A verb like unfolding

I think being at the beach brings a lot of us perspective. It’s an environment that constantly reminds us of it’s presence, always imposing on our senses. The sound of waves cycling over the sand, smells of salty decay, sunlight beaming off of reflective surfaces - the water, sand, sometimes an overcast sky. 

These sensory puzzle pieces pull you into the present so much so that your roles elsewhere in the world are left to slip away. They can be revisited later. Lots of life meaning and inspiration can be found in this place. As I walk along the breathing shoreline, water in, water out, it’s the feeling of sand giving way underfoot, an impermanence and movement we don’t experience on concrete, and rarely on dirt or gravel tracks. For me, it’s this impermanence that brings perspective.

I’m just going to rip off the death bandaid here. It’s uncomfortable to confront sometimes. The idea of death can conjure big emotions in some of us, or spark unpleasant memories. If this is what you’re feeling, remember you’re just reading a blog post right now, and it’s okay, you’re okay. These reactions are how you know you’re here, how you know you’re living. To be alive is to experience life, and death is as much a part of life as living is. Death is not only found at the end of life. We have little deaths all the time, we just call it change instead. When we decide to find a new job, end a relationship, or discard an item we no longer need or can make use of. Parts of ourselves and the spaces we inhabit die off all the time. This is what I see when I walk along the beach. Take a barefoot step and let the sand sink a little, a release. We let it happen and take another step forward, knowing that the footsteps behind us will be licked away by the ocean, tomorrow becoming changed, something new. The letting go, the little death, is as much a part of life as living is.

My mycelium friends and their wild co-workers remind me of death all the time. In the wild, fungi and other micro organisms live in death. By this I mean they break down what has died, or is dying. From a fungi’s perspective, something that has died is not a carcass, nor does it make it time for a funeral. To them it is food, time for a feast, time to return a mass of cells that is no longer serving a purpose back to the ecosystem so they might find new purpose. Fungi turn death back into life. They are makers of the forest floor.

This perspective and purpose is not just for fungi to hold. 

One of the most valuable lessons saprophytic fungi (the decomposers) have taught me, is that death is also the start of life. I find myself getting so tied up in stories sometimes, believing there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. But in reality, there is only a verb like unfolding - change, or transformation.

Fungi are happy death keepers, they whisper prayers in the ears of dead trees as they consume and decay the tree’s physical body. Mycelium works hyphae throughout the wood. This creates channels for water, oxygen, and nutrients to travel in and support other microbial life, who will continue to do what the fungi started.

There are other natural entities taking on a similar role, but in soil. I recently learnt that certain types of weeds can indicate what the state of the soil is in that area. Humans and weeds have a long standing relationship. We love to do destruction, and weeds love to grow where destruction has been done. They also love to be destroyed in ways that will spread their seeds and allow them to reproduce.

In my time weaving I have been building a relationship with narrow-leaf plantain, Plantago lanceolata, a weed that grows all over Aotearoa. Plantain is often separated into narrow-leaf, which is growing in my garden, and broad-leaf. It is often eaten by livestock and is sometimes intentionally sown for feed. When growing voluntarily, plantain can indicate that the surrounding soil is heavy in clay, not very fertile, and compact. Young leaves can be eaten or made into a tea that has historically been used as cough medicine.

To me, this weed is longing to be woven. Its long, fibrous stems stretch in and out of my warp. One day I picked some to try retting them. This is the process of soaking natural resources (often leaves or stems) in water for at least 24 hours, sometimes over a week, until cellulose in the resource has broken down and separated from the fibres within. They have been soaking for over a week now and are still green and strong, no cellulose break down that I can see. I might have to dry and rehydrate these instead. This won’t make them suitable for fine textiles weaving, but perhaps for basket weaving. I wove a fresh stalk into my weft so I can note its changes over time.

This is the first time I thought to include the plants around me in what I was making. In a later weaving session I noticed little Tī Kōuka blossoms lying on the ground. They’re a perfect cartoon flower shape in their entirety, no separate petals. My interactions with the plantain inspired me to sew some of these little gems onto the piece. I don’t expect them to last forever - at some point they’re likely to be ripped off by the wind, or shrivel and crack. The atoms they are made of will return to the earth.

Just as I and my weaving will. An uncomfortable, but grounding thought. As I practice multispecies philosophy it seems like this is the point I continue to come back to. It’s as though the non-human entities in my environment are continually trying to remind me of the reality that death is as much a part of life as living is. Each being in this world plays their part in life and death. Each entity acting as death keeper for another.

I'd like you to pull apart that morbid idea some more: if each entity acts as death keeper for another, what the fuck are we doing? What in the underworld are you doing?

We might have forgotten how to be good death keepers.

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