Let There Be Light! Easter and The 14′ Stihl Telescoping Gas Powered Pole Tree Pruner

stihlusa.com

In honor of Easter I’m following a Let There Be Light! theme in today’s post.

The first miracle?  Sunlight  now penetrates into areas of the property that haven’t seen it in over a decade (some of which probably still shouldn’t…oops) because last Saturday we rented a tree pruner and got totally carried away.  The loss of restraint may have been due to simple gloom-fatigue, but more likely it was because of the totally bitchen miniature chainsaw (seriously!! a tiny chainsaw!!) strapped to the end of a long pole that could reach anywhere.  Anywhere.

It was heady stuff.  Who knew that even itty bitty chainsaws can grant that level of intoxicating power?  The chore quickly turned into a kind of pruning Bacchanal, except no wine or naked women.  I believe we cut something off pretty much anything taller than four feet.  Redbuds, catalpas, blue spruce, photinias, apple and maple and peach, and then there was the mugo pine.  (God?  Please help the mugo pine.  We didn’t mean to hurt it like that and we’re really, really sorry.)  The little Stihl Beast cut through tree trunks like butter, apple wood like soft pine, and soft pine like a it was a down pillow exploding, only with wood chips instead of feathers.

We just couldn’t seem to stop.

(The mugo pine; going from five trunks down to two)

The bad news is we have to wait for the trees to leaf out to learn who survived and who didn’t.  But the good news is twofold: 1) The sun will shine on our happy home once more so I should be able to get a decent crop of vegetables again;

(Sugar peas and arugula seedlings: note the elegantly arranged chicken wire to keep out the hostiles)

…and 2) the drastic pruning created all kinds of carnage for the squirrel interstate highway system around and over the garden so maybe Dane the mangy rescue mutt will finally be able to catch a couple of them in his powerful, crunching jaws.  (As I mentioned before here, I currently feel no charity towards them.  None.  They declared war on me, so I will despise them and wish every conceivable kind of harm on the twitching rodent horrors until our usual winter’s truce returns.)  

In the meantime I have a lot of debris to clean up.  Because of time constraints and back pain we hauled anything that fell over into neighbors’ yards, to the dump.  Then we piled the rest into three (big!) piles: one on the driveway, one under what’s left of the mugo pine in the corner, and one in the middle of the lawn.  Why?  Because in spite of the fact that the hubster leans toward hauling the rest of it to the landfill as well, I’m hell bent and determined to chop it all up and use it for kindling and firewood in the wood stove next winter.

Why am I hell bent?  I don’t know.  I just have to.  It’s one of those things.

So five days later I’m about two thirds of the way through the first pile on the lawn.  The hubster is twitching a little himself as he worries about the grass slowly dying underneath, but still refrains from pressuring me.  (Saint Hubster: patron saint of obsessive compulsives.)

I’m doing it all with hand pruners and loppers, cutting each individual piece to sixteen inches or less.  (Again…I don’t know why.)  I’m piling everything against the back fence where it can dry out in the hot, summer, high desert sun so as to readily ignite come next November.

(Looks like salad, no?)

But enough of that.  Now, on to the second miracle.  In spite of last weekend’s widespread destruction, we still managed to preserve and protect the perennial gifts of hope, rebirth, and new life (thereby following a loose Easter theme), that Spring has brought back to the garden this year.  Here are a couple things I found blooming around the garden this morning:

(rain drops on bleeding heart)

(miniature iris with a cluster of hens and chicks on the left)

(and some tulips nestled among the up and coming daylilies)

Blessings on all your gardens and families and Happy Easter!

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

When extraordinary forces act upon mere humans beings (even if we don’t want them to.)


NASA photo: Solar particles interacting with Earth’s magnetosphere.

Nine times out of ten when a person found out that I worked with hospice they’d stare at me wide-eyed and say I could never do that. But I was never fooled by this.  Of course they could.  Anybody can.  Bathing, dressing, and toileting are not rocket science.  They don’t require rare tools or four hands.

I always knew what people really meant was I never WANT to do that…a sentiment which, while perfectly normal and near-universally shared, is irrelevant.

Life is full of things we don’t want to do but at some point wind up doing anyway.  And sometimes, much to our surprise, when the time comes we wind up doing them gladly.  It’s important to remember that, no matter how skillfully we hide, sooner or later we’re probably going to be dragged back out of our hole and plumped down beside the death bed of someone we love anyway.  And once we’re there, yes, of course we’ll be as rumpled, wild-haired, and sleep-deprived as everyone else who ever sat by a death bed before us.

But here’s the thing.  With as hard and devastating as it’s likely to be, we’ll also probably experience that same unexpected, fierce moment when we completely forget about how we never wanted to be there, because all we now feel is a throbbing, shattering gratitude that we are. That we get to hang on for dear life to their hand one last time and whisper how deeply, how much, we will always, always love them.

Y’know, there’s nothing wrong with the profound and irreparable wounding that comes to us through our great love for one another.  Far from it.  This wounding is essential and deeply human.  We’re supposed to be dragged under and scarred sometimes.  It’s a big part of what helps save us from the aching emptiness of a shallow life.  I’m not trying to mislead anyone here—all beauty aside, dying and its accompanying losses tend to be brutal for everyone involved.

But I’m telling you, somehow every single person I worked with went right ahead and navigated the journey anyway…and I can’t begin to tell you how much that one, simple fact floored me.  At first I couldn’t quite believe it.  Then later, as I watched each one of those ordinary, average, regular, everyday people negotiate an event with a destructive power equal to any earthquake or solar flare, I experienced a growing sense of both wonder and indignation.

Wonder at how infinitely much stronger we are than I’d previously understood.  And indignation that somehow, somewhere along the line, I’d been lead to believe we weren’t.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Refugee Spiders Helping To Protect Pakistanis From Malaria

Here’s an odd and wonderful story.

Wired UK posted an article today about one of the stranger consequences of the major flooding that took place in Pakistan in 2010.  Evidently, there are submerged areas of the country where the threatened spider population took to the trees and spun draping canopies of webbing which completely cover them.  If you love great photography go take a look at the eerie, beautiful pictures included with the article.

But the most amazing part of the story is the report from Britain’s Department for International Development who is currently working there in Pakistan.  They say there are far fewer malaria carrying mosquitoes in the vicinity of these trees, in spite of the standing, stagnant water surrounding them.

The concentrated spider populations are helping to control the burgeoning mosquito population.  How’s that for a lovely side effect?  This strange partnership between trees and spiders is creating living, arboreal shields against disease for the people living nearby.

