Forty-six years ago I began to volunteer in a nursing home. I was 16. This was the Erie County, New York Nursing home for poor county residents. Earlier it has been a poor house.
At that time I had heard it had been a poor house. Frankly, I didn’t know what that meant. It was during a peak-oil discussion many years later that I decided to look it up. I found that poor houses and poor farms “were common in the United States beginning in the middle of the 19th century and declined in use after the Social Security Act took effect in 1935 with most disappearing completely by about 1950.” My father told me recently that his company, an asphalt flooring installation company, installed the floors in this particular poor house as it transformed into a nursing home.
Several of the people in the nursing home became very important in my life and taught me valuable lessons. Bill was a pleasant quiet man who had Multiple Sclerosis (MS), was about 50, and was confined to a wheel chair because of his illness. At meal times I would always go see and feed Mrs. Parker. She also had MS but it had put her flat on her back for the last 12 years. She barely had enough breath to speak. She never complained, but if the staff moved her she would scream from the pain of her bed sores. I loved her dearly. One day I came in and was told that Bill had died in the night from a heart attack. Not even for a moment did I feel sad. I was so happy for him, he would not have to go through the long and painful decline that was the fate of Mrs. Parker.
I learned there that death can be a friend and that extending life without a good quality of life is not the best option.
Fast forward 30 years. It’s 1993, and I had been invited to join a friend in Haiti. She knew of my interest in Mother Theresa’s Homes for the Dying. She was there with another group but offered to house me while I volunteered. Because of transportation difficulties I ended up volunteering at Mother Theresa’s Children’s home instead — this not an orphanage, but a place to treat sick children. As the months went by I began to question the “goodness” of saving lives in an overpopulated country. Children saved from early death would have lives of poverty and bring more children into poverty. Was doing good always GOOD? In Port-au-Prince there were no songbirds, the only birds were chickens. I was told the young boys killed wild birds with slingshots for food. I found this very disturbing. It began to be clear on a larger scale that good and evil were not the absolutes I had wanted them to be but were in fact often intertwined. One good might bring something bad, and an evil might bring good. A famine cuts short some lives, but a reduced population makes future famines less likely. It was perhaps the most wrenching realization I have ever had, for I wanted very much to be doing good in the world.
Back up to my teen years. Somewhere in my schooling I was taking biology and I turned the page of my text book to a schematic drawing of the water cycle (like this one). It had all the requisite little arrows that showed how water moved through the natural system and returned to where it started. I can still remember my awe at its beauty. No doubt most, if not all of my classmates did not have this sense of revelation. Over the years I learned of more such cycles — the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, and so on. One of the cycles not usually rendered in such drawings is that of living bodies. We are born, accumulate minerals, live, die and return those minerals to the land to be recycled.
It is the most natural and inevitable thing in the world for a living creature to die. In so doing we provide the room and resources for the next round of life. It is even written in our genes that, if we aren’t recycled as food for some other creature, we still decline and die within some preordained time frame. The beauty of the world around us now is based on death, and selective death before reproduction is what moves evolution forward. The development of rich soil comes from the death of plants and animals. Death of one generation allows the next generation to have a go at life by freeing up resources for them.
We are now anticipating the death of the largest civilization man has ever created and with it the untimely death of multiples of humans. We can bemoan this fate or we can see it as a reordering of balance, of restoring cycles of life. Humans will have to return to being part of the cycles of life and death of natural beings and remove themselves from the imagined pedestal of being above nature.
As we prepare for the future, we need also prepare our minds for a much higher death rate and most likely our own deaths coming sooner than we had thought. To know deep inside that death can be a deliverer, death frees up space and resources for others creatures to live, and that death is part of the cycles that began once organisms started self replicating, can perhaps help us to remember to live well so we depart without regrets.
Lessons on living — what a strange title for an essay that is mostly about death. One might ask “does it matter if I spend time thinking about the fact that my life is some finite number of years?” One can also ask, “would it have made a difference if we humans had thought about oil as a finite resource and decided how best to use that finite resource?” Isn’t acknowledging that something is finite the best way to begin to determine how best to use that thing, whether it be resources or years of life?
• Kathy Cumbee is a retired bookkeeper living in central Alabama with her husband, a rat terrier, and 100 chickens. The chickens range and interbreed freely, the outcomes of which provide joy for their human companions. Kathy and her husband use the Ruth Stout continual mulch method of gardening, and their garden increasingly includes a component of edible native plants that obligingly self seed. The garden supplies food for the humans and daily greens for the chickens, who in turn provide eggs and manure for the garden. Preparations for the world after oil include a well with hand pump, wood-fired cooking stove, candles, bow saws, and other hand tools. As we face an uncertain future, Kathy and her husband increasingly turn their attention to the simple joys of each day, including the pleasures of a simply life in tune with at least some parts of the natural world.