Beautiful Justice: Prayers for Roadkill

By Ben Barker / Deep Green Resistance Wisconsin

I’ll tell you, if there is one instinct
I just can’t get with at all
It’s the urge to kill something beautiful
Just to hang it on your wall
—Ani DiFranco

Mangled. Squished flat. The sides of roads are littered with the bodies of unexpecting mothers, brothers, fathers, sisters, nieces, nephews, lovers, and friends. There is nothing but callous disregard in the speeding hunks of metal that hurl down the highway. Lost forever are the stolen lives of too many raccoons, mice, snakes, birds, opossums, skunks, deer, and lizards. Add to this to the unthinkable toll of bees, moths, caterpillars, ants and others whose small bodies are barely noticed unless they are being scraped from a windshield.

The same callous disregard tortures 9 billion animals every year in factory farms around the world. Can you imagine being locked in a filthy cage with so many other bodies that you can’t even turn around or lie down? Can you imagine having your throat slit while you are still conscious? Can you imagine being plunged into scalding-hot water while your body is skinned or hacked apart while you are still conscious? This is the daily reality for so many cows, calves, pigs, chickens, ducks, and geese whose lives are as important to them as ours are to us.

The same callous disregard tortures tens of millions animals every year in vivisection labs on college campuses and research facilities around the world. Can you imagine being dissected, infected, injected, gassed, burned and blinded by doctors? Can you imagine if this was justified as “important research” for the purpose of testing the safety of make-up and dish soap? This is the daily reality for so many primates, dogs, cats, rabbits, and rodents whose lives are as important to them as ours are to us.

The same callous disregard is responsible for other atrocities: poaching (we’ve all seen the pictures of baby seals being clubbed), deep sea trawling (90% of large fish have been decimated), and the turning of whole habitats into buildings or fields of agriculture (the North American Prairie, once home to millions of bison, is now 2% of its original size).

Most of us in industrial society can go through our days relatively shielded from the real processes of life. And many of us are shielded too from the reality of suffering that this way of life—industrial civilization—forces so many nonhumans to endure. This, combined with the war on empathy perpetrated by the dominant culture, makes it easy for most people to ignore the suffering or dismiss it as something insignificant. How many times have you heard it said that other animals simply cannot feel as much or in the same ways as human beings can? You’ve seen the pain yourself; it was clear in the eyes of the furred and feathered as they slipped away from this world as surely as any human being. But the ruling religion of this culture is human supremacy (however, you may also call it Christianity or Science). And human supremacy demands that you are wrong, that your empathy is but misplaced and silly.

Roadkill is more difficult to ignore. There they lay; not behind the doors of a slaughterhouse or vivisection lab, nor in the remote regions of the oceans and forests. On the sides of the roads, they are murdered, left motionless with a frightened look on a deformed face, guts spilling from the chest. Not so different from you, really. I mean, let’s say it’s you who lives in the forest; the one which roads now slice through like so many knives. You crossed the road for hunting early in the day, but now you want to come home. As you step from the soil onto the pavement, you are swimming in thoughts of your loved ones, your resting place, your life waiting for you just steps ahead. But you never make it there. No. In a flash, your body is torn from its path, destined now only to rot on the road’s shoulder. There you lay.

Within the clumps of mangled fur and feathers is a history, a family, a community, a wisdom, a life more rich and beautiful than most any vehicular passerby cares to pay a thought to.

Industrial capitalism functions by devaluing life. It couldn’t survive any other way. The system is based on production, a euphemism for the transformation of living creatures into dead commodities. Mountaintops become soda cans. Old-growth forests become 2x4s. Alligators become handbags.

If the dominant narrative fails to see, or more likely actively ignores, the sacredness of life, then roadkill isn’t a subject worth a moment’s consideration. It’s just part of having roads and cars, the narrative says, as if roads are more real than living, breathing creatures, as if any human being is entitled to decide the fate of whole other populations. Can we not imagine living without roads and cars, but so easily accelerate towards a future without the two hundred species of plants and animals that go extinct every day?

I want to ask how someone can simply not grieve death. But, then I’d have to ask how a whole culture has been built on the systematic destruction of the place it relies on. There is no rational answer for a phenomenon so insane.

In his book, Columbus and Other Cannibals, Jack Forbes argues that the death urge of the dominant culture can only be truly explained as a very real disease, one which he calls the wetiko (or cannibal) psychosis. This disease, Forbes says, is the “greatest epidemic sickness known to [humans].” He goes on, “Imperialists, rapists, and exploiters are not just people who have strayed down a wrong path. They are insane (unclean) in the true sense of that word. They are mentally ill and, tragically, the form of soul-sickness that they carry is catching.” The sadism of torturing nonhumans is a perfect example of the wetiko. Those who run factory farms and vivisection labs carry the disease and spread it throughout the culture until it seems just part of life.

Experiencing the sight of roadkill was a major step in my own reclamation of the empathy that is my birthright as a human animal. It helped to kick-start the decolonization of my heart and mind, the endless process of rooting out the wetiko sickness from my being. The injustice is just too glaring to ignore. I remember distinctly one day when I was sitting in the passenger seat of a car and I spotted up ahead a dead raccoon in the middle of the road. A half-mile up the road were her two children, also dead. My heart burned, instinctively. Were those tears in my eyes?

Since then, I’ve seen the flames of so much life needlessly extinguished. It never ceases to hurt, nor to motivate a spirit of resistance.

Here’s one story, this one from just the other day: I’m walking in the small forest near my home. From ten yards, I see the unmistakable white face of an opossum. She’s lying still on her side in the middle of the trail. I approach and see her glassy eyes looking straight ahead. I’ve heard of opossums “playing dead,” whereby they may feign death for up to four hours when scared. But, I’m pretty sure that this one is truly dead. This is affirmed when I return to the grave site a few days later.

