“…that undiscover’d country
From whose bourne no traveler returns.”
Six good friends set off on an afternoon's adventure.
An essay on Death? Really? How much more clear could the Bard be? No traveler returns. Not one, ever, tales of ghosts notwithstanding. So what is there to write about? Death is a blank screen. Consciousness blinked off like a dead light bulb. Brief candle, etc. We all know what death is: it is that one thing we cannot make into an object of the imagination. It is the hypothetical Outside to the seemingly infinite field of consciousness.
Yet much has been written. What are we really writing about, then? I dismiss out of hand all those who are convinced in any way that consciousness persists in any form after death. They are simply asserting that there is no such thing as death. But death as an element of our consciousness is as obdurately real as any other element; as real to us in our thinking and emotion as the physical world, as love, as hatred, as pleasure, and so forth. I often think of death, just for convenience, as something always very near, like a crow perched alertly on my shoulder, silent and stalwart, sometimes almost forgotten, but never absent for a moment. Those who assert that there is no death are simply trying to shoo that pesky crow away; they may make it invisible for a time, but it persists, because it is one of the most primal elements of consciousness. This is a poem of mine, prompted by climbing some twenty-five years ago:
The Gendarme October 1986
He stands on one foot
and leans west
into the wind, shoulder hunched –
East and west the pale stone falls
sheer and far and fast to
rhododendron and talus.
He looks as if careening
around a corner on one roller skate
balancing against the west wind
or mere centrifugal force
the whirling of the mountain
beneath the fixed wind,
the motionless clouds.
Inching up the small of his back
sneaking up his shoulder –
got to get up and back down
before he wakes, and notices my
stealthy palm silently set
on wrinkled stone skin.
If he shrugs or startles
we will both fly far,
this afternoon of brilliant texture
sunlight and dark clouds
leopards running through the hills
all of it instantly swallowed
by the great black fish.
I stand up
swaying in the unreliable air;
the camera jeers and I turn
and reverse each motion
smoothly as water meandering down a gutter
to where those immense jaws can be
more easily ignored.
And the day begins again,
amazing, as it ever was.
(Historical note: the 30-foot tall finger of rock standing in the Gunsight at Seneca Rocks, known as the Gendarme, which had stood there for unknown aeons, fell over about a month after I climbed it. No one was injured.)
Far off, beyond the pleasant meadows of existence, there rises a line of mountains;
of the lands beyond them, nothing is known.
I am a climber; specifically a rock climber, subcategory crag climber, subcategory ‘trad’, meaning a sort of traditional climbing involving placing mostly removable anchors as a climb progresses, and leaving little if any trace on the rock. I have only minor credentials in true mountaineering and some in ice climbing; I have never engaged in ‘big-wall’, multi-day or expedition climbing. Nevertheless I can claim membership in the most basic element of a true climbing mentality, which resembles the samurai ethic in a way: we are aware of the reality of death, and we are always alive to the risk in life, of losing it. We do not deny this reality, though our response to it may vary widely. This is a true divide in consciousness, between those who have not yet made this realization, or have not accepted it as real, or who deny it altogether, and those who have accepted the reality of death. This crossover in maturity gives the individual a certain freedom he did not previously have, and an ownership of his life on a deeper level. Fear is diminished as an element of consciousness, and greater scope for action is opened up. Life itself is made more real, more precious, in a somewhat mysterious way. The removal of veils of denial and fear adds something subtle – meaning? value? – to ordinary existence.
I have, by the way, no contempt for any other form of climbing; even bouldering, a pleasant pastime involving little risk, engages the subconscious in these ways to some degree. I have no real use for gym climbing, indoors on plastic holds, where the only risk is pulling a muscle, and the only creativity is in solving puzzles set by other people, as opposed to the infinite variety and surprise involved in real rock, out under the sky. Young gym climbers emerge, every so often, at our local bouldering area, very fit and confident, and usually learn immediately that their climbing education has just begun; some stay, and some go back to the gym in bemusement.
