Life and Death

4 Trees

I am camped at about 2700 feet amongst dwarf spruce somewhere in the open centre of Alaska. A rain shower passes and the air becomes quite still — a silence that fills space and sucks me into it. I listen to the trees: “You can come if you wish, you can go, it doesn’t matter to us. We will always be here, standing tall and still. You can’t hear our heartbeat, we have no urgency to gulp air. We just stand here today, tomorrow, yesterday, always the same. If you cut us we will be gone, if you disease us we will wither. But others will come, we will always be here, because we are Life. Join us if you can — how long can you hold your breath?

“But you aren’t Life, you are death and destruction. You can’t hear us because you can’t stop long enough to listen. Go away and come back when you have learned humility and your place in Life. There is a place for you, but most of you have stepped out of it. With no Life you will die.

“The old folk, they knew. That is why they were able to live here for so long. You need to go back and listen to them, if you have not already destroyed them and their memories. They loved the bear deeply — it was part of them and they shared a greater being. They purified their minds and went out with respect to hunt the bear with a ten foot spear as thick as your arm. No, you can’t throw that, they did not need to. They only had to hold out the spear, stand firm, and the bear threw itself onto it. Because Life gives, Life provides for those who are a part of it. But you are above Life, you don’t need to hunt for food. You fear the bear as if it is an angry predator out to get you. And it will because you do not respect it. You carry evil mace to spray in its face. It will be in agony and unable to see for a day. Try it on yourself first!

“You are not Life, you suck life. We create oxygen for you to breathe and all you can create is poison.”

Let’s call it Life. The long-gone hunter-gatherers of the past (and the few remaining peoples of the land) had no word for nature. They had no need for it because they had no concept of it as a separate entity. Our use of the word nature describes something ‘other’. It came into being in the Neolithic age to describe what was on the other side of the new farmers’ fences: the wild, what we could not tame and subjugate into our self-proclaimed, god-given dominion. Today, it is what is out there when you get off the concrete. But there is no ‘other’, there is only Life. We are either part of it, or we are anti-life, we are death.

What is it to feel Life? Is it walking in a city park? Yes a little, but here the trees are neutered, taken out of context, out of their inter-related, life-support systems. Brought into our world, they are like pitiful animals caged in a zoo. Is it out in a forest park in the country? Yes, more so, but you are still held separate by the trappings of your world. You can wander safely along in your own dreams, ‘Hello leaves, hello tree!’ You do not need to make critical decisions because the well-worn trail will always lead you back to your car. You can still be mentally elsewhere, thinking or chattering about relationships or work. You could do that in a café in the city.

No, to really experience Life you need to take a risk, to be in danger — to have your comforting safeties removed. In Life there is no such thing as security, that is another delusional human fabrication which came along with fences. Life has no plan, no favourites. Life is simply everything, the sum of it all. The individual bits don’t matter in the least — well, they don’t matter to themselves, only as part of the whole. Everything lives off everything else, that is the essence of Life.

So you enter Life. You leave the trail and the comfort of a safe return. As you walk you must now be intensely alert. Firstly you could become lost. You have to pay constant attention as you scan the land ahead to choose your route. You embed yourself in the land around you, creating a positional awareness. If you relax for a moment you could lose that sense of place and become disorientated. You build up an ongoing mental image of where you are and where you have come from. You must look back as much as ahead to know what to look for if you return by this way. All the time you are reading the land ahead, working out which way round those rocks or through those trees looks easiest. It is instinctive, like an animal. Over time these choices build up into natural trails, trails that don’t go anywhere but are simply the easiest way over the terrain.

But out here, along with the danger of getting lost, there is another danger: you might be eaten. That too is Life: predator eats prey, no favourites. So you also have to be vitally alert in a different way. You programme the pattern of the vegetation into your mind’s eye so that any aberration will instantly jump out at you. A darker, more solid patch of brown catches a peripheral glance. Freeze, pause, study . . . no it is only a tree trunk. Similarly, your sound sense is tuned to the base pattern. Any rupture will cause a little shoot of spinal adrenaline — a thud of footfall, a rustle of branches.

If the way ahead is clear you can move with more confidence. If not, you pause and listen. You shout a warning, “hup, hup, hup”, in a voice that is both resonant and confident. It is not a cautious “I am here” call, but a ringing statement that reveals no fear. Because the biggest danger is that you round a corner and surprise a wild creature at a far too close proximity. The animal too feels the self-preserving rush of adrenaline which will drive its reflexes into a defensive attack.

So as you walk there is no space for thoughts, no time for dreaming. You could either get lost or be savaged. Every instant is one of alertness and awareness, eyes constantly flicking back and forth, watching your surroundings at the same time as where you put your feet. Being tripped and injured here would probably be fatal. This is what Life is, this is what all creatures experience. It is what you truly are — only now are you fully realised, every sense finely tuned and working in unison. There is no time or space for feeling bored or disillusioned or any of the other city malaises. Nothing else matters but this tingling moment of life. You are back in Life, we are together, there is no ‘other’.

Then, when you feel Life like this, you will fight tooth and nail to preserve it from the death of humans. Death? Does that sound too harsh? That’s sure what it looks like from over here. You cut down the forests, you wash away the topsoil, you cover the land with concrete, you are causing the greatest mass extinction of creatures and plants, you hoover up the fish and the sea bottom, you destroy coral reefs, you poison the earth and water with chemicals and refuse, you fill the atmosphere with carbon that cooks the planet, you upset the balance of Life so that the few remaining forests are destroyed by pests. And, as if all that is not enough, you murder, rape and enslave your own kind. Sure looks like death!

Death is disconnect, it is not caring, it is hubris, it is thinking you are separate and in control, above nature and no longer needing it. Life can’t protect itself from death, it can only mutate in response, and it will do this long after humans are gone. But you who know Life can bridge the gap, you can get inside and kill the cancer. So you have to leave Life, leave the forest and go back into the world of death to bring Life.

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