Category Archives: Death

A Naturalist Pagan View of Death

Samhain’s a month past, now, and autumn hangs more heavily here; deciduous trees have lost all but a few leaves to the increasing winds, and the birds visit my feeders much more frequently than they did just a few weeks ago. Nature is still alive and well, but more somber and quiet in her demeanor. While for me the threat of famine or freezing is incredibly slim, winter historically was–and sometimes still is–time to reflect upon death and those who have gone before. In October I wrote three letters to my ancestors over at Paths Through the Forests, but my thoughts haven’t ended there. I’ve been letting the time of year and the increased struggle of the neighborhood birds slowly turn over in my mind, even as my schedule shifts and slows with the seasonal changes.

Surprisingly, what touched off this particular focus on death was Netflix. Or, more specifically, the new Cosmos hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, which I’m just now getting around to watching. There are echoes of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos, including the exploration of the metaphorical calendar year in which we humans compose only the last few moments. It reminded me of how we only have a tiny eyeblink of time in this life. Some may be comparatively longer eyeblinks than others, but when you consider the mind-bogglingly immense lifespan of Earth, and the even greater span of the universe, the difference of a few decades is imperceptible. Still, to us here in our human lives the count of years is important, and we want as many seasons as we can get.

In American culture that means treating death like the enemy. Everyone dies, of course. But we go through ridiculous means to pretend we’re immortal, even if only in our own minds. We spend more and more money each year on cosmetic approximations of youthfulness, and scientists are working to find the exact cause of ageing so that we may hopefully someday slow it down and enjoy longer lives. Of course we mourn when someone dies, and those who know their days are numbered through terminal illness often go through their own grieving journey for themselves. Few of us ever actually want to leave this place once we’re here, even with all its challenges and sorrows.

Some of it, of course, is our deeply ingrained will to survive; without it, our ancient ancestors millions (even billions) of years ago never would have gone on long enough to give birth to us and the other living beings of the 21st century. But it’s also an appreciation of the good things in this world; we don’t want to lose the people we’re closest to, and we hate the idea of never getting to see the next summer–or the next sunrise. Sometimes instead of enjoying our lives, though, we waste them trying to cheat death. And what good is it to spend your waking moments obsessed with when your eyes shut for the last time? You’ve already made yourself blind.

Yet I can’t help but appreciate the contribution death makes to life. If we were truly immortal, if we knew our lives had no end, how different our attitudes might be! We could cultivate endless laziness and boredom until we damned our lack of death. It is the inevitable ending, and the fact that most of us know neither the day nor the hour of its arrival, that makes life worth appreciating. Death is the price we pay for life. Every one of us is given a finite time on this planet, no more and no less. All our religions and beliefs aside, we cannot know for sure that there’s anything after we die. We don’t even know how much life we have left–it could be a few moments, it could be decades.

Death is a reminder not to take what we do know we have for granted. It’s the thing that makes life so precious–our brief moment in the sunlight before it fades again. We cannot buy more life. We cannot cheat death. All we can do is take each day, each hour, each breath as it comes, and appreciate that we have made it a little longer on this beautiful, chaotic, disastrously wonderful planet we call home.

And from death comes more life. A deer that dies of battle wounds in the autumn feeds countless other animals during the hard, cold winter, giving them the strength they needed to live another day, and in the spring its remains will continue to feed fungi, bacteria, plants. Eventually every bit of its body will return to the cycles that created it in the first place; all the food it had collected in its own body in the form of muscles and fur, skin and bones, will be returned, as it was only borrowed. So do we all only borrow our bodies from the rest of the world for a little while.

All this makes me more grateful to be alive. And all this makes me grateful that death is in this world.

Are you interested in reading more about the role of death and reclamation in my spiritual work? Consider picking up a copy of my book, Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Use of Animal Parts in which I detail both the spiritual and practical elements of my art and ritual work with hides, bones and other animal remains.

