We Are Here To Feed Each Other

 

Someday I am going to die. Someday so are you. Someday both you and I will feed - even more than we do now, through our sloughed skin, through our ecretions, through other means - those communities who now feed us. And right now, amidst all this beauty, all this life, all these others - sedge, willow, dragonfly, redwood, spider, soil, water, sky wind, clouds - it seems not only ungenerous, but ungrateful to begrudge the present and future gift of my own life to these others without whom neither I nor this place would be who we are, without home neither I nor this place would even be - Derrick Jensen from The Myth of Human Supremacy (2016, p. 15)

 Burned manzanita on Bald Mountain at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

Burned manzanita on Bald Mountain at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

My birthday present to myself last year was a four day workshop on Death Midwifery and Home Funerals. I had contemplated the program for a few years, but was compelled to make the leap after a summer of disturbed insomnia. Waking each night at 2am, my mortality would be hovering inches from my face. “Ah good” it would say. “Now that you’re up, let’s chat.”.

I am not a stranger to death. Every year, from October 31- November 2nd, my family celebrates mortality, by honoring ancestors (arranging photos on an altar, cooking them special foods, sitting with them by candlelight), with my birthday falling right in the middle, on November 1st. I have been privy to the passing of many animals, as well as family members, and my home is decorated with skulls I have rescued from roadkill. When my daughter was 3, her own realization of death surfaced, and I sat and rocked her by a river and taught her the song “Breaths”by Sweet Honey and the Rock,

Listen more often to things than to beings

Tis' the ancestors' breath

When the fire's voice is heard

Tis' the ancestor's breath

In the voice of the waters

Those who have died have never, never left

The dead are not under the earth

They are in the rustling trees

They are in the groaning woods

They are in the crying grass

They are in the moaning rocks

The dead are not under the earth

 

Given my willingness to cultivate a healthy relationship with the river’s end, the dread that gripped me in the middle of the night left me addled. Perhaps it had to do with the recent death of my father, or that, at 45, the second half of life suddenly seemed quite short. My days began to fill with anxiety, and I even started to wonder if I was having some kind of premonition…was I about to buy the farm? This went on for two months until one day I had an epiphany: Death was looking for me. Not because I was next on the list, but because I had kept death at a distance with a ten foot conceptual pole. I needed to confront my personal mortality, and the place to begin was my fear.

The truth was that I was experiencing Thanatophobia, or death anxiety. As psychiatrist Irvin Yalom (2008) said, I was one  “whose family and culture have failed to knit the proper protective clothing for them to withstand the icy chill of mortality.” (p. 117).  Having rejected the religion of my childhood, understanding that death anxiety is the mother of all religions (p. 5), I had adopted the approach of Carl Sagan (1997) in an attempt to face Death honestly,  

Despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. (p. 215)

I had hoped that a staring contest with Death would instill bravery and familiarity, like exposure therapy. Turns out, Death doesn’t blink and I had more need for pretty stories than I let on.

The one pretty story I feel certain of, actually, has a lot of evidence. I witness it daily, just a few steps outside my door in rural Sonoma County. We rent a tiny home on a horse ranch, with a garden bigger than our house. To nourish this garden, we add a mixture of horse manure and composted food scraps and waste from the chicken coop. Two large compost piles contained by recycled wood pallets is where the magic happens. Insects, microbes (and the heat they generate) break down the organic matter into gorgeously rich soil - soil that grows a majority of food for my family in the warmer months, and a year round supply of flowers, medicinal herbs and native plants. I have taken the corpses of roadkill and buried them in the center of these piles. Nine months later I remove beautiful whole skeletons, picked clean of mortal remains.

Untitled.jpeg

The whole of the natural world operates in this way of giving and taking, of death and regeneration. With one exception - humans. In our fear and revulsion of decay and death we have sanitized our experience to the point of toxicity. Yet this is a fairly recent development.

