This has been cross-posted at Witches and Pagans.
Scientists motivated by a deep love and fascination for the natural world share much of a Pagan sensibility about the world’s intrinsic value without our metaphysics, but with skills of observation many of us lack. This was an unexpected but happy insight I had while researching the role of Pagan religion in the modern world. Biologists are important teachers who can help us deepen our own understanding.
Bernd Heinrich is such a scientist, and his Life Everlasting: the animal way of death is a book I think every thoughtful Wiccan in particular would benefit from reading.
Heinrich is perhaps best known for his research into the intelligence of ravens. Many years ago when discussing an article he had written, he told me he had wanted to do his dissertation on ravens, but his adviser had recommended never doing a dissertation on something “that may be brighter than you are.” So he picked bumblebees from which his excellent Bumblebee Economics emerged.
Then he returned to ravens, and transformed our understanding of these fascinating birds.
Life Everlasting shares his fascination with and love for nature, but from a very different perspective: What are we to make of life’s greatest mystery: death? Initially inspired by a letter from a friend in declining health who wrote him about natural burial, an issue that both introduced the book and closed it, Life Everlasting goes well beyond this question. As Samhain approaches his insights are especially useful.
Heinrich starts his exploration with careful descriptions of what happens to organisms, from shrews to deer, once they die. The route by which they return to their constituent molecules, to contribute again to new life, is a fascinating one aided by other creatures usually considered too unimportant or icky for people to pay much attention. These organisms are the “undertakers” enabling the deceaseds ’ bodies to re-enter the “cycle of death into life.”
From his terrestrial examples to the rain of dead whales into the oceans’ depths of the oceans, Heinrich demonstrates life’s extraordinary dependence on what appears to be its opposite. For example, one third of the birds in Maine’s forests depend on dead trees for their homes, and often as a source of food, for they harbor undertaker grubs returning wood to the basic elements to reconstitute into new life. Rotting logs no longer able to house birds are themselves crucial enrichers of forest soil, “a complex, species-rich ecosystem that in some ways acts like an organism itself.” (128) Indeed, “insects, molds, bacteria, and beavers have engineered the most amazingly fool proof, the most effective and intricate, cooperative system solution to the death-into-life cycle of trees.” (130)
Heinrich discusses my favorite fish, the salmon, famous for dying after swimming thousands of miles to their home stream, to spawn and so begin another generation. Their deaths are programmed, for Pacific salmon in particular begin to disintegrate physically after spawning, if not even before.
As they die salmon enrich the waters in which their young will hatch and live, feeding the small life forms that will be their fry’s first food. Their offspring benefit from this enriched aquatic system as they enter into the risky task of living, the most fortunate to return, spawn, and die. Along the way every other element within the terrestrial ecosystem surrounding a salmon stream is also enriched. In this way salmon return to the land nutrients otherwise lost, washed down to the oceans. Superficially it seems a kind of heroic tragedy, but what we observe is really a give away, a natural potlatch. Here again death inseparably interlinks with life.
Probing still more deeply, Heinrich shows how death created the biosphere in which we live. Much of what is now the land on which we dwell was once living organisms. Heinrich argues the very sensitivities that make death a problem for us grew from in our unequalled capacity as hunters, who to succeed had to develop an empathetic understanding of animals. As I read this I was reminded of Aldo Leopold’s observation “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. . . . we, who have lost our [passenger] pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would have hardly mourned us.”
What is an organism and when does it cease to be?
Important as they are, for Heinrich these and many similar observations prepare the ground for a still deeper exploration. Viewed from a distance the distinction between the organism and what it is not, seems obvious. A closer look is less simple. What is it to be an organism and what is it for it to cease to exist? Neither answer is clear.
There are abundant examples of organisms that started off independently and became a part of a larger organism while still maintaining their distinct genome. Consider, he suggests, the mitochondria so crucial for every complex animal cell to survive and flourish, or the chloroplasts that enable plants to grow. They were once independent organisms derived from ancient bacteria or blue green algae that took up home within a larger cell, and learned not to so multiply as to burst it. (167) Today they cannot exist outside the cell, yet they possess separate genomes.
Are they an organism? They were once. Is the cell an organism? Are the cells that create tissues such as our muscles separate organisms? Are we ourselves, composed from collections of cells that are themselves collections of what were once separate beings, organisms or is something else going on at a deeper level?
