Saturday, March 27, 2010

Goodbye, November Skunk

The whole purpose of this project -- the photographic series and the thoughts behind it -- is to sway the overwhelming public opinion of dead animals. In class, I've gotten good feedback, and it's rewarding to hear classmates say that seeing my photographs over the course of the semester has changed their perception of dead creatures. It makes me happy to think that perhaps this project does change the opinions of the people it reaches -- and then there are days like today, when I find out yet another dead animal has been thrown away.

It being a warmer afternoon, Steph and I decided to check up on November Skunk. Remember, we'd buried its body beneath all sorts of sticks and logs and beach debris so that it a) wouldn't be found and b) would be protected over the winter. The body was gone. Someone had gone through an awful lot of trouble to uncover the corpse and remove it (they probably flung it into the water). The skunky smell, which was most likely the main reason for its disposal, still lingered, of course.

This made both of us rather upset -- and understandably so! We had hoped to track the skunk's decomposition over the months. Yet again, someone didn't recognize that dead animals are very much a part of the environment and deserve to be left where they are. The ignorance of whoever disposed of November Skunk is astounding, much like the people who threw April Deer in the dumpster. It's a mindset I just don't understand.

The silver lining to this whole thing was the discovery of March Gull:

March Gull II

All that was left was its wing. It was relatively small, probably belonging to a ring-billed gull.

March Gull III

Interestingly enough, I've found over the months that dead birds are more likely to be left alone than dead mammals. Does the average person interpret a dead bird as more "pretty" or "peaceful" than a dead mammal?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Revised Artist's Statement

The following is what I plan to post on the gallery wall beside my photographs next month. I think I'm happy with it, but it still has some tweaking left to do... it's still very wordy, in my opinion.

In our society there is a tendency to shun the dead bodies of non-human, non-domesticated animals. These bodies are viewed as disgusting, offensive, repulsive, and useless things. Children are often instructed to avert their eyes from the dead creatures they might happen upon; the many different species of animals hit by cars are categorized simply as road kill; even the bodies of animals found in nature are sometimes doomed to be thrown away in a misguided effort to clean trash from the environment.

In nature, dead animals are far from disgusting, offensive, or useless. Their bodies are vital to the ecosystems of which they are a part, and countless animals depend upon the deaths of other animals to survive.

When I encounter a dead creature, it gives me pause. I consider the animal, its life, and how it might have died, but I also wonder how many other animals have depended upon its body, and how many more will in the coming days and months. I regard each dead animal I find as an individual, and I treat it as such. I choose to photograph them respectfully, portraying these creatures as the dignified beings they are, in life. In every stage of their decay, these animals are beautiful if not interesting, and I try to portray that through my photography. They are not offensive, they are not repulsive, and they are not useless creatures.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Red Squirrel in the Evening

My parents purchased a Jeep Cherokee for me the summer before I started my sophomore year at Northern Michigan University and suffice to say, I drive... a lot. I drive to and from class, I drive to Presque Isle, and I drive the eight hours it takes to get to Ann Arbor, and the eight hours it takes to get back to Marquette. With all this traveling, it's amazing that I have only ever hit one animal while driving.

In August of 2008, my parents and I were on I-75, heading north to Marquette. A gray squirrel darted out in front of me; I couldn't brake, and I couldn't swerve, traveling at 70 miles an hour. It didn't have a chance, and I was quite upset for the rest of the trip. I could only hope that its death had been quick, but thinking about that made me even more upset.

Squirrels seem to be one of the most vulnerable animals on the road. It's like their brains short circuit when they see a car headed their way, and instead of dashing to safety, they run right into traffic. They're very unpredictable.

Earlier this week, while driving down Fourth Street, Steph spotted a red squirrel in the gutter. We doubled back to park on a side street, and as we did, this song started to play. It was amazingly appropriate and uncanny, and we both had our little chuckle. The red squirrel was incredibly intact; its eyes were open yet there was this blank, white cloud there which made it look unmistakably dead. The golden, early-evening sunlight caused its red fur to glow, and it was beautiful.

I'd never seen a dead red squirrel before. Like birds, they are so quick in life, and their stillness in death is almost surreal. After taking many pictures (and having Steph warn me of oncoming traffic), I moved the red squirrel off the road; surprisingly, his body was very stiff.

