Earth and its members are suffering catastrophically, reflecting the domination of some over others imposing simplistic desires for generating money over truly enriching ones for all unique life.
—Julianne Lutz Warren, Becoming City in Five Short Acts
The time to love is now. Now, while we can choose how to live and how to die. Now, with beauty apparent: breathe, look, touch, savor, and listen. Listen to learn, for you cannot love what you do not know. You can control, contain, and even kill, but you cannot love without first learning.
The strongest acts of love are grounded in the most intimate knowledge of well-being for another because love—despite all the cultural confusion and carelessness surrounding it—is doing the best for what we value the most with no expectation of return; only the sincere hope that with loving, what we value will thrive.
Love offers a way of living beyond mere survival, our salvation from selfishness, our connection to community.
When we set aside the words that beguile us, what would we give more for than life? Life, in which cicadas hum; life, in which wild roses climb; life, wending in seasons and cycles, flowing between the illusory dichotomies that separate us. What is more precious than life that draws us together, except for death that allows us to live?
A year ago I was called to extract a baby bird from a warehouse. The nest was far out of reach, wedged between rafters and roof. The tiny bird had tumbled from thirty feet aloft onto concrete and was amazingly, in the moment, alive. It seemed either a miracle or a mistake. I took the bird home, prepared to bring it to a wildlife clinic the next day. He died overnight. I opened the small cardboard box the next morning to discover his limp body, nested in terrycloth. With a clenched jaw I turned and left the dead bird in his box on the porch. Despite the inevitability of it all, I didn’t want to begin my day with a burial. Last year I told stories that had endings. I thought primarily in lines.
It was early summer, and the warmth of that season stimulates life. That evening, I carried the box out to the yard where I’d made a small grave behind the asters. Looking through cracks in the cardboard, I spied the bird’s wing moving. My mind was suddenly awash in adrenaline—was I so inattentive to have mistaken sleep for death? But he was so limp, so lifeless . . . I pulled back the flaps prepared to witness a miracle and saw life plainly: the bird, dead as before, dead but moving with the life of a whole larval community. Life animating death. Death animating life? It was difficult to discern the difference as the bird’s body wriggled, its head bobbing gently. The beautiful, unsung dance of life embracing life. Mortality uplifted.
Our lives spring from love: the sacrifice of a limited world of life. In this context, death can be an act of love. From the vantage point of survival, death holds no potential for us. But within the broad community of life, death is a gift. When we fear death and scheme to survive perhaps it is because we have forgotten how beautiful death can be, knit back into life. Once my grandmother’s body would have nourished the soil, nourishing the life on which my family lives.
Instead we box death up and stare at it strangely. We do not see how it relates to us, to our lives. We talk about ends. We look only to take, forgetting that to take you must also give. This is not abstract poetry. It’s the way life happens. We are each soil and stars and millions of microbes bound together by acts of love, gifts of sacrifice. We can survive or we can thrive. It’s all in the action.
Love does not arise out of letters. It cannot be activated by words. It’s not something you say, it is something you do—whether for a patch of prairie, a barred owl, a brother, or a shore pine. The sacrifices we make for the well-being of another, the sacrifices we make for what we value. This fundamental act of being in community, love, binds us through and despite all.
As humans we have constructed a parallel world of words. We wrap ourselves in language so much that we cannot always feel what we touch. We thought up this word, love, that distracts us from loving. We decided on love in our minds, forgetting that love is part of matter. Love is possible in every action, present in every being.
Anthropologists discuss emic and etic perspectives in their fieldwork—the difference between understanding a culture from within and without. Can we cultivate an anthropological approach to love where we set aside our etic conceptions, ourselves—focusing on understanding and acting in the interest of the emic, the other? Doing what we know to do, giving what we have. We cannot love without sacrifice, and we cannot live without death.
And yet, we deny death’s role in our lives. We dismiss the dying. We are prepared to lose the greater part of life’s diversity, for what exactly? Convenience? Fear? We have invented a word, biophilia, but how can we apply this term when what we do does not love life? Hiding out from mortality, clinging to a cult of our own creation, we think too much, talk too much, listen little, observe even less.
It is autumn. Walking with my dog through the forest I am reminded of just how useless words are in a world of shadow, snap, crunch, smell. She bounds ahead, reading stories written across the trail in various strengths of stench. Stories without endings. At the base of an oak she pauses, burrowing her nose through the leaf layers, sniffing and snorting, interpreting a scene long since past, etched in odor, transformed over time. “What is it, girl?” I say, in that futile way people talk at other animals, to relate on human terms, taking the familiar “etic” approach.
