Oliver Whang talks to Zartosht Ahlers about the speed of cultural development. And roadkill. Ahlers’s essay “How to Roadkill” appeared in the February 17th issue of The Nassau Weekly.
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“One reason why we have not encountered a widespread protest over the increasing loss of wildlife as a result of the modern car, the improved road and the lust for speed is this: the killing of a creature on the road is not… a deliberate or malicious act. Collectively we seem to think nothing of annihilating distance, time, wildlife and occasionally ourselves as we step on the gas.”
-James Raymond Simmons, Feathers and Fur on the Turnpike, 1938
For the past weeks, I have been photographing roadkill in order to preserve and honor the beauty of the mangled bodies of indeterminate species I encounter on my runs and walks. It bothers me that corpses decomposing on the side of the road go unaddressed for months until their bodies have been spread across the asphalt by cars and passing scavengers. Roadkill offers us a poignant example of how empathy has been sacrificed in this age of modernity; the victims of society’s speed are ignored and left to rot alone. As Gary Kroll writes in his essay “Snarge,”
“[Roadkill] rarely registers on our moral radar, probably because the agent of killing – mass acceleration – is structurally baked into almost everything we do. This is a peculiar malady of the Anthropocene; by participating in an accelerated mode of life, we have involuntarily become thoughtless killers of wildlife.”
We weren’t always these thoughtless killers; when automobiles first emerged as symbols of modernity in the 1920’s, people were outraged at the amount of wildlife that fell victim to this new technology. Quickly, however, roadkill became an acceptable cost of progress. As Ilya Ehrenburg bemoans in 1929, “At first [roadkill was] known as ‘catastrophes.’ Now people speak of ‘accidents.’ Soon they’ll stop speaking altogether.” We cry at the death of a pet but drive past dozens of dead deer every month without so much as giving them a second thought.
Kroll points to the thoughtlessness with which we treat roadkill to underline how “industrialised humans accommodate to, and normalise, Anthropocenic change.” Instead of seeing the abundance of roadkill as a cost of modernity that should give us cause to rethink the price of progress, we become numb to the killing and, seduced by the promises of a techno-future, hurl ourselves into industrialization. Ehrenburg laments that as the people of her time fail to approach industrialization more critically, “the automobile keeps right on doing its job… It only fulfills its destiny: It is destined to wipe out the world.”
The stench of rotting flesh invaded my thoughts and I struggled to prevent myself from gagging. I remembered the approximate location of the carcass but was surprised how much of the fetid odor remained. A line from a poem by Madeline DeFrees came to mind: You will smell this death for miles.
A passing car lit up a speed-limit sign, then the texture of the gravel verge I was running on, then, lastly, the corpse of the deer in the distance. As the headlights of the car disappeared into a turn, I was plunged into darkness again. Left alone with the odor of decay.
Yesterday, I drove past the same deer and didn’t even register the smell — I was driving too fast, I guess. Now, as I passed the body on foot, I picked up the pace to get away from the carcass. I have been trying to notice roadkill, rather than just blitzing past, oblivious to the animals decomposing on the sides of the street.
I remembered learning that deer usually get hit by cars as they walk alongside the road, following the tasty grass that grows on the verge, not as they cross the road. If I had stretched my hand out as the car passed, I would have been able to touch it. The thought of being hit by a passing car entered my mind and I clenched my fist: I regretted not wearing the safety vest my father bought for me.
By becoming thoughtless killers, we normalize the violence of modernity and become apologetic of the crimes of progress. Kroll uses the case of roadkill to highlight our “shifting [moral] baseline” and points to thoughtlessness as “an indictment [of] the very process of becoming comfortable with structural violence.”
Of course, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which we can prevent all killing — even the Jains fail in their attempts. The ideological solution to thoughtless killing is not a call for an absolute end to killing, but instead a call to become thoughtful killers and consumers — whether with regards to meat consumption, mosquito zappers, or to roadkill. While roadkill might not vanish in the near future (although smart cars leave me hoping), we can change our response to roadkill and develop a more empathetic consciousness around killing.
