Death has been much on my mind and the mind of others around me lately. The actual death of a friend, the continued wars and destruction that we are engaged in throughout the world (Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and on and on), and the planetary decline/collapse of our biosphere that we are both cause and at the mercy of.
I will share something from my journal that I wrote about death and life recently, from January 22, 2018
I see the birds first, some bald eagles perched in tall cottonwoods, and a quorum of ravens, black splotches of feathers against the pure white snow. I then notice the carcass, ribs poking up out of the pink snow. Two adult bald eagles and a dozen ravens or more are present also. One eagle has been there at the dinner plate for sometime now, as evidenced by the rose color of its head and neck feathers. The newcomer’s feather gleam white in the luminous morning light. Death begets life in a beginningless and endless way.
We are usually disgusted by death and abhor it, although fascinated by its seeming finality and lost in our inability to comprehend it. But what if we looked at it differently, seeing it as a Great Mystery and the great gift that it is? The ravens and eagles understand the giving aspect of it, even if they don’t have the words, although I suspect the ravens know when a meal is nigh.
As I look around I see cottonwoods and pines that we once alive, but that are now among the standing dead, and the telltale signs of woodpeckers, pecking for a meal. Without the thing that we call death, there would be no woodpeckers, no eagles, no ravens and none of the beauty that these creatures offer to the world. Without the deer carcass, that some larger predator likely killed, what would these ravens and eagles eat, especially with so few salmon in our rivers?
We call it death, but when I look at it, I see life or the offering of a life at the least. The great gift that we can give at the end of our life, is our life. In this beginningless and endless place, do we simply fold back into the great cycle of life and death? Is there some other journey that we begin at that time? If we are honest with ourselves, we do not know, so we call it something to ease our worry a bit – the Great Mystery, if nothing else. Our lives too, are mysterious and in reality unknowable. We tell stories and those stories become this “I” and this “we” and both stand in for and create what we think of as “truth” and “reality.” But what is this really?
If death is death and life isn’t life, what is this? Just this….
A Jim Harrison poem comes to mind in which he decides to “swallow himself in ceaseless flow.” I like that description because it could be either life or death and what really is the difference? Here is the poem, titled “Cabin Poem”:
I’ve decided to make
up my mind
about nothing, to
assume the water
to finish my life
disguised as a creek,
an eddy, joining at
night the full,
sweet flow, to absorb
to swallow the heat
and cold, the moon
and the stars, to
in ceaseless flow.
One last glance at the scavengers and the carcass, and I head down the road in this glistening winter palace. I wonder at the world where lines are crossed and then recrossed and where distinctions are blurry at best. And I wonder at this species, which desperately and naturally makes distinctions, tells stories and tries to make sense of this senseless and sensuous world. Even things as seemingly solid and assured as life and death, upon closer inspection, ebb and flow, ceaselessly life the rivers and tides that I love so much. I become amazed at the possibility that lies before me, made possible only when I loosen my grip on categories, on my likes and dislikes.
As I continue on, I near the elementary school and downshift as I approach a stop sign. I pause a moment, taking in and letting go the wild winter scene, before turning right to head down river on East 20.
by David LaFever