The entire time, two middle-aged men were watching me from their porch. I can only wonder what they were thinking.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Exposed, Returning to the Earth

As this amazing -- dare I say it -- early Spring continues here in Marquette, the warm weather has almost completely obliterated most of the snow on the ground. What remains are dirty snowbanks and the remnants of deep drifts, but even those are melting little by little every day. For the next week -- at least -- the skies will be sunny, which will lead only to more melting and less snow. Birds are loving this weather; they're all very vocal. The crows have been congregating around our apartment complex, and they're wonderfully loud right now. Even the ring-billed gulls are back on Picnic Rocks, claiming the spots for their nests.

I was back at the bog yesterday, and was amazed to find that very little snow remained -- so little, in fact, that the skeletons of both January does have made full contact with the ground. It was a bit of a treat to see First January Deer: her skeleton, though the limbs were scattered, was almost entirely present; two of her legs that I'd not seen due to the snow were easily findable, and they were quite a ways away from the rest of the skeleton.

It's amazing how dry the ground is already. First January Deer was quite exposed, and I felt a little nervous about that -- the rotary club cleans the bog in the spring (when, I don't know) and I didn't want her to end up in the dumpster like last year's April Deer. Still, I moved on, completely soaked my feet in some standing water disguised by slushy snow, and checked on Second January Deer.

Her skeleton was less scattered, though three legs were absent entirely. The ribcage looked so perfect, resting at the base of a mossy tree, with the sunlight streaming through and illuminating her bones. I found a scapula nearby, and plenty of fur on the ground, where I'm guessing the initial kill happened. I was less concerned about someone throwing away this skeleton, as it lies in a far more sheltered, shady area.

Still, the location of First January Deer was bothering me. On one hand, I felt like it wasn't my place to move her skeleton and decide its fate; on the other hand, moving a skeleton to someplace safer is far less evil than throwing it away like trash, as the rotary club (or any casual bog-walker) is known to do. Steph and I returned to the bog later that afternoon, and together we transported First January Deer's skeleton to a more sheltered place nearby. This new location, in the late spring and summer, has waist-high grass and is infested with ticks... I doubt anyone will disturb the skeleton now. Steph recorded the action:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

November Skunk

Near the end of November, Steph and I were poking around on the beach near Marquette's working ore dock, as we often do. That particular stretch of sand is a great place to find all sorts of bizarre things: old parts of cars and machinery, mysterious animal bones, and beach glass, among other items. For the past few months, we'd been smelling a skunky odor from the road, and it was safe to bet that a skunk had been hit by a car nearby. While on the beach, we found the source of the smell -- and it was not pretty, I won't lie.

It was a bloated, hairless, yellowed, waterlogged, maggoty skunk corpse. Its jaws were wide open, resembling some monster from a horror movie, not the furry, black-and-white mammal with which we are all so familiar. Maggots surged from its mouth and eye sockets. It was the first -- and only -- time that, during this project, I was ever disgusted by an animal corpse. It took me a few minutes to get used to the maggots, as they weren't something I expected to see on a late-November day. I then began to photograph the skunk -- and to this day, it has been the hardest thing for me to photograph in the Useless Creatures series.

To put it frankly, there was nothing appealing about the body. It wasn't recognizable as a skunk, there were maggots leaking from its orifices, and its mouth looked so horrifying, demonic, almost. And yet -- there was something extremely compelling about its teeth. They were so white and sharp.

We rarely see animals in such a bizarre state of decay, and as a result, when we do see them like this, it's quite shocking. (Here is another angle of the corpse, view at your own risk.) To protect the body from snow and footsteps, Steph and I stacked a good deal of driftwood atop it. This would also serve as a marker so that we would be able to locate the body again.

Today, we returned to November Skunk. Amazingly enough, several months later, it still smells just as vivid as a living skunk. It has a lot of decomposing left to do; plastered to the body are a number of fly pupae. Despite there not being a dramatic change in its appearance, already the corpse is starting to look more peaceful. Its color is beginning to match with its surroundings, and it is beginning to return to the earth.

We will check back again in a few months.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The First Thaw

For the past week -- and for the next several days, according to the forecast -- it's been warm and sunny here in Marquette. The daytime temperatures have been far above freezing, even rocketing into the mid-fifties today! In the Upper Peninsula, of course, there always seems to be a First Thaw, followed by a snowstorm or two, and a second and third thaw after that, finally culminating with what is truly Spring, which is in early- to mid-May, at least here in Marquette. Anyway, this warm weather we've been experiencing is waking up the animals, and they're starting to roam about more freely than they do when it's windy and cold. Sadly, animal territories are crisscrossed by highways and roads, and their small bodies are no match for cars traveling 60 miles and hour.