I crouch beside her. With deep breaths I inhale an inch above the earth. I cannot sense the importance of this particular mix of moss-bark-rotting leaf-soil. I can barely sense the specifics of the odor at all. But it must be meaningful because she stands fixed with her nose against the ground awhile longer.
I gaze skyward. Bare branches etch over the clear blue wash of sky beyond. I lean back, a wet, matted leaf tapestry molding my head, crisp edges caressing my ear. A woodpecker’s drumming punctuates the murmuring of movement in the leaf litter and underground. I marvel at the full, diverse expressions of life in this place. It takes more than one species, more than one language, more than one life to comprehend it all.
A few years after writing “Time to Love” I experienced, separately, the deaths of two people who encouraged me early in my writing and whom I deeply appreciated: Zoologist George B. Rabb and author Brian Doyle. Both of these men lived an example of the love I wrote about, the love that weaves every life into all life. And both men encouraged me in the writing of the essay “Time to Love.” I met George in my work at the Center for Humans and Nature. His commitment to care for biodiverse, living communities and vulnerable species—including the now-extinct Rabbs fringe-limbed treefrog—was unflinching. George worked on behalf of life not merely as a job but a way of being, and he was esteemed by more publicly known leaders and colleagues such as Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, and Thomas Lovejoy. George is remembered for the big-hearted way he looked at life, for his moderated idealism, particular standards, and the ethos of care he uplifted always.
In 2013, Philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore introduced me to Brian Doyle. Our correspondence began with a joke, Brian’s joke. Brian wrote in a loping way, hurdling obstacles to the awesomeness of the ordinary. His writings and stories—diverse and full of wonder—lead humans closer to their hearts through acts (and asks) of empathy with others, often other animals. Near the too-soon end of his writing and living, Brian wrote often about humility, never using that word exactly although the word flowed through his life entirely. Instead, he would wonder at all that we humans did not know, writing, “For all we know, we do not know so much.” And what that not knowing might mean—what hope that gives—for our hearts and for our children and for our world. In these ways and more, Brian and George were my teachers in life, and through death, each continued to offer me lessons in the way of love.
I struggled to stay grounded through that time of loss. When I entered into the experience of love and loss, I discovered that for all I knew about the relationship between love and death, I understood very little. The confluence of love and loss heralds the current we call grief. Humbled, I have spent the intervening years attuning to the ground of grief and learning ways that the people before me—and before this time—marked and moved through the melding of love and loss. I describe some of this grief work in the book, What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be? The larger, human work of integrating and honoring grief is a task for lifetime, however long I am given. Each day, I carry gratitude for George and for Brian, for their lives, thunderous and flowing; for the love they released into our world; and for the care, the words, and the stories they gifted graciously along the way. Now I turn toward these, to share with you George’s and Brian’s responses to “Time to Love” when it was written, exchanges that took place prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. I imagine each of them would say more today. Perhaps they are. I will listen. I invite you to listen, too.
From: George Rabb
K—I missed your loving self! It is wonderful to see you developing conceptually and creatively. I would like for you to dwell a bit on our actual lack of preparation for the loss of most life that is certainly coming at an accelerated pace. And, in this circumstance, death certainly does not nourish life! And, up front, I believe it would be good not to simply rephrase the Baba Dioum mantra in terms of learning in order to love. I view experiencing others and other things as vital to loving, and it is curious that satisfying our curiosity-seeking is not acknowledged in this context. Your dog snuffling illustrates the point in an elemental fashion without words! K—, I love your effort, emic and etic, and thus love you for being—George.
From: Brian Doyle
I think you are right about death—it’s such a normal thing, but we are so terrified of it. A friend of mine died recently and on his deathbed I asked him if he was scared. “Nah,” he said, smiling. “It’s a big recycling program.” I have always been fascinated by how religions ritualize passages into and out of life; the ancient urge is to mark and celebrate and honor and salute, which is healthy. I grew up with the traditional Irish wake, in which the deceased is at his wake, and people lean on the coffin and balance beer on it and tell stories and laugh all night; and then in the morning off we go for prayers and departure. Something honest in that. —B
This essay first appeared in Minding Nature, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter 2014).