Monday, November 27, 2006

As in Life… There is much Beauty & Generosity in Death…

Click on photo to enlarge - a fallen Flicker - © 2006 jim otterstrom

Forty some years ago there was a Sycamore tree growing beside a stream along Old Topanga Canyon Road in the Santa Monica Mountains.

A friend and I, through the early hours of dawn, sat above the stream, hanging our legs off the edge of a large corrugated culvert, which guided a small tributary, beneath the pavement we had driven there on, into the stream below.

We languished there in the cool shade, for minutes running into hours, listening to the trickle of water falling between us into the creek below, watching flying insects, and birds, interact with one another in the exchanges that enable their lives and deaths.

Fluff drifted gently down from the surrounding trees to float away on the surface of the water in the soft morning light.

As we watched the drama of life unfolding there before us, this one particular Sycamore caught my eye. It had two trunks, one of which had tumbled over, and was lying across the stream.

The part of the tree still standing was in full summer leaf, healthy, vibrant, and full of life. But the fallen trunk, which had obviously been down for some time, lay decomposing along the sandy banks.

Upon closer observation, I became entranced with the teaming complexity of life being supported by the rotting fibers of the dead part of the tree. Young plants sprouted glorious green shoots from rich black compost, while shimmering, crawling, slithering insects of myriad description---clamoring, tunneling, over and through this visibly wholesome detritus---searched for nutrition, shelter, and procreation.

Sensitized that morning, to the intricately beautiful details of the non-human, after a long night spent in wonder and celestial celebration atop the jagged spine of the Santa Monica’s, I was experiencing, possibly, my most life-changing epiphany.

There was as much life in the dead part of the tree as in the living (& certainly more diversity), and I stood there for a long time, taking my first clear look into death, and what I’ve come to understand as everlasting life.

Since that fine day of my well-spent reckless youth, I no longer fret over the possibility of roasting eternally in the hell-fires of some control-freak God’s vindictive damnation, because I realized right then, that, like everything else, I’m simply going to metamorphose back into the wondrous matrix of the cosmos, where we continue our journey together for eternity, whatever that is.

There will be no Pearly Gates for me, no bean-counting Saint Peter with his ledger of sins and good deeds, no streets paved with cold hard Gold, nor flaming red Devil with his fork up my ass, and no reunion with long lost humans, family or otherwise.

My re-union will be in the giving back of my body---to the living Earth, as sustenance for the continuance of life, and, in the spirit of my consciousness, freed from the reductionism of being human---as my molecules, atoms, and energy once again wander & mingle among the elements of universality.

How do I know this?

I carefully observe the nature around me, seeing that I’m simply a tiny part of something very huge and complex, and I have faith in what I see.

Isn’t faith what your religion is based upon?

Now I’m in no hurry to die! I very much enjoy life as a human being, but the thought of my death doesn’t frighten me either, it’s purely the reality awaiting me when the days of Jim are over.

We are but cosmic dust, charged and electric, yet look around at all the beauty forged from the combination, and evolution, of these forces during the eons which have led to our lives today.

We hear much talk of “a better world in the hereafter” or “everlasting life in heaven above” from the churches and religions of our time, the same religions that would separate, anthropocentrically, our bodies from our souls, and our species from the rest of nature.

But anthropocentricity---the regarding of man as the central fact or final aim of the universe---is a selfish, ignorant, narcissistic notion, that, in life, deprives us of seeing, and fully enjoying, that we are an integral part of something much greater and more magical than ourselves.

Even in death, we humans continue this arrogant selfishness by having our bodies embalmed or cremated, entombed in wood, concrete or steel, thus depriving the earth of our rich life-giving nutrients for as long as we possibly can.

When I put a dead plant or animal on my dinner plate, I’m thankful for the bountiful generosity of nature, and the exchange of energy between life-forms, which allows this whole thing to continue and evolve. We are all part of the food chain.

And when I see a dead animal or a fallen tree, decomposing by the roadside---or along a trail in the wild---I see the even-handed generosity of nature, allowing with every loss, other lives to thrive and grow.