I don’t know how this opossum died. There were no predator marks on the body, and the middle of a highly frequented trail seems a peculiar place to make a death bed. Something forced this situation. Maybe it’s the poisons put on lawns, or the fact that this half-acre of trees is surrounded on all sides by cars and roads and houses. Opossums are indigenous to this land and under assault as surely as indigenous human cultures are. In the native Powhatan language, opossum is derived from the word apasum, which means “white animal.” They’ve long been the largest population of marsupials in the Western Hemisphere. But now, civilization encroaches upon the homes of all nonhumans, and opossums, despite adapting as scavengers, now struggle against a massive decrease in food and habitat.

Inexperienced urbanite that I am, I don’t know what to do with the body. Should I just leave and let someone else deal with it? But, if not me, whoever finds the opossum will call animal control services to dispose of the body, meaning it will ultimately end up in a landfill or incinerator. I know this creature would prefer to stay in the forest. Like all place-based beings, she would want to fulfill her sacred task of giving back her body to the land which has always given her the sustenance of life.

Pressed to move quickly enough to avoid the concern of trail-goers sure to show up at any moment, I contemplate my options. Seeing some large maple leaves on the forest floor, I have an idea. I stop to pick them up and, with a leaf covering each hand like a raggedy glove, I pick up the opossum. With a slight strain, I’m able to move her to the side of the trail. There, I pile leaves on top of her and make a small enclave around the mound with fallen branches. Here is a grave, however feeble my attempt.

After the opossum’s body was sufficiently hidden from human passerby, I was moved to say a few words of respect. In my exasperated state, I thought only to say something simple like, “rest easy, friend.”

The opossum deserved more. The passing of life into death deserves a deep respect and commemoration. There’s nothing so humbling. This is what is missing in the dominant culture, and what we all need to learn once again. If I could go back in time, and if I had the words, this is what I wish I had said.

Your life is not in vain. In all your time of living, you’ve contributed to the health and diversity of this place, and thus, to the health and diversity of the world. There are those of my species who not only fail to give back in this way, but actively destroy the world which gives them life. They are insane. They must be stopped. Your life, and all life, is sacred and infinitely more important than industrial civilization. I’m sorry that you had to live your final moments surrounded by this unnatural and immoral construct. I’m sorry that you did not get to properly say goodbye to this world. Your life is not in vain.

I’d like to extend my humble prayer to all victims of highways, factory farms, vivisection labs, and industrial extraction. Life requires death, but none so ruthless. This culture is a project sustained only by death. It thrives by never allowing the renewal of life. These are sadistic murders caused by human hubris rather than the natural deaths simply part of life.

I’ll say it again: Death is part of life. All beings go through the motions of being first predators, then prey. Everyone has to eat. Death is necessary to complete the cycle that renews life. That is, death in a world in balance. Industrial civilization, by design, ruins that balance. It preys not just on individuals, but on whole landbases, and not for the necessary sustenance required by living beings, but because it is driven by a death urge, by the wetiko psychosis.

And does it require saying that life wants to live? I know the people who think up vivisection and factory farms have become so deadened as to have forgotten this, or believe it true only when applied to humans (but even then, how alive can a human really be when daily life consists of being a torturer?). You, however, should know better. You should know that, as Derrick Jensen eloquently writes, “Life so completely wants to live. And to the degree that we ourselves are alive, and to the degree that we consider ourselves among and allied with the living, our task is clear: to help life live.”

Here’s another story. My friend saw a deer who was hit so hard that he flew into another oncoming car. The impact literally tore his legs from his body. And yet another story: A doe stood on the side of the road mourning the body of her friend who had just been struck. This is their land. The roads and this civilization are ever-expanding—it’s a war, plain and simple. Just look on the side of the road. You’ll see.

Beautiful Justice is a monthly column by Ben Barker, a writer and community organizer from West Bend, Wisconsin. Ben is a member of Deep Green Resistance and is currently writing a book about toxic qualities of radical subcultures and the need to build a vibrant culture of resistance.

7 thoughts on “Beautiful Justice: Prayers for Roadkill”

  1. This is such a beautiful article. Thank you for sharing — the honesty and truth-speaking cuts right to the core. Many times road-kill have brought tears to my eyes. It’s hard to stay sensitized when it is everywhere, though. I say ‘blessings’ every time I pass a dear animal brother or sister on the road that has been hit. I say prayers before I drive (esp at dusk) and ask for the animals to know I am coming and in my car. I was out of car culture for 9 years and now I am back in it (as of 3 years ago). It is an edge that I walk every day… I look forward to footpaths, bicycle lanes, and trails for horses (who are largely being neglected right now b/c of the drop in grain prices…we owe them more than THAT…to neglect them b/c of grain costs…)… I am active in being in dialogue with groups about alternatives… I’m ready for the shift…every day — I’m ready…

  2. madhupamaypop: Thank you for your kind words. I’d highly encourage you to consider involvement with Deep Green Resistance if you’re looking for a way out of this mess.

    Part of the Solution: Well, I sure was when I was writing this.

  3. From the Episcopal Church’s new Rites and Prayers for the Care of Beloved Animals (2012).

    At the death of a wild animal
    Almighty God, who make the beasts of the wild move in beauty and show forth
    the glory of your Name: We grieve the death of this creature, whose existence
    was a reminder to us of your creative presence in the world. We give you thanks
    for that which was never ours to claim, but only to behold with wonder; through
    Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
    one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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