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On Life, Death, and Cold Porridge

I arrived at the work one morning and took a walk around the outside of the building. There, nestled in the soft grass beneath a large window I saw an Ovenbird. It was dead. A casualty of miscalculation and the unforgiving hardness of glass, this tiny bird lay there, eyes partially open, but clearly deceased. I paused a moment, feeling sadness at the loss of such a beautiful creature. I reached down and picked up its body and gently brushed debris from its wings. I held it up close taking in the perfect details of its feathers, its tiny beak, and delicate, pinkish legs and clasping feet. I marveled at the intricacy of the layering of feather upon feather, and the variety of shapes they took for their different functions. It continuously amazes me that such a tiny creature is strong, efficient and clever enough to withstand the elements, evade predation, find food and a mate, and reproduce. With the great dinosaurs as distant ancestors, this Ovenbird received the genetic benefits of the evolutionary fire that burned away flaws and excess.

The body of this bird is the result of that evolution. But what of its essence? Where did that animated spark of life go? It always catches my attention; that hard and sharp line between life and death. One second there is life, the next, it has passed. But to where or what? In my hand I held all the earthly possessions of this tiny bird.

Death is the one undeniable, binding contract we have in common with each other, and with all organisms. It is this inevitable defeat of the flesh that can teach us and advise us on how to live. Death, ever lurking, issues a call to adventure, encouraging us to live as though we had only one day left to walk the earth. This is not to say that every day ought to be full of selfish or reckless behavior. Perhaps life is simply to be celebrated in whatever form we live it, and how present we are to it. If you really watch the life and behavior of animals, you come to realize their wisdom and mastery of living life. In our human form, there are ordinary moments and extraordinary moments in the course of a lifetime, and all have gifts for us to appreciate. Whether ordinary or not, the true adventure is about how well we listen to the counsel of our heart and spirit each day.

The act of living, at least in society, is about compromise. There are survival benefits to be had by subscribing to the order of society that generally outweigh the trade-off of surrendering our hunter-gatherer existence. The danger we all face (to greater or lesser degree) is in the slow, creeping sort of compromise that turns one’s life into a cage. This is the great threat we all face.

Large and small, we slay our personal dragons daily. There are some more frightful to us than others, and some are not easily vanquished. We may find ourselves avoiding these monsters until they corner us.

In reality, the wilderness inside us can not be obliterated so easily. While compromise can be a noble path and can create a wonderful experience of life, so many of us have lost the strength to resist the continuous erosion of our inner wildness and connection to nature’s primal forces that govern all life. Many of us barely have time to plumb the depths of our heart’s unique wisdom. We are too busy. A gerbil-wheeling type of existence gives a false sense of accomplishment and depletes our energy. Where are we really going? Where should we be going? When we do get our answers, do we have enough energy to actually answer the call and embark on the journey?

The metal mind of modern society often tries to crush those that hear a different calling.  A healthy society needs individuals with true vision, not just a competitive desire to dominate others or climb corporate or government ladders. Not simply a caste of self-centered people questing for wealth, or notoriety, but people with a vision that is rooted in spirit. One that has a purpose beyond self. Life’s rewards should be taken gratefully and enjoyed and shared with others. If your survival needs are well met, then look to the greater community and find some way to serve others. It need not be a grand display – surely we’ve experienced the power of a smile from a kind stranger.

Mediocrity is the cold porridge we are offered every day. Some honestly don’t mind it, while others choke on it as they try to accept it. At different times in our life, when we simply can not swallow another spoonful, we hear the call. Some event takes place, or someone appears in our life as a herald to remind us to challenge mediocrity and fear. One may surrender to the system and become part of that system. For some, the rewards on this path are great. For others, the reward is slavery.

A group of wild turkeys stealthily emerging from the woods outside my window as I write reminds me that all this talk and analysis is a purely human trait. Wild creatures are wonderfully unencumbered by the distinctly human talent for worry, obsession, regret, and dark imaginings. Animals live their lives moment to moment, following their instincts and using inherited survival strategies. They fight when needed, but do not hate or carry resentment at being bested, nor do they gloat when victorious. Likely, they do not sit around pondering the meaning of life or how to transform their careers, or worry if they are “doing it right”. The mouse does not live life ashamed of his mousehood wishing he had instead been born a tiger. I’m fairly certain that chipmunks do not know that I find them most adorable and delightful to watch. They have no need for adoration or celebrity, though they are willing enough to accept a handout of peanuts.

I’ll admit that, being human, I have on occasion fretted away precious time worrying about things I have no control over. Usually, it is during these times that some aspect of nature offers a fresh perspective for me. A reminder that my time is better spent being productive and happy than by trying to out-maneuver all the unknowns of the future.

The relative importance of things sometimes gets skewed and distorted. The things around the home that I have not been able to attend to or fix can become goblins haunting my available free time, seeking to rob me of relaxation. Twisting and turning at night over snippets of conversations, events, or unfinished tasks from the day, I am sometimes left unrested when the sun rises on a fresh new day.

There is a rhythm and timing that nature follows, and it is perfect. The Sun does not rush through a Tuesday or a Saturday any faster than Wednesday or Sunday. Deer are not standing in snow and frigid cold sniveling about the complete lack of an acorn crop. They don’t add additional anguish or suffering to the situation. The food supply is what it is, and they accept it and deal with it. They might prefer to be warm and well fed, but I don’t think they are feeling sorry for themselves or are jealous of the chipmunk’s winter food cache.

Death in nature is often sensationalized and twisted by the media by playing to human neuroses and range of morality. With titles like “When Cute Animals Kill”, and “Tooth, Fang, and Claw”, or “Shark Week”, man’s fear of nature is magnified. For sure, to witness one wild animal successfully hunting another can be powerful and unsettling. Once I witnessed a Sharp-shinned hawk strike a Blue Jay and together they slammed into the side window at the museum, leaving a wide swath of blood across several panes of glass. I ran outside and saw the stunned hawk fly off leaving the poor jay mortally wounded. I stood there knowing there was nothing I could do – or should do – yet all my sensibilities were alarmed and horrified at what I had seen. Somewhere deep in our genetic memory we know that we are still a potential source of protein for other creatures.

There is a genius behind the seemingly inescapable cycle of eating and being eaten. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but it is so comprehensive on earth as to be a most critical element in the harmony of the world. I am not fond of it, though. I have at various times lived eating as a vegetarian (no animals), and as an omnivore (plants, animals, cookies, etc.). Ultimately, I was always eating some living thing that was intentionally redirected from its own purpose and needs to fulfill mine. No escape.

The constant and key lesson from all this death and eating that is taking place is transmutation – the constant changing of one form into another. Energy can neither be created or destroyed. Upon death, spirit and flesh separate to become part of the worlds from whence they originated. The flesh is consumed by many organisms and thus the ancient sun energy stored in the molecules of our body is released back into the great cycle of movement. Mouse flesh  may be transformed into a speeding Kestrel, or the birth of Red Fox kits. Many cultures around the world understand this and do not fret about death the way many of us westerners do. Death is a part of life and life is a part of death. They are both our teachers. But our culture has an imbalanced, distorted, and even warped relationship to death. The purity of death is lost. We come to fear death, to fear life, and often entertain ourselves with dark dreams and stories. The ancient mythologies from all cultures point the way to understanding how to live life in such a world. They tell us that there’s nowhere to run. We must face the truth and bravely embrace the paradox of our lives and the nature of life and death.

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