I was tossing up a couple of books from this month’s science selection the other day—will I read the tale of Philip K. Dick’s android reincarnation, or naturalist Bernd Heinrich’s book about the cycle of life, ecosystemic reincarnation, dirt to dirt. I opted for the naturalist. The thought of offering up my body as fuel for Heinrich’s Life Everlasting seemed so much more relaxing than becoming a non-recyclable knot of circuitry. Heinrich’s writing is not the mystical poetry of J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine (one of my favourite books EVER), but his aspiration to ‘sky burial’ by his beloved ravens echoes Baker’s desire to merge with the East Anglian landscape in pursuit of his own favoured avian. And, like all naturalists, Heinrich’s passion for his subject is very infectious. Ever since reading Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain as a child, the life of a naturalist—watching creatures from blinds for days on end, making pencil sketches & small incremental discoveries—seemed an idyllic way to spend a life.
Life Everlasting begins with a letter Heinrich received from a friend, and fellow ecologist, who has ‘been diagnosed with a severe illness’ and is ‘trying to get my final disposition arranged in case I drop sooner than I hoped’. Not wishing to ‘starve the Earth, which is the consequence of casket burial’ or use the considerable ‘amount of fuel it takes for the three-hour process of burning a body’, his friend asks: ‘What are your thoughts on having an old friend as a permanent resident at the camp?’ Heinrich has some forested land in the mountains of western Maine. ‘In the US alone burials in the 22,600 active cemeteries eat up 30 million board feet of hardwood lumber, more than 100,000 tons of steel, 1600 tons of reinforced concrete, and nearly 1 million gallons of embalming fluid per anum. Modern industrial crematoria account for 0.2 % of global emissions of dioxins and furans—making cremation the 2nd largest source of airborne mercury in Europe. The amount of fossil fuel required to cremate the North American crop of bodies each year has been estimated to equal what a car would use in more than 80 round trips to the moon.’ But sadly it’s illegal to have a dead friend come to stay and allow their mortal remains to continue ‘on the wing’.
Heinrich develops his friend’s request into an exploration of the ‘web of life and death’ and humanity’s relation to it—or disassociation from it. Using road kill and deer from the hunt, he follows the stages of disintegration and decomposition caused by insect undertakers, and in the colder months the winter crew of warm blooded animal scavengers who carry out the above ground interment that feeds the death-into-life cycles of nature. He heads from Maine to the epic upstream, seemingly suicidal migration of salmon in Alaska, which not only makes ‘big bears, but big trees—which in turn hold the moisture of the frequent and heavy rains, make the watersheds and perhaps also the conditions needed for spawning’. And from the spawning streams to the frozen dark of the ocean floor where ‘whale falls’ are like a ‘species rich island ... colonised by yet unknown means, in that the colonisers appear as if out of nowhere ... habitats that contain specialists, hot spots of species diversity as well as sites of evolutionary novelty’. And the truly magical ‘catastrophic’ metamorphic body change in some orders of insects that ‘does indeed arguably involve death followed by reincarnation’. Anyway, I’m convinced. Give me a raised platform and some vultures to consume what body parts can’t be recycled by donation—a sky burial for me. Winton