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Opossum bones are probably not on your table, but they are on mine. You see, my child who is almost a man dug them up after we watched them decay, partially covered in the earth for nearly two years. Patience is a virtue, and I told him that I would not boil the bones in my house to remove the flesh and fur – been there, done that – it stinks the place up. So for Earth Day 2016 I share our bones with you.
What you might be wondering is why we watched the decay. You may think it is morbid. It’s not. It is a life lesson about the cycle of existence. As actor Francesca Annis has said, “The first thing that you have to accept is that decay sets in and there’s nothing you can do about it.” The sooner we accept that as individuals and as a species, the sooner we value the time we have on the planet, our relationship, our environment and our lives because the time becomes limited. Through the filter of time we can appreciate life and put it to its best use before our expiration date.
The opossum passed from its earthly joys at some point when it got stuck under a pile of wood. We found it one day while removing yard debris and my inquisitive young naturalist wanted to study the bones and sketch them. As I said, been there, done that and road kill whether on the property or on the side of the road has made it into my still life fodder and mixed media pieces more than once over the years. I told him to watch and wait, and let the earth do its magic. Then I promptly forgot about it until “the excavation”.
These are not the only animal skins, fur bits, antlers, snake sheddings, bones and bits that have made their way onto my tables over the years. Feathers, random teeth and a jaw I found under some lilacs that we believe are from a cat, a rabbit, small mouse bodies and even a chipmunk have been on display at some point. While we prefer the live animals that surround us, when the world sends us decay we study it just as we study life. We honor these things by letting them continue to live in our thoughts, our illustrations, paintings, our conversations. Often they make their way into small sacred spaces for a while like this jaw bone which if I recall correctly the dog dragged up from a deer. Memory is a strange and fluid thing and mine is not always spot on.
In a subconscious way these items remind us of our mortality and our connection to all living beings. These bits and pieces remind us that life matters, that we matter, even after the flesh blanket has left us and we are but dusty old bones and our meatier, fuzzier bits having gone back to the earth.
What does this have to do with Earth Day? I read a quote by Henry W. Kendall who stated that, “We must act swiftly in order to halt the rate of decay our planet faces.” He is a 1/3 joint 1990 Nobel Prize winner in Physics for investigations in the Quark model and if are science geek type people, like me, and haven’t read his lecture on Deep Inelastic Scattering: Experiments on the Proton and the Observation of Scaling you can do so here.
So, the question this brought up for me is should I be acting to halt planetary decay or working with it and patiently waiting like with the bones? I’m not a big time scientist making life changing decisions for the entire planet and proposing solutions, but I am one person and I believe ever person’s action matter and have ramifications for the whole. So where do I fit into the picture?
As an artist and gardener I am aware of my impact on the planet each time I create whether it is a painting or a new garden bed. I am respectful of the materials I use and try not to waste. I recycle bits and pieces of my papers into mixed media pieces or pass them on to educators who can use them, or other artists. When I garden I replant, gift plants, and compost those that I’ve nourished through their life cycle and that have offered up their harvest. There are other ways I conserve and recycle and limit my footprint on the earth in my daily activities.
However, these things don’t slow planetary decay.
Am I part of the problem? So many people feel that if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. While I support Earth Day activities and awareness and I believe there are signs of global warming everywhere my time and energy are best spent in acceptance like Francesca Annis, a creative, who probably wasn’t talking about the Earth at all but who I first discovered in the 1984 release of Dune as Lady Jessica Atreides where her character struck me as a wise, fiercely loving, yet ultimately flawed despite her best intentions. I could relate to that character.
Thankfully, as of now I don’t have to live on the dunes of Arrakis, an inhospitable desert planet rife with giant sandworms, but I do have wide open blue eyes that see the ways in which our human actions are causing discontent in the planet we call home. At the heart of the whole Earth Day issue I believe awareness is a positive thing, that personal accountability is an essential skill and that when we close our eyes at night we must be okay with our personal choices. I also believe that the Earth will go on regardless. I don’t feel the urgency of Henry W. Kendall “to act swiftly to halt the rate of decay.”
Frankly, sometimes like the opossum bones I forget about the bigger challenges of the planet until dates like Earth Day come around to remind me to excavate and think about the larger challenges of the planet because I have been wrapped up in the small trials and triumphs of my own decay.
Decay happens. It is part of the circle of life. While we don’t have to encourage it sometimes just watching the process evolve is a lesson in itself meant to be contemplated. Action may need to be swift in some instances, but it is almost always preceded by thought based on a series of processes in the brain so fast at times we aren’t even aware of all the calculations we have made to get from point A to point B. There are lessons in observation that lead to creative solutions and allow each bit of our collective memory to create a solution that works for us in the moment. It is the bones of experience that allow us to make more informed choices.