A Beautiful Death

It is a near-perfect autumn morning. The mild air offers a hybrid of drizzle and very light fog. Elder and sumac berries, ginger, cinnamon and a single clove bud simmer on the stove. Despite the despair that comes and goes in me, I feel at peace, growing calmer in the knowledge that there are few consistent processes in this life, that everything changes, maybe especially the things we think—and hope—won’t change.

Some of our neighborhood trees have already lost all their leaves, including the maples, which are duller this year than last. The ginkgoes, which tend to drop their leaves in one fell swoop, are Meyer-lemon yellow. And the beeches are cloaked in orange.

Pokeberry, Phytolacca americana, takes on colors only nature can do this time of year.

Pokeberry, Phytolacca americana, takes on colors only nature can do this time of year.

In our own yard, the hazelnut leaves are the first to drop and this seems a consistent pattern. The leaves of the pokeberry I refuse to dig out are more wondrously colored than anything Pantone might conceive. They range from mild yellows to bright, from deep magenta to blast-me fuscia along with a wide spectrum of greens. Speaking of greens, the chickweed is pure green, ready to pick to add to salads. Its die-back will come in late spring when the heat starts to take hold. The sweet gum that shelters the few “permaculture zone 5” woodland medicinals I planted five years ago never fails to delight this time of year. Its five-point starry leaves convert into a finery I am not able to replicate in a hooked rug I’ve been working on.

The visible parts of these plants are dying back, sending their energy underground for the next several months. And yet, at this time, they are among the most beautiful beings that capture my attention.

Chickweed, Stellaria media, doesn't comes on in the cooler temps of autumn.

Chickweed, Stellaria media, benefits from the cooler temps of autumn.

This time of year is often a time of grief for humans. We have much to mourn, not just in our personal lives, for who among us doesn’t know someone who’s died this year—many tragically too soon, though who are we to judge the timing? But the multiple stresses we feel seem to be reflected in the world “out there”—and probably will continue to be, so long as we maintain the illusion of separation between “in here” and “out there.”

Even as I have grown weary of the apparent lack of kindness that humans visit upon one another and the planet, I see, I take part in, and I hear about all sorts of gestures of kindness. But most of these are invisible, except to the beings involved. Yet, it is just these small acts that remake the world, that heal the pieces that we split off from ourselves because, for whatever reason, we are ashamed of them or we believe they do not fit or do not serve.

What are we meant to serve, anyway? What ideals? Will we let fear rule more and more of life or will we choose to help expand the consciousness of love?

As I grow more conscious of these choices, I feel I’d much rather serve the ends of love than of fear. For love says, “This way lies sanity.” And anyone who steps up for love expands others’ ability also to step up.

From deep reds to chartreuse, sweet gums (Liquidambar styraciflua) have an autumn pallete all their own..

From deep reds to chartreuse, sweet gums (Liquidambar styraciflua) have an autumn pallete all their own.

What does this love entail?

I may be overthinking this, but basically, it means embodying certain ideals in our actions—the ideals of attention, gratitude and compassion, as psychologist Timothy Miller puts forth in his book, How to Want What You Have.

Attention means noticing—noticing a sunrise or a sunset, noticing someone’s smile or frown, noticing the beauty all around us and not running away when what we feel is unpleasant—whether sadness or anger or depression. Gratitude can encompass just feeling grateful to be alive and ties into attention, in that, the more you notice and the more you allow yourself just to feel—without judging what you feel—the more grateful you feel to be alive. And compassion means practicing first compassion for ourselves: We are human, we are imperfect, so why turn up the volume on the voices that criticize? Why refit those voices, which maybe initially in our early life belonged to someone else, to make them wholly our own? Rather, it is better to acknowledge these voices—maybe they helped keep us safe at some point, but for us individually and collectively, they have become maladaptive; they no longer serve.

Once we begin to feel compassion for ourselves, that feeling ripples out to myriad others, not just humans, but the whole of the world.

In my own family, we have a consistent thread: It’s called “not good enough.”

How do our judgments, which often carry the energy of disdain, affect others?

How do our judgments, which often carry the energy of disdain, affect others?

Many other families share this same thread and maybe all of humanity does. It is why when poets and writers like William Stafford describe their families and their upbringing, I am blown away. My impression of his childhood is one where the parents behaved with deep magnanimity and this led Stafford, in my interpretation, to become the person he became—where being fully human was more important than any accolades his writing or teaching may ever have garnered. His poems reflect his sense of just being.

What has broken this “not good enough” thread for me is the realization that, as in permaculture, the solution lies in the problem. And what problem is not an artifact of the illusion of separation?

It has taken me many years, but today I feel grateful for the influence of my parents, my mother for her overall generosity, my father for planting the seed of the ideal that everything and everyone has intrinsic value—whether a rock, a dog, or a human. Neither always behaved with generosity or acted in accord with the knowledge of the intrinsic value of all things, but then again, they are human and humans are inconsistent—at least in this phase of our evolution.

The pain caused by the “not good enough” can, if we accept it and allow it, shift us into a different, more whole/holy way of being.

Our value is not based upon how productive we are, how well we might satisfy someone else’s needs. People, plants, other animals, viruses and bacteria—they all have value just because.

Witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) flower about this time of year.

Witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) flower about this time of year.

I know this runs counter to what is presented “out there” among various media, in workplaces, in organizations, in government. The glorious sweet gum outside exists in part just because and in part, perhaps, because a seed chose to go along with a squirrel—nature’s forester—and be planted, chose to start growing and transformed itself into a tree, along with the help of others, seen and unseen. And this tree—Liquidambar styraciflua—was preceded by 20 others in the same genus, 20 others than are physically extinct, but metaphorically live on in this genus and species.

This particular sweet gum appears to be dying, however slowly. Two-leggeds don’t much care for the pointy fruits, especially if they have lawns and the fruits fall into their yards. Maybe people’s inability to see themselves in that pointy, annoying fruit influences the tree’s ability to survive. Maybe. I know scientists would probably disregard that notion as naïve or wishful, but science, like religion, operates from a particular set of frames—an often narrow set that accounts only for what can be seen and measured. Feelings can only be felt, and I will go with my feelings—not emotions, which are different from feelings—any day.

And I feel this tree continues to choose to be generous in the way it grows, with an increase in lower-down branches that, in the last few years, have come to provide additional shade for those woodland medicinals I planted, because ideally, they would have more shade. And who can say, but this act of generosity spurs more of the same among those woodland plants, such that they are helping that sweet gum to live longer.

Recent lower-branch growth of the sweet gum gives more shade to woodland medicinals like black cohosh (Actaea racemosa).

Recent lower-branch growth of the sweet gum gives more shade to woodland medicinals like black cohosh (Actaea racemosa).

One thing I know for sure and that is that nature—our inner and outer ecologies—are ever entwined, and we can look to nature for so many life lessons, so many metaphors upon which to check ourselves. After all, we are nature and nature is us, and it is when we believe and then behave otherwise, that we court difficulties. When we aim to grow at all costs, when we desire more, more, more, we can look at nature’s tapestry and see that every year, she takes a break here and there for some months. What would our lives be like if we did so, too? Would we give death to that which no longer serves us? What would create more time for the kind of work that really matters, for the sort of care-giving that our world needs at this time?



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