I, Me, Mine

We were out of town once when a cow died at home. We got a call from our farm-sitter, Michael. We were due home soon so we told him not to bother with the unpleasant and challenging business of moving a dead 1,500-pound animal. On the morning after we got home three days later I took the tractor out to the pasture where the cow’s body lay in the summer heat.

All our cows are either black or red. As I went out after the carcass that day, though, I could see from 100 yards away what looked like the corpse of a white cow in the grass. As I came up to her I realized that the whole body of a black cow was encased in a wriggling white layer of fly larvae. Maggots were devouring her from the outside in.

And the smell simultaneously told me her gut microbes were at work devouring her from the inside out.

Our living bodies are maintained in a wondrous state of equilibrium with both the external – and the internal – environments. Our vitality protects us from a natural process of annihilation that begins the instant life leaves our bodies. We live both surrounded by and permeated by creatures just waiting to consume us. Alive, we coexist. The moment we die, all that changes.

As soon as the cow had stopped breathing and the cells within her body were deprived of oxygen, her immune system shut down and the bacteria in her body began a spectacular boom of consumption and reproduction. All the nutrients and energy stored by the big animal were suddenly available to the microbes and they went to work.

Busy microbes are gassy microbes. As they digest their new, enormous meal, the microbes excrete sickly-smelling gasses with poetic names like “putrescine” and “cadaverine.” To buzzards, coyotes and opossums, those odors signify a meal. To flies, those volatile chemicals smell like wealth. 

During our summer the cows are besieged by flies. Horn flies, deer flies and horse flies dine on the blood of living cattle and lay their eggs in manure, water or wet soil.  But flesh flies and blowflies show up in response to the odors of decomposition. They feast on the decaying flesh of corpses or infected wounds. They can lay their eggs in dung or rotting fruit, but a dead body is among the best places for baby flesh flies and blowflies to hatch and grow up.

Soon after the bacteria begin their work on the cow’s insides the spreading odors attract the flies. Huge numbers of flies dine on the carcass and lay their eggs. Within a few days the body of an adult cow can appear to be a writhing carpet of baby flies – maggots. 

A week later, during a hot summer, nearly all the body’s soft tissues are gone, either consumed by scavengers, flown away on the new wings of young flies, or percolated into the soil with the microbes.

On a practical level we’re grateful for the efficiency of this transformation. Anything that dies on the farm is quickly obliterated by nature. We don’t have to worry much about corpses hanging around.

The same transubstantiation would, of course, quickly take our own bodies if they were left to nature.

Human beings work very hard to come up with alternative visualizations. We go to great lengths to obliterate all evidence of our imminent decomposition. We incinerate, embalm or bury our dead, and sometimes all three. We prop our loved ones up on elaborate cushions inside airtight boxes, then display them, covered in makeup, to their bereaved friends and families.

We are repulsed – horrified – by decomposition.

Our most popular movie monsters of the early 21st century, zombies, are typically depicted as partially decomposed humans. They stagger around looking for healthy human beings to zombify, thereby reducing them to bloodthirsty pseudo-corpses devoid of individuality. It occurs to me that they embody two of our most basic horrors: decomposition and a lack of individual will. 

Animals, so far as I can tell, are much less concerned about those things.  At various times all the animals on our farm are witnesses to the deaths of their friends and family members. Sheep graze placidly around the body of their sister killed by coyotes a few hours before. Chickens will roost and fall asleep next to a dead pal. I’m grossed out by a decaying cow, but her cow family doesn’t seem to have much of any reaction to the sight or the smell.

This is not to say that any of these social species is not capable of its own kind of love. It warms the heart to watch the cow herd gather around a new calf, licking its flanks and smelling its little nose. I could be wrong, but it appears to me that they even grieve their friends when they are gone. At least there’s a period of adjustment as the social order is shuffled. Everybody’s a little out of sorts for a while.

When I’ve taken a dog’s body out to bury it, the other dogs don’t seem to feel any aversion to the body. If anything, they just seem curious. They also seem a little sad in the days following the death, missing their friend I suppose. Or maybe I’m projecting my own emotions on them. I’m just not sure. I’m pretty confident, though, that they don’t confuse the dead body with their departed friend. So far as I can tell, the animals observe a clean boundary between the living and the dead. The living may be friends, loved ones, enemies. The dead are dead.

That is to say that from non-human perspectives it seems there’s nothing special about a body, once it’s a dead body. 

But my ego wants my body to live forever.

I put it that way because I’ve been known to claim, emphatically, that I don’t want to live forever. Yet I catch myself, all the time, reading the death news and comparing my own age and health to the recently deceased. I privately keep score. With each passing day, I triumph over more of my contemporaries and I secretly celebrate my survival.  Sometimes I obsess over trivial aches and pains that might portend sickness or death. I indulge a hundred little personal myths about how my exercise regimen or my particular diet or my excellent attitude will protect me.

