Part 1: The Phone Call
It was a day much like today, six or seven years ago. It was mud season, after what had been a long and snowy winter; the deep snow was finally starting to melt.
I was driving to pick my kids up at school when I got a phone call. It was my neighbor, Tim. Tim and his family are, as my kids point out, really our only neighbors, and even they are 3/4 of a mile down our dead-end dirt road.( In mud season, which is when this story happened, it is a death-defying quagmire.) Tim, who is not easily rattled, sounded upset. He said his son Daniel, who 14 or 15 at the time and on the ConVal track team, had taken a run on the slowly defrosting trail and come across a dead baby moose emerging from the snow.
“Daniel is super freaked out,” Tim said grimly. “He says the moose didn’t have a head. And it’s just a baby one.”
He let his words sink in. This could mean only one thing—a poacher.
Although we had been spending summers in Greenfield since 1995, we had been living full time in NH for only a few years. The possibility that someone had illegally killed what I considered my moose was completely horrifying (now, it would really be just another Tuesday!) Tim said he would go try to find the moose and check it out, and got off the phone. I then called my other neighbor, Sheldon Pennoyer, who is the go-to guy for the entire neighborhood on anything to do with the woods.
“Sheldon,“ I said, my heart racing, “Daniel found a dead baby moose in the woods and he says it doesn’t have a head! Could it have been a poacher?” I described the location, which was right across a popular mountain biking trail just off my driveway.
Sheldon heard the panic in my voice and, as he has on many occasions, calmed me down.
“It most likely died of natural causes, and someone took the head,” he said. “It’s very unlikely anyone around here would kill a baby moose or leave it right on the trail.” Sheldon said he would put the word out to the Greenfield trails club—a diehard group of cyclists who were out in the trails any weather, day and night, 12 months a year—to see if anybody knew anything
Then he added:
“But if we do find out that moose was killed illegally, I have a feeling who it could have been. We’ve had some problems with Joe Smith who lives back behind us on the swamp, hunting illegally before. If that moose was shot, leave him to me.”
I thought to myself, I would not want to be Joe Smith if we find a bullet near that moose!
I got off the phone with Sheldon and picked up my boys at their schools. I didn’t want to tell them anything yet. When we turned back into our driveway, I saw Tim, hiking back through the mud and melting snow—now it was sleeting and the wind was blowing hard. I stopped and put down the window.
“It has a head,” Tim said irately, wiping sweat and mud off his face—the moose was halfway up a steep hillside. “It was just buried in the snow. Daniel was just so freaked out he didn’t see it.”
“Phew,” I said, and waved to Tim as he slogged back to his house.
The back seat had grown very quiet. I turned around and saw two little faces staring at me with their jaws hanging open.
“MOM,” they said, “WHAT DID YOU THINK DIDN’T HAVE A HEAD?”
The first lesson from this moose was a reminder of how much I love my neighbors.
Part 2: Stand By Me
Right after that, we got another six inches of snow, and the moose was covered up again. While I was out of town for a few days, my husband ( who is a doctor and served in Iraq doing combat triage; nothing bothers him) set out to find it. This is what he saw (Warning! slide!!) By this time the coyotes had found it and started tearing it apart. My husband sent me this picture and warned it I might not want to come see it, I am famously squeamish. Our boys, on the other hand, could not wait to see it. Abe took them to see it and they were enthralled by the gore.
Mac, our younger son, then asked if he could bring his friends over to see it. Now again, I was pretty new to New Hampshire. Until my boys were 9 and 11, we always lived in the suburbs in several places around the country. Things in New Hampshire were really different from the suburbs. In our last town, the elementary school, and I am not kidding, had to have a two hour parents meeting to address concerns about the second grade talking a nature walk in the state forest in the same town. Parents raised their hands freaking out about everything from fisher cat attacks to poison ivy to Lyme disease. Theere was actually a policy in place that kids were not allowed to retrieve soccer balls from the woods. They would stand there staring at them on the other side of the fence.
So anyway, i was a little nervous about exposing other people’s fourth graders to the moose, which was, by this point, really gross. I approached one mom nervously,
“Raisa. I have to ask you something and I’m not sure what you’ll say.”
“Would it be ok if August came over and looked at our dead moose?”
Raisa fell down laughing, as did Amy, the parent of the other child I asked. They both said, Oh my God, yes. And I was reminded, this is why we moved here.
