Posted in Death & Mortality Series

Life has the fragility of a leaf full of holes shaking

This post is part of my Death & Mortality Series.  Please read my introduction to my Death & Mortality series if you can, to understand the context I write this in.  Thank you.

Shortly after I came home from the hospital, I stood outside next to a tree. I leaned on the tree because the short walk had wiped me out.

I felt my entire body at once. I was shaking. I felt like the thinnest and most fragile leaf, with holes in it. I started to feel transparent.

Light shone through the transparency that affected everything. With it, love, connection, change, truth, things that can never be named or described. Still aware of my entire body at once, the immense struggle it took to physically continue on any level. How close I was to death. Light through the leaves on the tree above me. Light through me invisibly, through everything.

I understand important things through the workings of the redwoods. Things without names, things without words. Redwood Terrace is holy ground embedded in my soul. Under my feet is earth, and roots, and many things unseen. And a connection to Redwood Terrace, outside time. And I am there, as well.

The fungal mycelium people never think about, under their feet all the time. Life, and death, and life, connected, changing, moving, things becoming parts of one another. An old, familiar, comforting promise: If you die this time, if you must step over that edge, we promise, we promise this is in store for you on every level, and if you want, we will eat you, we will change you, you will become life for so many, and on it goes, and this is love, this is our offering to the world.

If I knew I was dying and there were no consequences to these acts, I would put my last ounces of energy and effort into going to Redwood Terrace. I would find a hollow tree or the closest thing, curl up, and wait. The end might be painful, terrible, messy, but nothing is tidy about dying and none of us is guaranteed it will be easy. I would die in the place I have the most connection to. My last act to offer myself over to that place, body and soul. Everything from microbes to plants to animals to fungi would have a feast and I would turn into life, and things would be happening on levels that have no words and can’t be spoken of.

I will never do this. The person who found me. The pointless waste of resources looking for a crime that never happened. These are enough reasons, and there are more. But it’s what I’d want. I’ll settle for being composted and the results returned to the ground as close to the Mother Tree as possible. Nobody is guaranteed the life we want or the death we want. But that is the death I want.

But as I stand there I am aware of that promise, aware of the ancient threads under my feet tying death and life as essential parts of each other. Aware that should death happen there is beauty and love, not fear. How everything left of me can be absorbed into new life and timeless love. Aware how close I stand to the line, aware of the silent, patient presence of Death.

Death by now is an old friend. I’ve had too many close calls not to become acquainted. I once spent five weeks pretty much abandoned to live or die in a series of hospital rooms where for the most part I was unwanted. Doctors have said they’re surprised I pulled through without the ICU that time. I was alone for vast stretches of time, I was delirious and terrified. Death was there, though.

And I came to know Her as kind, caring, a friend. She was in no hurry. She can wait forever, She’ll find all of us one day. But when you sit close to her, sometimes you have choices nobody talks about. Where you could go with Her right away, or try and stay. And nobody would know. Trying to stay alive doesn’t guarantee life of course. I chose Death’s companionship, which doesn’t mean choosing to die. But every time, I chose to stay alive.

It’s odd that a vivid picture has formed in my mind of what Death would look like to me if she were human. She looks very much related to me, like an ancestor I’ve never met who strongly resembles many people on my father’s side of the family. Very old with long white hair. I guess she has some qualities in common with George McDonald’s multiple-greats-grandmother character in The Princess and the Goblin series. She’s very powerful, has the potential to be very kind and loving, and does not actually bear any ill will towards the living.

But She isn’t human and I imagine She looks different to everyone. I’ve never seen Her with my eyes, only had this vivid image of how She would look if human. But really my encounters with Death are more wordless and imageless and impossible to put down in writing, including that endless five weeks of Her. But I can feel when She’s hanging around me, and so can some of my friends. It always means something has slipped too close to completely guarantee survival.

Most people think of the survival instinct as something rooted somewhere in the brain. And there certainly is one there. But it goes deeper than that. All life from the first single-celled organism tries hard to live. Being alive is extremely difficult and takes work and energy. Without some drive for survival, nothing would bother. Every living thing has some version of this drive for survival.

And I am not just a brain, and my brain is not separate from my body, and my body is not just a carrying case for a brain. I’m made of all these cells, some working together, and all kinds of things. Each wanting individually and collectively to live. When I say I chose life, I don’t just mean my thoughts chose life. I didn’t always have enough thoughts to string that kind of choice together. My whole body chose life and fought hard for it and that’s why I’m still here. It seems arrogant to reduce myself to the little part of me that sits and reflects on things, then claim full credit. There’s nothing like delirium to show you the brain is just another body part. And when my mind wasn’t functioning right the rest of me still fought like hell to be here.

