Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Life and Death~ Samhain and the Fox

Driving home, I see a fox out hunting in the full moon's light.  Bushy-tailed and quick, she races through the shadows, on the trail of something fast and warm to fill her belly as the darkness of late autumn deepens. The little mice run, scattering like the seeds they seek in the tall grass.

Later, in the withering garden, I harvest the leeks.  Fiercely rooted, they do not unearth easily.  I pull with both hands and at last they give up to the air, soil flying in all directions as I stumble back under the momentum of their release.  They will be soup soon.  Their demise is my nourishment.

At this time of year, called "Samhain" or "Summer's End" in the Celtic tradition, farmers would traditionally cull their flocks and herds, slaughtering the animals needed for food and sustenance.  Livestock who had been fed, watered, and sheltered all year would now help to keep the people alive through the long, cold winter.

Nowadays, most of us can buy our meat wrapped in plastic and never have to face a still-flapping, headless chicken.  But the death of that bird happens anyway; we just generally don't acknowledge it, let alone honor it.  

At what cost do we get to avoid the reality and necessity of death in our every-day lives?  At what cost do we get to pretend to be separate from the great cycles of Nature?  Does this false sense of separation result in even greater destruction?  (I think of factory farms and chemical-fueled monocultures; wars over land, water, and resources; drought and famine in lands abused by industrial agriculture....)

In yoga, we learn to practice ahimsa, or "non-harming."  But if, in our efforts to harm none, we choose, for example, to eat fake meat made from GMO soybeans grown with chemicals, wrapped in plastic, and shipped from far-away on gas-guzzling trucks, how is that less violent than choosing to eat a free-range chicken organically raised with care by our neighbor down the road?  A certain amount of violence is needed to sustain life.  To pretend otherwise necessitates enabling violence that is hidden from one's line of vision.  But, being removed from the deaths needed to give life absolves no one of his or her actual responsibility.  Frighteningly, though, it does seem to give rise to far more and far greater violence than anyone could wreak on her or his own.

It's the time of year to be humbled by the remembrance that we are all part of the delicate web of life.  What we do and don't do affects all.  Snug in the privilege of our humanity, we rarely find ourselves in the plight of the mouse or chicken (or leek!).  Removed from the web of life by technology and its accompanying arrogance, we forget to honor the thin and tenuous strands by which we are tethered to our own aliveness, let alone the blessing of vitality gifted to us through the deaths of countless numbers of other beings.

Yesterday, a great storm moved across the Northeast.  People lost power; buildings and roads and bridges were destroyed.  Suddenly, for those of us in the projected path of the storm, our mortality was present.  Suddenly, we felt small and helpless as we gathered flashlights and filled jugs of water against darkening skies.

But, for we lucky ones who were not badly affected by the high winds and wild water, it was easy to resume our rhythms and rituals by morning.  Today we drove in our cars, checked our email, and ate food.  How quickly we forget our own vulnerability, our own mortality!  A brief moment of feeling mouse-like, and then, back to being the omnipotent fox (an especially dangerous fox with a credit card, a car, a cell phone, and someone else to kill his mice for him!)

Was it climate change that brought such a terrible storm?  Are unusual weather events like this yet another example of how our disassociation from our actions (fossil fuel consumption, dependence on industry, etc.) yields a violence we cannot even look in the face?  A violence for which we cannot accept responsibility (cannot respond to) because we think we are separate from it?  How can we, like the fox in the field, learn to look unflinchingly at the reality of our own actions and their consequences?  How would this affect the choices we make?

This is the time of year to remember.  At Samhain we pause to give thanks for the precious and tenuous gift of life and for all that dies to let us live.  We pause to be humbled and awed by the power and might of the natural world.  We pause to remember that we are not separate from the cycles of life and death and renewal.  We pause to consider how by consciously and reverently re-weaving ourselves into the web of life with respect and humility, we might actually help to create a human culture less violent, less wasteful, and ultimately more sustainable for all.

Maker of All Things, Even Healings
By Mary Oliver

All night under the pines the fox

moves through the darkness
with a mouthful of teeth
and a reputation for death which it deserves.
In the spicy villages of the mice he is famous,
his nose in the grass
is like an earthquake,
his feet on the path
is a message so absolute
that the mouse, hearing it, makes himself
as small as he can as he sits silent
or, trembling, goes on
hunting among the grasses for the ripe seeds.
Maker of All Things,
including appetite, including stealth,
including the fear that makes
all of us sometime or other,
flee for the sake
of our small and precious lives,
let me abide in your shadow-
let me hold on
to the edge of your robe
as you determine what you must let be lost
and what will be saved.

Straight Talk from Fox 
by Mary Oliver

Listen says fox it is music to run
over the hills to lick
dew from the leaves to nose along
the edges of the ponds to smell the fat
ducks in their bright feathers but
far out, safe in their rafts of
sleep. It is like
music to visit the orchard, to find
the vole sucking the sweet of the apple, or the
rabbit with his fast-beating heart. Death itself
is a music. Nobody has ever come close to
writing it down, awake or in a dream. It cannot
be told. It is flesh and bones
changing shape and with good cause, mercy
is a little child beside such an invention. It is
music to wander the black back roads
outside of town no one awake or wondering
if anything miraculous is ever going to
happen, totally dumb to the fact of ever
moment’s miracle. Don’t think I haven’t
peeked into windows. I see you in all your seasons
making love, arguing, talking about God
as if he were an idea instead of the grass,
instead of the stars, the rabbit caught
in one good teeth-whacking hit and brought
home to the den. What I am, and I know it, is
responsible, joyful, thankful. I would not
give my life for a thousand of yours.


  1. Lydia, thank you so much for your writing!! You inspire me!

  2. I love your thoughts put down in your blog. Thank you.

    You wrote, "But if, in our efforts to harm none, we choose, for example, to eat fake meat made from GMO soybeans grown with chemicals, wrapped in plastic, and shipped from far-away on gas-guzzling trucks, how is that less violent than choosing to eat a free-range chicken organically raised with care by our neighbor down the road? "

    I don't think it is either we eat a free range chicken from our neighbor's house or we eat fake GMO meat. There's many ways to choose not to harm anything and still eat well, fresh and locally.

  3. Dear Linda~ Thanks for reading! You are quite right that there is a whole spectrum of choices from which to choose. I was obviously over-simplifying the issue (which deserves a whole book, not just a paragraph in a blog!) I do think, however, that the choice "not to harm anything" is illusory. The main point of this essay is to point out that life needs death to live. Whether it's pulling a carrot, slaughtering a chicken, or simply tilling the garden (and thereby laying waste to the intricate web of life housed in the soil) some violence is necessary to enable life to continue. The more intimate with the cycles of life and death we become (growing/cooking/hunting/harvesting our own food, for example)the LESS violence there is and potentially the more sacredness, honor, and gratitude we restore to the processes that keep us alive. The further estranged and distanced we become from these sacred cycles the MORE violence we enable. In other words, looking the other way as we let others grow/harvest/kill our food allows things to happen that we would never as individuals condone or actually do ourselves (ie factory farming, etc). Anyway, it seems to me that we probably agree, but thanks for opportunity to further explain my perspective! Thanks for your interest and feedback! May we be as "responsible, joyful, thankful" as Mary Oliver's fox as we partake in the cycles of life, death, and regeneration. Love, Lydia