Notes toward an ecological understanding of dying a Christian death

The Judas Horse: notes toward an ecological understanding of dying a Christian death

Maximilian Werner

And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious,

most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and

used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding

and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related

inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable.

–John Steinbeck

The crisis of plausibility has rendered our traditional stories

unsatisfying in their accounts of how things are, and the crisis of

relevance has rendered them inadequate in their judgments about which

things matter. These concerns indicate a significant need, both

psychological and social, for a new story to provide the means for a

transformation of the species on a global scale.

–Loyal Rue

A light snow fell as I drove through the morning dark toward my brother’s house. I had lived in Utah for much of my life, but now I was a visitor, or a guest, or something for which I have no name. The snow on the road was just deep enough to have captured the tracks of a wandering dog. Naturally, I followed them with my eyes until they had crossed the street and were drifting down the sidewalk I glanced at the sign on the corner and realized that Christian and his old girlfriend Pinto used to rent a house not far from here. That was ten years ago. I turned off of State Street and headed east, already feeling the pull of the past. Carved pumpkin bags filled with leaves grimaced from the side of the road. The last time I saw Pinto alive was in the spring. We were out on the porch drinking beer and watching her cat leap for moths. I can’t think of that night without remembering how the breeze in the trees, the stars, and her eyes–half shut and wet with laughter–are still one of the most beautiful and saddest things I have ever seen.

At the time of her death, Pinto and my brother were no longer a couple, but they were still friends, and Salt Lake was such a small city that I would see her from time to time. We were never really close, and yet until recently her death had troubled me. I would often dream about her, and on those occasions I would watch her very closely to learn how she felt about being dead. But I could never tell. The dreams were just too equivocal. Before I learned about their biological origins, I treated dreams as presages or–when the dreams were of dead people–glimpses of the afterlife. I therefore paid special attention to my dreams about Pinto. Might she not reveal secrets of cosmic significance? Contrary to my hopes, the dreams were disquieting. She would never speak, and I would always feel like she was accusing me of some folly or trespass against her memory. Still, I enjoyed the richness of the dreams, so I recorded a few of them in my journal:

(10/92) Flames and vines own this house. I look up through a hole

in the floor, the mouth of the house, where tips of fire made their

first appearance here. My brother’s dead girlfriend is climbing a

charred ladder into the sky. She wants me to go with her, but I

realize the ladder won’t hold me. I share my worry with her–like she

needs it–as she stands a few rungs up, waiting for me to climb. I say

something and she turns to me, her face telling me not to be foolish.

Then she climbed until I could not see her anymore.

(12/94) I saw her face above me, and it was as though I had in

some way wronged her, and I thought about this guilt, I asked where

did it come from? I couldn’t say and so I covered my body and I asked

her to forgive me for whatever I had done, even though we both knew it

was useless.

I am especially drawn to the sentence I asked her to forgive me … even though we both knew it was useless because I think it reflects the real reason why Pinto’s death had troubled me: I had misinterpreted it. I had made her death antagonistic by distinguishing it from the physical world of which it is part. Despite this tendency to mythologize, I have never been a religious man. Even if my father had not taken a job in northern Maine shortly after my birth, and my family had remained in Idaho, it is still unlikely that I would have been raised Mormon. After all, my father considered himself an Atheist then (today he claims to be an Agnostic), and my mother–in spite of pressure from her family–was herself on her way out of the religion. By the time my parents divorced and my mother moved us from Maine to Utah, I had lived for twelve years without religion. I had deep woods instead. But religiosity permeates life, so unless I were encouraged to interpret life otherwise, a religious interpretation would predominate, even in dreams. Shortly after Pinto’s death, I wrote a friend to tell him of the news. The account seems oddly detached:

Pinto lies in her coffin, a thorn beneath skin. The thorn becomes

distorted beneath the skin the same way her face does beneath the

mortician’s pen. Pinto is dead. She was killed on an all-terrain

vehicle. It was dark. There must have been music playing somewhere.

