My beloved cat The Duchess, named for the county where we live in the summer, replaced Hudson, of 17 years purring fame. Duchess is young and feisty. We are breaking her in; after all, she is a replacement cat.
I couldn’t deal with the death of Hudson so I replaced her. Hudson was a Maine Coon, as is Duchess. At the end Hudson was a bag of bones; Duchess is plump and has clear eyes. When I picture them, they remind me of how very different my legs were before the varicose veins appeared. They also remind me of a kind death. Hudson died a kind death. It had no nothingness to it but instead a small something to it. I find death so large that I always like to think of it in small ways. Animals help me.
Legs come, legs go, blessed be legs. Cats come, cats go, blessed be cats.
One Saturday in June I invited friends upstate to eat strawberries and whipped cream on scones. It was a simple party: We were outside, June was issuing its smells in the Hudson Valley, the place of my birth. A soft breeze was blowing. One of us was on her second bowl. All of a sudden Duchess paraded by, slowly, with a chipmunk dangling out of her mouth. She was proud, showing off her trophy.
All thoughts of strawberries fled; we even abandoned our whipped cream. I picked up a shovel, intent on chasing the cat, retrieving the chipmunk and bashing it to death. I figured that the cat had wounded it and was now just playing with it. Euthanasia was my objective.
Mercifully, the chipmunk was alive and scooted off up the hill. I didn’t have to kill it to put it out of its mystery -- I mean misery. But if I had, it would have died a normal death. It would not have the nothingness death or the too big to think about it death. It would die because one animal hurt another.
If we want to save our cats, our strawberries, our sense of cream in June, we need to normalize death. And head toward the heaven of a really different way of life. We need steps to understand death, especially as we realize how death pervaded the environmental movement’s language is.
We confide our hopes to each other and end by saying, “if there is a world for my children.” We watch one apocalyptic movie after another, almost as though we are rehearsing for the extinction of time. We address the future in increasingly shorter terms and wonder who will take care of the elderly or the children.
We need to reclaim the normalcy of death and stop trying to fossil fuel-ize our way out of it. By fossil-fuel-ize, I mean counting on something that has clearly disappeared or caused too many negative consequences. We know we can’t depend on gasoline and yet we fill our tanks. These disconnects become a new kind of nothingness. “Nothing” or meaningless deaths fossilize us. They stop our history and throw us back to pre-history, the time of the fossil. In several generations and one century, we have tried to use up all the fossil’s fuel.
Normal death claims us for history. Normal death claims us for heaven, that time when we can even redeem the goodness of the fossils and not abuse it or wear it out.
The metaphor of death as nothingness is surreptitiously at work in the environmental movement. It is not an old-fashioned death. It is more a sense of extinction and nothingness. Not only might we not be here but also no one will follow us, either. The rival metaphor to death as extinction is renewability. Death is the normal way the planet moves some of us out on behalf of those to come.
Sloppy words and unmanaged metaphors have moved their furniture into our heads. Some call this the “cop in the head” or the “bishop in the head” problem. In this new death, we don’t even get to die naturally or normally. “Nothingness” pervades. It is not like the French existential kind of nothing or even good old acedia or like that of my old cat or resurrected chipmunk. It is in the air and the water and the storms and their thunder, not to mention the metaphors.
Metaphors reimagine heaven and hell. Heaven is when you have a positive picture of your future. We wake in hope. Hell is when you contribute to your own demise, like an addict does, and don’t think you have any way to stop making that payment on a future you don’t want. We wake in despair.
In my metaphor recovery program, we stare straight at these metaphors. We acknowledge the new nothingness. We head toward heaven, while knowing we are in hell.
These questions are so large that they need a small door. The new big idea is that the new big idea is a small idea, like a chipmunk dangling from the mouth of a cat. Renewal is as powerful as extinction. It is just smaller and less self-aggrandized. Maybe the animals can show us the way.