Attending every tiny funeral

by Kathleen Heideman

“…we need to be acutely sensitive to these faint echoes on the wind, because they carry an important message.”—Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, The Sixth Extinction

1409_iod_kirtlands_warblerI am trying to explain something important. With a stick, I draw the crude outline of Upper Michigan in damp sand. I mark the heart—Marquette County. I make dots and cross-hatches: roadless forests, roaming predators, remote lakes with Archean rims, wild rivers, webbed swamps. I draw the Yellow Dog Plains, a pill-shaped chrysalis, breeding ground of the rare Kirtland’s Warbler. My map is perfect.
Soon, however, someone wants to add Progress to my map: a sulfide mine beneath a river, gravel mines instead of outcrops, a black bear struck by a truck hauling a bulldozer. Viewed from above, Progress looks like a terrible wound, a paved road named for what it displaces: Warbler Lane. Wolverine Street. Wildcat Court. Wilderness Road.
Several years ago, when a “Wilderness Road” was proposed to serve as the haul route for a sulfide mine, biologists ran perfunctory surveys, checking swaths of wilderness for rare plants or animals that might be impacted—a polite word for death. I consulted their maps with disbelief. First, the mining group defined its “area of impact” as being only the fenced acreage it’d soon bulldoze devoid of all life, removing pines, blueberries, lichens, topsoil. Next, biological survey results were published. Were there any rare warblers, ferns, turtles, trout, salamanders, gentians or eagles? Nope, nothing to worry about. Nothing to block the blade of Progress.
1409_iod_burying_beetleOnly later, reading Michigan’s “Endangered Species By County” list, would I spot the entry for “Nicrophorusamericanus, American burying beetle, LE, X.” The code LE means federally endangered, the X means presumed extirpated in Michigan. The only other species marked “LE, X” was Kirtland’s Warbler, which I’d seen on the Yellow Dog Plains, a stone’s throw from the mine. Rare beetles—rare as jack pine warblers? Rare, yet somehow surviving? The idea filled me with a dark wonder.
It turns out they are big as your thumb, black and blaze-orange beetles, vivid as jack-o-lanterns, able to bury dead birds and rodents by excavating a grave under the body—“Nicrophorus” means “carrier of death.” With olfactory sensors that tip their antennae like orange pompoms, N. americanus can smell a dead mouse from two miles away, flying to the site within forty-eight hours. The corpse is buried swiftly. In a chamber over the cached body, a male and female beetle mate, staying with their eggs to parent them through the larval stage, partially digesting meals for their toddlers—a burying beetle’s version of pureed carrots.
I’ve memorized their features. The last official sighting of N. americanus in Marquette County was in 1916. Michigan’s Natural Features Inventory lists them as “extirpated”—another polite word for death. Truly, they may be gone. But honestly: who’s been looking? The men hired to run biological transects? 1409_iod_world_up_closeThose looking forrare plants did not bother looking for insects; those checking for birds did not check for turtles; the crew surveying large mammals rode ATVs. They saw no wolves, predictably, although wolves are common in that area, and roused no cougars—which, like a burying beetle, will cache its kill in a shallow sandy grave. Cougars were considered extirpated from the U.P.—until they started showing up on local trail cameras.
A friend who worked as a National Park Service ranger on an island in Lake Superior described how he helped researchers conduct burying beetle surveys by tying a staked string to the leg of a dead rat. Returning, they’d find the string pulled taught, beetles washing the half-buried corpse with their own secretions, a sort of antibacterial embalming fluid.
Burying beetles belong to the family Silphidae, “invisible beings of the air.” Some of what I’ve learned about them comes from hours of my own observations, staring death in the eye until I see it tremble: a sure sign of burying beetles working below. The rest comes from research, tugging on the strings of long-buried articles and reports. I’ve learned that some wild colonies of N. americanus are found on islands. They’re found somewhere in Alger County, according to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore’s management plan. They still persist in the sandy silts and glacial tills of rural Ohio; the sand hills of Nebraska (pathway for Keystone’s pipeline) are another stronghold. Entomologists have a hypothesis: if unknown pockets of American burying beetles exist, they’ll be found in undeveloped areas with sandy soils, far from urban centers where scavengers like raccoons displace them, far from light pollution, far from industry. And yet, when a sulfide mine was proposed for the undeveloped sandy soils of the Yellow Dog Plains, nobody bothered looking for the American burying beetle.
Well, I’m bothering now. At our camp on the Yellow Dog Plains, two miles from a mine-in-progress, I spend each summer watching for what may or may not be extirpated. Historically, the rare beetles’ most northerly sighting was in the Upper Peninsula; their decline began in the 1920s, perhaps tied to the extinction of passenger pigeons. Named a “species of greatest conservation need” in Michigan, N. americanus remains an enigma; the DNR admits their knowledge is based on “informed speculation.” Is it extirpated or not? Am I searching for a ghost? How do endangered species define Progress?
Curiosity, understanding and compassion expand, even in the face of death. Ancient Greeks believed certain stones devoured the flesh of corpses: they saw what happened after burial. They called their hungry gravestones sarcophagi. Collectively, the burying beetles also are called sexton beetle; we see how reverently they entomb the dead. Out on the plains, doing their nocturnal chores under a spray of stars, they keep me company. Gentle N. tomentosus uses biomimicry to buzz as he flies, displaying a furred yellow chest, pretending to be a bumble bee. When a flicker flew down the chimney and died inside my locked cabin, a pair of N. vespilloides delivered last rites. A chickadee slammed into the window and I placed it on the sand: soon N. orbicollis was trundling over the feathers, looking for a doorway. When a nest of baby red squirrels falls from a jack pine, N.defodiens fly to the scene carrying their chitinous spades. I’m not sure whether I’ll ever find N.americanus, but I remain vigilant. I mourn each change brought to my beloved wild place, the Yellow Dog Plains. In the face of Progress, as if I were the endangered species, I try to remain hopeful.
Attending every tiny funeral, the hermit thrush plays requiem on her wooden flute, the psalm-song of a flowing waterfall. The tip of yesterday’s broken wing disappears below the sand. Is that the end? Beneath heaving sand, field mouse and garter snake are stirred together and grow wings. Stones consume flesh, our atoms dance with invisible beings of the air and recombine. The northern flicker died alone, curled up like a leaf, and my heart was heavy when I found it. I carried the desiccated body out to the woodpile. Can you picture the scene? Must I draw it for you?
From the flicker’s open beak flew a pair of burying beetles.

-Kathleen Heideman

Kathleen Heideman is the winner of the Second Annual U.P. Nature Writing Contest, sponsored by North Country Publishing and the Falling Rock Café and Bookstore. She is a writer and artist, a fellow of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers Program, and the recipient of artist residencies with watersheds, forests and the Park Service—including Isle Royale and Sleeping Bear Dunes. Her poetry appears in literary journals, anthologies and chapbooks. Her watercolors have been exhibited in local businesses and Lake Superior Art Association’s members’ show. She is president of Save the Wild U.P., a grassroots environmental organization. Kathleen lives in Marquette with her husband, Dan Rydholm.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.