I went out to the woods to live deliberately. I wanted to live deeply and suck out all the marrow of Life. And not–when I came to die–discover that I had not lived.
~ Henry David Thoreau
We are born with a yearning to find our place… to know where we fit into our family… into our community… into Life itself. For much of our lives, we may seek to ‘fit in’ through lifestyle choices like the jobs and friends we choose, the clubs we join, the hobbies we engage in, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the books we read, or the music we listen to. Yet, such pursuits eventually leave us feeling unfulfilled… disconnected… yearning for a deeper sense of relationship…
As Thoreau recognized, we can be guided to our true place of belonging by attuning to the rhythms of the Natural World. After all, we are Nature’s children. Whatever created us also created every other creature who walks, swims, crawls, flies, floats… or stands rooted upon this earth. Whatever ignites the molecular movements that animate our life also ignites those same movements within every other life form. Whatever orbits within the atoms of each particle of dust… each grain of sand… and each mountain… orbits also within our own.
To come into accord with the Natural World does not mean that we have to move to a remote cabin like Thoreau… or travel to distant locales perceived to be more ‘natural’. We can start wherever we are right now. The miracle that is going on in the Serengeti desert—or in the depths of the Indian Ocean—is also going on in our own backyard.
In our own backyard
Right now—in my backyard—there are chickadees and juncos and thrushes and towhees and sparrows and nuthatches… all swirling around a grouping of bird feeders: some dashing in to grab a sunflower chip… others dashing back toward the cover of branches… some flitting from sunflower to suet… others flitting from suet to sunflower… each chasing off any bird near them… or themselves being chased off by another…
Every now and then, they scatter momentarily as a big woodpecker swoops in… but they’re all back in an instant—gathering the bits of suet that the woodpecker drops to the ground. It’s very different when a hawk flashes in; a hawk’s arrival brings an explosion of flapping wings… that carries all the little birds (but one) up into the trees and down into the undergrowth—anywhere they can find protection. Eventually they return—except for the one whose uniqueness is gone for good.
There are also squirrels at the feeders… in a continual squabble about who should be allowed to eat (even though it appears to me that there is room enough for all). Below the squirrel feeders, towhees and sparrows dig down into the discarded sunflower shells… to uncover a bounty of small insects that are themselves feeding upon the decomposing shells.
When spring arrives, most of the juncos and thrushes will migrate elsewhere… and robins and finches and grosbeaks and new sparrows and more towhees will arrive. Some will be drawn to feeders—but others will sort through last season’s decaying oak and maple leaves…and bits of soggy plant material still remaining in the vegetable garden beds. There, they’ll feed upon earwigs and ants and sow bugs and centipedes… who are feeding not only on the decaying plant material—but also on smaller insects and fungi and slime molds… who are themselves feeding on the even smaller organisms consuming soil bacteria and other single-celled creatures.
Later in the spring, eggs will be laid in nests on branches… in holes in trees… and under ground and under rocks… and under almost anything else. And new life will burst forth. Newborn insects will emerge—and some birds will begin to gather them to feed their hungry hatchlings. And other birds will try to steal those hungry hatchlings to feed hungry hatchlings of their own. As flowers begin to blossom, former caterpillars will emerge as beautiful butterflies and moths who will feed on the nectar of the new flowers. And—as they draw in the sweet nectar—great dragonflies will arrive to feed upon them.
Wherever we look—be it the Amazon rainforest, the arctic tundra, or our own backyard—we see the same thing: Life feeding on Life, We see Life revealed as a wondrous net of gems… with each gem in relationship with every other gem through the rhythm of birth and death and rebirth.
This rhythm of birth:death:rebirth is exquisitely orchestrated by the rhythms of the sun… and the moon…and the earth. These rhythms dictate the timing of mating seasons and migrations. They dictate the coming of the rains… and the growing of the grass… and the ripening of seeds and fruit. All to ensure that new life comes into the world to feed new life. Life feeding upon Life. Over and over.
Our Paleolithic ancestors celebrated this rhythm in grand cave murals of animals and humans hunting, dying, having sex, and giving birth. Science celebrates it in the law of the conservation of energy: Energy is neither created nor destroyed… it simply changes form. And every pregnancy celebrates it by converting animal and plant flesh into the flesh of a fetus. For me, this is the true miracle of death and resurrection. How can we praise the birth of a child without—at the same time—praising all of the livingness that was sacrificed to allow the creation of that one new life?
Internally, our body celebrates this rhythm of birth:death:rebirth during every moment of our existence: cellular constituents—like proteins—are continuously being created by linking together smaller subunits… while other proteins are continuously being broken back down into those same subunits—subunits that are then used to build more new proteins. Even our cells follow this rhythm. New cells are continuously being created… while older cells are being broken down to constituents that will be recycled into new cells.
Many of these internal rhythms are also coordinated by the rhythms of the sun and the moon and the earth. For example, the rhythm of the moon impacts hormonal rhythms (like those of the menstrual cycle), sleep rhythms, dream rhythms, and immunity-related rhythms—while the seasonal rhythm of the sun dictates seasonal variations in our overall feeling of psychological wellbeingness. And—as both psychological and astrological investigations have revealed—planetary rhythms also impact the rhythmic maturation of our psycho-spirituality.
The Miracle of Life
To fully honor Life’s rhythm—and participate in it—we must eventually be able to willingly experience ourselves as an integral aspect of Life’s dying; we must be able to appreciate how our own death will actually be a celebration of the cycle… how our own death is essential for the perpetuation of Life on earth. As Robin William’s character, Mr. Keating, says in the film, Dead Poet’s Society: One day, we’ll all be food for worms, lads!
By reconciling ourselves with this precondition of Life, the miracle of death assumes its rightful place alongside the miracle of birth—where the two are alchemically resolved into the Miracle of Life. Yet, to reconcile oneself with death is one of the magnificent challenges of being human.
In my experience, the process of this reconciliation can be supported by an increased awareness of the Natural World through conscious seeing or listening… through ritual or dance or song or any other form of art that allows Nature’s rhythms to dance us into a sense of wonder…
This sense of wonder can transform our day-to-day life into a sacred rite in which we express gratitude for that which is offered, unconditional love for the source of our existence… and compassion for the diversity with whom we share our lives. As we participate in this rite, we will assume our place of true belonging as a glittering jewel integrated into a vast net of gems—within which we discover that we are both the bright light within our utterly unique being… and the ineffable radiance underlying the mystery of existence.