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Posts Tagged ‘death’

My favorite grove of quaking aspen.

When I was a junior in high school I read this poem:

To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart;–
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around–
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air–
Comes a still voice:–

Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground
Where thy pale form was laid with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix forever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.

Yet not to thine eternal resting place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world–with kings,
The powerful of the earth–the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,–the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods–rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,–
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.–Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,

Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashing–yet the dead are there;
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep–the dead reign there alone.
So shalt thou rest, and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glides away, the sons of men–
The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the grayheaded man–
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those who in their turn shall follow them.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

–William Cullen Bryant, “Thanatopsis” (1817)

This poem was supposedly written by Bryant when he was only seventeen years old, which is probably the reason why we juniors in high school were exposed to it. Here was someone who wrote a deep poem about man’s morality who was the same age we were.

But seventeen-year-olds don’t think of possibility of death. The world is just now being unveiled before them. It is scary and tumultuous, but never in our wildest imaginations did we consider death a possibility.

Most boys at that age are more about carpe diem. I was. The fetters  of childhood were slowly slipping away. Freedom in all its glories and horrors lay just ahead. Life seemed to be good and getting better.

As time as passed, I’ve matured a bit.

I’ve experienced more, and I’ve learned more.

I now more closely think of my own mortality than I did at that age.

My life is short. Sooner or later it will end.

And when it does end, what should happen?

Such a morbid thought.

But something I feel I must consider.

To not consider it is in some way a denial of my own finiteness.

I am not going to be here forever. The person I am will not always be.

When I stop being, I shall own nothing– not this blog, not any money, not even this body.

The elements that made me up are part of every living thing.

But I know that if I am interred in a casket, those elements will be sequestered, and this is one carbon sequestration I just can’t support.

My elements must return from whence they came.

But where and how?

***

My favorite trees are aspen.

The quaking aspen is among the first tall trees to colonize former pasture land. It grows very quickly and then dies, allowing the oaks, beech, and hickories a chance to take over. When they die, their elements sustain mast-bearing trees, whose nuts feed the squirrels, the deer, and the wild turkeys. Those creatures are in turn hunted by bobcats, foxes, the coyotes, and man.

That which made up the aspen eventually becomes part of the predators.

But I didn’t know these facts as a child.

I used to spend hours playing underneath the bigtooth aspen that my grandpa planted in the backyard.

A somewhat eccentric child, I enjoyed playing with leaves, twigs, and leaves. I would imagine that their weird shapes were the animals I had seen in nature shows. Some leaves became dogs. Others became zoological creations of my own mind.

Such was the case with the bigtooth aspen leaves. I imagined that they were some endangered creature that needed to be relocated if it ever stood a chance of survival.

I had seen a program about black rhinos and how conservationists captured them for relocation.

I imagined that the leaves of the bigtooth aspen were some creature as endangered as the black rhino. I cannot remember what I call them, but I do remember using my grandpa’s battery operated screwdriver to put drill eyes into the leaves to create this fantasy species.

But pretending to be a conservationist was not the only fun to be had around the bigtooth aspen.

In July, the nymphs of the  annual cicadas would rise from the earth and climb the gray aspen trunks. Their thoraxes would split apart and the winged adult would emerge.

I never saw this process happen.

But I do remember coming across the exoskeletons that were left behind.

Ugly things.

I learned that those creatures spent most of their lives underground, eating the juice from tree roots. They see no sunlight.

But for a few brief weeks, they become adults and ascend to the canopy.

There, they buzz and mate and lay eggs.

And then die.

The cicadas fascinated me every summer, but not nearly as much as the large black ants that marched up and down the aspen trunks.

They were pretty things and quite gentle for ants. I remember catching one and sadistically dropping it into a pissant mound. I thought I was doing a good thing. The black one would breed with the red pissants, and we’d have some interesting offspring. To my horror, the pissants tore the black one into many pieces.

I remember these long summer afternoons under the aspens. In the summer months, my hair grew longer. I went without a shirt, and the sun bronzed away my Germanic pallor.

But as things happen, these things end.

I grew up.

And the aspens grew taller and taller until they looked like they might prove a hazard if they fell.  Because of their great size, they would have easily fallen onto his house.

So they had to be cut down.

And when they were felled, the ants lost their homes,. and the cicadas lost their platform.

And I lost my favorite playground.

But by then I was a young adult.

I had long given up making creatures out of the aspen leaves. I tried to put those memories behind me. They were nothing more than childhood flights of fancy.

But as time as passed,  I think of those days. Just the trace scent of aspen in the air will take me back. Good times. Innocent times. Free times.

Those wondrous days of childhood discovery and creation.

***

It has only been recently that I’ve been able to listen to this song and fully grasp the meaning of its chorus:

Source.

The last part is important:

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
back to the garden

Although the garden is metaphorical, I know that I lived in the real garden.

I grew up in the wild ridgetops of Calhoun County, West Virginia, where the trees and birds and animals were my nearest neighbors.

I spent countless hours of my youth wandering the woods with an assortment of dogs– beagles, mutts, an elkhound, Jack Russells, a Dalmatian, and my first golden retrievers.

They would show me things that they sensed with their better ears and noses that my supposedly superior primate eyes would have missed.

A crouching fawn that breathed deeply with its black nostrils as I stopped to gaze into its dark eyes.

A stoic ruffed grouse or woodcock that would erupt from the thickets as soon as the dogs charged in.

Hairy-tailed moles that burrowed under the forest floor that were dug up with the big black paws of a golden-boxer that had been intently listening to their little forays just below the leaf litter.

A cottontail rabbit nest that the doe had hidden deep in the tall grass and lined with fur from her own belly.

My blue eyes would have missed these things, but the dogs never did.

Their senses opened up other parts of the world to me.

And that’s how I experienced my Eden– primate eyes seeing, canine nose smelling, canine ears hearing.

But as always happens, I grew up and moved away. The woods and the dogs became more remote to me.

But I do all I can to reconnect.

But the experiences hit me in a more distorted way than before.

It is no longer that purity of ecstasy that I once knew.

It may be gone forever.

***

I am billion-year-old carbon.

I am many elements.

And they can be part of other living things.

If I cannot return to my Eden, then I want my elements to become part of it.

I wish to be cremated.

I do not want to be placed in a box that will be buried in some churchyard cemetery, where I shall moulder in a grave for all eternity.

I do not want a monument with my name on it, for once I am dead, my name and the years I spent alive mean nothing.

A better tribute to my life is take my ashes and spread them on the floor of a grove of quaking aspen.

And then cover them with leaf litter.

Let me return to the aspen leaves.

Let my elements become part of those trees.

Let them grow tall.

And when they die, they will become part of the mast-bearing trees.

Which will feed and home the creatures of the forest.

And maybe someone will fell the trees and make use of the lumber.

Maybe a hunter will shoot the squirrels, the turkeys, or the deer that will have a little piece of my elements. And part of my elements will become part of humanity again.

In my death, I want to become part of life again.

When I die, I will no longer own these elements.

I want them to return from whence they came.

I want to be part of a forest.

I want those who loved me to think of me when they spend time there.

I want them to know that I am gone, but I am part of life.

As we all are.

It is the great delusion of Western Civilization that humans are separate from the rest of life.

It is not a delusion I wish to be part of when I’m gone.

Return me to the aspen leaves.

Let me be part of life when I die.

 

 

 

 

 

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