Restoring Life to Death
There is death. And then there is death.
Salmon swim upstream to spawn, and then die, having exerted themselves completely. Eagles and bears drag salmon carcasses into the forest, and the remnants nourish the trees. Without the salmon, the rainforest where I live would not exist. Salmon runs were vitally important times in the calendars of Coast Salish peoples all along the north Pacific coast.
My Irish and Scottish ancestors were salmon people too, and there was a time when salmon bodies nourished their forests as well. Salmon were associated with knowledge, wisdom, and initiation.
Salmon face death on their own terms. Like sacred kings, their bodies and their blood nourish the land. In the eyes of the forest, in the eyes of the people who inhabit it, in the eyes of eagle and raven and bear, and in the eyes of the gods, their deaths are right and good and life giving.
But this year in the Columbia River and its tributaries, more than half of the Sockeye run has died before reaching its ancestral spawning grounds. Fisheries biologist cite warm temperatures and low water levels, the result of a hot, dry season when the rainforest has barely seen any rain. Many First Nations are shutting down Sockeye fishing, despite the cost to tradition and to food security.
These death of the salmon before they can spawn is a different kind of death.
My death gods comes to me in the form of a bear and an old woman with Datura blossoms in her long, white hair. They have always been the most tender and loving of gods to me, despite their reputation for ferocity.
When a student of mine died in a fire, they helped me open the gate to allow her to pass through to the otherworld, and, though her death hurt deeply, they showed that it was in the flow of all things in ways that my talking, thinking self still can’t fully understand. When I knelt in the dirt rubbing Devil’s Club tincture into the gums of a horse, trying to revive him, they let me keep the gate jammed shut until I knew all hope was lost, and then led his spirit bounding through to the other side.
It makes sense that such gods would be companions to an herbalist. My friend and teacher Stephen Buhner once told me that a healer needs to know intimacy with death. Otherwise, we cannot walk beside people in fear and pain and surrender.
Though my wand is called a Green Wand, its true form is a bone entwined by Devil’s Club shoots.
An intimacy with death gods has taught me that not all deaths are the same in their eyes. Some deaths are not in the flow of things.
My gods show me the deaths of unarmed Black and Brown and Indigenous people murdered by police. And the murders of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, so many of them women, so many of them Trans*, that the police refuse to investigate.
They show me the Iraqi children who died of dysentery and cholera when the U.S. bombed Iraq’s water and sewage treatment plants and then refused to allow their repair or the importation of adequate antibiotics for well over a decade.
They show me the caribou drowned when rivers were dammed.
My gods tell me that while they carried these dead out of this world, their true place remains within it.
These dead are restless, rattling at the gates.
In 2001,in Colombia, I met Hector Mondragon an economist who was tortured for his support for striking oil workers and then refused to give the names of his torturers to guerrillas who wanted to avenge him. Over several decades of work with unions and Indigenous and campesino groups, many of his friends were killed by his country’s armed factions. Hector said “My murdered compañeros were killed twice . . .” once by bullets or machetes or bombs, and once by a world that refused to acknowledge their lives and their deaths.
Global capitalism was born of primitive accumulation — the violent enclosure (theft and privatization) of land, material, and labor from the Indigenous cultures of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas which stoked its fires. Today, that process of accumulation continues around the world from the rise in prison labor to gentrification to the commodification of water to sweatshop labor in Bangladesh to the violation of Indigenous sovereignty in the service of Canada’s “resource economy.” (And as Fjothr Odinsdottir Lokakvan reminded me, the bodies of ancient dead things, in the form of oil and gas, are literally the fuel that drives the engines of capitalism.)
The culture that arises from capitalism conceals the bodies of the dead — ancient, historical, and modern; human and non-human — so that its members can be insulated from the bloody cost of their standard of living. The erasure of the memory of so many lives and deaths is like a continuous pouring of concrete to prevent the return of what was driven from this world.
But some of us remember — and that makes the concrete begin to crack.
Standing on a bridge over the Deschutes River, my companion and I looked down at what had been a rushing waterfall in seasons past. Rocks once covered with water were laid bare, and a spray that would have misted us in another time barely made it a quarter of the way up to the bridge. I looked at the withering vegetation on its banks and saw a wasteland expanding for want of anyone willing to ask the perilous question.
My green-eyed forest-hearted companion began to speak to me about witnessing — about how when we truly see each other and truly see a river and truly see a tree, it calls forth something luminous and alive from within them. My heart softened and my perspective shifted. I began to see the bare stones in their smooth, fluid beauty. The land and the water began to make themselves known to me.
That night, in ritual, I would meet a Gaulish war goddess whose name and image had been forgotten for centuries and accept the blessing of her warrior’s mark. The next night I met the Matronae, the forgotten mothers of my ancestors, and recommitted myself to the return of what was driven from this world that is essential to its survival.
Witnessing and remembering are the beginning of restoring sacredness to the death around us to enable it to feed new life.
The Greek poet, Dinos Christianopolous wrote:
“what didn’t you do to bury me/ but you forgot I was a seed.”
When the seeds contained in the memory of the dead are able to break through the concrete, we shall see what this world can grow.