Think of Life as a Verb, Not a Noun. It's a Process.

I didn’t write this as an expert on physiological or social processes, or as a representative of any organization. I did write it as an area resident who would like to meet others for informal discussions about the topics presented.


Is it the end?

Or the beginning?


This past summer I was particularly interested in the new growth that appears on dead and dying trees. This was fed by my many years’ fascinatation with a certain western larch snag, the top laying in decay on the forest floor. All along that crumbling top are shoots of new larch seedlings. On the snag are various forms of lichen and moss and the openings where cavity nesters, those birds who utilize dead and dying trees, lay their eggs.

Decay ~ decomposition

Several years ago I conducted graduate research on wildlife decomposition to monitor decay characteristics and associated insects. My intent was to document decay stage characteristics that can aid in estimating time of death of illegally taken wildlife. During that almost three year project I placed 18 carcasses at different times of each year, including a pair placed each season. I was so immeresed in the decay process of dead things that I kept a log to record personal thoughts and feelings, including the samples below:

12 Oct…As I did with the summer carcasses I’m getting into a good routine with the intensity and developing a “fondness” for this new batch of fall critters. They’re teaching me things I wish I had known for the summer pair. I’m seeing so much more with the fall carcasses. And as I was doing yesterday’s session with the summer pair, I really got a pang; they’re such a “soft spot” in my heart. Can you believe it? That I’ve gotten so attached to two long dead things?

I think it’s related to the intensity of it all. When we experience intense situations there is a type of bonding with that experience. Hard to articulate.

Another incredible thing is the beauty I see in the summer carcasses, how exquisite they seem in their earthly process, an ashes to ashes, dust to dust, kind of thing. It’s almost as if I’ve become involved in this very organic process rather than simply being an observer.

13 Oct…On a deeper level, I am face-to-face with my own mortality as I observe these decaying animals. And as a human, I feel robbed of the experience to be able to melt back into the ground. Gravity pulls; insects, mammals, fungi and microbes digest; and life is given back to the earth.

Many years ago, I told close friends that when I felt my “time” was coming, I wanted to be taken to the top of a high peak so my corpse could become food for critters. Tibetans have sky burial where their deceased become an offering for vultures.

Back to my carcasses when I place my hand on their bodies I don’t feel a dead thing, I feel a process. I have long believed that we mistakenly made “life” a noun instead of a verb. It’s the same with death. The decomposing critters speak to that.

14 Oct…Where does one entity end and the other begin in this process? With advanced microscopy some boundaries blur or blend into the next with no clear demarcation. The carcasses would be called dead but processes continue as their bodies become earth.

Since my graduate project ended, I have looked at hundreds more decomposing animals for our game warden training programs. So you might say that looking at dead things has become my life, or more accurately, my life’s work. And I continue to be amazed with the process. Yup, to me, life is a verb, not a noun.

And what happens to our human bodies upon death?

As with an obsession for hanging on to material possessions, we do the same with our bodies. In advancing age we seek and try remedies to fight gravity’s effect, ways to hide the sags and bags. We just can’t let go and allow natural aging to take place. And upon death, we’re still hanging on. We’re still grasping. We can’t let go of our bodies and allow them to return to the earth.

Added to this grasping is the separation of “us from nature.” We have our bodies embalmed and placed in boxes, keeping them separate from nature’s processes. For many reasons I cannot and will not let my body become food for wildlife. So the sane and safe alternative is burning and spreading my ash remains.

Another topic I’d like to explore is carrying that concept of “life as verb” to other facets of who and what we are, as we continually change both individually and collectively as a society.

Change is constant. And as humans, we have free will. We make choices. A friend gave me an excellent book for Christmas, “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance. That book transported me to my past and helped me understand that unskillful choices I made usually created difficult situations. What I am today is sum total of the choices I made in the past, and is a work in progress: a process.

And back to decomposition: Below is a link to an excellent article from Montana Outdoors that details the banquet of a decomposing elk carcass near Gardiner, MT


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