Consciously, I don’t want to live forever. I want to move on and let others take my place. Subconsciously I keep trying to re-figure the mortal arithmetic.

That’s my ego at work, I figure.

“Ego” provides a relatively new name for a timeless concept. English-speakers didn’t use the word until James Strachey started translating Sigmund Freud’s work in the 1920s. Freud’s own word in the original German was “Das Ich,” or literally, “The I.” In English we use the word “ego” to generally describe the aspects of our nature that place us, as individuals, separate from and more significant than others. When we are being egoistic, we have our attention focused on the parts of ourselves that are distinct and, in a word, special. 

That’s not quite the same thing we usually mean when we say “egotistical.” Sometimes the ego is confused with high self-esteem, or a favorable impression of oneself. But our fascination with our own inferiority can be just as self-centered as our feelings of superiority. Some of us perceive our most “special” qualities as our virtues. Others obsess about our own bad qualities. 

In either case, the part of us that is fascinated with our distinct selves would be called the ego.

And so the ego doesn’t want its object of fascination, the special self, to die. Most of us are afraid, to one degree or another, that all our specialness might just disappear. 

My ego isn’t satisfied with any abstract notions of “me.” It’s not ready to settle for some sort of disembodied “legacy” that carries on after my body is dead. And it’s skeptical of spiritual concepts of a permanent “soul” or its reincarnation in new, future physical bodies. My ego wants to keep me just as I am. My ego wants me AND my body to live forever.

Consciously, I’m aware that this thing defined as “me” living on this planet in this time is a temporary, flimsy, transient physical phenomenon, with nothing special to distinguish it from the other countless biological “individuals” spread across the world and time. There’s a wonderful dichotomy in our narrative of existence. Each of us, thanks to our infinite connections to the rest of the universe, emerges unique in the world. Every individual human being – not to mention every living thing – is an unduplicated original. There are billions of variables in the processes that created us, most of which we don’t yet understand. It seems that literally everything has an effect on who we are. All the circumstances of our biological conceptions; the genetics of every previous generation; the time, place, and weather attending our births; the life experiences of our grandparents; possibly even the positions of the stars and planets have biological influences on who we become. 

We are unique, but we’re not separate. You are one of a kind, but you’re not, literally, “one.” The boundaries we may like to perceive between us and the rest of the world are permeable and unstable. 

I try to imagine my own body dead, swollen, riddled by maggots, seeping into the soil and dispersed on the wind in the tiny guts of blowflies.  It’s an interesting exercise and makes me feel queasy.

It also feels fair, and right. Across all the decades of my life on this planet I’ve lived at others’ expense. Every day, with every breath, I’ve been supported by the sacrifices of other creatures who might have filled the same space or eaten the same food, not to mention those I’ve personally consumed. 

To think that my own body, built from the living system around me, shouldn’t eventually be made available to the system – percolated in the soil, gorged by buzzards, spread across the prairie wherever the flesh flies go – is unnatural and unfair. One might even say, immoral.

Sacrifice

Each April our 75 mother ewes have an average of two babies each. A few have singles. A few have triplets. Most have twins. Voila, in about two weeks our flock goes from 75 animals to 225. Suddenly two thirds of the creatures in the pasture are brand new, shiny clean and full of mischief. 

Through the spring and summer months the grass grows abundantly and the lambs grow large. By the time December arrives and the green grass is going dormant, we need to have killed or sold about 150 sheep. 

If we don’t redistribute two-thirds of our flock every year, in one winter they would overgraze all our property and damage the pastures to a degree that could take a decade to repair.

One year a summer drought stunted the grass and we were on the verge of overgrazing in August. We fenced the end of our driveway and let the sheep and goats into the yard where we keep about four acres of lawn, shrubs and native landscaping. That got us through the drought but then we had to replace all our flowers and shrubs. Our six goats demonstrated how to erase years of human horticultural ambition in a half-hour. 

If we overgraze the pastures, the only practical way to repair them is several years of re-seeding and rest.

None of this is the animals’ fault, of course. They evolved in a natural system designed for their fecundity. Wild sheep have lots of babies, too, and wild predators reduce their numbers. Wild grazing animals travel great distances to find food. Our agricultural system is a geographically focused variation on the natural system. In our system, we are responsible for maintaining a stable food supply for the animals. And here, we are the main predators.

When humans “overgraze” our planet, that’s a product of the same fundamental energy that triples the size of our flock every spring. We reproduce. We fight for our survival. We seek comfort. We consume, we reproduce, and so on.

