When a plant in my garden dies, I commit it to compost, where it is reduced to the separate compounds and individual elements that once interacted in the chemistry of life to form its being. Now that chemistry reconfigures itself as the plant is undone and converted into fungi, earthworms, pillbugs, and slugs during the process of decomposition. Somewhere in time, they too will die and disintegrate into still smaller parcels of energy, a process that is repeated many times through many organisms until the resultant organic material is incorporated into the soil from whence it came. The atoms of life that were once the plant are not necessarily atoms of life in the soil, however. They could become part of water or of air and circumnavigate the globe on the currents of either medium. So it is with plants; so it is with people, as I learned when it came time to scatter my mother's ashes by a mountain lake in 1992, where I remembered having had fun camping as a family in the late 1940s.
A lone cottonwood stood at the water's edge, a bright green tree embraced on three sides by darker green boughs of pines and firs. A few feet upslope from the cottonwood was a warm, sunny place carpeted with huckleberry bushes—just the place for Kim's ashes I thought. She loved camping here, and she loved the sunshine and ripe huckleberries.
Gingerly, I opened the well-taped cardboard box and found a cheap plastic container held shut with "Scotch Tape." Inside the taped plastic box, which I opened with a curious feeling of finality, was a knotted plastic bag, attached to which was a metal tag with a number stamped on it. So this is what we are reduced to in modern society—a number, a statistic.
Unlike every indigenous culture with which I am familiar, we, in modern American society, have sterilized death with certificates of passing signed by doctors; embalmed bodies; sterile, metal caskets with spring mattresses and satin linings; plastic boxes and plastic bags with numbered metal tags attached to them for the ashes following cremation. How did we become such a death-denying society that we distance ourselves from the physical attributes of death and decay in every conceivable way we can think of? When did we corrupt the dignity of death and decay, the continuity of generations embodied in touching the silent, breathless face of death with realness, of holding death consciously, willingly in our arms as the few remaining unspoiled indigenous cultures still do? How can we touch the authenticity of life if we cannot touch the reality of death and decay?
The sack, as I took it out of the box, was much heavier than I thought it would be. Unknotting it, I was greeted by the sharp fragment of leg bone—and the charred remains of a snap from my mother's clothing. I touched her bone, and the face of death peered with unwavering gaze through the corridors of time directly into my eyes. Death is real.
I have seen death literally thousands of times in my garden and in a number of countries on three continents, but this was a different matter. This was all that physically remained of my mother, who once brought me into the world. And now, I was releasing her last physical remains back into the freedom of the Great Unknown from whence she had come.
A whimsical, teasing breeze blew a film of ashes over my hands and arms as the fine, gray powder sifted through the huckleberry bushes onto the soil. Once again, I was touched by my mother as her physical remains became the elements and atoms she had borrowed for almost eighty years in life and now returned to the atomic interchange of the soil. And should I journey this way again in some future time and eat of the ripe huckleberries, the elements that were my mother can once again nourish my body even as they did when I was in her womb more than half a century ago.
There is yet another side of death this sense of finality impressed upon me, namely, that words of love withheld today may be forever lost should death come to one person or the other before the morrow. Conversely, cruel words spoken in the heat of anger may be everlasting should death come to one person or the other before the morrow.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead pictures a soul after death being weighed in a scale against the weight of a feather. Ideally, we are not to create pain and suffering in life. If perchance we do cause suffering and pain as we strive toward ever-greater consciousness, we must then also make conscious amends so that not even a feather's weight is out of balance.
Balance. How do we balance life and death in the gardens of our lives? How do we balance joy and pain? How do we balance a plant's, an animal's, or a person's being here in vibrant physical form one moment and gone the next? When loss is so acute, so apparently final for those of us left behind, how do we know what to do next? That is the realm of grief.
Grief is the inescapable, multilayered initiation into the depths of the human experience. Joy is its twin. We therefore experience grief when we lose something we value and love in the same measure that we experienced joy when first we found it and learned to value and love it. Loss and grief are not only inescapable but also the price we pay for love and commitment. It has been said that loss is a part of life as involuntary as a heartbeat, as inevitable as nightfall.
Grief is the other half of joy. The greater the joy, the greater the grief; each is balanced by the other. In addition, the pain of grief has the capacity to open us up, to soften us toward one another and ourselves more surely than all the joys of the world.
As such, grief is vital to the emotional acceptance of a painful circumstance. It is also a necessary process through which we can reshape ourselves in relationship to an outer world that reflects a new reality based on our sense loss.
British biologist Charles Darwin wrote in 1872 that one "who remains passive when overwhelmed with grief loses [the] best chance of recovering elasticity of mind." And American professor Aldo Leopold wrote in 1949: "For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun." Taken together, these two statements—both from men with scientific backgrounds—underscore that grief is both necessary and reaches beyond the loss of life in human terms. Thus, when the grief of the world comes close to the door of my house, I go into my garden and dream among the flowers of how the world could be if only we were truly one another's keepers. And I think of my mother, who so dearly loved people, especially little children.
Kim in the 1950s
This essay is excerpted from my 2005 book, The World is in My Garden.
©chris maser 2007. All rights reserved.