I Really Love Skulls

(Featured picture: drum fish skull)

Ask any scavenger of hides and bones what their favorite piece in their collection is, and you’re liable to get an excited flood of passionate words and stories. Sometimes the object of the collector’s affection is a rare, hard-to-get specimen, but it’s just as likely to be a commonly found skull or bone or hide, perhaps the person’s very first acquisition, or something that they found themselves on an adventure in the woods.

I personally find it hard to pick favorites. For a while, earlier in my collecting career, I was pretty big into whole hides. One of my earliest purchases was a very old Alaskan brown bear rug from an antique shop in rural Missouri; I removed the rug “apparatus” so all that was left was the hide, and that was the start of that collection. However, as I got older and continued to live in small apartments, it became incredibly impractical to have a bunch of large, bulky hides taking up a lot of space, so I made them into art and rehomed most of them over time. I still have a couple that are very near and dear to me, though, my bear included.

Red kangaroo skull
Red kangaroo skull

My fascination with hides was more the “Oooooh, shiny!” effect that a lot of newer collectors get, where they want to have ALL the dead things they can get. Later it transformed into acquiring and maintaining hides as ritual companions in dance and other sacred acts. And I have always enjoyed incorporating them into headdresses and other artwork.

But more recently my eye has turned toward skulls, and there’s a decided natural history flavor to my current interest. Comparative anatomy is one of my little amateur naturalist geekeries. I love how one particular basic structure–the skeleton–can take on such strangely varied forms. A mass of collagen and calcium stretches, through natural selection and genetics, into shapes and sizes ranging from the massive bulk of the skull of an elephant, to the finely sculpted lines of a garter snake skull–and the accompanying bodies, too. Skulls have evolved to consume all manner of foods, to act in aggressive and defensive manners, to house the tiniest and largest of brains.

And it’s all out of necessity. A skull is a tool for a job, and the animal that has a skull better suited for its job than the next animal is the one more likely to pass its genes down to the next generation. The hummingbird whose bill is just a tiny bit longer can reach more nectar and therefore have more calories to work with. The bighorn ram with stronger horns and a thicker skull has a better chance of winning–and surviving–fights with other rams for the privilege to breed. So it is that from one generation to the next, tiny mutations can lead, over time, to great changes and adaptations.

White-thighed hornbill
White-thighed hornbill

You can see this concept throughout the entire body of any vertebrate–or any living being, really. But skulls are perhaps the most dramatic illustration of comparative anatomy, and to my mind among the most beautiful. Not everyone shares my appreciation, of course. There are people who feel the collection and display of skulls and remains is a morbid subject; this is a relic of our culture’s inability to properly deal with the reality of death. We’re supposed to go through life pretending death doesn’t happen, and acting only with horror and sorrow when the topic is broached (and then wondering why people don’t deal with grief very well). There’s an element of hypocrisy to the criticism of skulls, taxidermy and the like, too: People who routinely eat dead animals, plants and fungi have given me the hairy eyeball for my hides and bones. I suppose the idea is to not think of death once the remains have gone down one’s gullet, but it all feels a little like the teapot calling the kettle black.

But that’s part of why I have the collection that I do. Death is just one of the many realities of a multi-staged life cycle, and you don’t have to be a member of the Addams Family to appreciate it. More practically, it’s a lot easier for me to display the skull of a feral hog next to that of a white-thighed hornbill than to have the living creatures in my tiny apartment! And they sit alongside very much alive and thriving houseplants, and on the other side of the sliding glass door from my little balcony garden and bird feeder, both of which entertain a wide variety of living beings which I love and appreciate as much as my skulls.

In the end, I am a naturalist, if a mostly untrained one. And as I build my own museum, I am creating an ever-growing altar of curiosities dedicated to the wonders of the natural world, that which I consider most sacred. I would not be here today without the development of the vertebrate skeleton, or the evolutionary flexibility this miraculous structure has shown through millions of years of natural selection. I celebrate this marvel through the display of skulls, demonstrating the artistry and practicality of nature’s amazing processes.

Note: If you enjoyed this post, please consider bringing home a copy of my book Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Uses of Animal Parts, which details my years of spiritual work with hides, bones and other animal remains, along with step by step instructions on how to make assorted ritual tools with them.