I’m well aware the things I’m saying could terrify people. But they are real for me. Death is welcome in my life. This is easily misunderstood, though. I don’t have a death wish. I used to. A grinding, unrelenting one that tormented me every second of the day and caused a big conflict with my survival drive, which I alternately thanked and cursed. That was a long time ago. Certainly long before I befriended Death.

Coming to know Death intimately has been one of the most life-affirming things I’ve ever experienced.

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Posted in Being human, death, joy, Nature, redwoods

Dirt and plants and rocks MATTER.

Bear in mind, I remain firmly convinced that the ninth circle of hell is located somewhere in Fletcher Allen Hospital.  Or maybe hospitals in general.  And I don’t even believe in hell.  There’s a lot of great people working there, and I encountered many of them this time — including lots of nurses wearing bright red pins saying “WE’RE WINNING” — but a hospital is a hospital.

And I was stuck in a room I’d previously been massively delirious in towards the end of a five-week stay from hell.  This room:

A bare hospital room, facing the window.
A very bare isolated hospital room. Not bad or uncomfortable as rooms go, but alarmingly delirium-inducing in many of its qualities. Also unique on the whole ward so you can’t mistake it for any other room.

I was forgetting things.  Things like the redwoods.  I knew they existed but I couldn’t remember them.  I was forgetting who I was.  Large chunks of my normal thinking were falling out.  And I couldn’t fucking remember the redwoods.  I knew I should know them, but I didn’t, and it frightened me.

It reminded me too much of the blank delirium.  The kind where white blankness fills up more and more of the world until the world goes away, and you’re lost in the snow.  I didn’t want to be lost in the snow.

So I was looking out the window one day and I saw this:

Trees and plants and pathways viewed from a sixth-story hospital window.
Trees and plants and pathways viewed from a sixth-story hospital window.

There was a child running and playing down there.  I wondered how the hell you get down there.

A wonderful LNA — i’d name her, but I don’t want to invade her privacy — made it her personal mission to figure out how to get down there.  I heard her asking around all day.  She finally came in with a post-it with written instructions on how to get down there.  It involved a lot of weird back routes.  They don’t make it simple.  The hospital is actually several unrelated buildings kludged together by a maze of corridors, with that unexpected garden in the middle of it all.  I’ve explored a lot of the corridors, but I’ve never found the entrance to the garden.

Anyway, when my evening caregiver arrived to visit, the LNA and I were ready with a wheelchair to get me down there.  She went over the instructions with him, and he pushed me down.  We found it pretty easily, she gave good directions.  I’d actually been very close to the entrance before, and never known it.

It turns out it’s this place called Peter’s Garden.  It didn’t take much thinking it out to know that Peter must be someone who died.

A sign in a garden, reading: WELCOME TO PETER'S GARDEN. "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." -Ralph Waldo Emerson. Donated by the friends ofPeter's FUNd Racer.
Peter’s sign.

You can read more about Peter and the garden here, it includes a link to a Powerpoint of the construction of the garden.  From what I understand, he died in his forties of cancer and his family and friends raised the money to put the garden in.  I heard later that the chemo ward overlooks the garden directly.

Anyway, I got up and walked around a little.

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When my feet touched living soil, I could remember the redwoods.  I could feel my body.  I could remember who I was.  I could feel the way things connect together again.

I still have big holes.

I still have gaps in my head that didn’t used to be there.

But something happened in my soul.

In the middle of that hell place, there’s life.  There’s dirt.  There’s plants.  There’s beauty.  There’s dead plants.  There’s amazing flowers.  There’s REAL.

Someone put it there, someone made it this way on purpose.

I’m really grateful to whoever decided to do that.  And to the LNA who made sure I could get down there when I was losing touch with everything that mattered to me.  It gave me back a lot of strength in a really scary situation.  It got me through a night where every time I closed my eyes I thought a bunch of black blobs were coming to eat me.  It got me through a tense, scary morning with an uncertain future.

The gaps are still there, the tenuousness of my health is still there especially now that I’m out of the hospital, the uncertainty is still there, and I’m not working with all the thinking I should need to survive what’s in store.  But I can feel who I am, where I come from, and that can mean the world.

