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A tree dies (sort of); also, we die (also sort of) and ... who knows? (9/12/21)

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Once a tree dies, it seems much easier to know.

Sure, I love looking up at a tall, breathing tree. I love looking up at a whole woods of tall trees, whether breathing or ‘dead’ (‘snags’ with their spiky tops and bark-free gleam). Up, up where woodpeckers somehow do not concuss themselves when they feast in a tree's apparent deathness. (So much wonderfully and obviously mysterious, in the woods.)

Trees! While standing, our size differential distances us. I can’t elevate myself, to explore more of any vertical tree. (Heyyy - weren’t we supposed to have jet-packs by now? Wouldn’t those be useful in the woods, for starters?)

Yet, as interesting as trees are, while they insist their irregular, leafy or barren edges into a sky ... they mesmerize me even more after they fall, and become logs.

Grounded, resting trees, as bound by gravity as are we, smaller beings. Something about getting close – right up-close – with another living thing, all along its gorgeous and gorgeously imperfect horizon, yum?

Right up-close, you can pick up a vibration, or something like it. Once a tree decides to take a load off, just relax and release its existential dread, just let its dying process proceed? For me? You can know it. You can hear such a tree.

Also. Once a tree dies, I’m not sure it has even died.

Obviously (from up-close now), their lives as logs are no less active, purposeful, or nourishing. They are just as complex as when they housed, and hid, high nests for songbirds, squirrels, birds of prey, in their leafy canopies. As complex as when they made evident the slightest breeze, that might not be perceptible through your human skin, way down on the ground. What tree, making evident the Earth's wind, isn’t completely trustable, even if you, simple tiny human, don’t feel that breeze (yet)?

Now kneeling, or stretched out long, tree-logs become safe habitats for other creatures – even smaller than humans -- who may or may not be able to fly. Creatures who slither, or leap, a few centimeters at a time, along the Earth’s earth. They’re habitats for patterned and colorful fungi, who grow along a tree’s dimensional horizon, in tempo adagio. (Yet not so slowly that a watchful human’s eyes can’t see the difference, from the day before, in measures of fungi.) For their skittering beetles and chipmunk renters, a pace allegro; for their wood borers and worms, more andante.

A fallen tree’s skin, once so tall and thick and whorled? Now sheds itself, over days, months, years. Sloughing, lifting, peeling off, with help from those very creatures who may or may not be able to fly. Moss, lichen, even cell-sized creatures, your basic, ancient bacteria. All tucked into their sumptuous and lingering buffet of a log.

Right in front of your human-level eyes, a tree’s process of dying proceeds. At some point in time, while dying and barkless, it becomes a rich, curiously vibrating, chestnut brown. (If brown were your favorite color, this exact color would be your very favorite brown.)

Months, or years, pass, in a maybe-not-dead tree’s life.

Now, that log is “merely” a sunken and perforated stretch of that gorgeous chestnut brown. You can’t be sure it’s not the earth itself, now. (Must be both, now.)

At that point, I have said (out loud, but quietly) “Such a pleasure.” To know you, my beautiful tree. All this time. (Maybe since I’d tried to know you, from when we were both taller than we were wide. Even if one of us were much less tall than the other.)

From where I sit today, dying takes a long time. I’m not convinced a tree ever quite dies. So what am I saying about ... anything?

For we humans, dying might well begin the moment we become a tiny pouch of differentiating cells, a zygote inside another human. (When we’d taken the deal, at all.)

Anyway, only when a long-fallen tree integrates with actual soil, does it seem, possibly, something-like-dead, to me. Like its very soul has finally separated. Or reintegrated. (This may be my anthropocentric understanding of a human body buried in dirt, 6-feet-under.) That separation/integration never feels truly grievous. Rather, mysteriously joyous! Even though, I know, I will always miss the tall tree I once met, leafy and wind-revealing, among many other trees, but unique, and once knowable only somewhat remotely, by tipping back my own neck, to wonder at its awesome upper branches and canopy, its meeting the very sky and beyond (from my view).


Who am I to guess when any living being dies? Or what spirit or soul means? Or where and when a presence might be felt, or not again felt -- before, during or after ‘life’? I am so much none the wiser. Just ever curiouser, the longer I don’t quite die, and whatever that might mean, if meaningful at all.