The speed is unknown, but I can guess: blinding. I can see her eyes

watering in the darkness. She wasn’t laughing, just riding. The

darkness animated, drew up a deer. Pinto’s heart pounded in her mouth,

and she was thrown clear into unconsciousness. I went to her viewing

and they put her in the ground the next day. The leaves are already

changing, some have fallen. (9/92)

I didn’t cry or mourn at the viewing or at any other time that I can remember. In fact, I don’t think Pinto’s death even registered except for in the most abstract way, and because I could not realize her death, I couldn’t feel it, either. But what prevented me from realizing and understanding her death? What happened that I became severed from my own life?

A few years before she died, Pinto was almost killed in a car accident. She was looking out the window at the time of impact, and so the left side of her face was shattered when it struck the windshield. The accident left a scar that charted her face like a strike of lightning. Like other people who knew her, somehow I believed that this encounter with mortality meant that she could now look forward to a long life. She had paid her dues (to whom or to what I don’t know). So when she died, I found myself asking how anyone could be so unlucky. Obviously, such a fantastic question lead to an equally fantastic answer: even as someone who had not been directly exposed to religious doctrine, I concluded that Pinto was marked for death. I cannot imagine a more injurious and dreadful way to think, and yet there must be millions of people like me who, because they are entrenched in an exclusive cosmology, automatically interpret life in this way. But there’s more: what can only be called ritualized pathology.

The viewing was held in a Catholic church near Pinto’s childhood home, and as I stood in line, waiting to pay my respects, I over-heard the solemn voices of people offering their condolences. Some mourners explained Pinto’s death in terms of design. I overheard the priest say that “God needed her in heaven, so He called her home.” Later, an older woman embraced Pinto’s mother, kissed her cheek and said, “She is in a better place now, dear.” Yet another explanation was circulating through the church that morning–the punitive one–but it went unspoken. I saw it in peoples’ faces, and I am sure people saw it in my face, too, however vaguely. Like thousands of other children born into religious families, Pinto was Catholic by default. But as a robust young woman who reveled in life, and in whatever made life pleasurable, she likely did not live what practicing Catholics would consider a traditional Catholic life. I don’t know if they would have described her as a ‘bad’ person, but I suspect they thought she was far away from the flowing robes of their God.

As people filed past me toward the casket, I recall having wondered why ‘bad’ things happen to ‘good’ people, not realizing how my question expressed my own religious need to account for such events. I now realize the tremendous burden I unnecessarily placed on myself by entertaining that question. Religious leaders and followers must know the burden well, for the survival of their churches and faith surely depends on their ability to address it. In my experience the story seems to go like this: If a ‘good’ person dies, her death is considered positive by design (the Lord wanted her in heaven); and if she is deemed a ‘bad’ person, or a person who lived a morally dubious life, then the explanation, although generally tacit, is punitive, or negative by design (she didn’t live a Christian life, so the Lord smote her). Either way, that I considered this explanation for Pinto’s death illustrates the influence of the predominant religion, and that membership is not at all requisite to perpetuating religious interpretations of existence. I have no religious affiliations. I am not Mormon or Catholic. But I may as well have been, and that is precisely the problem.

I used to believe that the best way to resist Mormonism was simply not to be one. Now I see that unless one cultivates an alternative perspective of existence, religious interpretations will remain inescapable. Circumscription of any ilk is dangerous, but because it is uninformed and driven by a mythical sense of moral rectitude, religious circumscription is especially toxic. Only recently have I come to understand my power to effect positive change, instead of blindly forfeiting that power with the assumption that a Creator will take care of everything for me, no matter how irresponsibly I behave. As a means of explaining existence, the urge to believe is almost as profound as the urge to procreate, but in a world where everything depends on everything, and even our most seemingly minor actions have global consequences, as an intelligent species we are obligated to modify or reject our urges.

