Friday, March 18, 2016

`Something Useless, Insignificant, or Moribund'

The five-state stretch of interstate highway between Houston and Atlanta doubles as a long, narrow outdoor abattoir. Some of the carnage lies discreetly on the berm, neat and ready to be scooped by the road crew. The rest is smeared like a Franz Kline across the pavement. Among the dead we observed were opossums, squirrels, dogs, cats, raccoons, rabbits, woodchucks, a deer, a skunk, a turtle and a large unidentified aquatic bird, possibly a heron. I remembered the biologist in John McPhee’s “Travels in Georgia” (1973; collected in Pieces of the Frame, 1975) who kept roadkill in her freezer until she was ready to prepare it for dinner. I’m not certain but that may have been when I first encountered the word “roadkill,” which by now has become an all-purpose punch line.

The OED dates the word’s first appearance to the nineteen-forties, and gives four shades of meaning.  The first is “an accidental killing of an animal by a vehicle on the road.” For this sense, the source of the first citation (1943) is surprisingly scientific, Ecological Monographs: “From the above table one can readily see that road kills are relatively unimportant to Hungarian partridge abundance in this region.” The second meaning likewise sounds formal: “The number of animals killed by vehicles on the road (in a particular period, region, etc.).” And its first citation, dated 1944, is the Journal of Mammalogy: “The lowest road kill noted in Ohio was 5.7 birds per 1,000 miles.”

The third meaning is probably the one used most often today -- “An animal killed by a vehicle on the road. Also as a mass noun” – though the first citation, from 1946, is still scientific. The American Midland Naturalist reports: “Examinations of road kills . . . lead us to believe that the wild birds complete each molt in less time than do pen reared birds.” But by 1979, the word is purely demotic and an anonymous writer in the Washington Post can say: “I’ve raised three kids and fed two wives on road-kills.” Eight years later, Carl Hiassen reports in Double Whammy. “`‘Road kill,’ Skink said, by way of explanation. `You hungry, Miami?’” By the nineteen-nineties, the word’s fourth meaning is strictly figurative: “Something useless, insignificant, or moribund; a helpless victim.” In 1992, a sports writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer can assume his readers can understand this: “Expected to be little more than road kill for opponents . . . fifth place Houston had managed a 9-14 record on the 28-day trip.”

All that slaughter along the highway reminded me of a man who found the suffering of animals (including humans) unendurable. William Cowper’s best-known animal companions were hares -- Puss, Tiney and Bess – and all make appearances in his poems and letters. The House Rabbit Society devotes a page to Cowper. In his master work, The Task (Part IV, lines 315-320), Cowper might almost be writing of a child:  

“The squirrel, flippant, pert, and full of play.    
He sees me, and at once, swift as a bird,
Ascends the neighbouring beech; there whisks his brush,   
And perks his ears, and stamps and scolds aloud,       
With all the prettiness of feigned alarm,                   
And anger insignificantly fierce.”

In The Town of Cowper (1886), the poet’s biographer Thomas Wright gives a good portrait of the compulsive animal lover:

“Cowper, however, indulged in numerous pets be sides the hares, and he speaks of his `eight pairs of tame pigeons,’ his linnet and his robins. [Cowper’s cousin] Lady Hesketh has put it on record `that he had at one time five rabbits, three hares, two guinea pigs, a magpie, a jay, and a starling; besides two goldfinches, two canary birds, and two dogs. It is amazing how the three hares can find room to gambol and frolic (as they certainly do) in his small parlour. I forgot to enumerate a squirrel, which he had at the same time, and which used to play with one of the hares continually.”

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