The Ruricolist is now available in print.


Only nature cleans the highways here. They represent every stage of decay, from the semblance of sleep through the rough dissections of crows to the painstaking harvest of ants. The proverb says, haste makes waste. The highways prove it; in every soft carcass that lies curled beside them, in every fleshpile squeezed from the split sacks of carrion that lie out upon them, in every flowered cross planted strangely beside them.

Should we hate the highways with a particular hate? Trains are armored to shatter and plow aside errant livestock, whose wet flopping dead weight would otherwise derail even the engine that batters them. Planes in flight devour birds; black humor has a word, snarge, for the product. Ships strike whales – even on the whale-roads there is roadkill. To banish the highways would save nothing.

Montaigne counsels us that the fear of death is to be overcome by making it familiar, by not looking away from it, by looking out for it. You need not look far. To live is to kill. Just to eat food that something else might have eaten is to kill. At every level, from breakfast to the evolution of the species, life advances by a rocker arm, pushing one down as it pulls one up. To compete as a lifeform is to obstruct or be obstructed. Either what obstructs kills what is obstructed, limits, confines, and starves it, or what is obstructed kills what obstructs it, tosses it aside, beats it down, or runs it over. Life’s accounts do not balance. Life runs a perpetual deficit in the debt of death.

Plant flesh, animal flesh, human flesh, grow, spread, and die, cell by cell. We do not always treat them differently. The bullet passing through wall and occupant and wall again; the parallel logistics of sustenance and deployment, of sanitation and undertaking; the red truth that really is the same under our skins; how easily all gifts and accomplishments are undone by the severing of the narrow threads they hang from – metaphorically, a slip on the stair, a stumble in the shower – literally, the nerve and tendon threads the surgeon loosens with sharp steel; the exact delineation of acceptable and unacceptable probabilities of death or maiming, of acceptable and unacceptable rates of wearing out the body; accident victims, and roadkill.

The most original and apt image in modern fantasy is the car gods with their black gloves and chrome teeth, powerful recipients of more blood sacrifice than all the unclean temples ever sent to Huitzilopochtli. To feed that thirsty god the Aztecs waged wars by appointment and agreement, flower wars to drain the supply of hot-blooded young men. The car gods have a more efficient arrangement.

Every action of government contains a writ of execution. To govern is to uproot, unman, disabuse, starve, poison, and exile. Some people always live at the margins of any way of life. Adjust the limits and they fall off. People die for daylight savings.

There is a courtesy among predators, at least on land. We tend not to eat each other, in part because we are poor nourishment for each other, in part because nature prefers competition to warfare. Competition improves fitness. Warfare is generally won by other means. It is better for the edification of hyena and lion that they compete to kill their prey, not to kill each other. Fighting between them accomplishes nothing – evolution cannot work with winners. Victory ends competition.

Consider how animals die, and how animals react to death – not because our deaths or reactions to death are or should be anything like theirs, but because they show nakedly where and how the boundary lies. They seem to feel and recognize the difference between recoverable sickness and the approach of death, even when the former has the more severe symptoms. They seek solitude to meet it. In others they sometimes attend it with impossible patience, sometimes leave it – what a thing it is to see a cat, for example, approach another cat dying, sniff at it, then simply leave. Yet even cats show anxiety when one of their number is removed by sudden death. Learn the lesson: death has a shadow and a mark. It shadows where it has yet to arrive, it marks what it has yet to claim.

The troubling thing about a dead body is not its emptiness but that its emptiness is not complete. A dead body is never really limp or unresisting. While it is fresh its habits of movement linger until it stiffens wholly. Body language does not shut off when no one is speaking: it goes on in gibberish and static. But then I have felt animals stiffen so quickly after death that it is hard to believe they were not already mostly dead even while they were moving.

The saying goes that human is the only animal that knows it must die. This is absurd if it is understood to mean that animals die blindly. But even then, do we really know? We have a name for something we dread. But who knows what that thing is?

Dying well is no more impressive than holding liquor well. Biology has no discretion. The imperative of survival inflicts itself even on the hopeless in an endocrine frenzy. To withstand those chemicals well is no more or less a quirk of constitution than withstanding any other chemical.

It is unique to human beings to choose death – but do we choose to die, or not to live? Those who choose to die do not choose dying, but dying for, dying in, dying with, dying as – all things you do before you die.

