“I think this is the prettiest world--so long as you don't mind a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life that doesn't have its splash of happiness?” (Mary Oliver, “Kingfisher.”)
Autumn is certainly pretty. Crimson leaves on the swamp maples shine through the fog, and the sweet smell of wet leaves rises from the forest floor. Bracken ferns and dogbanes glow yellow from the dry ditches, while up above them, birch and aspen leaves hang crinkled and brown. Here and there, a sugar maple reveals its hiding place with a flame of orange.
Of course, the thing about all this beauty is that it precedes death, and death-like dormancy. Past and recent droughts have stressed the plants and rushed the fall color changes, but even in a perfect weather year the dying would come eventually. It’s not just the plants, either.
The other evening, a giant insect buzzed against my lamp-lit screen. Imagine a dragonfly’s ugly stepbrother. This dobsonfly had two pairs of clear wings with brown markings, a long, lumpy body, and huge mandibles (jaws). Dobsonflies spend two to three years in an aquatic larval stage, during which they are called hellgrammites, "grampus," or "go-devils," and are familiar to anglers who use them as bait. The huge mandibles on this male dobsonfly are used exclusively to mate. I hope that is a big enough splash of happiness for him! Neither he nor she can eat, and each lives only seven days. By the time you read this, he will be dead.
You can think of dozens of other things that are dying this time of year. Soon, bald-faced hornets will freeze to death in their papery nests. On my window frames, the exoskeletons of dark fishing spiders cling to their nursery webs, dried legs curled beneath them. Deer lay bloated along the highway, and more will soon hang in hunters’ sheds.
But what is death in the natural world, really? That dobsonfly’s body will be eaten by a bird, or a fish, or bacteria. His cells will be broken down into their chemical components, and his carbon will become bird, or fish, or soil, or the air you are breathing. Sweet-smelling leaves are being decomposed by bacteria, who feed the complex food web in soil. The deer’s components will fly off as a crow, or fuel the hunter’s footsteps. The form changes, but life continues.
“And that’s when you know you will live whether you will or not, one way or another, because everything is everything else, one long muscle.” (Mary Oliver, Pink Moon: The Pond)
Even you are dying, a little bit at a time, and being recycled. Dead skin sloughs off as you sleep, and is eaten by (ew!) dust mites in your pillow. Elements that were once part of your body – filling your lungs, flowing through your veins, building the cells of your liver, spleen, bones, and hair – are passed back and forth between you and the world. Maybe that maple tree that you walked under today will have a little bit of you in it soon—just like your elements were once part of a photosynthesizing tree, or that tomato you ate for lunch.
“I take the deep breath of happiness, and I think how unlikely it is that death is a hole in the ground…” (Mary Oliver, Heron Rises from the Dark, Summer Pond.)
Reading Mary Oliver and studying ecology have certainly given me a different view of death. Of course, I love being me, but how exciting to think about decomposing into the crimson leaves on a swamp maple, or the wings of a dobsonfly, or a breath of wind.
“…everything sooner or later is a part of everything else…” (Mary Oliver, Pink Moon: The Pond)
So, as I sit here, thinking about death on a beautiful autumn day, I do take a deep breath of happiness. Death in nature is part of life. This IS the prettiest world, and we will forever continue to be part of its one long muscle.