I began climbing in 1980, and for more than thirty years I climbed regularly and hard, pushing my own modest abilities when I found the time between marriage, children and job, without a single injury worse than a bruise or a cut. I am still free of any kind of overuse hand injury, and considered myself both skilled and lucky. This essay is prompted by the incident on June 5th, 2011, when I traded all those years of care and luck for my life. Incorrectly thinking I was belayed and being lowered, I leaned back from the rappel station on a popular climb at Old Rag Mountain, in western Virginia, and fell about 50 feet to the stony ground. The accident was comparable in banality to the example of a person who pulls out into traffic without looking in his mirrors, and is hit; he, though sober and wide awake, simply fails to exercise due caution for reasons unknown. In 1983 I was responsible for exactly that accident, driving my wife’s tiny, fragile 1963 MG Midget, and we missed being killed by the narrowest fraction of time worth mentioning. The car was totaled, I got a cut on my forehead, and my very pregnant wife held a grudge about it for approximately the next 25 years. So I have, perhaps, a slight tendency for this sort of unreliability; yet here I am, still alive. Why? Is it even the right question to ask? The mind always searches for an explanation, and so I write this essay, knowing I will get no meaningful answer. A similar, much-cited accident is the one suffered by Lynn Hill (famous, top-level rock climber), who failed to check her harness knot adequately, and fell a long way into a tree, which saved her life.
Longer lenses show forbidding ramparts, but cannot see over the peaks.
Now, 50 feet is usually cited as the statistical dividing line between life and death for falls; about half of persons falling that far will die. I don’t have statistics on the injury levels of the survivors, but I have to believe that my injuries were far down at the low end of the scale, especially considering that I was 58 years old. My left foot hit first, taking a great portion of the force as my tibia and fibula shattered; then most of the remaining force was taken by my rear end, breaking my pelvis and severely bruising my thighs, gluteus maximi, etc. Minor force was also taken by my right heel, with a break that did not require surgery, and my left elbow, which did need a relatively minor surgery with some titanium replacement. The list of damage that I avoided is long: no organ damage; no spinal damage (except a very minor crack in a vertebra); no neural or brain damage; no damage to my right arm, back, shoulders, ribs, or neck. One might cite my unusual leg strength, due to much cycling, as a factor in this outcome, but in the course of the fall there were many opportunities to land in a different configuration. It takes less than two seconds to fall fifty feet; I had no warning, of course, and no sense of time dilation or a Technicolor review of my life now starting, with popcorn and trailers. I felt a moment of great alarm, and then I was lying on the ground. I looked down at my feet, saw that my left foot was now useless, and wiggled all my toes. Immediately I felt a gladness: pure and simple, I was happy and grateful to still be alive and thinking and wiggling my toes; I knew that everything would be all right somehow. The pain was not nearly as bad as one might imagine. I tried to pull myself up using my right arm on a boulder, but the rest of my body parts told me that they had checked out of any more duty for today, and my partners told me to lie still.
I had no wish to come this close.
So that is the boring story, which I hope not to have to tell again too many times, it being both pointless and embarrassing. After a moderate length of time, which seemed to be much less to me, I was winched up into the hovering helicopter and zoomed off to the hospital, rushed to the emergency room where I underwent terrible, swift tortures, and then finally lapsed into unconsciousness for a day or two, gradually surfacing to a complicated and bizarre set of hospital experiences. I had never spent a long time in any hospital, so it was weird to me; but all in all they did a fantastic job of splicing me up and retrieving me from the trashbin of smashed-up climbers. And here I am, thinking: I have not the least right to be here. I’ve been handed a whole extended new life: what do I do with it? What does it mean, if anything?
This is a longer poem I wrote after another brush with death:
Driving North June 29th, 2000
past Gettysburg, steam on
towards Harrisburg, and on my left
a pale glory of copper-lined cloud shines
for the memory of rusted blood on that battlefield
and the disc descends into a gauzed antechamber
a lamp trimmed in a field hospital;
though those gates are grand
we can't see through them
it’s just me and a couple of tons
of congenial steel
steaming north on smooth asphalt
to cross the great Appalachian ridges
on the oblique
scattered thunderstorms, says the FM
going my way
and jazz fills the car
jazz and more jazz to straighten my brain
as we gradually overtake the storm
the storm that is dead ahead
the true black beyond the gates
SHOT THROUGH AND THROUGH
with beautiful bolts
with the avatar of symbols:
instant death/god's touch of life
the universal moment that will open
those men marched down to Gettysburg
they joined the tide
the men rode down to Gettysburg
the sky turned black
they hauled their guns to Gettysburg
they passed the gate
wondering, at Gettysburg
what is beyond
in my car full of jazz
and my head lightning-filigreed,
thoughts a tangled ball of silver thread
and the road now wet and
black as a black snake
twisting and troubling
and the many huge trucks
their skirts of spray flying wide
lashing the wind, riding the dark river
as my vision
erodes and the storm’s
iron gates slam behind us
life quickly narrows
in attention desperately focused
on a line of weakly shining blips
drifting in a roaring sea of black foam
to guide our weaving course
preserve life a few more moments
from the great grinding tires
just outside my streaming windows,
to my right up the hills
to my left going down
the trucks must make up time somehow
storm or no storm
storm or no storm
death or no death
fear or no fear
we must keep the hammer down.