My body, soul, species, and the nature around me, including the whole of the cosmos, are all of one, and I have no fear of rejoining that larger self.

When that time does arrive, I’d like nothing more than to become healthful nutritious worm food.

Yes, these are thoughts of death, but to me, they’re not depressing or melancholy.

They are thoughts about our place in nature, about harmony, balance, and exchange.

They're the result of long-studied observations, and my deeply-felt optimism concerning the bio-centric, egalitarian laws of nature---and the interdependence, resilience, and self-perpetuating tendancy toward diversity inherent to life itself---in its passionate desire to persist and to flourish.

But these are probably not very welcome, comforting, or even fathomable observations to the anthropocentric, who would have the world, or rather, the entire universe, revolving around themselves.

Click on photo to enlarge - the decaying shell of a Carp

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Blogger Paul said...

I must say that I agree with you. My wife and I have discussed this subject and have checked into burial at sea and other options that don't involve cremation (a waste of energy) or embalming (grossly unnatural) or a casket (a waste of resources that hinder nature's recycling). We're discussing options that, hopefully, we won't need for many, many years.

7:42 PM  
Blogger arcolaura said...

Beautiful rant-hymn there, Jim. Amen.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Sicilian said...

I believe you are correct. . . . we shall return to the dust. . . . I don't think St. Peter is waiting with a box of chocolates either. . . however. . . there will be a reunion of our spirits with our maker. . . .
For me. . . . that is the prize.

2:38 AM  
Blogger Madcap said...

Seems I'm allowed to comment this morning, no word verification last night...

Very Novemberish. My friend made a video about how every molecule has been combined with every other molecule through the ages and ages, that everything that was still is, and will be.

It's the thought of the inner "me" wafting around that gives me the heebie-jeebies. Can't get over it!

4:37 AM  
Blogger Tree said...

What a beautiful and profound post. Thank you so much for this. I truly believe that learning to not fear death is freedom of the most profound depth.

6:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you ever looked into Green or Natural Burial? I've hear tell about some places that will wrap your body in a burial shroud and dig a hole in a forest or wherever, and put you there and give your relatives GPS coordinates for where you are. You then biodegrade back into nature from whence you came. Interesting concept. I thought about it myself.

9:38 AM  
Blogger K Allrich said...

Beautiful. The other night, my husband and I were standing outside looking at the moon hanging in the evening sky, drinking in the high desert stars, awestruck, and I said to him, Why isn't this enough?

9:42 AM  
Blogger Deb said...

What a beautiful, thoughful piece to read here on this gray November day.
I wonder how human society came up with such far-fetched death myths anyway.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog. We've been working very hard and diligently on finishing our basement and I haven't been blog hopping in quite a while. Coming back here after a long absence is like Christmas morning for me. Getting to read your very poetic thoughts and open your beautiful photographs is my perfect present!

It's quite ironic you blogged about this topic because Marty and I were just talking about death and natural burials. I think that it is difficult for most people to see the beauty in death. They have been raised to see it as morbid and sad. People just do not want to think about their body decaying and rotting away to nothing. But death is life and there is nothing to fear. Fear of dying has to be the biggest reason why people are religious. The after life, heaven, eternal peace, forgiveness, etc. If someone can come to terms with death, religion is unecessary.

I have printed out a long list of items I want to take care of by the end of January such as my medical treatment directive when I become incapacitated. This was just added to my list. It's very important for me to know that I will return to the earth and that my family won't try to embalm me and stick me in a coffin. I'm not sure what the laws are pertaining to natural burials however, I did a quick search earlier and found a couple of natural burial cemeteries. They perfer you to not be embalmed, to be buried in a cotton shroud or a biodegradeable coffin (cardboard or something similar), and they have no tombstones or headstones. If you would like, they can mark your burial site with the planting of a tree. I do hope that this catches on and becomes more popular. In life, most Americans selfishly take and deplete. It would be very ironic if their death became their one gift to our precious Mother Earth.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...


4:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A new voice here. I've been following your blog for some time now, and this post is yet again a wonderful gift. Very Taoist.

I want to dance around and shout: "He's got it! He's got it!"