I love this; how tragedy can transform a creature we usually regard as a danger and/or a household pest into a profound gift of protection.   I’ll remember this the next time I pick up a shoe to crush one, and instead catch it in a jar and place it carefully outside…in honor of its little, eight-footed Pakistani brethren who are (however unintentionally) protecting my own devastated and suffering brethren across the world.

One small way of gratefully participating in the web of life.  (No pun intended.)

Photo UK Department for International Development

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Squirrels and Spring: The War Begins Anew

The Enemy

The little shits.  I just discovered they’ve gone and bitten most of the flower buds off the espaliered apple and pear trees I planted three years ago.  This…the fourth year…would have been my first to actually get some fruit off these trees, but now?  There will be nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  Zilch.

No flowers, no fruit.  I’m beaten before the season even started.

Squirrels.  I hate them again.  I spit to the side after saying their name.  I bite my nails at them, chop my elbow and flick my fingers in the air.    I suddenly remember everything they did to the garden last year (every year!) and abhor them with the same passionate loathing I feel in the beginning of each new spring.  My animosity towards them resurrects like some dark and toxic perennial plant, the longer days and increasing warmth calling it forth from its long, winter dormancy.  I recently received a wondrous book for my birthday, The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale, and I turn now to look up hatred because this terrible lust for vengeance I feel requires long and sharpened words on which to impale the little, rodent horrors.

Malevolent, bitter, venomous, antipathy. They are abominations. An execration upon the land. And I hold them, my enemies, in eternal aversion and disaffection.

Take that.

It’s so strange, how this resumption of hostilities takes me by surprise every year.  I’m not sure how it happens but, every winter, I seem to mysteriously forget the previous year’s vandalism and begin to think they’re cute again.  Probably because they are, with their flicking tails and miniature hands and adorable, pointed little faces.  During the season of Long Cold I somehow forget how they laid waste to my peach harvest and bit the heads off every last sunflower and ate my bean sprouts just as they were emerging above ground.  The fact that they gnawed vast patches of bark off our trees and dug up the potted plants and chewed big holes in the tool shed eaves slips my mind and instead, I enjoy watching them hop around the porch, nosing among the fallen bird seed and coming up to peek at me through the sliding glass door.

In winter they’re like a meditation, these tiny gifts of life itself.  A reverie.  A delight.  A lovely, hope-filled reprieve from an otherwise bleak and dreary  garden hibernation.  And then?  Spring comes…poof!…and their true nature reveals itself as they start mindlessly destroying things like the furry, four-footed Jekyll and Hydes they are.  Warm and fuzzy one second, then fanged and slavering the next.

So the battle resumes.  Time to go load up on packages of carpet tack strips to tie along the branches of the peach tree and run some electric wire along anything espaliered.  I need to make more muslin bags to cover the grape clusters as the gray monsters chewed holes through a majority of them last year, but I think I still have enough chicken wire to protect the veggie beds until the seedlings reach a stage where they’re no longer so enticing.

And last but not least, as the most important weapon in my arsenal, I have the squirrel-catapult-is-awful-yet-we-can’t-look-away video.  (Click top video if you, too, need release.) And just so you know, this time of year I make no apology (none!) for laughing oh-so-hysterically when I watch this.  Firstly because, as I mentioned in last year’s squirrel rant, I once saw one fall fifty feet out of a tree in our backyard, stand up, brush its pants off, and light a cigarette.  You can’t injure these things.  C’est impossible. But second and more important, even the squirrels are glad I have an alternate outlet for the violent emotions I feel towards them right now.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

Lovely, lovely birds

We have a little flocking thing going on out under the bird feeder right now.  Little red headed finch-like birds, some Oregon juncos with full black foliage on their heads that makes them look like tiny lions, a couple turtledoves, and then three medium-sized black birds with red bars on their shoulders, kind of like red-wing blackbirds but smaller and sleeker.  The scene reminds me of Noah’s ark, only with just birds.  And no boat.  Or water.  Or disaster.

Nicer actually.

They flew away in a panic when I got up to grab the camera so I took a photo of this little fellow instead.  Ceramic Blue Bird with no feet, who kind of reminds me of the Velveteen Rabbit that way.  Only a bird.  And harder.  And breakable.   I forgot and left it on the ground when I was done and now an Oregon Junco-like-a-lion hopped up to peck at the sunflower seed shells on the ground next to it.   I suspect that Ceramic Blue Bird wants to hop around and peck, too, but can’t.  The no-feet thing again.

But I don’t care about that.  I think even imaginary birds are lovely.

The Worst Kind of Natural Disaster

With Japan’s ongoing crisis very much on my mind right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about natural disasters in general.  Most regions are vulnerable to some kind of disaster and, usually depending on how recent the last one was, the people who live in them wind up developing both a deep-seated fear about theirs and an emergency plan to help them survive it when it comes.

When I lived in Iowa I always had an ear cocked for the wailing of tornado sirens at the onset of a violent storm.  In Southern California I dutifully bolted bookcases and water heaters to the wall in case of a possible earthquake.  In Hawaii as a youngster I learned all the warning signs and action steps for surviving a tsunami, and living in Idaho today the hubster and I have supplies and an evacuation plan set up in case a catastrophic fire ever sweeps through our neighborhood (as one nearly did last summer.)

This basic disaster reality is everywhere.  The Gulf coast has hurricanes, the communities along the Mississippi river are prone to floods, Boonville, New York gets buried under record snowfall every year…

a bad year

and North Dakota see wind chills in winter that can equal the flanks of Mt. Everest.

But in Quinault, Washington, where we just spent a week at the southern end of Olympic National Park, I witnessed the residents living with a niche type of natural disaster that’s particularly unique.  These people live with the ever present danger of falling trees.

No.  Wait.  Let me rephrase.  Falling big trees.  Huge.

The tiny community is nestled in the Valley of the Giants, so named for the towering Douglas firs, western hemlocks, western red cedars and sitka spruces that fill the valley.  These behemoths are spawned by the twelve to fifteen feet of precipitation the area gets each year.  (That’s right.  I said feet.)  In fact, the Quinault Valley is home to six of the largest living trees of their species on record.  Short of the sequoias and redwoods farther south, trees just don’t get a lot bigger than this.

Me in the middle, standing on the root of a Sitka spruce that’s over 1,000 years old.

In other, dryer places trees are considered large if they reach a hundred feet.  But around Quinault, a hundred feet is just the point where branches start on the older Douglas Firs.

What it felt like in there.

It was like time traveling, walking around under a fern-laced, moss-draped canopy like that.  The light is filtered, soft, green, and primeval.  If you ever doubted that water is indeed life I highly recommend a visit to this place because wandering around the area was like watching the life cycle in hyper-drive—bursting, spurting, reckless growth delicately balanced with every conceivable form of sagging, creeping, bulbous decay.  It was heady stuff, and fascinating.  A wee bit unnerving at times but utterly breathtaking, too.