in three moments the rain doubles
and redoubles and fills the narrow world
taillights smear wide in the screaming dark
the faint reflector-guides have blinked off, gone,
cast into a cauldron of dream
you struggle to open your eyes
while pumping the brake and trying to get off the road
knowing the edge is unknown
knowing you've lost control
no time to check your speed
in the fourth moment
you might think: so this is what it's like
but you haven't got time
just as quickly eases the rain
and my eyes are opened
and the road goes ever on...
farther north the storms end,
I and my trusted steed descend
from the rushing Styx onto
quiet narrow roads among the hills
where wraiths of vapor haunt the asphalt
in the warm forested night, and the deer
turn casually toward my headlights;
winding through tiny valleys and over
steep ridges to my parents’ house
feeling my life as a ballad,
the last verse not written
getting out of the car at midnight
a perfect silence rushing in
as the engine stops
the stars are spread wide
for my delectation
at the banquet of infinity
and far beyond the hill I see
a faint flash, distant echo of the storm
and meseems each single star
speaks to me in single voice
and this is all they say:
lucky to be alive...
lucky to be alive...
Disclaimer: I am not a Poet, nor am I a ‘poet’ of any kind. Unfortunately, at irregular intervals poems arrive in my head and demand to be written down, and I have no choice but to comply as best I can. I consider poetry to be one of the deepest of all human arts, but at present in our civilization it is all but dead, and accorded no respect or value whatsoever. In future millennia it will reassert itself, after the Computer has died.
Down a steep bank to the rocky strand we went, by waters connected to the Pacific; an excellent place to contemplate Eternity, futile though that may be.
Once again, in this poem as the previous one, death is only a screen, a blank white wall, but absolutely necessary for the projection of life, and to color with adequate vividness the feeling I have for life. And this literary device only shadows the actuality of life and death as elements of consciousness; they have been recognized in the earliest philosophical writings as indispensable to each other, and endlessly mythologized as amoral protagonists in the cosmic dance that we have no choice but to participate in. Our only choice is how we feel about it.
I am revealed once again as a lonely champion of “free will” – a concept not really amenable to objective analysis; maybe “just a feeling” after all. But what feeling is more crucial to the independent functioning of an individual? Yes, I am well aware that the existence of the self has also been disproved in the presumably selfless minds of many modern philosophers; I arrogantly consider them to be captives of emotion – that emotion that relieves its fear and pain in a comprehensive fatalism, and the notion that all is illusion, and reality cannot be reliably located or described, and hence is a useless concept. The whole argument is boringly tautological, to me at least. More important is the experience of the moment – the window on the world that we do at least appear to have; and the moment when I lay broken on the ground and realized that my life had been ended and just as quickly re-started, was an experience of such a force and quality that denial of it is simply foolish. The remaining task (if I choose to accept it) is to find or create a meaning for this moment. After all, it carries a lot more weight in my life than, say, what I had for breakfast this morning.
Wine in plastic cups, and time freely and casually spent; beat that, Socrates!
Unfortunately for me, I’ve been forced to tell the story of this accident to a myriad of people: friends, family, acquaintances and health-care workers. But it is interesting to note their immediate reactions: a significant fraction of them adopt some form of a primitive fatalism, as in, “You lucky so-and-so,” “It wasn’t your time to go,” “Somebody up there has a plan for you,” and the like. This provides a simplistic, place-holder explanation for the inexplicable or the unlikely, and is of no philosophical interest to me. An even more common response is to ask whether I will climb again, and I always answer in the affirmative without hesitation or qualification. This tells me that my subconscious has processed the meaning of the break in my life, and deems no serious course change necessary; the cause of the break was not the activity I was engaged in, but my own simple carelessness. But these reactions are deep and true to our being. I am forced to think of the scenes in Lawrence of Arabia in which Lawrence rejects the fatalism of his Arab fighters:
“It is written, Effendi!”
