Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Life out of death

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, death

Most people have never seen a Sexton Beetle. This one, identified as Nicrophorus investigator in Calwer's Käferbuch, from which this illustration comes via Wikipedia, is found across northern North America. It is one of 68 known species in the genus Nicrophorus. Some are all black, but most have dark orange markings on a black background.

To see one, on a hot summer day place a dead mouse in a field somewhere, then stand back and watch. One or more beetles ought to show up soon, and a mated pair will proceed to move the mouse carcass to a spot with soft enough ground, and bury it. Underground, the female lays eggs and tends them until the larvae are well on their way to devouring the mouse. She will leave; the larvae will pupate and emerge weeks or months later as adult beetles. As you might have learned in The Lion King, this is part of the circle of life.

This is typical of the way small animals are disposed of in the wild. If they are not eaten by a predator, the beetles probably get them. It is the fate of nearly all animals in nature to be eaten. This is the message of the opening section of Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death by Bernd Heinrich. Of course, he does not stop with mice. The deaths, and particularly after-death disposal, of deer, swine and larger animals are discussed, as is the career of "the ultimate recycler", humans.

Later in the book the human and natural viewpoints are contrasted. For example, at a salmon run in Alaska, a grizzly bear does not always eat all of a fish. It often eats just the fatty eggs and discards the rest to be eaten by the ravens and other scavengers in the vicinity. To us, we consider that the bear has "wasted food". But why not ask the ravens if any actually goes to waste? They get fed, as do many other creatures, from birds to mammals to insects and reptiles. And, of course, bacteria and fungi get their share.

Ravens, vultures and eagles are, to various extents, carrion birds. Even the so-called dedicated predators (such as lions or wolves) will take carrion when they get the chance; it is safer than attacking a prey animal, though fighting off other eager eaters can be risky enough. These all are just the most obvious "undertakers". Unlike human undertakers, they do not dispose of a body to hide or preserve it, but to consume it and to recycle its energy content. One vignette describes the many lives that feed upon a fallen giraffe.

In clear and lyrical prose, the author discusses also the fate of trees that fall in the woods (and are not dragged off by loggers). A "nurse log" can take 200-500 years to decompose, all the while supporting a varying crew of fungi, insects, bacteria, smaller plants, and eventually other trees. Then there are the various ways that things that die in lakes, streams or oceans are recycled. To see a truly gross video, search for "hagfish eating whale" in YouTube. The action happens several kilometers down on the ocean floor.

In the last section, the author gets more philosophical. He had been prompted to write the book by a letter from a friend requesting a "green burial"; that is, having his body left on the ground on land belonging to Dr. Heinrich in the Maine woods, there to be consumed by nature's undertakers. Of course, without proper permitting and supervision, such disposal of a human body is illegal. Rather than bothering him, or a friend who owns land in the woods, contact Green Burial Council, which can help you find such services, or at least a way to be buried without being embalmed in formaldehyde, so your substance can be returned to the earth.

Considering that it can take centuries for the formaldehyde to break down and release a body to decomposition, and that cremation uses huge amounts of fuel, going green is a better option. Whether religious or spiritual views of life after death are accurate or not, there is still a body to be disposed of when a person "transitions". Letting it provide life to nature is another kind of life after death, the life of many creatures that would be deprived of a meal by formaldehyde or the fire.

It is only in the "developed" countries that such deprivation is practiced. Green burial, including "air burial" (feeding the birds) is still the worldwide norm. And why not? We are animals also. From dust (soil) we came, and to dust we shall return.

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