Two days ago, on a drive along Highway 550 (the Big Bay Highway), Steph and I spotted a raccoon on the side of the road. It was a small animal, much smaller than most raccoons I've seen; its head was crushed, and there were many raven tracks all around the scene. The scavengers had already started to pick away at the body.

Of course, I photographed the raccoon's feet. Animal feet are pretty amazing, and they're all so very different from species to species. How often is it that you get to see a raccoon foot, anyway? My mother posed an interesting question: are raccoon "finger" prints all unique, as they are with humans? I'm willing to bet they are.

Today, Steph and I drove south on Highway 41 to Menominee (and then backtracked a bit because we missed our turn to get to the DeYoung Family Zoo). We saw plenty of evidence of dead animals along the road; I counted two deer and two porcupines, as well as three or four raccoons and a squirrel, and what was perhaps a fox. One of the first dead critters Steph and I spotted, though, was an opossum, near Escanaba.

Opossums aren't generally found in the Upper Peninsula; they're ill-adapted to the region's chilly winter climate. However, they do roam in the southernmost parts of the U.P., and somehow they are able to survive the cold and snow. Highways, though, are another threat. The individual we found was not a very big animal.

If you examine the photograph closely, you can see that the skin is stripped from the bone at the end of the tail. Did this happen when the opossum was struck by a car, or did it get frostbite? I've heard of opossums getting frostbite on their naked fingers, tails, and noses, but I'm not so sure about this. The 'possum seemed pretty healthy and hadn't been dead for long:

Opossums are pretty animals, in my opinion. They're quite bizarre, too, being North America's only marsupial.

With the warmer temperatures also comes the melting of snowbanks. What's left behind along the highway often seems to consist of cigarette butts, car parts, and old roadkill. One of the porcupines I saw today had been frozen for a long time, and was finally escaping -- for the time being -- from its snowbank tomb. The animal was rather indistinguishable; I think I might have seen its head, and maybe one of its arms, but it was pretty hard to tell what was what. I did, however, take a photograph of the quills on its tail:

With all the dead animals we saw strewn along the roadside today, it goes without saying we saw many winged scavengers: crows, ravens, and bald eagles, all feasting on the bodies, making sure that nothing is wasted in nature.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

March Deer and One-Time Photography

Yesterday, a friend alerted me to what she thought was a roadkill coyote along Wright Street here in Marquette -- a stretch of road marked 45 mph but more commonly traveled at a higher speed. Seeing as how it'd been warm for the past few days, I wasn't surprised, and Steph and I zoomed over there as soon as I got the news. We arrived in just the nick of time; a man was dragging the remains of something off the pavement and into the woods.

I asked if I could photograph the animal -- I recognized immediately that it was a deer, and not a coyote -- before he took it away, and it turned out he was removing the body from the road so that scavenging eagles wouldn't get hit by cars! How thoughtful, and respectful -- not only for the animals that will scavenge, but for the deer, as well.

I was strangely both disappointed and relieved that the victim of traffic was a deer; I'm not sure how I would have reacted if it was a coyote. I imagine the experience would have been a lot more emotional for me; I have never seen a live coyote in nature, but I have seen them dead on the road, and seeing a dead coyote so close might have been just too much.

Anyway, I photographed the remains of the body, while sinking in up to my knees in cold, gritty, dead-deer scented snow. It wasn't a very pretty sight; all the grime and grit and snow on the road had clung to the deer's fur and gave it a very dirty, old appearance. None of the legs were attached to the body; they had been severed and mangled and were in many pieces. With little to work with, I photographed only the head of the animal.

I feel very different when photographing a road-killed animal, especially one that I'll likely only see once -- as compared to an animal that I'm able to photograph over a longer period of time. I'll never get to know March Deer nearly as well as the January Does, and because of that, the few photographs I took were hardly satisfactory. There have been a few animals I've photographed only once, ones that were found in the road (October Sparrow, November Squirrel, and January Pigeon come to mind), but they were small and easily moved to someplace safe where I could take my time photographing them.

That wasn't the case for yesterday's deer; Steph had parked her car in a rather dangerous spot and had stayed with it, and I probably spent less than five minutes taking pictures. It was late in the day and the light wasn't very good, and the snow was incredibly deep, so deep that I almost got stuck on a few occasions.

In any case, I prefer to photograph an animal over an extended time frame, but in the winter, I will take what I can get. It wasn't the most comfortable photographing experience, but it was good to know that the man who moved the deer from the road was taking into consideration the safety of scavenging wildlife.