Each year we drain corpses of bodily fluids and replace them with enough formaldehyde-based embalming fluid to collectively fill 1.25 olympic swimming pools. Before formaldehyde, it was arsenic, which became commonplace during the Civil War as a way to keep bodies fresh enough to transport them home to their families. Tests done on soil and water near cemeteries from the 1800s are contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic. Formaldehyde has a shorter half life, but it is considered a hazardous chemical by the FDA and is carcinogenic. As Caitlin Doughty, director of Undertaking LA and champion for The Good Death explains in her TEDx Talk:

The funeral industry promotes the idea of human exceptionalism. The funeral industry will protect your dead body by offering to sell your family a casket made of hardwood or metal, with a rubber sealant. At the cemetery on the day of burial, that casket will be lowered into a large concrete or metal vault. We’re wasting all of these resources - concrete, metal, hardwoods, hiding them in vast underground fortresses. When you choose burial at the cemetery, your dead body is not coming anywhere near the dirt that surrounds it. Food for worms, you are not. Next the industry will sanitize your body through embalming. The chemical preservation of the dead. Human decomposition is perfectly safe. The bacteria that causes disease is not the same as the bacteria that causes decomposition. Embalming is a cheat code pretending that death and decay are not a natural end for all organic life on this planet.

Since the industrial revolution, cremation has been touted as the preferred modern solution to death. While it is far cheaper than conventional burial, its contribution to climate change, as well as the volatilized mercury from amalgam fillings entering the atmosphere , makes it less environmentally friendly than it would seem. The bone fragments that are returned to the family are also completely sterile, so the body’s contribution back to the Earth is negated. Even if you place Gramp’s ashes in the garden, he still won’t be coming up as carrots and little sweet peas.

One of our many modern agricultural ills is soil depletion and pollution from fertilizer run off. We eat resources in the form of food but we don’t recycle it back to the fields. Obviously it would be outrageous to our western sensibilities to suggest that we begin to return human waste, both excrement and bodily decomposition, back to the land. Yet Homo Sapiens, as one of the most populous species, have a responsibility to return what we take. From the way we use precious water to flush away our manure, to our production of materials that are not biodegradable and often toxic, to the sequestering away of the body after death, we humans take our seats at the banquet hall, not understanding that our job is to eventually be the main course. You fed me. Now I feed you.

fullsizeoutput_24d.jpeg

The Death Midwifery workshop was rich and challenging. Should you die (and believe me, you will) I feel confident in helping you navigate all aspects. From writing an advance directive, to planning your home funeral and comforting you when you are nearing the threshold, to assisting your family in washing, dressing and preserving your corpse and filling out your death certificate, I am prepared to walk those badlands. I entered the training imagining I had found my people and my new calling. However, I exited on my last day possibly more terrified than when I had gone in. Four days of sitting with the inevitable had unfortunately not included any time for personal processing or honoring the grief that was stirred up. 

I remained at a stalemate with death, the nightly “chats” continued and I wondered if I had just paid a lot of money to torture myself. It was during one of my daily walks that I finally arrived at the missing connection on my own.

I watched oak leaves in the slanted autumn light, spiraling in their final dance, falling from branch to ground. I heard the golden crowned sparrows singing Summer is gone and the orange shafted flickers calling to each other across the pasture. The grass had dried to brown thatch on the fields and as I anticipated the return of the rains, I felt my love for this life and this Earth. I brought this love to my shivering fear. Then I unexpectedly burst into tears.

I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of being denied my reinstatement. Dying indoors, being embalmed, trapped in a coffin, contained in a cemetery - this is the true death. I want to die outside, with breeze on my skin, the trees above and the birds as my witness. I want my mortal coil to unwind as I rot, to be carried away in the bellies of other beings, to be scattered, molecule by molecule, across the countryside. Returning to, and nourishing, the cycle of life…it’s the one pretty story I need.

I began to research other options…just how easy or difficult is it to be allowed to decompose naturally? Fortunately, it’s never been a better time to die and request an alternative arrangement. Home funerals (or, how we took care of our own except for the last 150 yrs) are rising in popularity, as are green burial options. At its most basic, green burial is placing an un-embalmed corpse in a wicker casket or cardboard box and burying it in an unlined, shallow grave, to become worm food. In some places, like Crestone, Colorado, you can have a home funeral and then be transported by your community to an outdoor pyre, with your grandchildren laying logs on the fire. Or perhaps you’d be interested in a warm bath? Called Aquamation, this is water cremation, where a mix of 95% water and 5% potassium hydroxide turn your remains into liquid fertilizer (pulverized bone is still returned to your family). There is conservation burial, where you can be returned to the earth in a natural preserve, aiding ecological restoration and wildlife habitat. My personal favorite is the brain child of Katrina Spade, CEO and founder of Recompose (formerly The Urban Death Project). She has developed a system to gently compost human corpses…the resulting soil is returned to the family, city parks, gardens and conservation areas. 

