by Deborah Bird Rose (University of New South Wales)
Death is so entirely integral to the experience of life on earth, some single celled organisms excepted, that I have to keep asking myself: what is it that seems so wrong with all the death that surround us in this era we are coming to call the Anthropocene? How is it that when I lay a loved one to rest in the grave I honor death, and when I walk across barren, eroded, scalded ground, stepping around animal skeletons and remnant tree trunks, I think that death is dishonored? As I wrote once, when I was feeling particularly afflicted by all this death: the balance between life and death is over-run, and a relentless cascade is piling up corpses in the land of the living.
Something is going on here that matters in ways that many of us are not adept at understanding. Perhaps we lack awareness of the beauty of death, and therefore fail to perceive that it is being violated. Perhaps we are so busy running from it that we forget to turn toward it. If we were to do so, and to encounter death fairly, we would find that the house of life and the house of death are truly the same house (Heaney 2006). For us mortals there is no other.
The meaning and beauty of being an earth-creature is to inhabit this great multispecies home of natality and mortality, and to honor all of it.
So many losses occur that damaged ecosystems are unable to recuperate their diversity. The death of resilience and renewal, at least for a while.
So many extinctions that the process of evolution is unable to keep up. More species die than are coming into being. The death of evolution itself, at least for a while.
The unmaking of country, unraveling the work of generation upon generation of living beings; cascades of death that curtail the future and unmake the living presence of the past. The death of temporal, fleshy, metabolic relationships across generations and species.
The destruction of the future of one’s own death, which starts to collapse along with the future of flourishing others and ecosystems.
Double death is a despoiler. It smashes the relationship between life and death, fracturing a compact that has been integral to life on earth. The despoliation of death throws the lives of earth creatures into a barren place with no future and with a rapidly unraveling past.
Double death is an open secret and an open wound. At this time it is driven by humans: it is the mirror on the wall.
Something so deep, that involves us as participants and that we struggle to witness, calls from the very flame of life itself, to use Eileen Crist’s beautiful term. The fact that much of the current tidal wave of death is caused by humans is inescapable. There is an affront to our very being as creatures of earth in the fact that we are doing so much to destroy it.
Along with affront there is the impossible necessity to witness both death and double death (Hatley 2000). We are called to respond to that which we cannot fully understand, and we are called to understand why and how we are called. Our own empathy and grief reverberate beyond us, the grief and calls of others reach us and penetrate us. These reverberating and amplifying calls are the multispecies creaturely witness to all this death.
Crist, Eileen. “‘Intimations of Gaia’.” In Gaia in Turmoil: Climate, Change, Biodepletion, and Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis, edited by Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker. 315-33. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010.
Hatley, James. Suffering Witness: The Quandary of Responsibility after the Irreparable. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.
Heaney, Seamus. “A Dog was Crying Tonight in Wicklow.” Poezibao 2006.Deborah Bird Rose: Official Website