By Sarah Hatfield
We think of autumn as a time of harvest and brilliant color, a time when we can start to read more books and slow down and not feel so guilty doing so. Some might think of it as the ‘waiting room’ of the holidays, anxious to put up their lights and greenery. Still more might see work — falling leaves mean raking, mowing, and cleaning out gutters; moving firewood, putting gardens to bed, planting bulbs, and cleaning up the detritus of summer around the house.
Rarely do people think about autumn as death. Now I’m not trying to bring down the mood, but really, if you think about: those beautiful gold and scarlet leaves? Dying. The leaf piles that spark laughter and among children? Piles of death. The poor animals looking for secure places to spend the winter? Dead on the side of the road. Okay, perhaps this is all a bit harsh, but here’s the point I want to make.
Death is important, natural, and surrounds us daily. And honestly, most people I’ve met in this country don’t have a healthy relationship with it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, reading some things from other people, and what really inspired this article was Halloween and how in other countries and in past cultures there is a celebration of death. Called many things, but here’s the point: they celebrate death.
Death is a returning, to all that we were before. No matter your belief. Perhaps you return to the soil, to your god, to the arms of the ones you’ve lost, or every dog you’ve ever had. Perhaps you return to a heavenly realm, a city of gold, or an inferno of fire and pain. That part differs for everyone (but may have something to do with why a lot of people fear death). Death itself is constant, ever present, necessary, and unavoidable. The circumstances leading up to a death might be tragic, sudden, or painful; or they might be slow, consuming, or painless. The death itself is the retuning, and something we should celebrate.
My dad died a few years ago in September, my dear Ryan died in December entirely too long ago: bookends to the season that grows darker and deeper. These are the two most recent deaths I carry with me. Before them, my aunt, my cousin, all four grandparents, acquaintances. Some expected, some not; some painful, some peaceful. Yet they cross my mind and heart and are still part of my life.
People mourn in different ways, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a day that everyone — regardless of how they mourn — was given permission to do so? One day to remember the dead and who they were, what they meant, what they brought to your life. One day to let them fill you again with laughter, love, and comfort. One day to acknowledge that they will always be dead and you will carry the grief with you until you, too, die. It could be the one universal celebration of the one thing that awaits us all – death.
Back to the natural side of things, all those brilliantly colored leaves that fall to the ground, they are indeed dead. But through their death, they regenerate the forest floor, provide winter shelter and sustenance to millions upon millions of living things. Mammals gather those leaves to line their burrows and protect them from the bite of cold; death helping to guard against death. Countless species rely on this annual accumulation of death, the release of life no longer needed, to keep them alive and safe. Without death, much couldn’t live.
Death of the year’s growth allows the microfauna to thrive all winter, busily feasting and decomposing beneath the snow. This feasting on leaves and plants stems and animal bodies returns the energy of life to the tomb of dormancy, which returns to life with the rising of the spring sun. Seeds will tap into the rich humus of autumns past to push through the blanket of leaves and sprout anew in April’s light and warmth. Insect larvae will emerge from winter cases to fly upon warm spring breezes because death has sustained them through the darkest times.
Even now, as always, humans are part of this dance, surrounded by the death that so many fear, but is actually what, in fact, nourishes us. We eat vegetables and meat (dead things) to keep us healthy over the winter and throughout the year. We burn wood or petroleum products (dead things and really, really, really old dead things) to keep us warm. We make clothes from (dead) plant fibers, (sometimes, but not always dead) animal products, and petroleum products (once again, really old dead things). I’m sure you get the idea.
I guess what I want to share is that death is one of the most natural processes in the world. The living need death to continue living. Acknowledging that, accepting that, is healing, freeing. As we enter a time that many call depressing, dark, and torture, take a bit of time to look inward, face some fears, and have an honest look at how death sustains you and the life around you.
Regardless of race, religion, attitude, politics, origin, location, or occupation, death unites us as living things connected to a force we all share, are all a part of, and to which we will all succumb. Let’s celebrate that! With all the joy of a four-year-old and their dog jumping into in a pile of the crunchiest, most colorful autumn leaves, let us celebrate this season, this life, and the death that makes it all possible.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Sarah Hatfield is Education Coordinator at Audubon Community Nature Center.