It changes one, being underneath it for a while.  I’m not quite sure how, it just does.

Anyway, apart from their staggering beauty these giant trees have a lesser known, scarier quality.  Because most of the ground water in the rain forest is contained in the top three feet of the land, that’s as deep as their root systems grow.  Horizontally, they spread out over mind boggling distances, but vertically, they don’t bother because there isn’t anything they need down there.

But wait, you might think.  What about stability?  Don’t they need deeper roots to keep them from falling over? Well, that seems logical enough if you’re thinking like a human.  Our species lives by the belief that surviving to the oldest possible age is a valuable goal.  But the rainforest trees of the Quinault Valley have a completely different agenda which includes eventually toppling over while they’re still alive and relatively resource rich.  Because if they don’t, new, baby trees won’t be able to grow down on the forest floor.

You see, the reason most of the ground water is held at the top is because there’s a three-foot thick layer of moss and fungus lying between the air and the earth.  This layer serves as a sponge and can hold a tremendous amount of water (which, trust me, is necessary in a place that gets twelve plus feet of it a year.) But there isn’t as much in the way of dirt and nutrients available in this layer so seeds falling to the ground have little chance of putting on significant growth without some kind of additional support.

This is where the falling trees come in.  Not only do they provide an elevated surface, but as they settle and begin to decompose all the nutrients and other resources stored in their wood become available, so seeds falling on their trunks and branches have everything they need to get a good start in life.  These fallen trees are called nurse logs because they literally become giant nurseries for the future generations of forest life.

A fairly new mom.

Below is a picture of what the middle stage of a tree’s growth looks like.  This is an initially successful Douglas fir with roots working down the sides (of a nurse stump in this case) to establish themselves permanently in the forest floor.  I’m not sure why all the moss and other growth was stripped off here…kind of disturbing actually…but it reveals the process.   Sorry the photo’s a little fuzzy but this was taken with a camera phone.

And finally, here’s a photo of the bottom of an older tree after the original nurse log has completely disintegrated.  It was fascinating to see how all the big trees had multiple “legs” at the bottom like this.  This is what those skinny, snaking little roots grow to look like years later.

I admit, the generosity built into this kind of life cycle takes my breath away.  I love the idea of elders giving back everything they’ve managed to collect and contain over the years to nourish the younger life just getting started.  It makes more sense to me than the way it’s so often done in the human world, where increasingly our resources are directed toward the aging and children are left to bear the brunt of the resulting scarcity.

So, getting back to the original narrative of a falling-trees-natural-disaster, what is it that eventually knocks these gigantic puppies over?  Well, there are hurricanes that come in off the Pacific ocean periodically and the winds they generate knock down trees.  Small hurricanes take out smaller trees.  Medium hurricanes take out medium ones.  Big hurricanes knock over some of the big ones.  And then every hundred years or so you get a monster hurricane, and that’s when the giants can start coming down.

The last monster hurricane hit in December of 2007 and it just so happened that the hubster and I showed up in Quinault a scant three months later for our first-ever visit to the rain forest.  Driving into the area we had no idea what had just happened.  Strangely, there was almost no mention of the local impact of the gale in regional news coverage at the time, which seemed really strange considering the extent of the devastation both to the forests and the human communities along this stretch of coast.  (I imagine that, because it’s a rural area, there weren’t enough people impacted to be considered newsworthy.)

We couldn’t figure it out at first.  Driving up the coast from Oregon on our way to Quinault we noticed that a significant number of houses and buildings in every coastal town we drove through had extensive roof damage.  Blue tarps covering big holes were everywhere.  Then, as we turned inland, we drove past entire hillsides that looked like some kind of huge buzz saw had gone through.  In these places, literally all the trees were snapped off midway, like matchsticks, every single one, but we just figured the timber industry had come through and done a really shitty job of clear cutting.  (Sorry guys.) It wasn’t until we checked in at the Lake Quinault Lodge and started chatting up the locals that we learned about the real nightmare.

Evidently they’d had no warning in Quinault.  The local Forest Service had mistakenly forecast 50 mph winds for their area so everyone assumed they were looking at an ordinary storm.  They made no additional efforts to prepare for what was actually coming.  When the strongest winds hit, (sustained 100+ winds for about twenty minutes or so) some said it sounded like a fleet of jet airliners were all coming in to land simultaneously.  Others just described the sound as deafening. They all remembered that you could hear the trees crashing down through the forest like explosions, and that there wasn’t a house in the area that escaped unscathed.

Before the winds had gotten really bad, when the locals still believed they were dealing with an ordinary storm, there was a small crew of men who set off in a truck with chainsaws to clear the two mile stretch of road out to the main highway.  Six trees had fallen across the road early in the storm and the locals hopped in the truck thinking it was road-clearing business as usual.  But once they finally cleared the road all the way to the highway, they turned around to discover eight more big trees had fallen behind them that they had to clear to get home again.  They made it back safely, but with more trees falling behind them the whole way.

On that trip we talked a lot with the brand new owners of the little local mercantile (built back in the 1920’s) across the street who told us their story.  They said that once they realized how dangerous the storm had become, they decided to evacuate  over to the Lodge for more protection.  The wife had run upstairs to their apartment over the store to grab a few things when the 200 foot Sitka Spruce on the hillside behind them gave way, crashing down right on top of her.  The only thing that saved her life was the old, stone chimney running up the back of the building.  The tree hit it dead center, miraculously stopping it from completely crushing the store, but a large branch broke through the roof striking her in the head and knocking her out temporarily.  When she came to she discovered she was trapped and had to wait for her panicked husband and a few other men to cut her out.

During that first visit we stayed for two weeks and the hubster and I had ample time to wander around and soak in the aftermath.  A lot of the trails were either partially or completely closed.  Indeed, sometimes the forest had just collapsed on top of them.

There was one section in particular where a microburst had ripped about a mile long path of devastation through the trees.  Here’s what one section looked like in 2007.  A few months earlier this was dense, lush rain forest.

And here’s what another part of the area looked like last week:

A lot of the debris that originally buried the creek was washed away by successive spring run-offs in this spot, but there were other areas where we still couldn’t see the creek for all the fallen trees.  We could hear it though, and then watch where it reemerged later downstream.

And here’s a picture from 2008 of what it looks like when one of the big trees gets snapped off near the base.

