God spaketh, but why? Part 14: Death

So, having covered aspects of early humans from their value systems and rituals, through language, writing and art, to their domestication and domination of nature, this week we are looking at death. I wasn’t sure where to even begin when I happened across this quote from Ursula Le Guin, the award-winning fantasy and science fiction author and pioneer of feminist speculative fiction, who died on 22 January 2018, at home in Portland, Oregon, aged 88.

“You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose… That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself?”
Ursula K. Le Guin

I was not familiar with this quote but it resonated strongly as the more I read about human culture, the more I am torn between which is most important: the rights of the collective or community (including non-human communities) or the rights of the individual. I believe people should be allowed to be who they are, who their own story tells them they are, but what if who they are kills others?

One of my favourite Daniel Quinn books is Tales of Adam, a slim volume published in 2005, which tells of the world seen through animist eyes. Adam is a hunter-gatherer who is passing his knowledge and wisdom on to his son, Abel. Using stories, Adam teaches Abel how to make tools, track animals, build shelter, but also how to live in harmony with the world around him—this is the wisdom bit. One of my favourite quotes from the book is, “When you come to a land where the people marvel at the wisdom of their children, know that you are in a land of fools.” I have looked at children differently ever since.

But the topic of death brought this book to mind because while it is obviously Daniel Quinn’s creation, it rings so true. The father teaches the son only to take what is needed and to do so respectfully, and death is very much a part of life. Near the end is the story of the troublemaker, someone who refuses to obey the Law of Life. Such behaviour is initially ridiculed, in the hopes that the individual will see the error of their ways and stop behaving so foolishly. If they do not, they are shunned by the community and sent to live apart from it. Should this individual reassess things and come back with an offering of, say, a deer, they would receive him back into the community with no more said about it. However, should that individual refuse to reform or to leave the community, continuing to steal, and assault or even kill people, “…then, if all agree, he must be killed.” This killing would be merciful, and done out of need not revenge, as breaking the Law of Life is seen as a madness and if that malaise won’t pass, it cannot be allowed to destroy the whole tribe.

I am aware I’m treading dodgy waters here but, thankfully, I’m not the type to ‘go viral’. Death is a mind-blowing concept that, as Ursula Le Guin says, only humans realise lies at the end of every life. As with other areas, such as communication and cooperation, I do not believe that H. sapiens is the only being on Earth to be aware of death. We see elephants, whales, primates, wolves and even magpies displaying certain behaviour only when a family or group member dies. Whether it is mourning as such, who can say, but there is an interest in their dead. Other animals know death when they see it, but humans always know it is present and they strive to avoid it if they can.

In addition to sustaining life through food and shelter, evading predators would have been a serious occupation as we moved up the pyramid of life. Life strives; death creates the cycle of life and by trying to cheat death, we disrupt the balance. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself? Let’s hope we never have the power to do so, because I really think we would. Our new story must include respecting all life, taking only what we need (once we have reminded people of the difference between ‘need’ and ‘want’) and embracing death when our time comes.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and absolutely must write the Editorial for the forthcoming Spring issue today!


About The Cheery Pessimist

Waiting for some sign that we will change our ways before it all comes tumbling down...still, you've got to laugh
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