I had just been told that a friend had died. It was sad to realize I’d never see him again. The musical chairs of life goes on, but I always have to stop when I hear of death, at least a death of one who is close.
For me, life is about the people around me. When they die, a piece of me dies.
Gato Barbieri’s “Europa” is playing on the radio. That’s Ramah’s song. Ramah was our purebred pit bull who came on our outings. When she died 20 years ago, I was holding her in my arms as she gave out her last goodbye cry, as the eerie nostalgic sound of “Europa” was playing on the radio. Since then, Europa has been “Ramah’s song,” her goodbye rite-of-passage song. I think of Ramah when I hear “Europa,” and I think of death and the seeming impermanence of life.
It is time for work, so I drive away with the radio off. I want to listen to the silence. I arouse a Cooper’s hawk as I go down the long driveway and he swoops away under the oaks with a pocket gopher in his claws. More death.
I think about the pocket gopher, which devours my root crops, and I feel no sadness. Still, I shudder to think that he’ll be ripped apart and eaten while still alive. Is that good? Is it bad?
A local Sierra Club hiker wrote about his chancing upon a mountain lion killing a deer. He said he could have interrupted it, but he didn’t. He watched it. He said it was beautiful. He said it was part of the beauty of nature.
Beauty? Certainly the kill is part of nature, part of The Way. Eat or be eaten. But “beautiful”? The deer would have had its throat slit from behind, and while it struggled, the lion would have ripped open his underside and begun eating the deer while it was still alive. Nope, not beautiful. Brutal, vicious, sobering.
Part of The Way, yes. Beautiful, no.
Death is not beautiful. To the dead, I presume it is peaceful. To the living, painful, especially when a close one goes and you experience their absence, and the pain of separation. You’re forced to acknowledge the temporary nature of life. You’re forced to make each moment count, to make each moment matter.
Off to work, I must think about the immediate now, the temporary world of time clocks and responsibility and bills and rents and taxes. I am only mildly cheered up by telling myself this is only temporary.
I sip my coffee at a downtown coffeehouse in the dense fog of the early morning before my work begins. The fog drifts and flows, like the drifting landscape of my thoughts of life and death and work and bills.
Death is everywhere. It is inescapable. And yet, it is perhaps our blessing. It is the sobering element that forces us to reconsider everything, and to strive to do the right thing in each moment.
Death forces us to think larger than just our own interests, and forces us to think about what is best for the most people, and what is best for the next generation.
Christopher Nyerges is a naturalist who has led ethnobotanical walks since 1974. He is the author of “Enter the Forest,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Squatter in Los Angeles,” and other books. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.