Abbey on Nature and Death

Thinking about my son’s experience with the serf perch that died after he gut hooked it, I turned to my trusty copy of “Desert Solitaire,” the Edward Abbey classic, to see what he had to say about the nature of death in, well, nature.

Classic Abbey: While out rangering on foot in Arches National Monument (now a National Park), Abbey observes a cottontail hiding under a Blackbrush  – no doubt escaping the glare of the harsh desert sun – and decides to hold an experiment. “Suppose,” Abbey supposes, “you were out here hungry, starving, no weapon but your bare hands. What would you do? What could you do?” He then picks up a stone and, to his amazement, “knocks the cottontail head over tincups,” killing it instantly. Here’s Abbey, rationalizing his deed:

For a moment I am shocked by my deed; I stare at the quiet rabbit, his glazed eyes, his blood drying in the dust. Something vital is lacking. But shock is succeeded by a mild elation. Leaving my victim to the vultures and maggots, who will appreciate him more than I could – the flesh is probably infected with tularemia – I continue my walk with a new, augmented cheerfulness which is hard to understand but unmistakeable. What the rabbit has lost in energy and spirit seems added, by processes too subtle to fathom, to my own soul. I try but cannot feel any sense of guilt. I examine my soul: white as snow. Check my hands: not a trace of blood. No longer do I feel so isolated from the sparse and furtive life around me, a stranger from another world. I have entered into this one. We are kindred all of us, killer and victim, predator and prey, me and the sly coyote, the soaring buzzard, the elegant gopher snake, the trembling cottontail, the foul worms that feed on our entrails, all of them, all of us. Long live diversity, long live the earth!

Lest one feel too strongly for the rabbit and miss the essential point Abbey is making, consider this passage in which Abey contemplates the outcome of dying of thirst in his beloved desert:

When you reach this point you are doomed. Far better to have stayed at home with the TV and the case of beer. If the happy thought arrives too late, crawl into the shade and contemplate the lonely sky. See those big black scrawny wings far above, waiting? Comfort yourself with the reflection that within a few hours, if all goes as planned, your human flesh will be working its way through the gizzard of a buzzard, your essence transfigured into the fierce greedy eyes and unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture. Whereupon you, too, will soar on motionless wings high over the ruck and rack of human suffering.

When Abbey writes – wait, I hate that, ‘writes’. Technically it’s correct, but it’s so much better, more personal and powerful, to use the verb ‘says’, isn’t it? – when Abbey says “No longer do I feel so isolated from the sparse and furtive life around me … I have entered into [their world],”  and in the second passage, “…your essence transfigured into the fierce greedy eyes and unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture,” he is describing our true relationship with nature, with the world. He shows it clearly: life and death, the never ending cycle in which all of creation is a part.

It’s hard, in our egocentric, anthropocentric view of our place in the world, to succumb to becoming buzzard feed. In honesty, I am in horror at the thought of a loved one dying in such a manner. Better to lie patiently in that hospital bed, with the quiet machines beeping and whirling around you, the florescent lights flickering overhead, waiting the end of a long contented life. But the process does not stop for your neat and tidy death. Whether you are placed in the earth or devoured by the fire or whatever means you may choose you are returned to the earth, to nature, to your kith and kin. Your physical being ultimately is returned to the universe from which it came: we are all made of bits of stars, you know. It’s Abbey, though, who explains it most clearly to me, and that’s how I gently explain the cycle of life and death in nature to my 8 year old son.

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