Then there is the protozoan Englena gracilis, Its nucleus contains one set of genetic instructions, the mitochondria in its body contain another, and a third resides in its chloroplasts. When raised in the dark this protozoan lives as a scavenger, but in the light it lives as a plant. Is it the same organism? Yes and no.
Heinrich also brings up the fascinating phenomena of metamorphosis. To use his example, as a caterpillar transforms into a sphinx moth, within the chrysalis its body dissolves except for a tiny group of cells, and its contents are reconstructed into a radically different organism. The dominant theory is that metamorphosis has traditional evolutionary origins, which Heinrich contrasts to an alternative theory that the moth is in fact a different organism arising from a very ancient fusing of two into a chimeric hybrid. Later environmental changes allowed each genome to manifest in a new form.
I did some internet searching and this alternative explanation is currently mostly rejected by the scientific community. Pushing against the chimeric hypothesis is that apparently a moth can remember things it was taught as a caterpillar despite its components being almost completely dissolved within the pupa. But this raises fascinating questions as to where memory is stored. And scientists are increasingly finding chimeras even in human beings. What is certain is that metamorphosis blurs the distinction between individuals in an interesting way. Is it the same organism? Yes and no.
Which brings us to a topic where Heinrich explores less controversial ground. Human culture, “is like the chalk and limestone made from organisms of past ages. . . . It’s the residue of our knowledge, foibles, and aspirations that have accumulated over the ages. It’s the nonmaterial life that we absorb into our brains through our eyes and ears, the way plants absorb nutrients through their roots. . . . There is no clear boundary between physical and nonphysical recycling.” (178) Even more than our cities, our culture constitutes our ‘coral reef’.
Normally death recycles physical life into ever more varied forms, and normally the growth of human culture recycles human life into ever more complex forms as well. Organisms in either case are inseparable from constituting and being constituted by their environment, including environments they create. The biosphere as a whole is a magnificent act of co-creation through the intermediary of death.
Heinrich has created a foundation for a scientifically grounded pantheism. Life creates the foundations for its future growth and development. Life is both a physical and ‘mental’ force that for the most part lifts itself up by its own bootstraps, creating increasing parts of its supportive physical environment as well as its particular manifestations. Writing as a scientist, Heinrich stops short of asserting this final pantheistic step, although he explicitly leaves room for it and grants he thinks something of us survives physical death. But he makes no attempt to go farther.
I think pantheism is both implicit in his book and welcome to Wiccan readers seeking greater awareness of the meaning of our Wheel of the Year and of Samhain.
The usual objection to pantheism is that it denies the importance of human beings and our moral sense. This is not necessarily true.
There is still another level where Heinrich’s book can nurture our own thinking. Scientists universally agree consciousness is the “hard problem,” resisting efforts to reduce it to physical phenomena alone. Ironically scientists reject Biblical creation as creating something, the world, from nothing. Yet a successful reduction of consciousness from what is not conscious requires creating something, awareness, from nothing, its absence. Many of us think this is as impossible as the usual Biblical story, and for the same reasons. Awareness must itself in some sense be a basic quality of reality.
But if some kind of awareness is as much a characteristic of what constitutes the world as what manifests to us as matter, then not only does life lift itself up by its own bootstraps, it gradually enriches awareness in the same way that it enriches its physical environment.
Within a dualistic world greater self-awareness, whatever the ‘self’ might ultimately be, is a natural outgrowth of life’s growing complexity. To survive, organisms must always take a point of view, a perspective towards their environment, and to do so step onto a trajectory that can grow and complexify. If awareness is a basic constituent of reality, and in keeping with what we already know about phenomena such as quantum nonlocatlity and entanglement, there appears to be no intrinsic reason for such awareness to disappear with its physical support. These suggestions are strengthened by careful experiments in mental connections across space.
Death is not to be rushed any more than the caterpillar should seek prematurely to create its chrysalis. But our inevitable demise is very likely the culminating point of our lives. Here as well, death may play a central role in creating what Heinrich describes as “Life everlasting.”
And to return to the book’s beginning, green burial becomes one way we give back, that all that we physically are may continue the cycle of death into life.