June 2002

One evening, I had been out visiting a friend and was driving home to Skaneateles on the New Seneca Turnpike, so named because it is a few years newer than the Old Seneca Turnpike, both dating from the early 1800s. It is a road that winds and rolls through farmland, up and down hills, past a large pond. I was driving slowly because of the dark and the deer, when I saw something in the road ahead, about the size of a chipmunk, but… not a chipmunk. I tried to steer around it and as I drove on, I thought perhaps it had just been a blowing leaf. But somewhere in my brain, I registered eyes, glowing at me, like some tiny English bulldog or a miniature of the eye doctor I once saw, a tall, portly man with a blue pin-striped suit and vest, gold watch and chain, and pointed owl-like eyebrows, whose machine with its clinking lenses and sudden flares of light enabled me to see the blackboard again in the sixth grade.

But I didn’t have time to pursue that memory because again something leapt out in front of me. A huge leap and a heavy landing, and now I recognized a bullfrog. A portly bullfrog who needed to recover before making another leap. I hadn’t seen two frogs together in ten years, and now I was surrounded by them. I slowed, I swerved, I didn’t feel anything squish under the tires, breathed a sigh of relief, and then there was a third one. Most definitely a frog, a little smaller and more nimble, but equally displeased to share the road with a bright eyed monster.

The next Saturday morning, just before eight o’clock, I was driving to the dump, on the Old Seneca Turnpike, when a wild turkey broke from cover on the left side of the road. I sped up so he could not get in front of my car, and for a moment we ran side by side, my glance connecting with his, and as we looked one another in the eye I could see him thinking, “What are you? What are you? Where am I going? Where am I going?” He chose to turn away and plunge into the brush, and again I breathed a sigh of relief.

“What’s next?” I thought. The following morning, on the way home from church, it was nine deer on Woodchuck Hill Road, two in the road, seven on someone’s nicely trimmed lawn, all looking at us as if we were deliverymen at a cocktail party. But I digress.

I think the problem is that when the white settler widened the Indian trails, no one got any input from the frogs or turkeys or deer. Not to mention the skunks, possum, woodchucks and raccoons who make up such a heady compote of roadkill in these parts. Or the overly confident crow I saw in the Village proper last week, flatter than a pancake in a short stack with the squirrel he’d been savoring when a tire pressed his shiny black suit with him in it.

None of these animals would have approved of widening the trails, covering them with a hard and unforgiving surface, and then populating them with brutal phantoms that hurtle out of the darkness, faster than the wind, and vanish again before you can take a second step, leaving you dead, or running back the way you came, or alone for the rest of your life.

I think it worth pondering, because before the roads were roads, before they were Indian trails, they were paths made by animals, wild animals packing down the earth on the most convenient route to food or water or salt, long before the appearance of mankind. When the first bipeds did arrive, they followed those animal paths because they led to water and meat and furs for clothing. And when the first white men came this way, they followed the Indians’ paths, and then widened them for wagons. And now, in one short century, we’ve rendered them dangerous for every form of animal life. Without ever considering those who created them in the first place.

Of course, a public meeting on the issue that includes deer, skunks and frogs is not one I want to attend. Neither do I see road-narrowing and reforestation taking hold. All I can do is drive a little more slowly, and keep watch for turkeys, both of the natural and motoring variety.


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