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Posted in Being human, Nature

Living stumps and the living dead: Feeding tubes aren’t unnatural

Mel wearing a hat, jeans, and a Green Mountain Self-Advocates t-shirt, with feeding tubes showing, standing next to an IV pole with a feeding bag on one side and a potted succulent on the other. There is an elaborate crocheted wall hanging showing different parts of the forest floor on a redwood forest. Including soil, water, slime molds, fungus, tree roots, plants, slugs, a snail, a newt, redwood cones, and random forest debris.
They say this is unnatural…

I need a couple of feeding tubes, and sometimes a chest port, to stay alive.  One of the feeding tubes drains fluid out of my partially paralyzed stomach so it doesn’t overflow into my lungs.  The other feeding tube goes straight into my small intestine, and you put all the food, water, and medication in there.  That bypasses my stomach, which doesn’t empty properly so most things just sit there or backflow into my lungs instead of being used.  People can need feeding tubes for lots of reasons, but in my case it’s to get around the fact that my stomach resembles a dead-end street.  Luckily you don’t really need your stomach for digestion.  Small intestines do it just fine.

There’s a lot of things people don’t understand about feeding tubes, but one of the objections I hear most often is that living with a feeding tube is ‘unnatural’.  It’s modern medicine run amok, going too far, keeping people alive who’d be better off dead, and lots of other cheery bullshit.  And the very idea creeps people out because it’s supposedly artificial, unnatural, and disturbing to even think about.  It’s hard to know where to begin with that kind of thing, but I have a lot of objections to the idea it’s unnatural.

First off, human beings using technology to keep each other alive is the most natural thing we could possibly do.  We are built to have compassion for each other, to take care of each other.  We are built to solve problems, both alone and as groups.  We pass on our knowledge and build on it from generation to generation.  We are skilled at making and improving on technology.  These are our natural skills, our natural instincts, and there is little more natural for a human being than using them.

Feeding tubes also aren’t that recent an invention.  They date back at least to ancient Egypt, where they were tubes stuck up people’s butts to try to get food into them that way.  Butt feeding tubes were the norm until people started figuring out how to use a tube down the throat to bypass the windpipe on the way to the stomach.  They used those for everything from torturing and force-feeding prisoners to making picky children eat food they didn’t want.  Butt tubes were still around though.  When  President Garfield was shot, they were able to keep him alive for awhile using a butt-based feeding tube.

It wasn’t until anesthesia made surgery possible and antibiotics reduced the infection risk, though, that people really made headway with the kind of feeding tubes I have.  These are implanted through a hole (stoma) directly into the stomach or intestine.  When done properly, these days, this is reasonably low-risk and reversible.  The hole heals if you take the tube out.  Even while the tube is in, it’s perfectly possible to eat by mouth if you’re capable of it.  Nothing about the tube itself will prevent you from doing that, only whatever condition is making feeding difficult in the first place.  So if you have the feeding tube and don’t need it anymore, you can get used to eating again before having it removed.

It may be obvious that I have a problem with the way people divide things into artificial and natural.  Lots of animals use tools and technology.  Lots of animals do things to solve problems.   We’re not different there.  The things we make are just as natural as the things beavers make.  Whether we, or beavers, cause problems with the things we make, is a completely different question.  But just the act of making things isn’t defying nature.  It can’t be.  That’s not possible.  And it’s perfectly in line with every natural human instinct out there.

But for people who find what human beings do hopelessly unnatural… here’s this other thing that happens:

A living stump next to a tree that is keeping it alive through its roots.
…I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t call this natural.

In case you don’t know what you’re looking at, that’s a couple of Douglas fir trees.  One of them is a regular tree, the other is a stump.  The stump is alive.   Even though it has no leaves to make food out of, the stump is still completely alive.

How is this possible?  The roots of the two trees are connected.  The tree sends nutrients to the stump, so that it doesn’t have to make its own food.  This can keep the stump alive indefinitely.  This happens all the time.  It’s tube feeding for trees.

Douglas firs, like the redwoods depicted in the wall hanging in my first photo, are a social species of tree.  Many social species of tree connect at the roots, either directly root to root, or through a network of roots and fungus.  They can send signals, nutrients, and other chemicals through the roots.  They even show preference for family and for trees that — however trees decide this — are friends.  Just because they’re a social species of plant and work very differently from us, doesn’t mean they don’t share with humans the desire to help each other survive.

I mean, I’m talking in terms that sound very human, but there’s no real words out there for saying what trees want and how.  All life  wants to be alive, though.  For social species, that often involves helping each other out.  That goes no matter what kind of life form you are and how different you are.

I’ve never met even the most ridiculous nature purist who’d claim trees are unnatural.  And if it’s not unnatural for trees to use their time and resources to feed each other when they can’t make their own food, it’s not unnatural for humans to find ways to do the same.  Including feeding tubes.