Thinking about death is as futile as thinking about life. If death matches life, then death is as much and as various as life, in comforts and in stings – as uncertain as life, and as surprising. But though one cannot define life, one can say useful things about it. There may be useful things to say about death. But remember that the segment of life that thought can influence is a small one. The substance of life is the same for every human being, and for other animals: individual but not individuated – eating, sleeping, walking, loving, laughing, crying. Likewise most of what it is to die is unoriginal and familiar.

But human deaths are different. The last dinosaur, say, was much a dinosaur as any other had been. The last cat will be a true cat. But the last man will be no such thing. No man abridges mankind. Nature, when it kills us, does not know we are human beings, does not know we are different. It does not consult or consider us in dying any more than in being born. But nature is wrong. Its excuses are inadmissible. Its generalizations are misguided. We are not interchangeable, we cannot be replaced, we are never unjustifiable. Nature does not gather us in; nature runs us down. It ends us and dissolves us, or dissolves us to end us, and we do not slow its wheels.

I wish I could ask after sanity as easily as after religion. Many have their sanity from ritual who do not believe, and many who believe have their sanity from reason. Children are another reliance: better they bury you, than you bury them.

Since as an essayist I cannot bestow belief or children on my readers, I will address reason.

Define the problem: what is reason asked? Reasoning about life tries to show us what power we have when we feel powerless, how to bear and forbear. Reasoning about death must show us how powerless we really are, even when we feel we have power. We are strangely able to think like immortals, to ignore death’s oncoming, to ignore time’s outgoing; able in looking forward to let age creep up on us, in looking backward to let death approach from behind. This is not foolish: too much awareness of death, because we cannot escape it, elides with surrender to it. It is brave to go down and joke with the gravedigger, but someday you must return from England.

And what does the gravedigger have to tell? He will not patronize you; he knows that you know you must die. He asks: do you know you can only have so much life before you die?

We have so much to say. Within ourselves we go on and on in a steady burble of language worn down to smooth unresisting kernels. To express them is a slow, hard cementation that always omits as much as it includes. No practice, no pursuit, no art, no relationship, no devotion can really empty a human being out. The greatest wit, the most indefatigable scribbler, the hack, the genius, the most passionate lover, the most kneeworn worshiper – we all die less than empty.

Some wit observed that the centipede is so called because human beings are too lazy to count to fifteen. But really we are not too lazy to count; we are afraid to count. We use names instead. We speak of character and personality as we speak of centipedes. But though we refuse to count them we die bearing these cruel secret tallies. For the most daring there are only so many victories; for the wisest only so many thoughts; for the most loving, and the most loved, only so many kisses.

The wheels of reason crush all shapes together. What am I? What lives? What is it that will die? Surely I fill out something that outlives me. I am a kind of person; I was not the first and I will not be the last. Or I am unique, I have a claim that outlives me. Draw thy breath in pain to tell my story. Either way I have a story that is mine, whether I inherit it or originate it.

This is a comfort I am willing to defend, though not to commit to. This word story has become pejorative. Stories are ways of making the inexplicable palatable (as in the neurological concept of confabulation: when the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing, and the left side of the brain [governing the right hand] invents an explanation for the actions of the left, subverting memory to reshape it.) Or stories omit pertinent information from complex events to make them useful, as history told through Great Men omits almost everything that actually happened.

All this sounds very wise, has that bite of wisdom going down in phrases like we tell ourselves stories or the human need for simple stories.

But just what is it that a story is? Does it supervene on events or inhere in them? The impossibility of proving a story is not a demonstration of its vacuity, but of its irreducibility, its centrality, its coherence.

A story cannot be broken down into simple parts not because it is unreal, but because the idea of a story is perfectly simple – there are no simpler parts. The maturity of twentieth century science discovered that the world is not matter acting mathematically but mathematics acting materially. Likewise it is no more plausible that life is biology acting narratively, than that life is narrative acting biologically.

I do not commit to this because even granting that stories are real and potent there is no reason why that power must be beneficent. If stories are substantial enough to support as a reliance, then they are also substantial enough to construct as a trap. And even stories die – they can die, at least, though they do not have to. They are immortal but not indestructible.

And a story has an end; to speak of the story of a life parallels in death the story’s quality of having an end. But to run out of time is not to finish. To stop is not to be over. Even the story of a life too soon ended, or wrongly ended, only assigns the role of death a part in the masque of justice, where we conceal Death in the costume of Crime.

