Life's Winter

The opportunities seem endless, but the season is not.

Loren Kerns

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one. —Kahlil Gibran

Keep cool: it will be all one a hundred years hence. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

December 9, 2010. Cold, dark, slippery with mud and drenching wet; leafless trees, dead plants, wind whipping through my ears and into my bones. Winter. What's to love? I have entered the winter of my life, and spring will not return. No wonder seniors get depressed.

"Make the best of it," my mother would have said. So I search for whatever "best" might be hiding beneath the muck and ice.

Before me is an old oak tree. Its gnarly branches, covered with moss and lichen, would have looked dead to my father, but in its wood, that oak carries the sun and rain and minerals of its many years. Tiny buds on its branches store potential born the past growing season. On the ground its leaves decay, giving homes to insect eggs, food for slugs, millipedes, and a myriad of soil organisms, all of which will eventually make a marvelous mix to become new soil. The oak roots network with microorganisms, sharing stored sugar and receiving minerals and water. The old tree, like the hidden tiger lilies, the mule's ears, and the fescue, has invested its year's energies in seeds that, now scattered about, will gather moisture from winter's soil to swell embryos waiting inside their seed coats for their turn at life. The oak tree doesn't mourn the winter, but profits from what it has stored, networking and broadcasting its riches.

Meanwhile, hunkered down and out of sight, countless individuals quietly thrive. Rhizomes, bulbs, insect pupae, snoozing black bears, and jumping mice continue to change and grow during the cold dark days. Juncos, finches, nuthatches, chipmunks, and squirrels seem, if anything, to pick up their tempo of life, perhaps needing to work triple-time to get their jobs done in the limited light. Winter is the most productive season for the woodland fungi, now pushing mushrooms through the soil to spread their spores, and for licorice fern, flourishing in dense colonies on the branches of maple and oak trees. And it is now that owls call for their mates and whales launch their long journey to warmer waters.

Winter's low-angled light illumines objects in uncommon ways, perhaps allowing new discoveries. And winter is the season of growing light, each day brighter than the last, each day bathed longer in the climbing sun's illumination. A season of such promise is neither dreary nor depressing.

So in this, the winter of my life, may my leaves also nourish the soil; may I divine the secret of continuing to grow in the dark; may I remember to network and share and to nurture the embryos of whatever viable seeds I have been able to disseminate. May I always search through the mud for its source: life-giving water. May I ever be guided by the steady waxing of the light, and may I also, like the bears, seek the peace and contentment of rest.

Winter. I aim to exploit its potential. But still, as I lie skin-to-skin beside my husband, his hands remembering the contours of my body, my eyes prickle with the knowledge that while the opportunities seem endless, the season is not. Yet another reminder to hold close the moment, drink deeply of its liquor, breathe in its essence. Today is all that is.

And someday my todays will be over. When I plan habitat for creatures—reptiles, amphibians, birds, bugs—I think of the whole life cycle. What do they need for egg laying? Where will the young be raised? What will they eat at each stage of their lives? How will they die? Will they nourish some other creature?

I saw a western tanager sitting on a fence wire in my garden. I've seen them flying here, seen them in a cherry tree, nibbling fruit, even seen them swooping to catch insects—a meal on the wing. But I had never seen one so close or so still. This was a male—its beautiful scarlet head suffused to a sunset peach at the throat; the gold body handsomely set off by black wings with white and gold markings, black back and tail. As I watched, he teetered slightly, then tumbled to the ground. He showed no sign of injury, but was clearly dead.

I wondered about the cause. Had he been poisoned? Was this a delayed reaction to some outwardly invisible injury—a concussion perhaps, from flying into a window? Did he have some awful bird disease that was now going to rip through whole populations? Or maybe it was just what the obituary section in the newspaper refers to as "age-related causes." My wonderings then shifted to the next step. Should I leave him there to be recycled by a scavenger, eaten, reprocessed by microorganisms, his nutrients returned to the soil? Or should I bury him and let the arthropods and microorganisms beneath the soil do the recycling? After some consideration, I opted for the latter. The more natural thing would have been to let him lie there, but I didn't want to watch or smell the process. It's my twentieth-century hang-ups, perhaps. I read about cultures that leave their dead on the rooftops to be devoured by raptors, and I get it. I appreciate that as an example of closing the circle of life. And I watched in spellbound fascination as the yellow jackets turned the vole to a meatless skeleton. Perhaps the tanager's beauty fires a different set of synapses in my brain, pushing scientific curiosity aside in favor of a more emotional response. As enamored as I am of the whole process of decomposition, sometimes I prefer it to happen well out of my field of vision.