Jacques Derrida terms the normalization of killing “the logic of sacrifice.” As Derrida writes in Eating Well, the logic of sacrifice, which “undergirds all […] humanism,” is rooted in a morality in which “there is no responsibility toward the living world other than the human”. In other words, the non-human is readily sacrificed or killed for what is perceived to be the advancement of the human (in the case of roadkill: our accelerated lifestyle). In the logic of sacrifice, beings are separated into what can be sacrificed — the killable — and what cannot be sacrificed, whose killing is instead termed “murder”.
Curiously, I approached the body of a wild boar. Even on a lonely road in the middle of Coronado National Forest, I found roadkill. I read somewhere that roadkill often attracts scavengers that get hit by speeding cars themselves — a haunting kind of irony.
The sheer size of the boar impressed me; it requires the speed and the size of modern vehicles to fell a beast of this mass.
I dragged the boar off the road and watched as it tumbled down into the canyon. This was the best burial I could muster.
Donna Haraway, in her text When Species Meet, argues that humanism, facing a conflict between its sanctification of human life, centered at least partly on the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” and the necessity and unavoidability of killing humans, is forced to instead base its morality in a logic of sacrifice that defines the killable. Ideologies of exterminism and genocide are not based in a philosophy that frames killing as moral, but are instead focused on “making beings killable,” or, in other words, delineating which groups “Thou shalt not kill” applies to. As a solution, Haraway proposes that the commandment be changed to “Thou shalt not make killable” in an attempt to reframe the unpreventable killings of sentient beings as killing “someone” instead of killing “something,” a reframing synonymous with Kroll’s distinction of thoughtful vs. thoughtless killing, the latter only possible in a logic of sacrifice.
Thoughtless killing has made us numb to the sheer amount of life lost in the factory farms of modernity: by buying meat packaged and processed at grocery stores we have lost our connection to the actual killing of the beings whose flesh we eat. My mother remembers the slaughter of cattle on the farm she grew up on as solemn: her family depended on the profit from selling the meat, but the killing was never thoughtless.
Thoughtful killing is as simple as acknowledging the death of a being. By acknowledging roadkill, it ceases to be a nominal sacrifice for progress, a cost outside of a morality only concerned with achieving modernity, and becomes part of the calculus of deciding whether to pursue modernity at all. The acknowledgement of a killed being can come in any form: sorrow, gratitude towards the being whose body is consumed, prayer, etc.
Barry Lopez acknowledges roadkill found during his travels by apologizing. For him, apologizing is “an act of respect, a technique of awareness.”
For Lopez, his apology is rooted in a refusal to accept the slaughter of any life and an anger in the degree to which people defend it. He writes:
“Farther on in western Nebraska I pick up the small bodies of mice and birds. While I wait to retrieve these creatures I do not meet the eyes of passing drivers. Whoever they are, I feel anger toward them, in spite of the sparrow and the gull I myself have killed. We treat the attrition of lives on the road like the attrition of lives in war: horrifying, unavoidable, justified.”
Throughout Apologia, it is clear that Lopez draws a connection between our thoughtless killing of animals to the readiness with which people sacrifice other human bodies during periods of systematic violence. Derrida and Haraway would agree here: the politics of sacrifice are ever expanding, and progress requires ever larger sacrifices as fuel.
Acknowledging roadkill does not necessitate pulling over every time a bug splatters on your windscreen or having an elaborate funeral for the flattened squirrel stuck to your wheel. Instead, it means approaching our relationship with consumption, including the consumption of travel, with an acknowledgement of all the costs incurred — not just gasoline and the occasional oil-change. What would happen if the next time we ordered something from Amazon, we took a moment to consider the full portfolio of costs, including the beings that invariably die in the process of producing and delivering the products? Acknowledging roadkill does not mean limiting ourselves to acknowledging the roadkill directly caused by our use of a motor-vehicle. Instead, it means acknowledging all the beings with which the machine of consumption is in contact, ranging from the deer hit by a semi-truck to the panda killed on a palm-oil plantation.
The act of acknowledging roadkill doesn’t affect the roadkill—it is dead after all. Becoming a thoughtful killer is primarily a selfish endeavor: I, the killer, seek to improve my own relationship with a being that is no longer alive. Through apologizing to it or simply through noticing the smell of the corpse, the killed being itself finds no solace. Acknowledging roadkill is part of a process of revisiting and rewriting our own internalized connection to beings that are victim to our existence and to our consumption. By learning to become thoughtful killers, we invariably become thoughtful consumers, and hopefully, more empathetic people.