Looking for a Safe Place to Cross the Road
by Samuel Milligan, October 10th 2022
We come out at night with headlamps and rubber shoes to walk the roads and count the dead. Here lies a snapping turtle, painted still across county road lines in smears of red gut and white fat and yellowgreen shell. Here lies a spotted turtle, seen just too late by the Mazda with out-of-state plates, its polka-dot shell split into ungeometric fragments. Here lies a musk turtle, overturned and kicking in the wind, stable as Brunelleschi’s Duomo-winning egg. Here lies a box turtle, opened up and flattened and twisted, a cheese pizza dropped and rolling in the backseat of a van.
The way it used to be, you might find three or four dead ones in a ten mile stretch of road on a given night. We would come out on bikes, divide the winding shoreline into strips, and pedal through the dark with our eyes on the margins. Every year, every night, finding more and more, wondering: is the tourist traffic really rising like that?
Of course, you can only protect what you find before anyone else. There were the ones whose bodies were already gone. Only a tire mark, a little plastic, a little glass, a little shell left behind. We knew that just showing up at our scheduled times did not mean the world would cooperate. Did not mean that we could control the preordained outcomes for all. Knowing that some will be investigated by passing seabirds and vultures, their wounds opened and reopened like a child’s scab. Some will be found alive and scooped into shoe boxes and poked at on front porches until they finally die. Some will be rolled to the side of the road and left for a miraculous recovery, a regrowing of shell, knitting whole what has been ripped to pieces. Some will be buried in the surf, some tossed into ditches, some logged and photographed by other citizen scientists. Some will shuffle off into the mud and die unnoticed, decay quietly while they feed a world of bacteria and flies and maggots, turned inside out and then invisible by tiny machines of decay.
But still we would clear culverts and dig ditches and tape bumps on the road and screw signs to salteaten poles and guard the ones we found still crossing. Flashlights dancing, listening for the telltale grind of the internal combustion engine, watching for the sudden jump of headlights at the hilltop. Our bodies in front of theirs, willing the creatures across the macadam. Turtles, yes, but also salamanders and eels and groundhogs and beavers and raccoons and possums and skunks and porcupines and sometimes unrecognizable eyes and limbs walking past, moving in the moonlight. To see the unseen and unknown and still understand that they must move safely across the road, just like everything else.
When we first started, the thing that might get you was the sheer number of bodies. Every night, always. Tucked at bends in the road and sprayed across the solid middle yellow line, shiny and dew-wet in the early morning dark. Crumpled on the margins of things. Still looking alive enough – even still and dead and cold – that they would hold your gaze. A shock every time. But now, the same feeling from the clean lack. The unmoved sand. The empty logs. The shoulder with no sign of death. No sign of life, either. The question, always sneaking into your head: what have we done that, now, nothing even bothers to crawl from the reeds?