Was that an icy wind you just felt up your back? Is the concept of disincarnation giving you the willies? Perhaps death is looking for you too. If there’s one solid take-away I want to leave you with, it’s the desperate need our culture has to change its relationship to living and dying. What if we lived our lives like we were going to die at the end of them? What if we held that awareness close, and let ourselves feel the emotional diversity that stirs within? The way to value life, the way to feel compassion for others, the way to love anything with greatest depth is to be aware that these experiences are destined to be lost. (Yalom, p. 147).

I still believe in the words of Carl Sagan. I also think that our death denial and lack of emotional intelligence about grief is causing us to take the earth into the grave with us. To quote Caitlin Doughty again,  

Will changing the way we bury our dead solve climate change? No. But it will make bold moves as how we see ourselves as citizens of this planet. If we can die in a way that is more humble and self aware, I believe that we stand a chance.
fullsizeoutput_25e.jpeg

 

FOR FURTHER CONTEMPLATION

Caitlin Doughty (undertakingla.com) is a wealth of resources, including two bestselling books and a YouTube channel.

Katrina Spade and her work can be found at recompose.life 

Staring at the Sun by Irvin Yalom is a most excellent resource on the topic of death anxiety.

homefuneralalliance.org 

greenburialcouncil.org

 

References:

Jensen, Derrick. (20116). The Myth of Human Supremacy. Seven Stories Press. New York.

TEDMED. A burial practice that nourishes the planet. www.ted.com. Presentation by Caitlin Doughty, 2016. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/caitlin_doughty _a_burial_ practice_ that_nourishes_the_planet

Sagan, Carl. (1997). Billions and Billions: Thoughts on life and death at the brink of the millennium. Random House. New York.

Yalom, Irvin D. (2008) Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the terror of death. Jossey Bass. San Francisco

 

 

Taking the Auspices

This was originally published in January of 2017.

auspices hawk.jpeg

For weeks it had been raining, the ground saturated and the water unable to sink in, not dissimilar to the news that Trump was about to be sworn in as #45. The drought in Northern California, after five years of desiccating dryness, was finally over. Winter still skulked around in full stride, yet even on the coldest mornings the coming warmth of spring could be discerned. The grass was growing just a little bit faster, the robins and bluebirds had returned, skunks flashed their white stripes under a Cancer moon and of course, there were the crows. 

They had been trying to get our attention for several days before we finally woke up enough out of our anthropocentric self absorption to realize it. Whenever we went outside, there they were, loud and insistent. Like all animals who interact with humans on purpose, they have endless patience for how thick headed we can be, and if necessary will go to great lengths to get their message across. In this case, it took them circling the house and landing on the fence just outside the kitchen window, where they would peer in with a pointed intention and then swoop around again. Finally it dawned on me. I stuck my head out the window and asked, "Have you come back for peanuts?". To which they responded by settling in the nearest tree with quiet satisfaction. For the past two years in the early spring, I have fed a flock of crows a daily serving of peanuts, in a desire to satiate all being's need for tasty snacks, and also to deter them from going after baby bluebirds. They leave in the summer and fall, and because I had always offered without being asked, I had no idea that they actually would ask. Back in our routine of Mornings at the Peanut Diner, the incessant cawing has stopped and so the season begins to turn. 

auspices crows.jpeg

Engaging in conversation with the intelligence of the land is my vital practice, born of love and connection that breeds commitment. I walk my watershed to learn every bit of news, to witness the smallest of shifts and tiniest of delights. I do it also to temper the outrage that feels like a punch in the gut. It is hard to blow on the tinder bundle of fierce joy and dedication with the wind knocked out of you by the specter of hate, racism and misogyny. I walk, to learn a different kind of news, so that along with things like Grab ‘Em By The Pussy and Let’s Build The Wall, I am also being kept abreast of what emerges from under the decaying leaves of autumn's carpet, of how high the lambs can jump today and if I'm lucky, to catch a glimpse of, as The Talmud says, an angel bending over a blade of grass whispering "grow, grow". I know it is not enough, not in such fragile and dangerous times, and the juxtaposition of "This administration is lethal to all life on Earth" along with delighting in a circle of crumpley elf saddle mushrooms is not an easy marriage. Also, welcome to the new (not) normal