7:50 AM  
Blogger robin andrea said...

Reading this is like reading a page out of my own thinking. I couldn't agree more, jim. I really appreciate you writing it all down. A perfect manifesto.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Talín said...

Fotos impresionantes. Saludos desde España

9:54 AM  
Blogger pissed off patricia said...

And that is the reason when one of my pets die, I bury it and plant a plant on it's grave. My pet lives on in some way as its body will eventually become part of that plant. The blooms on the plant are in memory of and in gratitude to my pet.

I admire your writing style and thank you so much for visiting Morning Martini.

3:42 AM  
Blogger Tanya Kristine said...

How lovely. i never even thought of death in this way. I think i'll do that with Bears ashes too. use them to nourish a tree i'll plant just for him.

and i want a lemon tree planted over me when i die...i love lemons :)

11:09 AM  
Blogger Tanya Kristine said...

and what a lovely writer. it's that good mountain air that makes your thoughts flow so nicely. lucky.

11:09 AM  
Blogger tansy said...

so 35, i've finally been able to shake that inner guilt/fear my christian upbringing forced upon me. i have been pagan/pantheit for several years but only recently have i have some similar revelations. i can't tell you how freeing it is! (but then, you probably know)

when greg dies, he wants to be put out in the wild for the animals to feast upon. i'm still trying to figure out how i'm going to swing that one! (provided i'm still alive when that happens).

as for me, no caskets. just throw me in a hole in the ground.

1:23 PM  
Blogger Birsen Şahin said...

When my pet dies, I'll dig a grave and put it into it. I say to my kids to do the same for me, as we all belong to earth and to nature where we came from.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Ontario Wanderer said...

Well written! 'nuff said.

2:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Just put my body in the ground
Don't plant no headstone on my grave.
Just plant an acorn and pass the whiskey
And you'll know I've been saved

The seal the circle and dance and sing
Let my spirit pass through the ring
Don't you worry, don't you even mourn
'Cause you know I'll be reborn."

From a Pagan song.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Lené Gary said...

Jim, I'm with Robin Andrea on this one. I felt like you were writing my thoughts, as well. I was nodding as I read.

You've done such a beautiful job communicating about the cycle of life and death, and our place in nature. Thank you for sharing your writing with us.

Much love to you and Peggy. So glad you're in this world and sharing your perspective.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

It's really nice to know that so many of you appreciated this post.

And it is good to know there's an actual 'Natural Eco-friendly Burial' movement, so to speak.

But, in what I've seen thus far it's kind of an expensive new-agey funeral home boutique fad sort of thing right now.

I remember reading about nature-writer Ed Abbey's death in Albquerque, New Mexico. He died the writing shack behind his house with a few good friends present. On of them was a doctor who signed the official Death Certificate, and then his friends wrapped him in an indian blanket, put him in the back of a pick-up, and took him to a secret pre-arranged remote spot in the desert that was sacred to Cactus Ed.

We should all be blessed with friends like that, and live in a state other than California, which has far too many regulations concerning the certification, handling, processing and disposition of the dead.

I would like to be buried in my yard, beneath one of the Giant Sequoia's that I planted over 20 years ago. But there's not much likelihood of that happening unless I'm cremated first, and somebody places my ashes there illegally. And, even at that, most my nutrients would have gone up in smoke...

I thank you all for your thoughtful comments, it seems we have as much work to do in solving the problems of how we die, as in how we live.

As Eleutheros quoted from an old Pagan song...

"Just put my body in the ground
Don't plant no headstone on my grave.

Just plant an acorn and pass the whiskey
And you'll know I've been saved.

Seal the circle and dance and sing,
Let my spirit pass through the ring."

I left off the last line of that song because I can't say that, "I", Jim, will be reborn, but something surely will be borne of my remains, and that is where the goodness lies.


11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim:"I left off the last line of that song because I can't say that, "I", Jim, will be reborn"

Of course you won't be. "Jim" is just a role you are playing while you are here, a part in a play.

When the play is over and you are leaving the stage to have a few at the cast party before auditioning for your next part, why would you continue to play the role of "Jim".

9:03 AM  
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