We’ve been living in ways that our nature dictated – expanding and innovating. 

Unfortunately, nearly every major symptom of deterioration in our natural world can now be scientifically traced to human expansion. Species loss, deforestation, declines in animal populations, soil erosion, acidification of the oceans, climate change and pollution all track back, in not-very-complicated ways, to human activity. 

Of course there’s a lot of debate about climate change. If you like, we can set the climate issue aside. We’re still damaging habitat, extinguishing species and acidifying the water and atmosphere at alarming, accelerating rates. 

I know a lot of people feel skeptical about whether our environmental problems are humanity’s fault. But the basic biological facts are pretty hard to dispute: No species can double its population every three generations without running into a habitat problem pretty quickly.

To preserve the health and prosperity of our grandchildren’s generation may require the courage to acknowledge that human activities have environmental consequences and that our hyperactive lifestyles and rapid expansion turn those consequences into potential catastrophes.

That acknowledgement requires courage, because the solutions to those problems will include various forms of sacrifice.

We’ve doubled our population in less than one lifetime. We are the definition, ecologically, of an “outbreak” species whose rapid expansion foreshadows a catastrophic collapse of its numbers. 

Some of my friends shrug and say “Nature will take care of this,” or “God will take care of this.” They are, undeniably, correct. Eventually nature or God will apply the natural antidote. That antidote will, most likely, be extremely unpleasant for some future generation of people. We know nature’s tools for preventing overpopulation: viral pandemics; weather fluctuations that inhibit food production; explosions of waterborne pathogens that spread diseases like cholera and dysentery. 

And of course there’s always the possibility of a spasm of intercultural violence and war as we struggle over shortages of resources. 

“Human nature” may be the root of the problem, but human nature also offers us an alternative. We could take stock of our situation and, rationally, restrain our expansion and consumption. We could consciously create and maintain surpluses – surplus land, surplus food, surplus water – to accommodate a crisis. We could share resources more equitably, to ease economic and intercultural tension. We could joyfully and enthusiastically address the situation.

We could do these things. We know how. And we’re naturally gifted in solving this kind of problem.

It’s popular to take a negative view of human nature, these days. Human beings do some shitty things. The media are full of evidence for the prosecution. But the evidence is circumstantial and not conclusive.  

Cynicism relieves us of all sorts of responsibilities. Idealism may ask us to make sacrifices. But sacrifice is a proven, fundamental aspect of human behavior. It’s adaptive. It’s good for survival. It serves the social bonds that support strong, successful social species like us.

Recent science has affirmed that empathy, kindness and compassion are innate elements of human nature that have been critical to our prosperity and survival. We have depended, since before we were human, on the support of our families, clans and tribes. Ancient humans didn’t survive very long alone without the protection and support of a cohort. Empathy, compassion and sacrifice are basic building blocks of our social groupings. 

Of course our instinct to sacrifice for our family is not unique. Coyotes, chimpanzees and lions do the same. Many social animals will share food with their families, even when threatened with starvation. Parents risk their lives protecting their offspring all over the animal world. 

However we are unique in our capacity to make sacrifices outside our immediate society, for others to whom we are connected only in abstract ways. 

As of this writing the World Bank estimates that there are about 27 million active, full-time members of military organizations worldwide. If we include militias and part-time military, the total number of people presently consigning their lives to some higher ideal – defense, patriotism, freedom, etc. – is about 84 million people.

That’s 84 million people, mostly in the primes of their lives, who have made a legal commitment to risk serious injury and death in defense of people they have never met and ideals they may only barely comprehend.

In 2018 Rand Corporation published two reports for the US Army describing what it called, “arguably… the single most important factor in war,” the Will to Fight. The reports contend that military leaders often underestimate the enemy’s will, with tragic consequences. They offer famous examples like the Red Army’s persistent and successful defense of Moscow in 1941 during World War II; the successful resistance of Vietnamese forces across 20 years of war against the French and then the American militaries; and the fruitless military occupations of Afghanistan by Russian and then American forces stretching across 40 years in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The “Will to Fight” reports might more accurately have been titled, “The Will to Sacrifice.” What sets soldiers apart from the rest of us is not their capacity for fighting or violence, which God knows we all possess, but their willingness to knowingly place themselves in harm’s way for the sake of an ideal. 

The materiality of that ideal seems to be an important variable. The Rand studies’ examples – the Russians, the Vietnamese and the Afghan Taliban – all fought at their own doorsteps against a foreign military. They were literally defending their families and their homes. Their surrender would have meant exposing their wives, parents and children to hostile forces directly.

