In spring, you never know what you’ll find blooming underfoot. Last weekend, after we’d left Chicago but before I’d returned to New Hampshire, Gary and I hiked the horse trails across the highway from the Litzenburg Memorial Woods in Findlay, OH. On his hiking blog, Gary shared the sad, sorry story of how our walk turned into a mud-bath…but all wasn’t lost on the slippery slope of our first stream crossing.

Perhaps before telling you how excited I was to find the scattered skeleton of at least one winter-killed deer in Findlay’s spring-thawed fields, I should explain that when I was a child, I collected bones, feathers, owl pellets, and other biological effluvia, the crown jewel of my collection being a deer skull I kept in a shoebox under my bed. Yeah, it’s a bit creepy to collect random body parts you’ve found in the woods…but nature nuts are an odd breed. Given my childhood curiosity for all things biological, it’s no wonder I felt right at home at Dublin’s Dead Zoo or amongst the bones and boobies at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Death is a biological universal, so if you’re interested in living things, you’ll necessarily be interested in dead things, too. Although I know that deer abound in the woods and fields of both Ohio and New Hampshire, I don’t have much occasion to see them alive these days. Given that sad, sorry truth, spotting a deer skeleton is the next best thing.

To most, finding the spring-scattered bones of a winter-killed deer would be a grim discovery, something to hide from one’s children’s (if not one’s own) eyes. When I was a kid, though, I knew that biologists studied all aspects of life: there was no room, I told myself, to be squeamish about predation, excrement, or the biological necessity of decay. I understood that biologists studied the scat–the scientific term for poop–of the animals they tracked, and I knew the owl pellets I loved to collect and dissect were nothing more than bird vomit containing the undigestible stuff of living creatures swallowed whole.

If studying death is the necessary flipside to studying life, why should the sight of sun-bleached bone be any less lovely than the sight of a naked milkweed pod, its stripped hull revealing an intricate pattern of seed-fluff? Biologists aren’t the only ones who know that life relies upon death: even the Bible agrees that a seed must fall and die to bear much fruit. Poets speak of found poems, collages of random words and phrases stitched into a patchwork of meaning. Isn’t a sunlit still-life of spine, hip bone, and seedpod a found poem of its own, its random parts pointing to the fragility of life in a world where death is always just a winter away?

And yet, although I feel no qualm about posting photos of individual sun-bleached bones, their parts not adding up to a bloody much less gruesome whole, I do hesitate to share the mangled, mostly entire deer carcass Gary and I encountered later in our walk. (If you’re brave enough to look, you can see it here.) What is it, I wonder, that makes individual bones mere scientific curiosities but an entire (if highly decomposed) body somethine gruesome? In her essay “The Deer at Providencia,” Annie Dillard watches the dying throes of a deer trapped by hunters; considering the question of carnivorousness, she concludes “These things are not issues; they are mysteries.”

What interests me about a deer carcass isn’t the flesh, bone, and hide left behind, but the spirit which has departed. What was the sad, sorry story of how this carcass came to be: are these the bones of two deer, distinct, or one creature, scattered? What mysterious and ephemeral force inspired these bones one moment and then slipped away the next, the effluvia of spirit? Until these bones learn to talk, we’ll never know, having nothing more than scattered parts and a mangled carcass to point toward the untold passing of another wild soul.