The Human Condition:

Death Is All Around – March 18, 2018

Dead bird

The other day I was pruning back the two Ficus trees in the apartment. They tend to reach for the sun from nearby windows, which means that the branches further away lose their leaves and become dry and spindly. I had to cut back the dead branches and turn the pot a bit to even out the growth.

As I was doing this, I knew the tree’s response would be to send out new shoots from the clipped branches, fork and spread them, and continue growing. But as I made each cut, I also remembered a science fiction story from my childhood, about a man who invented an extremely sensitive microphone that could record the cries of a tree as it was being cut down or grass as it was mowed. Now, I know that in order to feel pain and cry out, an organism needs a central nervous system and a locus in the brain where pleasure and pain can become registered in consciousness. The best a tree or any other plant can do is drip some sap—a result of capillary action beginning in the roots—and let that stump of a branch wither for lack of leaves and photosynthetic nourishment. In this case, the branches were mostly dead already, although some of them had a small and inconveniently placed twig still sprouting foliage that was brushing up against the wall or the curtains, and I was simply performing some elementary bonsai for aesthetic purposes.

That old science fiction story, however, got me thinking. Even a confirmed vegetarian—who laments the slaughter of cows and pigs for food, because of their death agonies—is comfortable with raising crops for their food value. They don’t rely on acorns that have already fallen from the tree, as Native American tribes in California did for their grain supply. And our farmers don’t pluck the ears of corn and then leave the plant standing to reproduce and sprout new ears next spring. No, we kill plants by the thousands of millions and never stop to think about their piteous cries too subtle for our human ears to hear or any of our instruments to register. The American farmer and all agriculturalists throughout history are wholesale merchants of death.

On this same morning, I was in the living room doing my exercise regimen when I noticed a mourning dove on the window ledge. We have doves all over the woods in back of the apartment complex, but this was the first time I had seen one so close. It was looking around, walking back and forth, and otherwise appeared nervous. Occasionally it would glance straight up into the sky. It occurred to me that we also have three red-tailed hawks that live on our hill, and occasionally I find loose feathers, sometimes clumps of them, when walking in the woods. The dove might have been using the ledge to protect itself from attack from above, because the angle between the sill and the window glass was too narrow for a clean kill. Only when another dove flew down from the ledge of the apartment above mine, and the first dove took off to follow, did I realize that all of its walking back and forth was waiting for some sign from its friend or mate.

While I was looking at the dove, I could see that it really was a work of natural art. Whether you believe in intelligent design by a living god or blind creation through evolution adapting random mutations into systems that function perfectly in the real world, you have to marvel at that small package of life. It struts, it flies, it scans the skies, and it has relations with other doves. Those tiny, beadlike eyes can measure angles, calculate distances, recognize shapes, and perhaps even register some of the beauty of the world. This wondrous being is initiated by the fusion of sperm and egg, gestated in a shell, raised in a nest by parent doves, learns to fly, finds seeds and grows to maturity, finds a mate—if it’s lucky—and eventually gets bounced from on high by a hawk and dies. All that articulation, all that recognition, that beating heart and bright eye—snuffed out in a minute by a chance encounter. Maybe some doves live to old age, get arthritis, and break their necks falling off a branch. Maybe some get cancer or another illness and die suffering in the long grass. But for most, it’s pounce and gone!

Some thirty years ago my wife brought home a box of books and papers from the library where she worked. As a result, we have developed a lingering infestation of silverfish. About every six months I will see one boldly scuttling across the hardwood floor, appearing like a moving scrap of dusty tinsel. I always smack them, and then I have a smear of paste and a scrap of damp paper. But even as I am killing it, I marvel at the articulation of this thing that is barely alive. It moves, it seeks light and shade, it knows that it’s being attacked when I miss, and sometimes it scrambles and flees successfully. It’s not the jeweled mechanism of an ant or a beetle, but it works on the same principles. I almost feel ashamed to kill them.

This planet is covered with life. I’ve said this before: everywhere you look that isn’t bare rock, dry sand, or blue sky is teeming with signs of life and the DNA that propels it. Some of this is easy to see, like forests filled with birds and deer or fields full of grasses, wildflowers, and burrowing rodents. Some you have to search out or imagine, like microbes living in the soil or plankton in the ocean. And some you can infer from its handiworks, like anthills, coral reefs, and skyscrapers. All of it is bursting with natural energy, all of it growing and reproducing. And all of it will die. Even the supposedly immortal jellyfish that are going the rounds on Facebook now will one day find a predator or a boat propeller and turn back into their component molecules.

Death is not the enemy. If none of this life ever died, by now the planet would be a hundred feet deep—or more—in struggling animals, the seas would be solid with fishes and the sky black with birds. Since all that is impossible, some natural mechanism would have intervened to end reproduction on this planet. Immortal creatures would live out their lives and never change. For more than three billion years that was indeed the state of things: bacteria growing and dividing, growing and dividing, never dying except by happenstance, and never much advancing. Then about five hundred million years ago, something happened and life exploded in thousands of multi-celled forms—the Cambrian Explosion, which laid the groundwork for what we have today. Since then, we have had periods of intense growth and diversification, followed by periodic extinction events that wipe the board clean and clear the way for life to go in a different direction.1

But all of it dies, every time. If it’s lucky, an organism gets to breed before it dies, and new life follows after it. And if it’s very lucky, that new generation carries mutations that might, just might, allow its progeny to survive when the climate or the food supply or the predator-prey balance changes and the organism’s progeny need to adapt. But that’s still a matter of chance. And for the organism that is alive right now, death is certain.

This is not a tragedy, not a thing to dread. Because death is all around, we know that the time right now is precious. Because life adapts and changes, we know we will never again see the exact mix of animals, plants, and even microbes that we can observe and catalog right now. This planet is alive because the things that make it interesting can die. And this is a blessing.2

1. Think of the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, which cleared the path for the rise of mammals and, eventually, humans.

2. I didn’t intend this to be morbid, but it has been six months since my wife of forty wonderful years has died, and I am still reverberating with the loss.