Nearly every soldier is formally committed to be willing to risk his or her life for the sake of the greater good. But the degree of risk different soldiers are willing to face before their will falters appears to vary. All soldiers face sacrifice. But some are willing to sacrifice a lot more than others. Or they may not experience the threat to their lives as a sacrifice if it is necessary to protect something or some people they care about.

In the political vernacular “soldier” is often used interchangeably with “hero”. That seems right.

In the United States’ controversial War in Vietnam about 25 percent of soldiers were drafted conscripts who served involuntarily. They didn’t want to serve, but they did so when their government demanded it. Remarkably, 32 draftees won medals of honor for their heroic acts, 12 percent of the 261 Medals of Honor from that war. Considering the disproportionate number of those honors that are granted to officers (who are almost never draftees) it seems conscripts were about as likely as volunteers to perform extraordinary acts of heroic sacrifice in Vietnam. 

The Medal of Honor is the highest citation granted in the US armed forces and is reserved for soldiers who risk their lives for others, “above and beyond the call of duty.” In Vietnam, examples of recipients included (more or less randomly chosen):

  • Army Private John Barnes who died saving his fellow soldiers by throwing his body onto a grenade as it exploded.
  • Conscientious objector Thomas Bennett who refused to fight but volunteered to serve as a medic on the front lines and died there after saving numerous lives.
  • Army Private Clarence Sasser who risked his own life to save several wounded soldiers and although severely wounded himself continued treating their wounds for five hours until they were rescued.
  • Army Private Carlos Lozada who stayed behind to provide covering fire at the cost of his own life during a withdrawal of his fellow troops.

I have no direct personal experience of this kind of heroism. I joined the pacifist Quakers in 1976, in part to avoid the possibility of being drafted into the military. I had, and have, a moral and religious objection to fighting for the military. But the fact that  I was frightened by the physical violence, the bloodshed and the prospect of losing my young life was, as best as I can remember, at least as compelling as my morality or my religion.

Nevertheless I have always admired the commitment of those who do serve, especially those who do so for a moral conviction about the rightness of protecting one’s country and its principles. 

It seems remarkably easy to get young people around the world to risk their lives, pick up the tools of violent aggression, and to convince their families to support their sacrifice. It feels natural, I suppose, to protect our clans, tribes and nations in that way.

Which begs the question: If we’re willing to sacrifice our lives and the lives of our children, routinely, to secure our future against “foreign aggression,” what would we sacrifice to secure our children’s future against environmental catastrophe and famine?

All Together, Now

Jojo is an Ornate Box Turtle. She lives in our vegetable garden. We first encountered her about 15 years ago, minding her own business among the okra. At some point we learned she likes to eat a grub worm if you offer her one. Or a cherry tomato. She sometimes shows up for a shower when we turn on a sprinkler.

 The first time we saw her, we figured she was passing through. We hung out together for a few days, and then she was gone for weeks. Then we saw her again, just about where she was the first time. Then she disappeared for the better part of a year.

They don’t call Jojo’s species “ornate” for nothing. She’s an object of elaborate beauty. The top of her shell is a network of abstract rosettes in bright yellow on a dark green background. Her face and front legs are dabbed with yellow circles, like bright little suns. 

We’ve cohabited with Jojo for a decade and a half, but we don’t really know much about her. So when she appears, two or three times each summer, we’re delighted. And we’re fascinated by her mysterious life.

Just last summer my wife Carolyn witnessed, for the first time, Jojo disappearing. She found her half buried in a patch of mud, gradually descending into the muck. Box turtles in Kansas apparently spend a lot of time underground, sometimes as much as two feet deep in winter. 

The species was common and widespread across the Great Plains until we started farming here. A creature that needs grass, shade and open water – and especially one that spends a great deal of time in a shallow burrow – suffers when the prairie is plowed or paved.

Lots of reptiles share our property. We see at least four species of snake regularly and several varieties of skink. A few times each summer I discover I’ve killed a snake while mowing the grass. I hate that but I haven’t figured out a way to prevent it. Even mowing very slowly I can’t seem to pick them out ahead of my mower in the grass, and they evidently don’t know how to get out of my way.

One of my horrors is that I’ll hit Jojo, buried in the garden, with the rototiller. To maintain some control over the garden weeds we have cultivated the garden several times over the course of each summer. Every time, I wonder whether I’ll crush or dismember Jojo with the machine. 

Partly to minimize the tilling, we’ve been building raised garden beds from old lumber. It’s easier to control the weeds inside the beds and they can be tilled by hand with a garden fork just once or twice a year. Also, my aging gardener’s body prefers weeding on a stool, so the raised beds are at a friendlier height.