What if, as a solution to raking leaves, I considered removing the tree that produced them? If I chop down the tree in my yard, my home will no longer be shaded from the searing Arizona sun. I will not only incur added financial costs from having to buy more energy to cool my home, but I will also suffer aesthetic costs by displacing the many birds and insects that rely on the tree for food, shelter and pleasure. This is to say nothing of the ecological consequences of destroying the tree, the decrease in photosynthesis being just one of them. I admit that my example is extreme, but it is in no way exceptional. Nor is it isolated. While on a walk through my neighborhood, I was saddened to see that a pair of old pine trees had been cut down. The ‘owner’ of the trees was milling about in his yard, so I asked him if the trees were diseased. “No,” he said nonchalantly, “they just didn’t fit in.”

Given this interdependency and urgency, I wonder why humanity isn’t saturated with ecological wisdom instead of religious doctrine. How could anyone value an afterlife more than this life? How is it we tend to be comforted by what cannot be known, instead of by what can be known or is? I admit these are complex questions that have several answers, but I am fairly sure the underlying answer is our unexamined fear of death. At one time in our past, this fear was productive and life-preserving, but not any more. Today’s world is a drastically different place from the world enjoyed even as recently as two hundred years ago. The context has changed, but perception has not changed with it. When fear overrides intelligence and our ability to act according to circumstances–such as the human population explosion and the ensuing stress placed on the rest of life–then fear transforms into maladaptive ignorance. And if my own small life is any indication, I’m afraid choosing ignorance at this crucial point is to choose destruction of ourselves and the planet.

The point is that cosmologies that do not honor physical reality undermine our ability to live a healthy and sustainable life. Insofar as my explanation for Pinto’s death is solely transcendent, it estranged me from the meaning and wonder of my own experience. It follows, then, that the more fervent humanity is about such ideas (e.g., economic growth as a measure for progress), the more it tends to ignore human and biotic complexity, and thus its sense of responsibility to the world diminishes. I am reminded of the load-bearing mule that is coaxed forward by the dangling carrot. Archaic religions, however, do not use anything of real substance to proselytize and retain followers. Nothing swings from the end of their string. That is, except for a promise of the afterlife. Of course heavenly promises only go so far in terms of helping people to bear their mortal loads, but religion has not had to deal with this ever-worsening disparity because it has had thousands of years to persuade people like me that no cargo is more precious than the human soul.

Without the supreme liability of the body and its cumbersome terrestrial story, religion may focus on extolling the celestial story of the soul. This narrative occurs largely within the context of religious conjecture, as if the knowable reality of death–or that information which may have a direct impact on life–did not exist. I know that the function of this denial was to help me cope with a traditional notion of mortality, but it actually hindered my ability to cope from the outset. When death (or life) is treated as an impenetrable and extrasensory event, whatever might be thought of it becomes equally incomprehensible and so has no relevance to reality, which is the very thing that all of life is trying to survive. As long as I believe the soul’s home is elsewhere, that it is separate from the life which carries it, and that it does not taste the water, nor breathe the air, nor walk in the shade of the forest, I will be only tenuously connected to my own life, which, of course, is my body. Life will feel unnecessarily strange and threatening, and I imagine that many religious followers, because they tend to have not developed productive and realistic ways of dealing with the complexity of their experience, may subdue, reduce and ignore life until it is destroyed by their indifference.

I am a special animal. I can think and dream and language. But as far as I know, my life will end with me, just as Pinto’s life ended with her. Given this sense of finality, I know the desire to make death beautiful and transcendent. I also know that some beauties affirm life, while other, superficial beauties distance me from it. As the artisan of the Christian macabre, Pinto’s mortician adorned her death to the point of unintelligibility-. He styled her hair and painted her face in an attempt to make her appear serene and beautiful and alive. But in reality, so much damage had been done to her head and face that their restoration could only end in a grotesque caricature. Besides that, the Pinto I knew wore her hair straight and did not wear make-up. My estrangement was compounded by the brand-new outfit she wore: a denim shirt, tight blue jeans, and hiking boots that were so small I wondered if her feet were even in them. But Pinto did not wear ‘out-fits,’ she wore clothes, old clothes: cut-off shorts, T-shirts, combat boots. Pinto’s mother must have chosen the outfit because she stood at the foot of her daughters casket and rhetorically wondered if Pinto looked good. I could barely recognize her. I searched for the face I knew, but with the exception of her scar, which the make-up could not hide, I could not find it. I recall looking down at her and thinking who are you?

