Purchase Songs of the Dead
Read more

Excerpt from Songs of the Dead

Do Not Fear Life or Death (p. 204)

From chapter "The Land"

What is it like to be a forest? It is to be alive. It is to be filled with aliveness, to be ablaze with aliveness. It is to be rooted in place, like a tree, and it is to move, like bees, like bears, like spiders who throw out webs as sails and travel around the world. It is to be connected one to the others in spiderwebs of memories, parasites, nutrients, hitchhikers, neighborly and nonneighborly relationships, time, joys, sorrows, regrets, anticipations, deaths, births, hatchings, germinations, eatings, sex, dreams. It is to be living the same blazing, burning, comforting, joyful, exhilarating, calming dream. It is to carry all these lives and all these deaths and all this sun and soil and decomposition and growth and disease and all these memories in one’s bones, and in the marrow of one’s bones, and in the woody fiber of one’s bones, and in the nectar of one’s bones, and in the breath of wind of one’s bones, and in the dragonfly-red pigment of one’s bones. It is the marriage of hitchhiker and hitchhiker and bone and blood and memory and wood and soil.

That’s the barest start.

I see a white crab spider sit motionless on a white flower, waiting to bring death to some bee who lands here, waiting to feed. I see two ants carry a dead grub presumably toward their home. I see a leaf fall from a bush, and I see another bush bright and bulbous with galls. I see wood dust from boring beetles, and somewhere in the distance I hear the rapid rapping of a woodpecker searching for a meal.

I’m as surrounded by death as I am by life, and suddenly I’m having trouble seeing where one begins and the other ends. I even start to think that one may not be so different from the other, but then I reach to scratch a tickling on my leg and accidentally come away with a dead spider on my hand. This brings me right back to knowing that there is a stark difference between life and death: moments before, the spider was alive, and now she is irrevocably dead.

To be a forest, I think—or feel, or am told—is to realize, to be, that contradiction: of life and death melting together on one hand, and separated by a chasm on the other. And of course it’s not just life and death that are both miscible and immiscible. The same is true for everything: where does the bee start and the wind end? Where does the tree start and the boring beetle end? Where do the bush, the gall wasp, and the gall each begin and end? To be a bee, or spider, or tree, or woodpecker, or wild human being, is to have entirely different relationships with life and death and each other than all of those relationships I have learned. Life and death—and all others—are partners with whom we dance from beginning to end and back to beginning.

It suddenly seems clear to me—and I’m embarrassed it took a bumblebee, or anyone, really, to point this out to me—that if you don’t fear life, and instead are present to life, as it’s clear that bumblebees, spiders, sweet clovers, ponderosa pine don’t fear life and are present to life; if you don’t perceive yourself as living in a cage, because you’re not living in a cage, you’ll feel more intensely, you’ll be more intensely, you’ll be more alive. There’s a reason we call them wild, and there’s a reason the ground squirrel chewed her way out of the cage when I was young. Most of us, I think, would have sat down and tried to minimize our discomfort—through drugs, alcohol, relationships, television, sex, jobs, buying, religion, power, and most of all rationalization—and soon would have told ourselves and anyone who would listen that our cage is no cage, that in fact there is no cage at all. And we would attempt to kill all those who try to show us otherwise. Thus the murder of the wild.

It suddenly seems equally clear to me that if you don’t fear death in the same way we fear death—that is, call death an enemy to be defeated or transcended, rather than someone who walks beside us to the very end and with whom we converse one way or another (and who has much to teach us) for our entire lives—then you will both live and die radically differently. I don’t mean you will never feel terror, never run away, never lose your nerve. But if death is simply (and complexly) death, and if all of your life is an ecstatic (and mundane) adventure, and if all of your life has the significance and vividness of a long and splendid (and sometimes mundane) dream, then you will not spend your precious days and nights in a state of anxiety, but will perceive your own approaching death as a continuation of that lifelong conversation. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you won’t fight or run from those who would kill you, but the fight or flight is transformed from the grim desperation of refugees fleeing some implacable oppressor to a free and wild and willing being encountering a new (and old) challenge, whether that challenge is to fight off and kill (or avoid, or placate) a grizzly bear with your hands, feet, and wits; or to die with the grace and dignity with which you have lived. To encounter a grizzly—or the infirmity of old age— under these circumstances would be not merely terrifying, but now also an exhilarating adventure.

The question becomes: Can I do it?