The Secret of Life?

by Denny Olson

Denny Olson

I guess “contrarian” is my nature. When faced with the obvious, I often do a mental about-face and consider the view from the opposite direction. When something specific happens to me, I sometimes pull back and view the experience through a wide-angle lens – how does this relate to everything else in the universe as we know it?

When I was a kid, in the woods on an Indian summer day, I literally stumbled onto the secret of life, or at least one of them. I landed on my face. Lucky for me, it was a soft landing. My nose was buried in a mound of rich-smelling fern moss, and beneath the moss was reddish, spongy wood – what remained of an ancient pine. If I hadn’t been a few centimeters away, I wouldn’t have noticed. The rancid wood was more alive than it was when it was — well, alive. Webs of fungus rootlets enmeshed the remaining wood in a multi-dimensional tapestry. Sowbugs, centipedes, and beetles scurried for cover, their universe blown apart by a bumbling giant. Scarlet mites were frozen in shock. Kelly green fungus stained the wood at older cracks. There was in front of me an entire city, with crowded streets and tenements. I could almost hear the horns honking.

I was looking, of course, at death. The tree was far past “decadent” in silvicultural jargon. A “waste” in myopic jargon. But, face-down in the evidence, I felt my viewpoint doing another one-eighty. The secret of life? Maybe death …

The extent to which this is true surprised me. Up to twenty thousand species of plants, animals and microbes can live in one dead log. One third of all forest animal species call decadent trees home. Woodpeckers, Kestrels, Chickadees and flying squirrels nest there. Owls use the woodpecker holes, and eat red-backed voles, who eat fungus and spread spores for new fungus. Fungal mycorrhizae (rootlets) live in mutualism with the roots of all coniferous trees, allowing them to gather nutrients and extra water. No fungus, no forest. And where does soil, to host new trees, come from? Death, that’s where.

It doesn’t take much of a logic extension to realize that there would be no “live” anything without the death of everything before. We eat, wear, live in, sleep on and drive around in death every day. It is literally impossible to untangle and isolate death from life, and that is precisely why the world works so well. Not that we don’t try. To many humans in the neo-European world, death is a personal and tribal loss and not a natural and global gain. Grab a bit of wrinkle cream, some hair dye, do a nip and tuck here and there, eat, drink and be merry – for tomorrow … well, you know.

Along with taxes, death is actually one of the absolutes. There’s mounting evidence that it will happen. But when the wide-angle lens looks at “things” like life and death, or you and I, there are processes and relationships connecting everything to everything. We “divide” in order to control and conquer, but the divisions are intellectual, denial-based illusions. The connections, it seems, are best seen and felt with the “heart” in us. Humility lies in the humus. A flea can attempt to steer a dog, but it only succeeds in making it itch a little. So it is with our attempts to control our planet.

We can lock our bodies in concrete vaults, see this year’s fires as an enemy, eliminate predators  – but at our peril. Death, as distasteful as it is, fuels life, a yin and yang relationship that models most relationships. In the middle of death is always renewal, and humming, vibrating life.

As an increasingly crotchety old contrarian, how will I face my own demise someday? I don’t know, exactly. But I don’t change the subject any more. See, I was out in the woods one fall, and I fell onto this log …

If I should die before I wake,
All my bone and sinew take,
And put me in the compost pile,
To decompose me for a while.
Worms, water, sun will have their way,
Returning me to common clay.
All that I am will feed the trees,
And little fishies in the seas,
So, when radishes and corn you munch,
You may be having me for lunch,
And then excrete me with a grin,
Chuckling, “There he goes again.”

-Lee Hayes