Because I could not reconcile Pinto’s life and death with their religious treatment, I could not feel the customary consolation and closure normally associated with viewings. Instead, I felt betrayed and alienated by a ritual that was, in my mind, a sham. But a sham of what? I could not say. For in the absence of a scientifically grounded cosmology, the only way I could relate to the experience was according to the predominant, mythical ideas of the past, or not at all. I had, in effect, been paralyzed. Few things are as unsettling to modern humans as a dead human, but I don’t think this has always been the case. It has probably been only very recently in our evolution that our response to death has been characterized by such profound misunderstanding, a response which is no doubt linked to the institutionalization of death and dying. When I wander back a hundred thousand years, I envision a species of hominids for whom death was likely a source of curiosity, wonder and, perhaps, the first stirrings of spirituality. I am not suggesting that a return to this earlier state is an option. Nor do I want to deny the significance of losing a loved one. But I do think we gain real perspective by asking questions of value that reach through and beyond our lifetimes and religions, which are simply too brief and exclusive to sufficiently address issues of ultimate value.

As the study of interactions, ecology is perfectly suited for this purpose. Nothing is beyond its scope: it is the hand that removes the mask from Pinto’s face. No one knows what–if anything–happened after her death, but that she died is not mysterious: like all of us, she had to die, and by getting on the ATV she put herself at even greater and more immediate risk. Unlike a horse or elephant or any other living mount, which shares the survival instinct with the rider, a machine cannot respond to the environment independent of the rider should that need arise. Consequently, the rider’s ability to successfully negotiate terrain is compromised. As a passenger, Pinto was doubly at risk Add a high rate of velocity, darkness, the fact that she wasn’t wearing a helmet, and the element of chance represented by the deer, and suddenly all arguments from design become irrelevant.

When I finally reached Christian’s house, the early October sun had just risen above the Wasatch Mountains. The maple trees lining the street were all but bare and their leaves lay aglow in the still-lush grass. That death incites its own peculiar awe and wonder is at no time more apparent than in the fall, that moody and sleepy interim of maturation and incipient decay. I wonder what life was like when we still saw ourselves mirrored in the seasons and their cycles? How did life feel before we saw ourselves as separate and special? Perhaps the characteristic pull or sadness we feel in the fall is really a remnant that we have carried across hundreds of thousands of years, a kind of pre-verbal or cellular knowledge of our unity with all things. Perhaps over time this cellular form of knowing evolved into the emotions we feel presently whenever confronted with reflections of our own mortality.

Perhaps that is the survival value of our sadness: it encourages us to reflect on our lives and determine how well we are living them. Perhaps that is why Pinto came to mind today as I drove through the windy neighborhoods with my window down, breathing the cold, sweet smell of dying leaves. Perhaps that is why, at the end my letter regarding Pinto’s death, I wrote the leaves are already changing, some have fallen. These speculations raise questions regarding the ultimate value of the ecological perspective.

After all speculating is not answering, at least not in any final sense. And yet that is precisely why the ecological perspective is so exquisite: it empowers us to know without ever presuming an end to our knowledge. My religious fears and questions were human, but after becoming only basically conversant with ecological principles, I see that my fears and questions were irrelevant and, at times, destructive. The religious need to explain existence (and its end) is part of our biological nature, but in my case the predominant mythology was insufficient in terms of offering consolation or helping me to understand reality: Insofar as many religious cosmologies and their rituals distort reality, they are unequipped to address the challenges of the present moment. The meaning and value of my own life has deepened through my inquiries into the true nature of reality, so I must wonder how life would be if each of us were to adopt an ecological perspective, and thereby join in learning and telling the new story of the world.


Maximilian Werner is a writing instructor at Arizona State University, where he teaches Writing and the Environment, Film and the American West, and Nature Writing. His work has appeared in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Fly Rod and Reel, and Weber Studies: Voices and Viewpoints of the Contemporary West, and is forthcoming in Sulphur River Literary Review.


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