Minimizing our tilling has other benefits as well. Soil is packed with life. In a single gram (a quarter-teaspoon, roughly) of healthy soil scientists find 200 million individual bacteria; a million fungi;  100,000 algae; 10,000 protozoans; and a thousand nematodes. Tilling, just for one summer, can destroy two-thirds of those living things and then it takes years, or decades, for them to return. 

Farming and gardening connect us with all these other families of living things being sustained by – and sustaining – this land. It’s sort of a group project. When I sink a trowel in the garden soil to remove a thistle my interests are obviously different than the thistle’s, not to mention the hundreds of millions of soil microbes whose lives I’m disturbing. But we’re all seeking our livelihood here, side-by-side, sometimes competing and sometimes cooperating. We all ultimately benefit from a healthy system. If we can contribute to the general well being we have a chance to improve life for everybody. 

As we distribute manure and irrigate our flowers and vegetables, we try to nurture and improve the health of the soil. When we nurture the soil we are, in fact, nurturing the billions of creatures on whom the soil’s health depends.

And healthy soil creates more valuable food for us, as well. Healthier soils produce more nutritious foods.  

Soil is not dirt. At least not the dirt we usually refer to when we say “dirt”. The ground beneath our feet, when it’s healthy, is a souffle of minerals, organic matter and myriad creatures. This living alchemy generates beauty, nutrition and oxygen. The health of the soil is fundamental to the health of every living thing.

Under a microscope healthy soil is revealed to contain a menagerie of tiny hyperactive denizens: bacteria like tiny grains of rice or beans; hairy protozoans and worm-like nematodes that feed on the bacteria; and predatory arthropods, relatives of lobsters and crabs, with armored bodies and powerful jaws that prey on the nematodes and protozoans.

Grubs and earthworms are the dominant leviathans of subsurface life. The pudgy, pink earthworm is an omnivorous titan of the underworld. They eat both plant material and every variety of microorganism, leaving behind slime-lined tunnels and trails of fertile waste, which in turn nourishes plant roots and new generations of microbes. 

Grub worms are larvae, destined to emerge next spring as one of 350,000 species of beetle. The most iconic, and some of the most common of them, are the scarabs sometimes known as dung beetles.

As a kid growing up in the Chihuahuan Desert of southern New Mexico I was enchanted by a flying scarab known as the Green June Beetle, which we called June Bugs. Their shells appear  a gorgeous, iridescent green, an effect scientists call “structural coloration” because microscopic structures on their surfaces are designed to reflect blue, turquoise and green light frequencies, so in the sunlight they offer the vivid, shifting appearance of precious stones. 

 More common than June Bugs in that desert was the comical ground-dweller we knew as the “stink bug,” the Pinacate Beetle perpetually stalking about the desert floor. Easily riled, the Pinacate Beetle’s defense mechanism is to raise its hind end and squirt a noxious chemical. I could never smell it, but the beetles were everywhere so it must have worked, somehow, to repel predators.

Both the glamorous June Bugs and lowly stink bugs are dung beetles. Their larvae are grub worms that feed on the feces of larger animals. The grubs will live in a pile of dung if they can find one spacious enough. Shit is their food, and often their nursery.

The ancient Egyptians revered dung beetles as symbols of transformation and resurrection. In their hieroglyphs a beetle literally meant “to become,” or “to transform.” Some scarabs form balls of dung and roll them across the ground. The beetle-faced Egyptian god Khepri, in identical fashion, rolled the sun across the sky every day, literally equating the source of all life – the sun – with a ball of shit. The ancient Egyptians seem to have understood soil health and its importance to living things pretty well.

Now we have science to help demonstrate that the soil, and the dung that fortifies it, are as important as the sun to energizing earthly life. 

From first-hand observation the Egyptians knew, 5,000 years ago, that dung nourished the soil, and soil continuously recycled waste into new vitality. This cycle remains as important today as it was during the reign of the Pharaoh Wazner. 

The soil’s vital efficiency is reliant on the diversity of its resident species.  Soil microbes facilitate biochemical reactions in a critical chain of events that is interrupted by the absence of diversity. When we kill off a percentage of the living things in a field, the plants grown there are less successful and the food we harvest from them is less nutritious. 

A bunch of stuff we’ve been doing lately – plowing, applying pesticides, applying industrial fertilizers – has negative effects on the living diversity of our soil, and its fertility.

Like the soil, our bodies also contain a surprisingly diverse cast of characters. More than half the cells in your body are not human. Only a little over 40 percent of the cells inside your skin carry human DNA. And because human DNA is relatively simple, with fewer genes than other organisms, if we add up all the genes in a human body the microbial genes can outnumber the human genes a thousand to one. The total number of non-human living creatures in a normal adult human being’s digestive system is said to be between 10 trillion and 100 trillion. 