Trying to understand death – its process if not its ‘event’ – is nothing new, for the humans of the beings, having been born and possibly woods-wandering. Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia wrote 2,000 years ago, “Such is the condition of humanity, and so uncertain is men’s judgment, that they cannot determine even death itself.”

(Was a countryman (or woman) merely unconscious or in a coma, and seeming not to breathe, or, truly done and done, with one’s mortal coil?)

Taphophobia = the fear of being buried alive, waking up in a mortuary, or worse, inside a dark and airless casket. Not so much a modern fear, generally. But, bring some Poe stories into light, mid-1800s, and by the end of that century wouldn’t you find a London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial? You would.

Speaking of stories, I read D.H. Lawrence’s The Man Who Died for a literature & theology course in an M.A. program in the early ‘90s. Unforgettable. The Man (never named, but clearly referenced to historically known Christ from Nazareth) wakes up in a carved hole in a rock. His bandages unfurl, and he realizes his own nail-damaged feet, walks carefully past sleeping soldiers. Then he runs into (M.) Madeleine, and tells her: “I am alive. They took me down too soon, so I came back to life.”

He keeps telling people, “They took me down too soon.” (If you’ve never read that strange and provocative novella, please give it a go, and good think.)

(I digress here to marvel that our Pliny the Elder, in 79 A.D., was a naval officer stationed in Misenum near Naples, when Vesuvius erupted. Rather than tuck in and stay safe, he hurried toward Herculaneum, where his friend was stranded. Some sources say Pliny the Elder died there, overcome by the volcano’s hot gases. Others say he never quite reached that site, and died the same year of a heart-attack or stroke. Who knows, now?

(In the early ‘90s, I had enough air-miles to visit my friends Karen & Jim (now in the Bay Area) who lived in Rome, as foreign-service officers. We drove down the Amalfi coast and wandered around Ercolano, where structures like a ‘snack bar’ still stood, long after humans and other mammals froze, buried in ash and gaseous plumes, the husks of whom still sit, or lay prostrate, today.

We traveled along the coast to Portofino, to Vietri del Mare, and more. My friends asked, while heading back in Rome, “What was your favorite part of our road trip?”

Easy! “Mount Vesuvius, and Ercolano. I’d thought of those places as somehow mythical, like Mount Olympus or something! Like it wasn’t really real, right?”

Yet it was. And real humans, at their snack bars, or inside their frescoed or mosaic-tiled homes, died in an instant. Or, more protractedly and painfully, then and there, but eventually. The Earth, she has her own processes, in spite of us peculiar mammals.

(Would it be so morbid for me to admit that, living right now in the Washington, DC area, I have thought, “Hope I’m at work (~2 miles from the White House) when a nuclear attack from any number of ‘enemy’ countries lands? Rather than sitting several miles further away, while teleworking -- when my death would surely be more lingering, protracted, and painful? 20 years after the attacks of 9/11/2001, I don’t feel that’s so morbid a thought. We have made many enemies with our ‘manifest-destiny’ (unearned) privilege, and our global arrogance and actions. I have to think about all this, when I commute to my campus, ~2 miles from the White House.)

In any case.

Ancient Romans who died during/around an historic volcanic eruption surely weren’t the first to wonder if they knew when death arrived. Just a hundred years later, Galen wondered about the ‘seat of the soul.’ And over a millennium later, Descartes wondered. Where does spirit, or soul, ‘reside’ in a life, alive? When is it ‘gone’?

In August of 1968 in Sydney, Australia, the World Medical Assembly adopted the Declaration of Sydney on Human Death. The age-old question and debate about when death occurs had come down to cell processes in different parts of the body. The Declaration of Sydney incorporated the whole of a being: “... Death is a gradual process at the cellular level with tissues varying in their ability to withstand deprivation of oxygen. But clinical interest lies not in the state of preservation of isolated cells but in the fate of a person.”

That mention of a person – that a whole life, meaningful to the specific human in question – changed the stance about how to address modern life-extending treatments, preserving function of heart and lungs, for example, even when the brain activity had ceased. So, how to address the question of organ donation and transplantation. When does ‘being kept alive’ no longer connect to a person?