As we build our house and I think about my larger home, I necessarily think about my own complete life cycle. I have long known that I didn't want to tie up land, waste money, and cause the pollution—particularly of embalming fluids finding their way to the groundwater—of conventional burial. I thought that instead, I would be cremated when I die. But though not nearly as costly as conventional burial, that too is expensive, and it has environmental impacts. With temperatures of about sixteen hundred to nearly eighteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit for one to two-and-a-half hours, cremation not only uses fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, or diesel), it also releases about 110 pounds of greenhouse gas per body, including nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and sulfure dioxide. It is still a much more environmentally responsible choice than a fancy coffin in a concrete vault, with chemicals leaking out into the soil, but I thought I could do better. Ed Abbey had his friends haul his body out into the mountains and leave him there to be found by nature's scavengers. That gave me an idea.

With delight, I discover green burial is legal here in Oregon, and I can arrange to be buried on our own property. I've picked a spot near some oak trees. My preference would be to be wrapped in a shroud (or a sheet) and buried directly into the soil, but since I won't be doing the work, I'll defer to those who will. A cardboard box would be fine. Great grandchildren could paint flowers on it or poems or bon voyage messages. Or if they want something more substantial, a box could be pine, perhaps built by my progeny. What's important is that it doesn't pollute and will decay fast enough not to overly delay my return to the earth. It makes me feel good to think of fertilizing these beautiful woods. I will join the old oak tree, and in it, spring will come again. And I will be eternally home.

Along with money, decomposition, and body processes, death is a topic our culture tries to avoid. Ignore it, and maybe it will go away. I'm picturing the little child with hands over her eyes saying, "You can't see me!" But I wonder whether, if we thought about death as a natural stop on the carousel, we might live our lives differently. A T-shirt slogan I first read a decade or more ago reads, "He who dies with the most toys, still dies." In the game of life, there are no golden parachutes, no bailouts. The angel of death cannot be bought. The 1 percent is as sure of death as are the 99 percent.

December 9, 2012. I am now seventy-seven. Incredible! I remember when I thought thirty was old. Now I don't feel like seventy-seven is, except when I look in the mirror. I wonder if I would have believed it if someone long ago had told me that you don't get old inside. A bit tired sometimes, but I was at thirty, too.

In four days David and I will have been here in our woods twenty years. All of those seasons and creatures: fat, floating, golden maple leaves, new sticky spring buds, vegetables and voles, tents and trailer, brain hemorrhage and building a better nest, all has zoomed by, and yet it seems forever and always.

And now we are, unbelievably, seventy-seven, or so we are told, and I want very much to sit down and visit with my parents as peers. Mother just made it six weeks past seventy-five. I have another six weeks to go to reach Daddy's final age. Such an odd concept. You can't be the same age as, or older than, your parents. But here I am, just that.

I try to imagine what it would be like if they came to visit now. I can see their glowing faces, as delighted to get together as I am. Having known for over three-quarters of a century that my parents were without question the founts of all knowledge, I probably would ask their advice. And they probably wouldn't give it, believing as they did that we each should find our own way—albeit with an occasional hand or nudge if requested. Mother might quote the little Mother Goose ditty, "For every problem under the sun / there is a remedy or there is none. / If there is one, seek till you find it. / If there is none, never mind it."

But then they would turn the conversation back to me, an empowering and gratifying habit of theirs. They would love our woods, Daddy wanting to explore, Mother asking for stories about the animals and a list of the resident plants. I imagine they would notice we were without lawns or ornamental gardens, but they would not be judgmental. Rather, they probably would ask about our plans for constructing swales and rain gardens to slow the runoff and to clean gray water, making mini-wetland habitats. Mother would be sorry, but not surprised, that consumption and development seem to be taking precedence over the environment in today's world. Fifty and more years ago she lamented that tendency. Daddy would wonder if nations were beginning to learn how to get along. I would be able to report that, although it still seems like people are squabbling—or attacking each other—most of the time, since the end of World War II, the rates of violent death have plummeted to the lowest level in recorded history. Political scientist Joshua Goldstein, who says we are winning the war on war, attributes that to the United Nations as well as other groups around the world who work for peace. My father would be pleased to hear that. A municipal court judge for years, convinced that reason, empathy, and the law could solve most problems, he came close to being appointed to a Washington State Supreme Court judgeship, a position he would have enjoyed. He believed—perhaps was told—that the sole thing standing in the way of the appointment was his advocacy for a world government, apparently considered a Communist idea then, or at least one not giving appropriate deference to American exceptionalism. It's a pity. He would have been a good judge, for the state or for the world.

I like thinking about us mid-seventy-year-olds sitting around the breakfast table having a chat. It has been thirty-two years since they walked their gardens, but their molecules still help the earth to flourish, and they are still very much with me—in my heart, my thoughts, my way of looking at things. Mother would approve my burial plans. After all, it was she who first taught me to recycle.

Excerpt from Building a Better Nest: Living Lightly at Home and in the World by Evelyn Searle Hess. Copyright © 2015 by Evelyn Searle Hess. Used by permission of Oregon State University Press. All rights reserved.

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