Fast forward to 2011 and it was fascinating to return and see all the ways the forest has been healing itself from the carnage.  We took the same trails we’d taken before and there is now a layer of moss, algae, fungi and ferns softening all the ragged, shattered edges that were so fresh on our last visit.  There are new trees sprouting out of the many fallen trunks, and all the giant root systems that were ripped out of the ground and left exposed (some of them fifteen feet tall) are slowly transforming into beautiful, vertical walls of moss, trapped stones, and epiphytes.

I’m happy to say there’s also some healing taking place among the human population, but it’s gradual.  The wife trapped by the falling Sitka Spruce was the only person to sustain any physical injuries during the hurricane, but the deep mental and emotional scarring that took place was distributed more evenly.  Everybody who went through it has PTSD.   Everyone.  You can see it in their eyes whenever they hear a strong gust of wind, the uneasy way they turn to look out a window or peer up into the swaying tree tops.  The man who was supposed to lead a group of us on a guided tour around the lake canceled it an hour beforehand because the forecast was calling for possible high winds and nobody there likes to take chances anymore.  Honestly, by the end of this trip I was starting to feel a little nervous myself as a big storm rolled in off the ocean the day before we left.  I caught myself glancing up into the canopy to gauge the strength of the wind as my pace picked up on the way to the car.

I think we’re designed to learn from one another like that.  I think it’s hard-wired into our brains to listen and observe the people we meet when we travel, especially in new, unfamiliar zones that lie outside our ordinary range of experience.  A couple days after the Japanese tsunami struck I heard a professor being interviewed on the news about everyone’s horrified fascination with all the images being broadcast.  He said we do it, at least in part, because there’s an enormous amount of information encoded in those kinds of images.  Biologically we’re all deeply wired to survive and that’s why, unconsciously, we’re always scanning the horizon for possible threats and any information we can glean about how to survive them.

There have been a few times since we returned home, as I’ve watched the tsunami coverage, that my mind has gone back to the two days we spent strolling along the beaches of the Washington coastline.  We’d discovered rare pathways down the cliffs and then walked along the shoreline for hours, enjoying the sand and rocks, playing in the swell of water as it rushed up to our feet and then retreated again.  Even though there are signs along every coastal highway indicating tsunami evacuation routes, we never once seriously considered that such a monster wave might come while we were there ourselves.  That it might catch us unaware, rolling up while we were lost in our long, relaxing reverie of salt spray and sea gull cries, sweeping us right off the narrow, exposed stretch of beach we were exploring between water and cliff.

I’ve considered it since though, as I’ve watched the footage from Japan, and that professor is right.  I’ve gleaned enough information from the images to realize that if a 9.0 earthquake had happened off the coast of Washington instead, a few days earlier while we were there, the resulting tsunami would have swept us away.  The hubster and I would have vanished and no one would ever have known for sure what happened to us.

Looking into the face of that kind of stark reality is sobering.  I’ve had the wild, frightened thought a couple of times that, on our next trip, I won’t return to the beaches at all.  Just in case.  It’s in those moments that I have to make myself remember.  Make myself step back and say, Wait a second, Dia.  How much are you willing to sacrifice  here to be safe? Am I really going to give up the ocean, or hiking through rain forests, just to be safe from tsunamis and falling trees?  And if I’m willing to give those up, where else won’t I go?  Anywhere where there might be an earthquake?  A hurricane?  A typhoon?  Anywhere where I might fall or freeze or burn or be eaten by wild animals?  Anywhere where I could possibly be mugged or raped or otherwise terrorized?  Just how small am I willing to allow my world to get before the ensuing suffocation makes my life not worth living anymore?

Again.

And that, my friends, is the real kicker.  I’ve already been to that place.  I’ve already lived in the weird, terrifying world of phobia and creeping paralysis and, between you and me, I think falling into that abyss is the worst kind of natural disaster that can happen to somebody.  The fact that it’s internal doesn’t make it any less real or devastating, and the fact that nobody else can see the destruction doesn’t make the struggle to recover from it easier or less necessary.

The Great Gale of 2007 is long over but even so, during each subsequent storm, those who survived it are experiencing another sliver of it again.  For them, that storm is still real and, inside them, aftershocks are still happening.  Its ghost is alive and well.  The great tsunami that just devastated northern Japan is now over, too, but the ghost wave it left in its wake will be alive and haunting that land for a long time to come.   That’s just the way an internal disaster works.  They’re longer and slower and more ephemeral.  They can also be trickier to rebuild from, than the ones that happen on the outside.

But it can be done.  For me, over time as the fears have receded and I’ve started to recover, I’ve discovered a lot of nurse log-type activity going on inside.  The years of depression and agoraphobia were unquestionably destructive, and a lot of my old life was toppled over and swept away during the worst of that illness.  But even so, these days there’s some fascinating new growth coming up out of the hopeless, twisted, tangle of what my world used to be.  I’m considering things, experiencing little sprouts of hope and ingenuity that, during the worst, I believed would never be possible again.  Maybe these little sprouts will someday grow up to be big trees of their own or maybe they won’t.  I know that another wave of depression could always come along and sweep me out to sea again because that’s the risk of the region I live in now, but deep down inside me I’m not sure that would really matter anyway.  I’m beginning to suspect what’s most important is the fact that I’ve been able to endure, survive, and live at all.  For however long it lasts.

Because isn’t that just the thing about life?  Whatever winds up happening with me, with any of us individually for that matter, Life itself will never stop because it has an endless capacity to reroute.   Sure, accepting the details of that rerouting sometimes involves my having to step back and expand my view a lot, having to accept that life is something far bigger than just my life.  Life is actually our life, something we all get to participate in for a little while together, and something we all still continue contributing to after we’re gone.

It’s like how the pattern of old growth tree roots reveal the place where the nurse log that gave them life once lay.  In a thousand, million different ways, large and small, we all wind up as nurse logs for this world and for each other; each of us profoundly effecting and altering what’s around us during the brief but blazing time we’re here.  I think the magnitude of our impact is far, far greater than we’ll probably ever understand, and that our gifts to this world will never be wiped away because they’re far too necessary to ever waste like that.  On the contrary they’re transformed; reabsorbed and used to nourish all the generations of life that follow, life that wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t existed here for a little while ourselves.

My prayers go out for everyone who died–everyone who is still dying–in Japan, and I send my wishes for deepening strength, resilience, and healing for all those who ultimately survive them.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

A Quick Note From Mars

We ran away from home because we forgot to celebrate our anniversary last month.  So we decided to tack it on to my birthday this month and do a double blowout celebration to make up for it.  We’ve come to the Olympic rain forest with it’s gigantic, moss draped vining maples, thousand year old cedar trees, 300 foot tall Douglass firs, and 140 – 167 inches of average precipitation a year (much of it in the form of fog drip.)

