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Life from Death

September 23, 2010

One must drive with care through our township after dark. Mule deer emerge from the oak brush to nibble on flowers, shrubs, and the fruit and leaves of the trees. One friend watches them come into his yard every summer evening, shortly after sunset, to drink from his bird bath and to eat sunflower seeds from his feeders. The animals have yet to evolve a sense of the dangers of automobiles. And when humans drive carelessly or distractedly, the animals pay with their lives. It seems that the roads to the neighboring towns are, on average, littered with several newly dead deer each month.

The process of life takes work. All living creatures, great and small, require certain basic building blocks – amino acids, sugars, nitrogen and phosphorus-containing compounds, and others – which they then assemble in the very specific ways they need for the sustenance of life. When mule deer browse, they cannot directly use most of the materials they ingest. The long chains of sugars and amino acids the animals eat must be broken down into individual sugar and amino acid molecules through the process of digestion. After this process of deconstruction the atoms and molecules can then be re-assembled by the deer into the specific proteins, nucleic acid chains, carbohydrates and fats required to keep the beasts alive and healthy.

Upon death exactly the reverse must occur to the deceased before the basic building blocks of life sequestered by the living creature can be effectively utilized by others. The process by which a body returns to the earth that gave it life is called putrefaction. As a part of this process of complex materials decomposing into simpler, more usable and useful substances, nature often takes unexpected routes. The characteristic odor associated with “road kill” is a blend of remarkably obnoxious smelling compounds. Those things we usually think of as malodorous, like the oils found in skunk scents, often contain sulfur atoms. But as the nitrogen-containing molecules found in muscle and other tissues are broken down, nitrogenous compounds such as skatole, putrescine, and cadaverine are formed. Despite the absence of sulfur in these molecules their bouquet is far fouler, less tolerable and more persistent than that of their sulfurous cousins.

John Donne wrote “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” I often feel similarly when I view the senseless and needless deaths of my animal neighbors. And yet I cannot ignore this fundamental fact: life emerges from death, whether as poppies at Ypres, or as asters along a country road.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Wood permalink
    September 23, 2010 11:41 am

    Really well-written! Moving and informative at the same time. Thanks, Lu.

  2. September 24, 2010 6:55 pm

    So refreshing to learn the science behind the magic! Thank you.

  3. Lu Giddings permalink
    September 24, 2010 7:10 pm

    Thanks Tom, I appreciate it. :)

  4. rocky15 permalink
    September 29, 2010 6:19 am

    Perhaps my Nutrition students would appreciate the simplicity, complexity, maintenance and repair of the digestion if they look at it from an overall life and death perspective. I enjoy your writing style – informative, concise and in many cases colored with a flare of humor.

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