Healthy soil, by volume, contains just about the same number of microorganisms as a human body. But recently our bodies and the soil have both been depleted of their microbial diversity by modern lifestyles and industrial agricultural practices. Our homes, bodies, pastures and fields have become dramatically less hospitable environments for microorganisms, lately. It’s becoming more and more clear that the health and diversity of the soil biome is most likely related to what’s going on in our bodies. We’re beginning to suspect that health of the soil is necessary to the health of our bodies, including our brains.

We’re just beginning to study myriad health effects of changes in the populations of microorganisms in human bodies, which are generally referred to as the human “ biome.” We know quite a bit about specific gut organisms that can make us sick – Typhoid, Shigella, Salmonella, etc. – but very little about the thousands of species that peacefully share the space within our skin. However, there’s a bunch of new evidence that the health and diversity of a person’s biome has a profound effect on individual health and studies have connected a lack of biome diversity to obesity, heart disease and, astonishingly, a number of psychiatric diseases.

The longest nerve in your body is the vagus, or pneumogastric nerve that connects your brain to your heart, lungs and digestive system. It also branches off to the laryngeal nerve to control speech; and to sensitize parts of your ears. It creates your gag reflex. If the vagus nerve is stimulated by something perceived as harmful in your stomach, it makes you vomit. It controls hunger. When it’s damaged, a person may eat uncontrollably or not feel like eating at all. It can carry the sensation of orgasm from your sexual organs to your brain. If you are frightened suddenly, it’s the vagus nerve that causes you to pee yourself.

Artificially stimulating the vagus nerve can help patients with severe depression. A damaged vagal nerve can cause tiredness, dementia and paranoia. 

Parkinson’s Disease is believed to start in the gastrointestinal system and spread, via the vagus nerve, to the brain. Scientists are investigating the possibility that microorganisms in the gut, when they are injured, may be sending messages through the vagus nerve that have a negative effect on the dopamine reward system, and that this negative effect could eventually induce Parkinson’s Disease.

We don’t yet have an understanding of the biome’s role in all this. We know that most of the non-human living things within our bodies are in the gut. We know our biggest neural pathway, the vagus nerve, carries information from the digestive system to the brain. 

So just how many of our thoughts and moods are influenced – or dictated – by the microbes? That, we don’t know. Maybe a lot of them.

Unhealthy soil can create an unhealthy gut, which may create an unhealthy mind. 

Some scientists are suggesting that we should view human beings and their microbial inhabitants; the soil; the plants; the bacteria in the air and in our food as one “superorganism” connected through a microbiome that transcends the barriers between species. The trillions of living things that share our bodies migrate in and out through our food, drink and air. When you pick up a bell pepper at the farmer’s market, put it down and then rub your eye, you’ve most likely distributed some of your biome to the environment, and some of the biome’s environment to your body. And so, with each passing moment, your body transforms with the introduction or depletion of new residents.

This might be disturbing. We have, after all, been trained to avoid “contamination” by “germs.” But from another perspective I sometimes feel thrilled by the notion that my existence isn’t conscribed by my skin, my brain or even my species. It feels like a great thing to be part of the “superorganism” that inhabits this planet, carrying on its immense, communal life around the globe for eons.

Compassion, in that context, is also self-interest. The health of the planet and its myriad creatures can’t really be meaningfully separated from the health of our own bodies.

We accuse narcissists of “navel-gazing,” or living in a state of preoccupation with themselves. So it’s ironic, and maybe amusing, that to contemplate our own navels, stomachs, intestines and organs is, in fact, to contemplate a vast menagerie of creatures that live there, and influence our lives in profound and mysterious ways.

We’re building garden beds and retiring the roto-tiller because, in part, we were worried about Jojo. We don’t want to kill her with our machine. That sentimental concern has led to the contemplation of many layers of cause and effect, from a turtle, to grub worms, to soil microbes, to dung beetles, to vegetables, to our stomachs and back to our own minds.

Moving Toward Mercy

You and I share a gift. We can feel compassion for those we do not know and will never meet. We can feel compassion for future generations. We can feel compassion for other creatures. And we can attempt to take action to minimize suffering – human and animal, near and far, today and in the future. 

As far as we know, this is a uniquely human trait. Even in the act of killing we can, and do, try to minimize suffering. Of all the world’s predators, humans are the only one, best as we can tell,  that tries to kill humanely. 

I find myself grasping for a noun to represent the adjective, “humane.” According to the dictionary, that word is “humaneness.” But that’s hard to say, looks strange on paper and just sounds weird. So, by instinct, I usually grab the word “humanity.” 

But that doesn’t sound quite right, either.

I think maybe “mercy” is the word.

Mercy can’t be measured. Mercy is a goal, not a characteristic.