A few days later, Mac, August and Emmett went hiking down the driveway to find the dead moose—just like, several parents remarked, the four boys in Stand By Me, one of my all-time favorite moves. It was now pretty warm out, and the moose had been decomposing for maybe a month. A hour or so later, they came back.
“What did you think?” I asked. The three boys looked at one another and shook their heads.
“That was really gross,” said August. Mac and Emmet concurred.
“We couldn’t even get that close to it,” said Emmett. “Because of the smell.”
“And the flies,” said Mac.
“And the maggots,” said August.
So the second gift from this moose was what the boys learned that day, which maybe a lot of kids in the world aren’t learning anymore: nature is beautiful, and harsh, and gross, and completely efficient.
Part 3: The Proposition
Just before Daniel spotted the moose, I had been taking a winter tracking class at the Harris Center, and at this class I met this really cool woman. Coincidentally, the same day the class started, this woman and I realized we are also on the same email list for the fourth grade boys lacrosse team. At the first game, I saw this woman sitting on a blanket with a baby who was about eighteen months old. This woman was so cool, and I just thought, I would really love to be friends with her. So I sidled up and asked her:
“Hey, want to come over and see my dead moose?”
To which she said, “Yes, I do!”
This woman possibly the best person in the Monadmock Region to solve the mystery of the our dead moose: it was Susie Spikol of the Harris Center. A few days later, Susie came over with her baby, David, on her back, and hiked up to find the dead moose. When we found it, it still has most of its fur, with its organs torn out.
Little David, in the backpack, looked down at the moose and said,
“Dat moose is dead,” with seemingly no alarm. Obviously this child is a New Hampshire native!!
Susie did immediately solve the mystery, which would not be a mystery to anyone who knew anything about what is going in with moose in New Hampshire these days. She said the young moose had probably died from dehydration from ticks. Covered with thousands of these blood sucking parasites, the poor little moose had collapsed, by strange luck, right on our mountain bike trail. Ten feet in either direction and no one would have ever known.
Susie said in all her years being a naturalist in New Hampshire, she had never before come across a decomposing moose. She said the moose population has been decimated by ticks in recent years, and which, as we all know, is affected by global warming.
When I told Susie about this essay, she told me David still brings up the moose to this day.
The third gift from the moose was my new friend.
Part 4: The Head
All that spring, we kept checking on the moose. What was fascinating was to see how quickly nature disposed of it, but also, how long some traces of it stuck around. A thick mat of moose hair stayed on the trail for at least four years, and I would find clumps of it all around that area long after the mat was gone. Every week when we checked on the moose, more of it had disappeared. A few weeks after Susie, David and I saw the moose, my husband and I returned to find virtually no soft tissue left on the skeleton, except the intestines, which were what I will call….an advanced state of decay.
Sometime after that, even the intestines were gone. Coyotes had torn away the skin, muscle and organs, and the bones were spread all over the area. There were signs of the gnawing on the bones—a feast for the countless rodents waking up from hibernation—as well as the trails of insects. At one point I found one of the hoofs and brought it home for the dog, but the dog had no interest in it.
The one thing we never found, however, was the head. After Tim had located it under the snow, it was covered up again, but then we never saw it again. My husband and I scoured the whole area and were amazed by how far away we found other bones—ribs, leg bones, even the pelvis—but no skull.
This got me thinking. While I am close to many of my neighbors, there are far more that I don’t know. In fact, there are probably a lot more people out there in the woods than we realize. Just today, I found a deer stand I didn’t know was there! I’ve had more than one person tell me that their grandfather brought them hunting on Woodland Hill or Blanchard Hill, and now they’re bringing their son or daughter. We’ve had a few issues with ATV’s. One time we found a caravan of Jeeps stuck on our Class 6 roads. I had someone who wanted to bait bears with organic apples. Even so, I have rarely ever found so much as a beer can in the woods. Someone out there, not one of my friends or neighbors, or at least they are not admitting it, found and took the moose skullI. We have no idea who. If Joe Smith has the moose skull, he probably took it for the same reason I wanted it: it’s cool. Most of us who live here also love that we live side by side with these beautiful wild animals. We may not always agree on how to use the land, we all love the woods.
I wrote this essay years ago, not knowing I would read it as part of event for the Monadnock Conservancy. But the final lesson I learned from the moose is very simple: the woods belong to all of us. They bring us together. We share them in ways we may not even realize. Preserving our rural landscapes and keeping at least part of the woods wild is something that benefits us all.