I benefit from it every day, but we have come to see roads like we see subway system maps—bearing only the faintest connections to the places they actually inhabit. We trace the route out on a map, or follow our GPS’s instructions as though following a recipe. Turn right here. Add two cups flour. And we either pull a cake from the oven, or arrive at our destination, no more responsible for the land we traveled through than for the microscopic chemical reactions which caused the cake to rise and bake. How can we be? Cake or habitat, it’s too much responsibility for any one person to shoulder. We are no more able to chivvy each water molecule or gluten strand into place than we are to oversee and protect the life of each animal, from ant to puma, that we might cross paths with. Atlas himself was only responsible for holding up the earth—not for all life on it.

I’ve taken to biking to work in the past few years. It’s a pretty short commute, around six or seven miles, which I am incredibly privileged to have. It comes with many exceptions though: not when it’s raining too hard, not when it’s too cold, not when I’m too busy with other things in my life, not when I know I’m going to have to carry more than ten pounds of produce home from the farms where I work. But biking for most of three seasons out of a year in Michigan has given me a new awareness and appreciation for roadkill. I mark time by stages of decay. I notice how chicken-like the muscles of the shattered snapping turtle look, glistening in the sun. I smell rotten meat every day that I bike. You would not believe the number of dead things you can see from a bike—tiny tree frogs with one leg smashed, butterflies half-gone, bees, caterpillars.

I also smell honeysuckle, lilacs, smoke from barbecues and campfires. I get to wave or nod to people mowing their lawns and walking their dogs. I relish every rustle in the underbrush, and try to spot the rabbit or chipmunk or turkey. Usually I succeed—it’s remarkably easy to see wildlife when you’re not going 60 miles an hour. By the lakes I pass, the ganders stand up and hiss at me while the grey-yellow goslings cluster on and under their mother. Sometimes a moth or beetle will hitch a ride on my pant leg for a couple miles, and then take off somewhere else. I can swerve to avoid the wooly bear caterpillars inching across the road, and sometimes, if I go quietly enough, the deer do not spook and run when I go by.

I was thinking the other day about the idiom “put your money where your mouth is,” while I was biking against a particularly nasty west wind, and how a much better idiom would be “put your muscles where your mouth is.” I was trying to take money out of the equation, because the only thing getting me up the next hill was thinking ferociously about how even if I were rich and could buy the latest Tesla, if I could afford for my energy consumption to be completely from renewable resources, I would still be biking. I would still be doing it because I want to be able to notice the habitats I travel through. I want to learn the contours of the land by muscle memory. I want to know in my bones just how much effort goes into getting myself to work.

Psychological studies have long confirmed that how we act influences our thoughts. We are creatures of blood and muscle, and what we act out becomes what we internalize and accept as true. I can still remember ballet routines I learned in class when I was 12. I can still play all of Suzuki Violin Book 1 from memory, though I have not had occasion to practice any of those pieces for two decades. My muscles remember far more, and better than my mind does.

In a TED talk from 2012, social psychologist Amy Cuddy presented research she’d done showing that holding a power pose for several minutes changes our body chemistry, raising testosterone and cortisol levels, and making us feel more confident in ourselves. Deciding how we use our muscles, is, ultimately, the only thing we have any control over. As Dumbledore tells Harry, “It is our choices that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities.” I may not be a very flexible person, but if I decide I want to be, and start stretching a little every day, I will pretty soon become a flexible person. It is not enough to simply decide to be flexible, and not actually follow through with the stretching. Much as I love Matilda, pure wishing will not in this world move so much as a grain of chalk dust. But when we get up, walk across the room, and pick up the piece of chalk, look what we can accomplish with it! Art, mathematical formulas, decorations, lecture notes—when the mountain inevitably fails to come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must get up off his butt and walk to the mountain.

I realized how silly my adapted idiom sounded, because the mouth is a muscle. And it takes around 100 muscles in the face, throat, neck, and chest in order to speak. Everything we do is muscle-driven. Even the transference of money, which we pretend is as detached from physicality as a wireless internet connection, rests on actual human muscles. Our hands pull our wallets out of our purses. Our fingers enter the credit card information into the internet form. Our legs walk us up and down the mall or Main Street, and in and out of stores, where our arms pick up merchandise and tote it around. We climb into our cars, we drive our cars using legs and arms, hands and feet, eye and neck muscles.

And money itself is only a convenient stand-in for how we’ve used our bodies on a daily basis. We sit at a desk and type, we crawl along carrot rows and pull out tiny chickweed and purslane, we enter operating rooms and bend over patients, we straighten endless shelves of canned goods or t-shirts, we screw part A onto part B until the quota is filled. Our economy is based on the abilities and limitations of individual human bodies fully as much as our culture is.

So I’ve been biking to work because I’m trying to put my muscles where my muscles are. To make a decision that influences and changes how I think, the things I accept as true. What’s true is that I’m stronger than I imagine myself to be, and that the discomfort of a rain storm or chill breeze is not as bad as I anticipate. My body is my only true resource, and I’m trying to live within the economy of its limits.