We love it here.  It’s like going to another planet.  Because I don’t have much time to write this week I thought I’d post some photos and videos instead.  The first couple of days we spent on the coast among the miles and miles of driftwood stacks that get piled up there by ocean storms.  The driftwood gets sizeable…

…and goes on forever.

We sat for about an hour and a half waiting for this big one to be washed out to sea.

It never happened.

On the drive out through the Columbia River Gorge, we stopped (as we always do) to hike up a side valley full of waterfalls.

This is Wahclella Falls.  ‘Nuff said.  The video speaks for itself.

We’re staying at Lake Quinault Lodge which was built in the 1930’s and made famous by visits from President Roosevelt.

It overlooks (wait for it…wait for it…) Lake Quinault.

And lastly here’s a photo of the traditional painting style of the indigenous peoples.  This was painted on the backside of an overgrown boathouse facing the lake of all places.

One never knows where treasure of this sort will turn up.

That’s it for tonight.  I’ll do a wrap up with more photos once we return home.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

A View From The Edge (Part II)

“Lunar Eclipse” by Lorin Kline (my son)

(Last week in Part I I described the forces that drove me high into the mountains for a three-day rendezvous with my deepest fears.  This is the continuing excerpt from the book, Chapter 5.  Dia)

While the list of things scaring me was varied and long, when I arrived at my campsite I discovered one fear in particular standing head and shoulders above the rest.  More than all else, hands down, the prospect of the sun setting terrified me.

There was something so final about it.  I was all alone. Cal had chosen a spot about five miles away and there was no way to communicate with him, no satellite phone or flare or even matches with which to build a signal fire. The trailhead where we’d left the truck was only a two-hour hike away, but without a flashlight I was unable to traverse the steeply forested, snow-slick, north side of the mountain I was on in the dark.  If I panicked I had no weapon to wave wildly at the night, no back door, no safety-net.  Once darkness fell I’d move beyond the reach of any help and for the next eight hours or so, whatever came into my circle I’d have to face.

Which is exactly what I’d intended of course.  Back home it seemed like such a good idea.

Struggling to control the impulse for white-eyed, foaming flight I forced myself to sit down on my sleeping bag facing west.  I called on the desperation that had driven me up there in the first place and made myself watch, eyes unaverted, as the sun dropped towards the peaks, observed as the light around me faded and thinned—and in the process discovered something surprising.

You may not know this but it turns out night doesn’t fall.  It rises.  Shadows start at the bottom, puddling and pooling in the hollows and roots like water and then filling things up from there.  Initially, I was suspicious as I watched the darkness climbing out of the valley towards me, enveloping each boulder, bush and bare spot in its path.  But eventually some subconscious, nightmare expectation in my mind relaxed and I realized there wouldn’t be any eerie wailing or flapping of leathery wings, nothing with foul breath descending on me from above and behind.  The big, bad dark was not coming to get me after all.  On the contrary, as the night shadow rose higher the world grew hushed and peaceful, feeling—rather than a monster—more like some great mother coming to tuck her children into bed.

I watched as she enfolded everything in a calming embrace and when the shadow finally reached my toes I sat stock-still, observing the light that bathed me fade as the sun sank behind the mountains.  Suddenly, I felt excited and couldn’t wait to change into my long underwear, brush my teeth, and climb into my good-to-15 degrees-below-zero sleeping-bag.

I zipped around and still had enough time, after climbing into my bag, to watch as the last rays of light disappeared from the higher ring of mountain peaks that surrounded me.  Everything terrestrial was now encased in the beginning shadows of twilight but it would take a couple more hours for everything to move into full darkness.  I lay there, looking up at the fading blue of the sky and realized that the shadow was still reaching skyward, enfolding even the air, molecule by molecule, and as I watched the darkness deepen in tiny degrees I began to tingle at the thought of seeing the stars.

Back in the Sierra Nevadas during the long nights of my survival training course, while lying there looking up at the brilliant, twinkling worlds spread out above me, I’d slipped into a state of quiet, serene delight.  Feeling like no matter what happened everything would still be all right, that I was safe and cradled in ways that defy explanation.  As the memories of those nights came flooding back I grew excited–couldn’t wait to feel that sense of well being again–but since I knew it would be a while yet, in the meantime I turned to gaze at the deepening shadows on the ground around me.

My enthusiasm swiftly unraveled as I watched the things of this world, the trees and mountain peaks, flitting birds, the carpet of dusty pine needles and stones, the three plastic water jugs and backpack I brought with me, disappearing into the gathering darkness.  The horrified, creeping fear returned as I felt myself being cut off and isolated, stripped of everything familiar, and I began to wonder again if something would come out of that dark unknown to get me during the night–a cougar, a drunken hunter, a wave of bone-chilling cold, a demon.  I frantically reminded myself of the stars that were coming as I turned my eyes back up to the deepening darkness of the sky.

And it was in that moment, as I lay trembling and unexpectedly longing for the darkness of full night to arrive, that I had my revelation.  In a flash I recognized a truth that seems so obvious now but that I’d somehow completely missed.

Both the light and the darkness conceal and reveal.  The light reveals the ordinary world around us.  It gives us one another and makes everything seem smaller and more manageable, wrapping us in a bright and sunny cocoon because as mortals we’re tiny and fragile and need a sense of protection.  But it conceals, too.  It creates the illusion of a blue sky, a ceiling, a world that has limits and is safe and known and predictable.

It isn’t until night arrives that this seductive illusion of containment dispels.  The darkness comes swallowing everything in its shadow,  tugging us away from the usual daylight edges we cling to with white-knuckled fingers until there, in our moment of greatest fear and isolation, it tenderly unveils the larger truth…that we’re cradled, floating in infinity.

The insight was blinding.  Even though it didn’t alter the basic realities of the situation–I was still all by myself out in the middle of nowhere exposed and trapped–it transformed the darkness from a terrifying, alien thing I had to outsmart and survive into a bringer of gifts and grace.  I felt as though I’d reluctantly entered the enemy’s camp only to discover it wasn’t an enemy at all.  It was an ancient, lovely world of starlit depths that had been longing for me, calling me home for years.

A decade of depression slipped away as I fell into an exhausted sleep and, when I woke back up again a few hours later, a twinkling universe stretched out above me.  The soft radiance bathed me as I lay there and quietly wept under the steady, pulsing of starlight.

(Next week, the conclusion.)

copyright Dia Osborn 2010

A View From The Edge, Part I

It’s tax season and I’m buried.  No time for writing much of anything but expletives on the bathroom wall, so the next few posts will be an excerpt from the book.  I’d love to know what you think!