Instinct compels us to live toward something, some legacy of possessions or powers, some residue of belief or meaning; compels us to think of death as the occasion of it. We cannot help but live all our experiences as if we will tell about them. Even if we choose not to tell, we experience that choice as if we will tell how we never told. Even if we do not hope to be heard, we experience that hopelessness as something we will tell.

Then we look at death – we cannot help it – as if it will be the great telling. Even if what is to be told is: “I lived without illusions, without the need for neat satisfying stories.”

Story creeps in. Those who would tell God how they lived only require God to be audient to what they already had to say. Even those who would be silent in the Void have somewhere in their minds the thought of telling how the Void absorbed them.

The lapse of this instinct – the feeling, not the thought, that you might never tell – cannot be told; but it does exist.

Science has its particular comforts. Psychology is ready to assure you that once you have learned to live, you have learned to die, because death is not the end of life, but part of it. Neurology is ready to assure you that consciousness is a phenomenon, not a species, that once relieved of memory and embodiment, your share of it is only a repetition of the common pattern; and that you, in recorded memory and the memories of others, in the substance of your DNA, and in the generic phenomenon of consciousness, continue to exist in every sense but that of existing within an individual – you never die, only disband. Biology is ready to assure you that you are only a modification of the one continuous stream of life stretching through the years in their billions – that all you are was always possible, and all you were will remain forever possible. Chemistry is ready to assure you that you are made of starstuff, that in your death you perform a stage of a cycle grander and finer than any that human imagination has feigned to religion or philosophy. Physics is ready to assure you that time is an illusion, that before and after are obsolete, that everything that happens is still happening somewhere, that just because you have lived there will always be something in the universe to which you are still alive.

All these comforts are worth attending. All these comforts are noble and good and fill the mind with melancholy serenity and a musical sense of the harmony and fitness of things. I commend them to those who can rely on them. But I do not feel equal in life to the sum of these posthumous immortalities. Nor is death declawed for me by doctrines that teach I cannot die because I was never alive.

Not existing is as nightly-familiar as dreamless sleep. We die for a few hours before smooth and painless resurrection. If we define consciousness as something material then this death and resurrection are literal. Consciousness is a process; whether the process stops because of a temporary alteration of the state of its medium, or because of the destruction of its medium, is irrelevant. Your computer is no less inactive when it is off than when it is broken.

If we define consciousness as something spiritual and indestructible then dreamless sleep shows that experience, memory, and embodiment are not involved in consciousness, only employed by it. And if we define consciousness as something spiritual and destructible, then there is a power that destroys and resurrects us every day, in promise of doing so again.

The existence of dreamless sleep leaves only these three alternatives. There is no possible view of life in which there is any novelty to death. You have died before, and risen. Perhaps you will die again tonight.

Either life has value or it does not. If it does, then it has value in any quantity. If it does not, then to ask that it continue forever is only to ask that the charade never end. But if life has value, what kind of value does it have? A possession, a loan, a gift? Life cannot be given value by words. Words fail, not because you cannot succeed in speaking, but because you have succeeded just by speaking. The blind circle of words cannot reach life, not because life is beyond words, but because life is inside of words.

Under the laws of nature no one has the right to be born; no one has the right to live. Be grateful! Do not ask to whom; be grateful because you have the capacity for gratitude. Not grateful in principle, not observing the rites of gratitude; be panicked, paralyzed, choked with gratitude. You live, you communicate, you exist – and this infinite improbability, this absolute unjustifiability, outweighs the mere certainty of your death.

But let fear speak. “What should we be grateful for? For other people who have us, people we leave? For the beautiful things we must shut our eyes on, or the beautiful things that fall apart while we watch? For experience we cannot repeat, for joys we forget, for achievements that either embitter us in failure, or leave us jaded in success? For love we are not strong enough to stay with or save? These are not gifts. These are decoys, lures, the hooks on the lines that jerk us along – no, not even lines, the shaft we fall down. Should we be more thankful for the paintings on the sides of the shaft than we hate what dropped us down it? Don’t you know yet what they are painted with? They are painted with the gore of those who have already hit the bottom. Be grateful? What a word you trot out, what a silly little word. Is this it? Is this the word you would hold onto, here of all places, where words make no difference at all, where no words can ever be heard or spoken? Grateful? You profane!”

What can I say? I cannot teach you what to be grateful for. This is work only you can do. You have already begun. It is the reward of good taste, of deep attachment, of the discipline of delight, to know at the last with certainty that some things are good, true, fine, brave, in a way that cannot be diminished – undeniable to the last denial.