The Dead On My Dashboard

Here in western Oregon we finally had some serious rain, and last weekend I picked the first chanterelles. So I know that Day of the Dead is on the near horizon. If we lived in central or southern Mexico, we’d be looking forward to October 31 as a national holiday for remembering the deceased. I don’t live in Mexico, am not of Mesoamerican descent, don’t have a religious affiliation, and don’t even care for Halloween. But here's a little secret—I have my own ongoing memorial to those who have passed on.

Hyperbole doesn’t come naturally to me, but some things just need saying. There isn’t a more interesting dashboard in Lane County than the gray dust-covered ledge beneath the windshield inside my little red pickup. The passenger side dash is slightly recessed to form a rectangular basin containing an assortment of natural history artifacts. The pieces residing there are borne of my idiosyncratic, some would say bizarre, interests and have arrived at this place of honor from various waypoints along my personal life road.

The first piece to be ensconced was a shriveled Great Basin spadefoot. In size, shape, and color, mine resembles a piece of well-cured horse dung, but the characteristic white hourglass pattern on the back is still visible. I love it for its dry irony. Spadefoots are iconic arid-adapted frogs who shun the rain-soaked western third of Oregon. They are distributed from the rain shadow on the eastern flank of the Cascades across the intermountain west, hence the Latin name Spea intermontana. Although sometimes referred to as spadefoot “toads,” the frog family tree clearly shows that they are not close relatives of toads. Spadefoots breed quickly, develop rapidly as embryos and larvae, and can tolerate an astonishing 50% reduction in body water. They also have evolved the amazing ability to accumulate urea, a toxic nitrogenous by-product excreted by all vertebrates in the urine, to levels that normally would cause an inhibition of muscle contraction. But this magnificent suite of dry land amphibian adaptations has its limits. While cleaning out the garage at Mom and Dad’s house in southeastern Oregon, I found this unfortunate specimen dead and dry as a stone beneath a space heater in the corner. My dashboard memorial had its first occupant.

One of my onboard specimens is noteworthy in its absence. Some years ago I was on a field trip around southeastern Oregon with my herpetology class. Near Paisley Caves, my student Krystal found a mummified long-nosed leopard lizard, a species restricted to the sandy true desert scrub of southeastern Oregon. I was excited about her find, then did what any self-respecting instructor would do—swiped it. Of course the appropriated lizard came to hold a hallowed place on my dashboard. A few years later Krystal had graduated to become a herpetology teaching assistant, and I was on an overnighter to the Johnny Gunter Cabin in the Coast Range. I had one of Kim’s fresh-baked loaves of bread with me to cover breakfast and lunch. First thing in the morning I got into the truck and smelled bread. Even before my morning coffee I recognized something was amiss. On the floor of the cab lay Kim’s once beautiful bread, the plastic bag chewed through and the loaf mangled and half eaten. Worse yet, my stolen leopard lizard had been … stolen! Then I realized that the driver’s side window was partially down. On the dusty hood were footprints of the perpetrator. Krystal was mad, Kim was mad, and I was mad. I’m guessing the only one satisfied with the empty space on my dash was the woodrat.

The most recent members of my collection are a pair of dried rough-skinned newts that came into my cab last summer. Krystal actually gave me one (she is a forgiving soul), and the other was from a herpetology student. Both corpses were found while looking for western fence lizards in boulders on the reservoir side of Blue River dam. The rocks had been exposed by a winter drought that caused dramatically low water in the lake. When the lake was full the newts were living an aquatic life of leisure. Apparently they thought the period of low water could be ridden out by taking shelter in the rubble. This was a mistake. In the heat of an early summer they became newt jerky, their brown skin, once laden with neurotoxin, now stretched tightly over tiny ribs, the orange pigment on their shriveled bellies still visible. Although I prefer rough-skinned newts alive, these two are now ensconced in le petit musée that is my dashboard.

Not all of my relics are herpetological. Three are mammals, those furry flea-ridden things with serious teeth, the better to bite you with my dear. Two are little brown bats, fluffy and light as feathers. Each met a premature end trying to roost in the stovepipe at the Johnny Gunter cabin; I found their mummified remains in the woodstove. There is also a California ground squirrel skull. I found this gem when my brother and I were plumbing that same cabin to honor Mom’s Mother’s Day request. Because my brother is claustrophobic and I don’t know how to plumb, I had to wriggle beneath the house with floor joists only an inch above my chest, trying to think of something other than earthquakes, while he coached me from the outside. I crawled up next to some ground squirrel remains and managed to slip the skull into my pocket. Sometimes being a natural historian is hard work.

If my dashboard seems a little strange, perhaps some perspective is needed. Consider Galileo's mummified middle finger gesturing defiantly from a glass egg in the Museo Galileo, or St. Catherine's shriveled head staring out from a beautiful reliquary in the Basilica San Domenico in Siena. These are honored, even holy, body parts. My small memorial to local natural history isn't that far out there.

I suppose the Dead on My Dashboard really are akin to museum pieces. Except that each dried out or skeletonized specimen gets to travel throughout my little corner of the world, and there aren't any shiny interpretive plaques. Yet each piece has a story that is an interesting mix of biology and sociology. I’d like to say that my dashboard isn’t a reliquary. I’d like to say the shriveled pieces covered with road dust aren’t talismans or icons. I’d like to say that I’m not that superstitious. But in the years those revered remains have rested on my dashboard, no one has broken into my cab. Uh-oh; did I jinx myself? Better knock on wood.

[A version of this post appeared in the October 2015 edition of Nature Trails, the monthly publication for the Eugene Natural History Society. TAT]