Chapter 5:  A View From The Edge

Journal entry:

…I lay there on the hard ground in the cold and dark, peering up into a universe unimaginably deep, and watched as the stars shifted and flowed across the heavens.  I was comforted—remembering I’m a part of something far bigger than just this ordinary, deeply beloved world.  And it’s like that for me, again, in the dying world.  Where I get the opportunity to peek out beyond this small life, if even just for a moment, at something that’s both so vast and yet impossibly, delightfully hidden most of the time–disguised by our bodies and abilities, memories and choices.

By everything we keep mistaking as ourselves.

With the advent of palliative and hospice care we’ve seen the first glimmers of change but, by and large, the modern, western medical paradigm still looks at dying as a failure and a waste.  The metaphor I hear employed most frequently outside of hospice, by medical professionals, media, friends and neighbors, is that death is the enemy and all of us must wage a war against it.  Either individually within our own, dear body or as a group using the big guns of scientific advancement and policy change.  The metaphor of war is a powerful one, invaluable for generating the will necessary to marshal our resources for a single minded, all out attempt to get better–to survive and thrive as an individual or a society.

But what many don’t realize is that the cost of a martial metaphor is a high one.  In a war whose sole aim is to preserve life, those who perish anyway die as casualties and losers.

It was always difficult to watch—the myriad ways this sense of failure manifested in the people I helped care for.  Some felt bewildered and abandoned by a system that only seemed interested if there was still a possibility of cure.  Others, that dying was their own fault and a punishment of some kind—because they didn’t get a second opinion, have more insurance, take better care of themselves, screen often enough or for the right disease.  Some felt unlucky because they didn’t respond to the drugs or treatment the way they were supposed to.  Others felt guilty because they’d just grown too exhausted and frail to fight anymore.

It seemed more than a little strange to me.  Dying is already such hard work.  Why in the world would we adopt a way of looking at it that actually increases the suffering involved?  Perhaps it’s the natural outcome of our separating dying from life, of deeming the first as a terrible and monstrous thing and the second as our only sanctuary from it.  Whatever the cause, an unintended outcome of focusing wholly on the protection and preservation of life—of regarding our natural transition into death as a sinister and horrible collapse—is that we’re unwittingly multiplying everything about dying we fear most.

It’s ironic. While the duration and quality of life have unquestionably improved over the last century, the quality of dying has been in a corresponding decline.  All our efforts to delay and defeat death have unintentionally prolonged the process so that it now takes longer than ever.  It involves new and novel layers of suffering caused by an ever-multiplying array of interventions, requires increasingly complex—sometimes unbearable–choices, and costs so much more that it frequently not only strips surviving loved ones of any remaining resources but leaves them crushed under a staggering burden of debt.

Over the years I noticed that frequently, especially in the case of a last minute referral, by the time a dying person and their loved ones washed downriver to us, we were among the first people they’d encountered who weren’t afraid of the mists gathering around them.  Every good hospice team has a host of important jobs to do but one of the first is the simple act of trying to normalize what’s taking place, to convey in both words and demeanor that in fact, everything is still okay.  We see and welcome whoever it is wholeheartedly because they are, regardless of what’s happening, still alive and vibrant and real.  If there’s enough time, if they’ve been referred for end-of-life care early enough, that wild, spinning-out-of-control feeling people so often experience in the deteriorating pursuit of a cure has a chance to stabilize, allowing them to find firmer ground so they can return to the rest of their lives.  It can make all the difference between someone fully embracing whatever time they have left or just gritting their teeth while sliding over the cliff.

I began to wonder if the transition from living to dying need be quite this traumatic.  Could there be some way to weave the acceptance of dying still largely unique to hospice and end-of-life care into the branches of medicine which focus primarily on cure?   I started casting about in my mind for a bigger metaphor than that of war I could employ, one that would contain both my longing and reverence for life as well as a deeper wisdom and regard for death.

Something that would not only arouse and inspire me to live but also reassure and cradle me when I die.

*          *          *

In the fall of 2001, after years of navigating the ups and downs of a deep depression, I decided to try a new and novel treatment option.  I was nearly paralyzed again—all the diverse and multiplying anxieties that had flourished in me over time eventually consolidating into a single, more efficient terror of just leaving the house—and one day it occurred to me that I was at a threshold.  I was either going to have to take some drastic, even reckless action to counter the trend or else surrender to life as a shut-in.

So the day my husband suggested that we hike into the mountains separately for a spiritual retreat, to spend three days and three nights alone with God at 9,000 feet in autumn during bow-hunting season without flashlight, fire, or food, something desperate leaped up inside me shrieking YEEEES! Cal had been doing this kind of thing for years, had invited me to join him every time he’d gone in the past, but somehow it never held much allure for me.  So it took him off guard at first when I agreed–he thought I was just messing with him.  But once he realized I was serious he became so excited that later, when I came to my senses, I didn’t have the heart to back out.

To be honest though, deep down I didn’t want to back out.  I’d reached the point where the constant, chronic fear I was living with finally seemed worse than anything that could conceivably happen.  It no longer sounded as bad to me; freezing to death, being impaled on a stray arrow, mauled by a drought-starved bear, trampled by a rutting, bull elk, falling off a cliff, going into hypoglycemic shock from lack of food, burning alive in a forest fire, being struck by lightning, buried in a snowstorm, or captured and toyed with in unspeakable ways by some caricature of a deep-woods crazy. Nothing I imagined anymore could possibly be worse than spending the rest of my life locked in the bedroom cowering under a blanket.  It had become unbearable, losing access to everything I loved drip by drip, the slow suffocation of walls closing in.  The time had come to summon all my fears to sit down in a circle with me–time to either break the back of the depression or die trying–and frankly, I didn’t care anymore which one.

It can be both a devastating and invigorating place to reach, the feeling there’s no longer anything left to lose.

Next week:  Chapter 5 Part II

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

“They’re Here…” Wolves Near Boise.

Gray Wolf

Well then.  Here’s an interesting development.  The news broke day before yesterday that two wolves took down a cow about a mile west of where I regularly take Dane up hiking in the hills.  Suddenly, the highly controversial subject of wolf reintroduction and management here in Idaho has come remarkably close to home.  (Our home.  About five miles to be exact.)

Residents of Eagle are a little uneasy right now, with some of those living north of town bringing in their horses and other livestock for protection.  The department responsible for dealing with problem wolves in Idaho is USDA Wildlife Services and so far, in spite of numerous flyovers, they haven’t been able to locate the two wolves believed to be responsible for killing the cow.

Which then begs the question:  Do I want to take Dane up there for his afternoon romp today?