I'm taking "nature lover" out of my own personal vernacular and replacing it with things like The Human Animal at Home and Securely Attached with the Wild. I find the idea that one is, or is not, a nature lover, bizarre. As do I the notion that people who enjoy being outside or experience communion with plants and animals are either 1. Special or 2. Weird. I'd like to pose this question: If you don't consider yourself a nature lover, or if this seems like a foreign concept to you, isn't that interesting? You Are Nature. Our species evolved with, and has lived for most of it's existence in, intimate relationship with the untamed and unmolested entirety of creation. These artificial habitats of suburbs and cities that keep us in severed and separate enclosures, they are brand new on the scene,. But you my love...you are ancient, carrying the mystery of the fire lit circle of tribal companionship deep in your interdependent DNA. You belong here, you were made for this Earth and feeling at home is normal.

If you have lived most of your life kidnapped and in exile from this sense of home, this is also, unfortunately, normal. We are at this unprecedented intersection in the arc of the human species where we have never lived so far removed from balance and rhythm with terrestrial ecosystems and yet there has never been a greater need to come back home as strangers in a strange land. To take back up the mantle of garden caretakers. To relearn the choreography in the dance of life. 

auspices lambs.jpeg

The morning of the inauguration, I pulled over to the curb, flagged down by a friend, a mother in my daughter's class. I thought she probably wanted to coordinate our plan to meet up at the Women's March, but instead what she asked was, "Did you see the fox?"

I hadn't. We take the back roads to school, and after drop off, I return by the small highway through town. It was on this highway that he lay, sprawled out across the entire lane, the traffic in both directions unfazed. Just as I guided my wheels to the side, the public radio station that was playing softly in the background announced our new president. I shut it off, and shut the door, as my friend pulled up behind me. I walked into the road, irrespective of the oncoming cars.  

Naturalist Henry Beston (1928) calls animals "other nations” (p. 25), and I think it’s a perfect description for the shock I experience when I look into the eyes of a coyote, daring my flashlight in the dark, or pick up the oiled and flapping red-eyed Grebe on the beach or become hypnotized by the swaying neck of a giraffe at the SF Zoo. There is an invisible threshold that is met but not often crossed when we come back into contact with a wildness that is whole. It's not that this other being before me is somehow foreign or unknowable, but that there is an equally wild part of myself that leaps forth and says Yes and Me Too and I know You. An inherent and vital part whose emergence slaps us awake, out of the satiated and complacent nap of domesticity. It is in those moments that I know the place of the human animal,  and I know how deeply and desperately I love all life, including my own.

I walked into the road, and I did not feel concerned, because what needed to be done was apparent to everyone who could see me, and the fact that it was not being done was suddenly appalling. The cars slowed down. Time slowed down. The fox was beautiful and gory, I wanted to look at it for the rest of my life and I couldn't bear to look another minute. I move roadkill all the time, so I knew it would be easy, yet every time is the hardest yet. I grasped the stocking feet in my hand, and slithered the fox and its organs across the lane and onto the grass near the edge of the swollen stream. I could feel the tension in the traffic rise as the fox's body sank with relief and was received by the ground. It was time for me to move along and quit interfering with the important business of important people doing their important things. Yet I still took a moment, and I let my heart fill with all my love, regret, rage and gratitude. I placed my hands in prayer in front of my chest, and bowed. Then I gave a thumbs up to my sweet friend, still in her role as a sacred witness, got back into my truck and returned to the fray.

What do I augur from a dead fox in the road? How do I talk about any of this in a way that is inclusive, that can draw in someone who is also of another nation, across the great divide? My neighbor and yet with politics and sensibilities foreign to my own heart? What is the way to prove an interconnection that is obvious to me but constantly denied by the greater culture?

