Walking earlier today past the spot where I found a road-killed garter snake a few months ago has
made me nostalgic for summer. It’s not that I like walking on roads or seeing animals turned to pavement pizza under tires, but there are certain intriguing things that occur only in the warmer months, and in this case the snake held one of the most fascinating, but obvious secrets of that season.
Late last August I found the flattened, coiled reptile at the edge of a road that follows the Farmington River in Burlington, Connecticut. Head crushed and colorful entrails bursting from its narrow body, it was a curious, if sad display. Hit by a car, I imagine it writhed and twisted in its death throes so its stiffened form appeared to lie in a knot. Passing by the forlorn creature again a couple days after first discovering it, I was startled, if not completely creeped out to find it twitching and shivering slightly. I leapt back in astonishment. Gingerly tapping the carcass with the toe of my boot, I watched several black beetles decorated with orange splotches scurry out of the snake. Known as carrion or burying beetles, they are scavengers of dead flesh, often burrowing under the body of deceased small animals and burying them. Their movement had caused the dead snake to stir. Ah, nature’s miracle of decomposition in progress.
Decomposition is nature’s recycling and composting. Without insect and other decomposers of animal and vegetable material nothing would ever go away and the world would be quite cluttered. But for decay, natural systems such as soil would be much less productive.
While I enjoy the comfort of warmth as much as most, I find the heat and humidity of summer suffocating. If it weren’t for the pleasure of tomatoes and watching baseball I might completely despair of July and August. But summer also brings the process of decomposition to full throttle. I delight in compost piles, rotting leaves and other vegetation, and the rank smell of swamps. I revel in the fact that the soil beneath my feet is busy with microorganisms and bizarre-looking invertebrates whose mission is to recycle and decompose plant and animal remains. Although it appears inert, a square meter of fertile soil is home to 10 trillion bacteria, 10 billion protozoa, 5 million nematodes, 100,000 mites, 50,000 springtails, 10,000 animals known as rotifers and tardigrades, 5,000 insects and spiders, 3,000 worms and 100 snails, according to University of Illinois biologist James Nardi.
There’s lots of life in dead things, and summer isn’t just about fun and games in the sun. Much is happening in dark, damp, and out-of-the-way places where life’s circle isn’t always postcard pretty. Compost “grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,” poet Walt Whitman wrote. “It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.”