Monday, October 15, 2012

…that thou art dust

Years ago, I spent a weekend at a gathering of nature writers on Martha's Vineyard with Bernd Heinrich, currently emeritus professor of biology at the University of Vermont. He struck me then as an extraordinarily interesting and talented man, an impression subsequently confirmed by his many books. These range from the technical to the lyrical. I don't think I have read any other writer who lives in closer communion with the natural world.

I bring up Heinrich because I have reached an age when it is incumbent upon me to leave instructions for the disposal of my body. I have no desire to be pumped full of toxic formaldehyde and put in the ground in a non-compostable box. The alternative is cremation and scattering of ashes in some sentimental place.

Well, ok. But then along comes Heinrich's newest book, Life Everlasting, about the myriad ways animals and plants recycle the nutrients of the dead. As always, Heinrich draws on his own close observations, at home and abroad. From the porch of his cabin in the Maine woods he watches the recycling of carcasses as small as a mouse and as big as a moose, by ravens, maggots, beetles and bacteria. If that sounds morbid, be assured that Heinrich finds occasion for lyricism and love.

Life from life is his theme. Life everlasting.

There are places in the world where human bodies are left outside, above ground, for carrion birds. But that's not an option here. I suspect it's even illegal to put an unembalmed body in shallow ground wrapped in a decomposable sheet, say, which would at least give burrowing rodents and insects, plant roots, fungi and bacteria a go at recycling. Which means that my demise will not be life to life -- like all other creatures -- but life to dust.