In American poet Mary Sarton’s A Private Mythology is a little collection of poems under the header “The Animal World.” She relates, in the poem “Death and the Turtle” the waning of a little pet turtle, for which she could do nothing. When it died in her hand, her “heart cracked for the brother creature” and it set off a chain of emotional thoughts about death.
So this was it, the universal grief:
Each bears his own end knit up in the bone.
Where are the dead? we ask, as we hurtle
Toward the dark, part of this strange creation,
One with each limpet, leaf, and smallest turtle —
Cry out for life, cry out in desperation!
The poet concludes expressing a perennial lament that never receives adequate reply. Who will remember us when we are dead? We remember the one who has died before us, but the one who witnesses today will tomorrow also be gone. And if we feel this blow reflecting on the death of a little creature whom no one else will remember, what about ourselves when we are forgotten?
Is death simply a matter of not being remembered? Is that the sting? Even religious believers are plased that God remembers them, that God takes care of the flowers in the field and the birds in the air — and by extension, us.
But we know from life itself, that undeniable existential condition, that we take death as a blow, that we are never fully reconciled, even the believer who, after all, grieves, if only for himself, selfishly or otherwise.
Consciousness and memory and a deep knit feeling in the bones that trembles at the whiff of decline. We have taught ourselves that in this consciousness we are alone, but science now shows that animals, too, are conscious of decline and death among their fellows and probably themselves. The universe has its austerity, its coldness. We can never think our way out of this realization. Ascribing it to a divine plan, to a universal way, does not assuage the heart.
We can feel our way out of death through belief, but our necessary task is to feel our way not out of death but into it and through it. We need to feel that death is as bound to life as life is as inexorably a trajectory to death. Many perennial thinkers, religious, philosophical, and secular, have recommended that we study death and little else, that we begin by withdrawing from what distracts us from this task, and meditate upon it day and night.
At the same time, dwelling upon it, we can enrich the subject by bringing life into it, that is, by surrounding ourselves with nature. We do not need to be philosophers or metaphysicians in order to comprehend death. Comprehending suggests reasoning, grasping a reply or getting hold of something. If we appreciate the cycles in our gardens, among the trees, in the forests, and among the animals that quietly and innocently inhabit the natural world, then we can realize that death is bound up in life, that everything that gives life, that enhances life, that we seize upon as celebratory of life, is in fact bound up with death — the death of some plant or animal, the destruction of some sacred part of nature that we will learn to regret, to lament, for what we have excessively taken.
The lesson will slowly occupy our consciousness and give us an ethic that is bound to universals and not derived from society and book-learning. Take what you are willing to give back, if only in another form. Take life, but only with the understanding that you must give it back. Take food (but not animals), clothing, shelter, fuel, but take them abstemiously, gently, reflectively, and only if you are willing to give them back in some form by replacing them, literally, or by giving to one who can. And take love, friendship, companionship, in the same way.
That is the lesson not of life and death but of solitude.
When we are too bound up in life and too weighed down by death, we cannot take perspective. Only in solitude do we learn to begin to “de-become,” as Meister Eckhart put it, to stop clinging, as Buddhists put it. We don’t own anything, and we cannot claim that we are owed something in return for accepting life, so we will suffer when we insist too much. Meanwhile, our appreciation of everything in life magnifies when we acknowledge transience. Not only is every moment richer but we intensify our intention to make it unique — because it is.