I stopped at the kitchen window one spring morning and noticed something strange going on outside between our house and the barn. We had about 100 very young lambs at the time and our border collie, Flash, seemed to be devouring one of them on the lawn.

We had Flash and three Great Pyrenees guard dogs helping us care for our sheep and cattle. Flash was a four-year-old veteran, a gifted sheepdog, and generally very protective and skillful with the lambs. All sorts of unexpected things can happen among the animals, but it seemed very unlikely that Flash had killed a lamb to eat it. 

Every year a few lambs die, of course. The dogs routinely camp out and protect a dead lamb for a few days. After the dead body has begun to decompose, they eat it. 

Thanks to centuries of breeding, both Border Collies and Great Pyrenees dogs are generally protective of livestock. Instinctively, they are also protective of their territory and their food. All these instincts, combined, provide a pretty effective deterrent against outside predators. Where we live coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions and stray dogs are all threats.

Flash was particularly attentive to baby sheep and he had a special gift, a strange and amazing aptitude for bringing stray lambs back to the flock. He spent all day, in lambing season, on patrol. Young, inexperienced little lambs often fall asleep in the pasture and get left behind when the sheep flock moves away. Border Collies feel an innate compulsion to keep flocks of animals together, so an abandoned lamb presented, for Flash, a problem to be solved. When he was about a year old Flash developed his own technique for addressing this situation. He would go to the stray baby and stimulate it until it stood. By “stimulate,” I mean he would nuzzle it, mouth it and even pick it up and drop it, repeatedly, until it stood up. Watching this, you could easily reach the conclusion that he was going to hurt the lamb and we ran out to stop him a few times, only to find the baby was perfectly fine and ready to run back to its mom. Passers-by have even driven to the house to tell us Flash was killing lambs. He wasn’t. Not ever.

Once Flash had the sleepy lamb on its feet and fully awake, he would lick it and nuzzle it until it imprinted on him. Newborn lambs will imprint on anyone. If you pick one up to carry it for a few seconds, its instinct when you put it down is to follow you. Flash convinced lambs that he was the licking, nuzzling, attentive guardian they should follow, and then he would lead them back to the flock. When he got close to the adult sheep, he would speed away to the far side of the flock to push all the adults back toward the wayward baby. Once the baby was back among the sheep with its mom, Flash would move away.

I know this sounds like a scene from a saccharine movie, but we’ve seen him do this dozens of times. It’s a dance he choreographed himself and knows well.

When I got to the wounded lamb on the lawn that day, it was alive and struggling as Flash ate its entrails directly from its abdominal cavity. It was a grim scene. I ran for a sharp knife, shooed the dog away and killed the poor lamb by slicing through the arteries in its throat.

I can see, in retrospect, that my decisions that day were guided by quite a bit of specialized information. I knew that coyotes had been pressuring the flock for several days, taking a baby from its mother just two nights before. I knew our farm dogs’ breeding reliably protected our living lambs from their predatory impulses. A dead lamb, on the other hand, was different. A lamb whose organs were spilling from its belly was probably in the “dead lamb” category, from the dog’s perspective. That is to say, “food.” 

So even though I found Flash eating the poor little creature’s organs out of its open abdominal cavity (probably causing a lot of pain), I was reasonably certain that he wasn’t responsible for the injury. He had, in all likelihood, interrupted a coyote that had injured the lamb attempting to kill and abduct the baby.

So I was pretty sure I didn’t need to discipline the dog.

On a farm one gets used to a certain amount of gore. A live disembowelment is seriously gorey and still disturbing, of course, but a farmer necessarily develops enough tolerance to help an injured creature even when the situation is pretty gross. My gag reflex has calmed down considerably over the course of our decades of farming. We hate to see an animal suffer. But farmers who raise livestock are called to attend directly to the injuries and illnesses of their animals. We can’t always wait for a veterinarian. Ideally, the impulse to ease an animal’s suffering overcomes our aversions. 

I knew how to kill an animal with a knife, and generally kept one close at hand. It’s an infrequent necessity, but a critical one. And just a few experiences with that necessity will focus one’s mind on precision and decisiveness. To botch that job is to prolong a gruesome death, and that’s extremely disturbing. So we remember our mistakes – hopefully minor – and do better the next time.

From the time I left the back door until I dispatched the injured baby, probably less than two minutes passed. Considering the situation, that was maybe the best I could have hoped for.

A lamb carcass on the lawn isn’t an ideal outcome, but by my own standard for compassion exercised in the real world I felt like I had reduced the suffering to the best of my ability. Compassion was a small but critical part of that – the inspiration. To help, I would say I needed the right information and a practiced sense of resolve. And a sharp knife of course.