I can begin to try by telling you about the vultures, the ones I saw later that morning when, emotionally blown out, I took to the fields for my daily walk. It was blustery, the rain clouds having drawn themselves up into puffy clusters as they reconfigured and strategized about the next downpour. Under the raised ceiling of the sky came the turkey vultures, pumping their wings once or twice to catch the updrafts, circling and wheeling around the blue grey together. There were seven or eight of them, and they returned every so often, passing above my head. Turkey Vultures are masters of patience, cooperation and faith. They can survive on very little, and they do not hunt. Instead, they wait for  death to come to some other, and while eventually it always does, they cannot rely on the timing of a next meal. So they conserve by floating in circles, or letting the sun warm their wings in the morning rather than expending their own energy. They are entirely at the whim of the ebb and flow of life, reminders of the possibilities available in the transmutation of death into life. 

TV.jpeg

Everything on Earth is food for something else, everything participates in the taking and giving of energy that involves the taking and giving of energy by something else. It's a truly ingenuous system that, when it runs uninterrupted like it did for millennia, works unfailingly. There has been a lot of effort by the human animal to step out of that reciprocal relationship, whether by creating synthetic materials that we can utilize but nothing else can (like plastics that are not biodegradable) or by growing food for ourselves in a way that ensures we are the only ones invited to the feast. Our conventional agriculture, with its use of synthetic fertilizers, starves the microbiome in the soil. Pesticides poison and kill organisms that are food for bigger animals. 

This endeavor of separation has been a laudable experiment, one that was worth trying, for the promise of comfort and convenience. However, we are now at the end of that experiment, and have taxed our inherited and common resources to the core. The old way is dying, the dream of exponential capitalistic growth has reached the horizon and plummeted off the cliff. It is time to take sustenance from what is ending and compost the rest, finding the updraft in search of the new way forward.

I could blame the lack of wildlife corridors for the fox in the road. I can blame people for their habitat disruption that makes it possible for mesopredators (a mid-sized animal that both predates and is predated upon) to thrive in such numbers that they have to go to farther extremes to survive. I could blame the hunters in the 1800s who brought the European Red Fox to California for shooting sport. Pointing the finger, it also lands on our haste and waste, our addiction to fossil fuels, our human centric short sightedness that does not lend credence to the other lives that share this Earth with us. My finger can wag at the NeoCons, at the racists and bigots, at the dudes who "roll coal" on our backroads. Sometimes I do. I rage, weep and feast on righteousness. Then I find nuance and come back down to this mess. This Mess that we all are in.

There was a counter protestor at the Women's March in Santa Rosa. Solitary, he stood silently against a wall holding a sign that read, "White male. I voted for Trump. Pro Family.". I started to walk towards him, throwing the words, "I'm going to say hi" back over my shoulder, to the confusion of my friends. Someone else got there before me, started berating him about his sign, just what did he mean anyway? My group was moving on with the current of the crowd. I gently touched his arm to get his attention. He turned his eyes to me, cold, bemused, defensive. I said, "I just wanted to say hi. I see you here and you are part of our community. I'm glad you came.". Flustered, he scoffed back to me, and the person harassing him, "Thanks for saying that. Yep, this is about the first amendment..." and then I was running to catch up with my friends.

The dramatic appearance of the dead fox just as Trump was sworn in as President makes for a bad omen, and if I was an Etruscan Augur, looking for messages from the divine, I would take it as such. But instead, I'm taking the auspices that we are all in this together. That things are a fucking mess, interwoven and tangled, dropped stitches and holes and mislaid directions and conflicting patterns. That you, and I, the dead fox in the road, the vultures in the sky, the marchers in the street and the trolls on the internet (including the one in the White House), we are all part of this. All of us are complicit. It is painful and confusing, our communication highways are filled with potholes and land mines, the times seem full of peril. Taking it all as is, I am freed from flailing around to actually divining where struggle and resistance can bear forward motion through the dark.

The next day the fox was gone, dragged off in the night to be someone's meal, eventually to be returned to the soil microbiome, supporting new life. I read the signs of natural phenomena and augur that with death comes rebirth, that breakdown leads to the chaos of compost, that from the ashes, arises the phoenix.

fox.jpeg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reference: 

 

Beston, Henry (1928). The Outermost House: A year of life on the great beach of Cape Cod. Doubleday. New York.