Actually, I’m not really asking myself that.  Of course I’ll take him.  I’ve been hiking up in the mountains for years now, in all kinds of places where cougars, bears, and wolves  live.  Is there some risk?  Absolutely.  I’m not a big fan of denial as a risk management tool.  Do I mentally discount the horror of getting mauled and possibly killed and eaten by a wild animal?  Not at all.  While I’m a tree-hugger of sorts, I’ve never been the kind that romanticizes wild animals as either noble or cuddly.   I have a very healthy fear of big claws, strong jaws, and sharp teeth.

wolf skull (note the teeth)

In all likelihood if there was an attack, they’d probably go after Dane.  Wolves are traditionally timid around human beings so those kinds of attacks are extremely rare, but they attack dogs.  There’s definitely a greater risk for him than there is for me.  However, these two wolves are most likely juveniles striking out to find new territory and juveniles tend to be far less predictable than adults.  Cougar attacks on humans, which used to be relatively rare, have been growing in the last couple of decades as humans encroach further into wilderness areas, and the majority of the attacks are by juveniles.   So, while Dane’s risk is greater, I by no means get a free pass.

So here we are, suddenly standing on the shifting front line of the controversy, confronting the complex challenge of species reintroduction on a very, very personal level.  Me?  I love wolves.  But then the majority of people do.  Even the people who oppose their reintroduction admire and respect them.  They’re magnificent, beautiful, wild, and inspiring animals permanently woven into our history, mythology, and group unconscious.  The thought of a world without them is unsettling and unutterably sad.   Having said all that though, I don’t want Dane or I to be dead either.

And therein lies the paradox we’re all confronting, not just with wolves but with much of the ancient world we’ve inherited and are now changing on a massive scale.  I have no idea what the solutions to these kinds of problems will be, nor do I have any idea what the world will wind up looking like someday.  Right now I’m just concerned with getting my dog and I through our next excursion.  Today it’s my turn to figure out how to straddle this place where the past and future collide.

I think, at a time like this, it’s important to consider the big picture.  The truth is, Dane and I both live in a world every day with far greater risks than a wild animal attack.  (i.e. getting T-boned at an intersection, sickened from ecoli contamination in our food supply, or euthanized for attacking the neighborhood cats among other things.)  With all the risks that wilderness and wild things hold, civilization is no picnic either.  In fact, I think my chances are probably better facing a wolf in the foothills than a drunken slob hurtling down the interstate in a two-ton SUV.

But for now, Dane and I need to get going because I really don’t want to be hiking up there when it starts to get dark.  So I’ll  just throw on my boots, grab my bear spray, and we’re out of here. Dane and the valley (back behind) where the cow was killed.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

That’s Just Anthropomorphism

the north wind

(This is actually taken from something I wrote in my journal last summer but it feels current again today.  I figured I’d polish it up and use it as my post for this week.  Dia)

The college I attended taught on the block system.  During the first year, we studied one subject at a time, eight hours a day, all week long, after which we tested on Friday and moved on to the next subject the following Monday.  It was intense.  Especially with a boring teacher.  So sometimes, toward the end of any given week when I couldn’t handle being stuck up in my head anymore (focused! thinking! analyzing!), I’d ditch class, borrow somebody’s car, head off to a state park about an hour away, and spend the next few hours hiking a forest trail around the lake.

And there, in that beautiful, silent place, the magic would inevitably happen.

Initially, I’d still feel disconnected, trapped in my thoughts and bouncing around the inside of my skull.  The chattering voices in there (teacher! students! educate! argue! question!) were so gripping they actually blinded me.  I couldn’t see the trees or hear the forest sounds around me for the first mile or so.  But then they’d start to drop off, those voices, one by one.  They’d get quieter and quieter until finally (miraculously!) they’d shut up completely.  I’d look up and finally see the waving canopy of green, hear the cicadas and wind and bird calls.  And that was the point when I’d feel all of a piece again.  Whole.  Quiet and tired and happy.

That Focused-Controlling-Thinking-Person-Up-In-My-Head would have disappeared and I’d just be myself.

Even back then, before the depression, anxiety, and deterioration that marked so much of my middle years, it felt like something extraordinary was happening.  Something I never really understood but sought out anyway, time after time.  There’s always been an old, cunning thing in my gut that knows where healing is stashed for me.  Out in the woods.  Up in the mountains.  Under the sky.

Nature’s always been the place where I never felt alone.

But my mind doesn’t give up dominance easily (the downside of having been born with a strong intellect that got a lot of encouragement.)  At first it’s fun, thinking about things.  It’s like flying.  Exhilarating and soaring and free.  But eventually, when I get tired or stressed or just spend too much time in front of the computer, they turn on me, these thoughts.  They lure me down from the sky with juicy chunks of rabbit meat and when I land, they slip a hood over my head, turning off my eyes and ears, even my sense of smell and touch.  The thoughts get so loud (so big!) that they cut me off from the beautiful, rich world around me and, no matter where I am or who I’m with, after that I feel alone.  Like I barely have a body anymore and my noisy, escalating brain activity is all there is left.

It would be really horrible except that, when I’m locked up in my head like that, I can’t feel anything.

Yesterday it was like that.  I’d been writing all day and the outside world had disappeared again like it does, swept away by an ever-swelling torrent of words and ideas.  My mind was tired and over-stimulated.  It would not (not!) shut up.  And then, as if it wasn’t bad enough, THAT voice showed up.

THAT voice is the worst voice in my head.  It’s horrible.  Crushing.  Relentless.  It’s ambitious and proud, glittering, intoxicating, and sophisticated.  It puffs itself up like some giant bird trying to make me think it’s important! and official! and true!  It tells me that I’m a writer (a writer!) with important things to say that other people need to hear, need to know, need to learn (from me!) and it tells me to compete and study and work my craft and be more professional and what the hell is wrong with me anyway that I can’t finish a project or get something published like everyone else?  (Everyone I tell you!  Everyone!)

It’s a miserable, fucking voice that sucks the heart and soul right out of me.  It makes the real me, the one who lives down, down in there somewhere deep, the one who believes that words are like pixie dust, who loves walking up in the hills and touching wounds gently (gently!) and is sooooo curious that sometimes it’s hard to even go to sleep—it makes her want to curl up in a ball and cover her head with her arms and tell that horrible, horrible voice to just go away and leave me alone.  It makes me not even want to write anymore, or care about anything, because if I do then THAT voice will come and take it over.  Take all my caring about things and try to turn it into something else—something powerful or profitable or influential.  Something other people will want or envy.  Something it can leverage or dangle or sell.

THAT voice makes me dry up.  Like a leaf that fell off its branch and now just lies there on the ground, shriveling.  I really, really hate it.

