Life and Death

These days, the unexpected thing about unexpected beginnings is the fact of the endless endings that make beginnings possible - the countless deaths, large and small, that are the necessary precursors to a beginning. 

The Rancher took off his hat and held it gently at his waist, rotating it back and forth between his fingertips, as if about to say grace. He hesitated. He seemed to be searching, waiting, for the exact words to arrive. He looked at the ground, then up at us, and said, finally, “For twenty-seven years I’ve been trying to figure out what indicates fully recovered perennial grasses.” 

My heart quickened: I was standing in the presence of someone who spends his time thinking about perennial grasses! I felt so grateful. So reassured. 

“About six weeks ago,” the Rancher continued, “I had an epiphany.” 

We waited. Rain fell. In the neighboring field, two muddy dogs chased a rabbit around a fallen tree. A dozen or so surviving branches reached skyward from the horizontal trunk, which was a smooth, grayish brown. It was slick and swollen with rain. The spindly branches were tinged pale yellow by the promise of new leaves not yet open. 

“I realized,” said the Rancher, “that a fully recovered clump of grass will always have one dead leaf at the bottom, still attached to the base of the plant.” He looked away and shook his head in slow wonderment.  “One yellow leaf.” 

He clambered up the embankment to show us. There at our feet were clumps of grass. He bent to show us one that was in good health. Some stalks had bite marks from having been grazed previously. Some stalks were intact. The surrounding ground was covered with decaying leaves and other detritus. He knelt beside the clump of grass and reached into the thick tufts at its base, gently pushing the dark green out of the way to reveal one yellowed stalk. One. About two inches long. 

In that moment I saw something: I saw dead bodies, garbage-choked streams, and grasses pushing up through concrete and rubble. I saw that ecocide precedes genocide, that violence toward the earth is a precursor – not a result, of violence among humans. I saw that when things are out of kilter, death precedes death rather than death preceding life. And I saw that beginnings are not necessarily pristine or happy, not always beautiful or unsullied or simple. They are, necessarily, tinged with death. It was the Rancher’s tenderness that opened my eyes – the reverence with which he reached for what was hidden beneath the thriving plant. 

“The affection is important,” said the Rancher. 

Death precedes life precedes death precedes life. Sometimes you have to look for signs of life and sometimes you have to look for death and be willing to see it. 

“Sometimes,” said the Rancher, “we have to get off our horse or out of our truck, and onto our knees to see what’s going on. The affection is important.”