When Thanatos interrupts the Party

I was thirteen when Neil Armstrong aimed his camera lens across the Bay of Tranquility to capture an image of our planetary home that stunned the world. Beyond the foreground of a stark lunar landscape, amidst an outer darkness everywhere else, the Earth shimmers, a blue sapphire on a neckline, milky with clouds and water. We knew it all along, but seeing it like that, made us gasp. On Venus your shoes would melt even if they were made of lead. On Jupiter you’d have to say “Honey, I’m going out on a walk to get some fresh ammonia.” On Neptune you’d only blow out birthday candles once every 164 years. But our home is perfectly located, and has just the right cocktail of elements, for Life to proliferate. Kaboom! From the tiniest protozoa to the great blue whale, millions upon millions of species flourish here. Imagine: a mere handful of soil from your own garden contains nearly 100,000 life forms! We are everywhere: flying, crawling, swimming, wriggling, running, walking, and merely sitting our way into the continuance and evolution of our own. Earth is truly a cosmic Mardi Gras, a jubilee of dance, food, sex and more sex.

But nothing lives for long. One species may live for mere seconds, another for a century, but in the great wheel of time both, of course, are as nothing. Because we are just that, animated, hard wired to crave life and to go on living, that we often neglect to embrace the fact that everything living will also cease to live. In this very second, whatever astronomically high number represents life on Earth, death is equal to it. Despite a myth here or there to the contrary, there are no exceptions. It’s a perfect equation. Death and Life are in an endless dead heat.

Not only do we instinctively not contemplate this fact, we also haven’t much help when we set out to do so. For life can be observed, put under a microscope, charted, categorised, and now even modified; but death merely is. Death is the blackness surrounding the sapphire, empty of answers, empty of light. Mystery abounds. As animas, we run from it. As scientists, we scratch our heads. As religionists, we take this stab or that, but (let’s be honest) unconvincingly. And when it happens, most of us get the “oh no” feeling in our gut. A sadness, a melancholy. A moment of quiet, when the subconscious does a check in: nothing lives for long.

This morning I went out to feed the chickens. While chickens are sentient beings they are not exactly majors in philosophy, so the death of a chicken is not something I deeply grieve. But this hen provided me with eggs, and ate pests in the soil, and made more than a few children smile. She sat still in her death, huddled in a corner of the coop, frozen in place like a lunar landscape. Wherever that chicken is, she is not there, not in that corpse. I thanked Providence for her (no apology, it’s just something I do), and buried her beside a blueberry bush. She is food now for the Earth, and for the dance of Life that weaves in and out of the cortege of Death, and that will continue.