So don’t call my feeding tube unnatural.  It’s as natural as the redwood forest in the crocheted wall hanging next to me in the first picture.  And using technology to help each other survive is one of the most natural things human beings can possibly do.  All these tubes and machines don’t have to horrify you.  I’m a living stump, not the living dead.


Further information:

You can read all about the history of tubefeeding and more in Complete Tubefeeding: Everything you need to know about tubefeeding, tube nutrition, and blended diets by Eric Aadhar O’Gorman.  I’d recommend the first half of the book much more than the second half, however.

The first half is well-researched information on tubefeeding in general.  The second half reads like a cross between a sales pitch for blenderized diets and regurgitated Michael Pollan stuff.  I use Osmolite for my main nutrition and supplement it with blenderized vegetables to get things you won’t find in elemental formulas.  But when you’re reading along and the book starts referring to food the author thinks is bad for you as “edible food-like substances” and all the recipes specify the vegetables need to be organic, seriously?  I don’t want orthorexia when I already can’t eat, thanks.  It does tell you how to properly blenderize food for a feeding tube, though.  It focuses on G-tube feeding and doesn’t mention the steps you have to do (like using a chinois) to make sure blenderized food can’t clog a longer and narrower J-tube, though.

If you’re interested in the social lives of trees, the following TED talk may be of interest:

Here is a link to a page with a transcript:  How Trees Talk To Each Other.

Books regarding plant communication, cooperation, and senses:

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries From A Secret World by Peter Wohlleben.  This is a combination of personal observations from decades in a German woodland, and scientific discoveries backing up those observations.  Living stumps are described in detail.

What A Plant Knows: A  Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz.  This one describes the sensory experiences of plants in a way that is pretty easy for a layperson to understand and dispels many popular myths about plant senses.  The things described are in line with the scientific knowledge at the time the book was written in 2012, most of which is likely to surprise people.  There is a lot of bullshit out there about plant senses, this is the real thing as far as we know right now.

Do not confuse these books with The Secret Life of Plants, which is largely garbage.  Be careful of information that comes from that particular book, it’s made its way into popular understanding but most of it is nonsense or misleading at best.

Posted in redwoods

Visiting the Redwoods

 

Light shining through the canopy of a redwood forest in San Mateo County.
Light through the redwood canopy

The part of the redwoods we lived in when I was born are sacred to me. My best friend is trying to visit there. Too many feels.

Thank you world for dirt and trees and fungal mycelium an redwood sorrel and slugs and salamanders and the things beneath everything.

redwood terrace fungus 01
Fungus growing on the sides of a tree

Don’t forget no matter what happens that the world is a place of terrifying beauty and depth and we owe a debt of gratitude for our existence.

These aren’t things anyone has good words for, even people with much better words than mine.  But we need to draw strength from what is good.

redwood terrace Anne 01
Redwood trees

And we need to put back into the world as much good as we can, precisely where we are needed, wherever that is, however strange or small.

redwood terrace building
Circular wooden building with ladder surrounded by plants

And this doesn’t go away, no matter what happens, no matter what is done, what snow, what is ahead.  This is both birthright and duty.

It’s important to find where we need to be.  And then be there.  Thoroughly be there.  Do there.  Whether it makes sense on the surface or not.

Sometimes we feel separated flailing in the dark.  But each do exactly what we need to do.  And underground our roots are deeply intertwined.

redwood terrace tree plants
Plants growing up a tree

Disconnection is an illusion.  Underneath our feet is more connection than most of us can imagine.

We are each in some way exactly what we need to be.  We do best when we find that and deepen it and act from that depth.

The world needs you.

redwood terrace forest floor 01
Forest floor with redwood sorrel, fern, and other plants

Our obligation to the world is unbreakable.  So is the impossible level of love underlying anything we look at.  These things are connected.

If you feel disconnected, look down.  And down.  And down.  And down.  You have roots in everything, whether you feel them or not.

Forest floor with redwood sorrel and the shadow of the photographer.
Forest floor with redwood sorrel and shadow of photographer’s head

These aren’t platitudes.  This is a reality as difficult as it is beautiful.  It’s also important.  Especially now.

And there s strength and depth in places you may have never been able to look. You don’t have to feel it for it to be there.  It’s there.

redwood terrace yellow grass
View out over yellow grass and green redwood mountains turning blue in the distance

Quote from my friend, who took these pictures:  “In the forest, yes, look up at the cathedral canopy, but also look down.  Everywhere is alive.”  She’s right.  And it’s the life everywhere in redwood forests, my earliest home, that has taught me who I am, where I belong, and what being alive means.