It showed up yesterday again so I did what I’ve always done.   I ran away to the hills.  I took Dane, left civilization behind me, parked at the bottom of a hill and started to climb.  I slipped out of the  cage in my head and skittered away, bent double, dodging under mental shrubbery where that miserable, fucking voice couldn’t find me, until I was finally out of range and free.  Then I looked up and suddenly I could see again.  The real world was there around me, with all my friends.  All the wildish life that the cunning thing in my gut knows and trusts and returns to every time.

There was sagebrush and dust puffs and stink bugs aiming their rear ends at the sky.  The ranging hills were there with all their shadows, and the clouds streaked with pink edges from sunset.  There were grasshoppers everywhere, and purple thistle just coming into bloom.  There was yarrow, St. John’s wort, distant mountains, and the peeping of ground squirrels, and as I climbed higher I gradually remembered that all these things are my friends.  They’re not just bushes, bugs, and rodents, great big mineral piles and water vapor reflecting the last rays of sunlight.  They’re my true companions on this journey through life,  the essential, necessary others in my fellowship, the friends without whom none of this is worthwhile or has any meaning.

Without them, there’s no point in writing anything anymore.

I know, scientifically speaking, that this way of looking at the natural world is naive and superstitious and stupid.  THAT voice sniffs and says That’s just anthropomorphism. But I don’t care.  I know I’m not supposed to look at these things as truly alive.  I understand I’m supposed to see them as inferior and less-than.  Brainless.  Non-human.  Stuff to be used or exploited or destroyed for what we want.

But I don’t believe that.  They don’t look that way to me.  They never have.  From my earliest memories the natural world has always been real.  The place where nothing lies to me and I never feel wrong or unwelcome.  Where I can finally (finally!) relax because when I’m there, the odd way I love the world and everything in it…the living and dying and dead…is actually okay and perfect.

It’s where just caring about things, just touching wounds gently, just being forever curious, is enough.

a wood carving we saw at the end of a driveway in the Olympic rainforest

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

The Generosity of Dying

view from the family cabin

When I think about dying as some grim, black destiny waiting to reach up from the dirt, grab me, and drag me back under someday, it’s pretty scary.  How could it not be?  That perspective makes me feel small, helpless, and…frankly…screwed.   But there’s another way of looking at it that spares me the Freddie-Krueger’s-a-coming sensation and it goes something like this:

Inescapability aside, it’s also true that dying is the final gift I get to give back.

I discovered this perspective while hanging around out in the natural world.  Idaho has the largest total area of intact wilderness in the lower forty-eight and, like most people who live in this state, I love spending time outdoors.  The wilderness has long been the community where I experience my deepest sense of belonging.  The high lakes and rocky trails, swollen rivers, green canopies and night skies are the congregation and confessional I most naturally turn to—the places where, for whatever reason, it’s easiest for me to uncurl and unclench, drop my arms, and slowly look up in trust again.

They’re also the places that teach me the most about life’s cycles and seasons, its hardship, endurance, and resurrection, its silence, beauty, and hope.

And dying.  Of course, dying.  Sometimes, while wandering through a part of the forest that’s shadowed and damp, I’ll come across one of the old giants, an ancient tree lying broken and rotting, stretched across boulders and trails.  It can take the old Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines decades to decompose, years sometimes just to fall all the way to the forest floor because the surrounding trees catch and hold them in a slow, deep kind of tree-grief.

I sympathize with the forest’s unwillingness to let them go, these great old ones.  I feel the ache of loss, too, gazing up at their towering frames, suspended and creaking as the other trees supporting them slowly give way over the years in an unfolding ballet of grace, sorrow and ultimate collapse.

But they do eventually fall, they break, they settle and rest, where the busy (and far briefer) lives of the forest floor can set about their work of release.  Ants and beetles.  Fly larvae, bacteria, and a host of other microorganisms all nibbling away at the bonds that hold the mighty trees together until finally, at some mystical point where every bit of chemical bonding in the wood is broken down to a brittle point of perfection, the dead tree explodes in slow motion, spilling out across the ground in an aromatic blanket of rich, red compost.

It amazes me.  Every time.  It stops me dead in my tracks and I just stand there breathing in as deeply as I can, gulping the sweet smell of pine decay.  Or I kneel to run my fingers through the moist, rotted particles, gathering a handful to carry home to my garden as a gift from an ancient life that gave itself away, leaving its nourishment for all that follows.

It was there on my knees one time that it first occurred to me, how perhaps human dying doesn’t have to be entirely sad and clinging.  It’s not that I think it’ll be easy to give all this up.  I don’t.  I love this world, my life, and the thought of saying those final good-byes to the mountains and moonlight, to everyone I love, to everything I felt and learned, touched and became over the years, is heartbreaking.

And yet…and yet.  To think that I’m leaving room and resources for the others yet to come, helps.  The knowledge that by standing aside, I’ll leave space for someone else to step up and gaze at the stars or across the peaks and be stunned by their beauty like I was, makes my own loss easier.  More worthwhile.  My death will mean that someone else gets a chance to come forward and cradle a newborn in their trembling arms for the first time, or to search for new ways to heal and comfort the illnesses of the future, or to experience any of the thousand thousand other gifts that go along with just being alive and drawing breath.

When I think about it like this, the generosity of dying takes my breath away and I’m no longer as frightened or resentful.  Instead, I feel like everything will still be okay.  In the act of giving myself away like that, somehow I’ll still be okay.  In the deep place inside me, the old place, I know this now which is why I don’t really want to tear my hair or gnash my teeth anymore.

When my time comes I’d rather just say Today, I have taken enough.  It’s time to move aside and leave room for others to come and gaze and marvel, too. I leave the food I won’t eat, the warmth I won’t require, the resources I won’t take for myself, to others who still have their whole life before them. And here on the ground where I stood, I leave a pile of everything I’ve collected during my years, a pile of everything I was and learned and became.  I leave it as a gift for those that follow, and as a small token of my gratitude for everything.

Everything.

I think back now to the dying people who allowed me into their homes and intimate circles.  I remember the stories they gave me, the wisdom and secrets and pain they shared that fell like rich, moist particles of compost inside me.   I must have breathed in the swirling, escaping molecules of their vanishing bodies as I held them, dressed them, bathed them.  Breathed them deep down inside me like the sweet scent of pine and humus, breathed their memories and joy, their suffering and release, and been nourished by it.

Up in the mountains, walking the trails and witnessing the dying and decay that’s always and everywhere present up there, I’ve always felt renewed.  Surrounded and cradled in the generosity of the natural world, I eventually came to see that I, too, am an integral part of this sustaining circle.  Which is why, when it’s my turn to step aside and return the life that was loaned to me for this brief, miraculous, blessed, blessed ride, I want to do it with gratitude rather than regret, and with prayers of generosity in my heart for all who follow.

Bridalveil Falls

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn