The Two Small Deaths
In the damp green morning I have come to the far end of the pasture, taking down fence posts to drive into paddocks, replacing them with scant, silent complaint. It is wet and new and slippery out, and I have waited to come this far because I know what I will find.
The mother pig has smothered two of her new offspring. I sensed this the day before, as we looked long into her pen with all the children, but with so many tiny onlookers probing I did not dare enter her lair. The next morning, in the privacy that morning permits, I let myself in through her gate. She is nursing endlessly, and as she lays servant, she grunts softly, and I pull two small bodies from the hay. I put them in the empty feedbag and tuck them under my arm. I say, in the same volume as the soft rain, that it is okay. That I know she didn’t mean to. She pulls her heavy body up and faces the other six babies. She looks at them, as they wriggle. I imagine briefly that she is committing them to her sight. I scratch her wiry head, awkwardly. I do not know why. Back onto the four-wheeler, I gently put the feedbag into the trailer. I drive out, do the dance with all the fences, and then I take the shovel to three places, testing the site for a grave.
With the hole prepared, I tip the feedbag methodically and let the two small deaths slide out into the earth. I am surprised with the spring of the little limbs and tails, the perfection of the wrinkles, and the tiny closed eyes. I feel somber, but resolute. I am not a stranger to the facts. I begin to close the earth around these facts, and a thousand tiny seeds are revealed to me. I notice, after all, that the busy air smells new. I look out over the hills. I release two ruddy, tawny, skittish, soft compensations toward all of the beauty I encounter. I mark the grave with rocks so that I can come back for the bones.
I laugh at myself, kicking dirt from the shovel and walking slowly to the shed to return it there. I laugh because I know that nature keeps no elegant score. For every bit of rot there is not necessarily a flower, or ten, and for every birth there is not a strange collapse, though there are enough of both to make it tick. I am a farmer. Two small deaths happen. They are not insignificant, but they are not significant, either. The sow may mourn, and she may not. The grass should grow greener over the grave. I bet it will. What I know is that it is all included in a great, glorious thing that doesn’t have to make sense to me. And I laugh because I do not know what meaning I attach for my own benefit, or what meaning actually has bearing or weight.
In the evening, I sit in the dim light of my desk and I read. I read about microbial communities, affiliations of seemingly infinite genera that make up our world. Did you know that air is not thin, nor is it empty? Did you know that dust is alive? I bet you did know that the only reason termites can digest wood is because of a symbiont that lives in their gut, using their bodies as houses and in turn feeding their house a metabolized version of the wood. But did you know that the wood-digesting magic is actually a consortium of five different beings? It takes six organisms to make a termite work. It takes many many more, for you to be reading this.
There is no such thing-- biologically, physiologically, evolutionarily, genetically-- as an individual, all because of the fact that everything is made of communities of many organisms. This thrills me, and hurts me. It reinforces everything I know, but flies in the face of some things I feel. The tiny pigs, from their inception, were communities of buzzing microorganisms, and they were also pigs. And in death, they are buzzing communities of microorganisms, and they are also dead pigs. Quite different, but quite un-dazzlingly same. They are food or house for things. I am too. The next day, I tell my partner, who is a beekeeper, that nectar from plants has specific bacterial associations, and that these associations can change the plant’s relationship with pollinators. We wonder about all the things that this means, from bird poop to pesticides to flower parts to Venus flytraps. He tells me about pollen stored in the hive and left to ferment, left to the action of whatever bacteria finds it, and changes it. He calls it “bee bread.” I joke, “Maybe your bacteria and my bacteria just really like each other. And we don’t really have anything to do with it.”
I recall weeks ago hearing a discussion between physicists and philosophers about the illusion of free will, the dynamism of reality, and the infinitesimal things that we do not understand. I nodded my head through the discussion, which squared subjective reality against objective reality, those very mirrors I held against one another in the rain, over the grave. As if light would come into them, and show me something new.
The things I experience are fabrications of my mind, which is actually just one component (a regulating component) in a community or system of interactions. And so, what was the sow looking at? What did her grunts say? What is consciousness made of? (I read somewhere that it might just be the random machinations of flagellate microorganisms. WTF….) And is consciousness, in the presence of all this confusion and these questions, a gift? Is it a lucky thing? Were the small deaths sad, or unjust? Were they calculated? How do they “matter”, and how do they not ?
Yesterday, we took all the kids hiking in the pines, somewhere upstate South Carolina. The kids played step-only-on-sticks, and we looked for wildflowers and mushrooms. We looked at the way the forest grew, and the way it changed as we walked. We decided we had never witnessed a mature pine forest, and the kids asked what we meant. And then there were discussions about which one was more alive, the old or the new. There were inklings of which one might be better. As if something old and undisturbed and revered is automatically better than something used, something re-planted, to be used again. My mind wants the old things, and the things we did not touch. Wendell Berry said, “For what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.” Amen. But the other part of me (my imagination jokes that this is perhaps the part under control of bacteria) wanted to be more careful, to give the kids the other piece, which is the part about the new forest and its different life. It’s place in the wheel of succession, and the fact that there really is no man-made equation for just how much disturbance we can get away with. Likely, that equation would only have its equal sign pointing at us, that is, it would only account for how much disturbance is allowed before we ended up in the feedbag. And, the bacteria of me whispered, would that be sad? How would that matter, and how would it not?
I face questions like these all the time. In vegan vitriol, in tired debates about the effects of genetically modified foods, in reading and reading the endless media screeching about America’s current schmolicy. In musings on soil health, in parenting, or loving, or drinking beer, or drinking coffee. What experience is meaningful, or kindred, or desired? Good or bad? What action is understood, or helpful, or meaningful in any way? How much does it warrant worry? How much does it warrant fear? Shall I social media my admonishment? Shall I worry or joyride through my bit of healing on the world?
I am not a nihilist, in case you were beginning to wonder. I do believe I choose my reality. I do believe I can make a difference, and should. I believe our experiences are real, and our perceptions and feelings are real. But they are also illusory, small, and unimportant to big life. By big life I mean planetary life. Our actions are significant and impactful, and they are also just part of the larger imprint of our existence, which nature will fold in and photocopy and alter in other ways, even if we are just screwing up all the way down. You, as a community of beings, are moving through the world and interacting, and as you interact you affect change on all kinds of tiny communities, including the community that is you. You do not know all the things you are doing. In this way, it is important to do the right thing, and it is also important not to absolutely freak out about all the wrongness, or assume that you know where the ultimate line is in between those two poles. This is not meant to excuse or buffer suffering. It is meant as an admission. Shit happens. Then it fertilizes things. Microscopic aspects of our world are evolving much faster than we will, incorporating the actions and interactions into generations and species that will then inform further iterations of life. For better or for worse. When we alter the genetics of a plant, and expect that we will not alter the bacterial associations to its nectar or its roots, we are foolish. We do not know what we are doing. We have done it anyway. The point of this is: joke is on us. Nature is the ultimate mover and shaker. Should the baby pigs live or die, this informs activity which spirals onward into new activity. It is not out of step, or unimportant, but it is also just a beat in the rhythm of things.
Still, I cannot get the small bodies from my head. They have become symbolic of a scattershot truth. They have come to represent opposites, which are oddly requisite one another, and confusions, which are undeniable. The way they tumbled into the hole, the nose of one faced west and the nose of the other one east. Yin and Yang. I can see why it is tempting to get stuck on the stillness, the remorse, the cute, the death, the fear, and the spirit knocking. That is a very human little thing to do. Certainly, to not move through all those feelings or ponderings would be daft, and damaging. I don’t know. I think we do not know how, but we do know that everything is corroborated, and everything is used.
I marked the grave to save the bones. Why? I collect them as a reminder. As we spiral and spiral, we are small indeed, but we do leave a signature. It is both. Bones and seeds, and the data we gave bacteria, informing their infinite divisions and shifts, are the things that last. Don’t you leave places sometimes, wondering how you are remembered or missed? The real question is: Am I right with my intentions and my designs? Do I have any reason to believe that they will translate and ripple for better, and not for worse? Am I brave enough to remember that someday, my small death will ring no sound, will be a different kind of house or food for things? How fascinating, and disturbing this feels. How wild and calm it somehow makes me. How powerful I am, in my ultimate weakness. Go forth, Meredith, in your blind way and do beautiful things. Doing otherwise would be intentionally wreckless, as opposed to just alive and dumb and messy.