My formerly foreign-service friends live in Oakland, California now. And in October of 2019, I walked for an hour from their house, around Lake Merritt, to hear an Interfaith Panel on Death & Dying, one of Re:Imagine’s month-long events. The panelists represented Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, in a discussion about beliefs and rituals around death.

What struck me most, both that night and as I think about it, two years later? (Beyond my naïve and carefree sense of travel, pre-global-pandemically?)

The striking differences in each faith’s understanding of when a soul leaves a body.

When to perform a proper burial, for example. Rabbi Stuart Kelman and Islamic leader Maha Elgeniadi both described rituals “within 24 hours, if possible.”

Buddhist teacher Tenzin Chogkyi could not have explained more differently, that essential question. “Depending on the [advanced nature of the] soul, it may take days, or weeks, or many weeks, for the soul to leave the body.”

She described a few prolonged, protracted, departures of a spirit, from its fleshly molecules. “In cases of highly advanced Lamas, for example, it may take many weeks.” They would not bury a ‘dead body’ until, maybe many weeks later, the soul clearly departed the body. An observer sitting vigil over this process may step away for a while, to take a break, get some sleep, and come back to see, very clearly, ‘oh, the spirit has departed.’

After the presented panels, they opened up for questions. I raised my hand.

“Yes, you, in the red.”

(Was I wearing red? Okay. Yes.)

“Thank you,” I said. “I can’t help noticing that some traditions require a very quick burial, and others require a much longer waiting period, before burial, before a spirit has finally … separated.”

What was my question? “Is there anything, any of you, can say, to address, or make sense of, these differences, soul-wise?”

The panelists exchanged glances. They shrugged.

I understood the shrugs. So differently earned, and understood – by faith.

By faith and faith alone, when we all come down to it – the mystery of death itself and what persists beyond death, or what death even means. (I paraphrase their non-responses.)

They didn’t have much to say, to that. I already understood the that of that.

My next step – to use my Uber app, to get back to my friends, my longtime friends who introduced me to the real reality of a mountain named Vesuvius and all that an explosion in 79 “AD” implied.

Who knows? Who can pretend they know? We don’t know. None of us. We aren't dead yet.

We might take a leap of faith into an unknown, before the hours of our own, individual and unique, deaths. Maybe even based on the leap some took after a man was "taken down too soon" from his crucifix. Or not. Who knows?

My father was a hospice volunteer for over 20 years, after he retired from (paid) work. Often, a patient would die only after he arrived, and the family caregiver had gone out for a walk or dashed to the post-office. So he was present when the person stopped breathing and beating, that "time of death" without a doctor to call it so. My Dad told me that, after those final moments, "there was definitely something in the room -- something else, that lingered, or waited."

Maybe a tree, gratefully fallen into log-status, just takes a longer linger, with a slower sense of time, and of waiting. It seems still fully alive, after all that tall standing – with still-essential and earthbound connection to all other life-forms, all so grateful for its falling.

I remain none-the-wiser. Just a woods-wonderer, and a lover of trees and other living things. And I remain so so grateful for your wondering all this, with me, wherever you are, dearest Readers and alive humans, being, still.

The Sydney folks like us, in their late '60s' essential public statement: “Death is a gradual process at the cellular level with tissues varying in their ability to withstand deprivation of oxygen”, but this document went further, stating that, clinically, death, “lies not in the preservation of isolated cells but in the fate of a person”.

For all of us persons, alive or something like it, in 2021, here's to our fates as persons.

And for all of us who allow for 'personhood' beyond human animals, fauna, or flora, like trees and flowers and other life forms, here's to our fates on a planet called Terra, Earth, Gaia, in our curious, 21st century of random numeration (after a Man Who Died) (or Not).

THANK YOU for reading, and for caring about thinking about this stuff, with me!


WMA 1968 Sydney – “ but ... of a person.”

Pliny the Elder in Naturalis Historia: “Such is the condition of humanity, and so uncertain is men’s judgment, that they cannot determine even death itself.”

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06 oct. 2021

I finally got a chance to read this. I guess this was the "right" time. My older sister is in hospice care now.

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