“Nothing is written until I write it!”
And he goes back into the desert at great personal risk to rescue a man who had fallen behind. A perfect assertion of free will; and then later, of course, the very same man is found to have committed an atrocity, and Lawrence himself must execute him, and the Arabs are muttering, “It was written.” Life and death are not ours to determine, we feel in our core; and yet we often make supreme and even final efforts to influence these universal realities.
I'm thinking this stick holds important secrets to Life and Death!
In my case I can imagine the Grecian Fates, the Moirae, looking at me on the cliff:
Atropos: “Ok, that’s it for this sucker. Snip, snip – so long, dirtbag!”
[tiny action figure of Dave falls to the ground]
Lachesis: “What th’? You blind old fool! Look, I’ve measured all this extra thread!”
Atropos: “Oh, all right. But you must have measured wrong!”
Lachesis: “Doesn’t matter – he gets this much more, right or wrong. What am I, chopped
[as they squabble, tiny action figure Dave wiggles his toes.]
Gimme that stick! You don't know the first premise regarding stickness!
The truth is, we are afraid of our dark subconscious half, which makes its own decisions and reverses our own best intentions. Loki lurks inside us, laughing inscrutably. We try to shut him up with reason, the tools of conscious thought, but of course they get no traction with him. So I come out by the same door as in I went.
“One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.”
- Khayyam/Fitzgerald XXVI
So, yes! You’re reading a pointless essay, just as I warned you. And how do I personally feel about life and death; how do I choose to feel, now, after having been so forcibly confronted once again with these intractable issues inherent to existence?
I'm quite sure you must have a treat or two hidden in your pockets. This is my creed.
I was born, somehow, with joy in my heart. When I was six I often ran out of the house in the cold clear morning and I wandered the Canadian woods alone, and went home to have hot chocolate or apple juice, and life was simply good. Sadness and evil did exist, as I came to know, but I never changed my mind. I still haven’t changed it. Perhaps I don’t have that choice after all – though I have known a typical variety of discouraging and unpleasant things in my life – and if I did decide that life is sad and evil, and death therefore a blessing, would that prove anything? Although I have never considered suicide for a single moment of my life, many others do, and take that ultimate action. Are they all mistaken? Or is this decision not something that the common experience of our species can illuminate – in other words, an entirely individual experience, wholly owned by one person alone?
In a few months I will be able to ride my bike again. I will get on it in the cold clear morning and I will ride it just as I always have: as far and as fast as I can get away with. If you happen to see me riding by, and look carefully, you’ll see a smiling man with a beady-eyed crow on his shoulder. Don’t suddenly jump out, yelling “What about death?” – because I’ve already thought about it, and made up my mind.
Well - about time to pack up and vamoose. Where's my stick?
Third and final poem:
On the Oblique 9/5/2006
This apple tree was old when I was young.
Yet it is not decrepit; green mold on worn bark,
some iron-hard snags of silver deadwood
interrupting its homely, moth-eaten thatch.
One large limb, a quarter of the tree, is dead;
I stood oblique on a sloping trunk,
tested my stance and the grip of my shoes
on the mottled-olive bark; looked up and right
to the other trunk carrying the dead wood,
calculated and imagined the cut, and my cousin
handed me up the running chainsaw
and right away I tilted it to the proper plane and cut.
Cleanly crashed the limb to the green turf;
quick I cut off the saw and climbed down.
Firewood in the truck, sticks off in the stick pile,
twigs raked up, sawdust left to molder.
“Apple’s a damned hard wood,” I said, and he
replied, “Yeah, it'll burn well.”
My father came out to watch a moment;
he has locust logs cached for posts or rails,
or to burn. “Apple’s a damned hard wood,” he said,
and we grunted agreement.
Death was also watching, as always.
As I stood on the trunk, lifted the saw, Death stood ready
to cut me down; yet I and my cousin knew
as well one can know, my time had not arrived.
Casual but not careless, we call Death our companion,
we keep him in the corner of our eye.
Mandala. Totally, comprehensively meaningful. Take my word for it.
text and photos copyright by David Warren Rockwell, July 30th 2011