Humans are the only animals, it seems, that try to minimize suffering in the act of killing for food. We are predisposed, seemingly by our very natures, to want to limit pain. 

Cats often play with a dying mouse. Coyotes will begin devouring a sheep while it’s still alive. But most humans, hunters, farmers or nomads, idealize a humane process of killing.

Even our conscientious farm dogs show no compunctions toward the feelings of rabbits, skunks or raccoons, or an eviscerated lamb for that matter. Whatever form of compassion they might feel doesn’t extend to food.

I like to think our long practice at taking care of animals as compassionately as we can prepared me to do the right thing that day. If I analyze it, though, I’m left with no certainty:

  • I can’t know for sure that the lamb was hurt by a predator and not a reckless sheepdog, who should have been disciplined to prevent other lambs from being hurt.
  • I can’t know if the lamb would have suffered less if I left it to the dog.
  • I can’t even know for certain whether, in raising our own livestock for food, we are reducing – or increasing – the total quantity of suffering in the world.

The life we live among our animals provides us with a daily practice of compassion, in all its complexity. We are practicing, not perfecting. We raise our animals from birth, attend to their needs and admire their beauty. Many, we know by name. We care for them and about them. We try to provide them with natural lives appropriate to their physical and psychological needs. And we kill and eat them. We try to end their lives by the most humane means available. Of course this strikes some of our vegan friends as hypocrisy.

We could, after all, live on a plant-based diet. I admire the conscientious commitment of people who do. But in our case that wouldn’t, necessarily, reduce suffering. No cattle or sheep would die for our vegan sustenance, true, but the acres of crops raised to otherwise supply our needs would strip the farmland of other life. Our pastures provide habitat for dozens of species. The soybean fields next door are systematically managed to eliminate almost every life form, except soybeans. 

Our pastures, by contrast, teem with abundance and biological diversity. 

If one measures cruelty in lives lost, then the vegetable farmer’s all-out assault on nature is far more cruel than raising a few cattle or sheep for meat.

I’m not advocating the carnivore diet, particularly. But I do think we should acknowledge the complexity of the system in which we live – and especially the sacrifices that are necessary to support each of our individual lives. There’s no way to avoid it: other beings must die in order for us to live. Some, we kill for food. Others are destroyed by plowing or agricultural chemicals. Or they die of starvation because we have taken their habitats. Our very presence is, in a way, an act of murder.

No living being survives except through the sacrifice of others. Each calorie we consume deprives some other creature of the same nourishment. Each leaf on every tree casts a shadow in which some other leaf on another tree may not flourish. 

As the planet’s most ubiquitous, consumptive and rapidly expanding inhabitant we have forced tremendous sacrifice on other living things. 

Humanity’s continual expansion is killing off whole species at a rate at least 100 times (and perhaps as great as 1,000 times) greater than the baseline rate of extinction that has existed in nature. We are, in a way, the worst pandemic in the planet’s history, for thousands of species.  The suffering that lies behind these staggering numbers is inestimable. We are responsible and we know it. 

We could reverse our expansion and give back some room for everything else. We know how.

Compassion is humanity’s birthright. Innocence certainly is not. We live at the expense of others.

And in that stark fact lies beautiful potential. In everything we do, we encounter myriad opportunities to extend mercy and exercise compassion. 

The Gift of a Broken Heart

A decade ago I set out to write about compassion. In our increasingly connected world, I believed compassion was going to be very important if we wanted to preserve human creativity, health and prosperity. So I decided to write about that. 

I wasn’t up to it.

I discovered that I didn’t know much about compassion. And I was very disappointed to find that I really wasn’t very good at it.  

Every human being has an innate gift for compassion, me included, but I had never tried to work much with it. Confidence, irrational certainty and various civilized forms of aggression were the tools I picked up most often to address a problem of any kind. 

Until I began this project I hadn’t noticed that I was like that. I just figured I was a really compassionate person who was forced, by circumstance, to be kind of an asshole once in a while. People who knew me seemed to think that, too. 

Habitually, I believed that my intellect, my healthy habits and my virtuous views – in a word, my superiority – would provide some kind of safety. But in that arrogant cocoon I was cut off from others, especially those who were suffering. That separation was intentional. Not conscious, but intentional. I unconsciously worked to preserve my sense of security. I quietly avoided coming into direct contact with suffering people, especially if that encounter might reveal the obvious fact that I wasn’t safe at all, that I was very much like anyone else, vulnerable to all the human pain the world has to offer.

And in my various, illusory states of psychological refuge the muscles of my compassion were gradually atrophying.

To offer authentic compassion to others, we may first need to acknowledge our own vulnerability, and our experience of suffering. Our own suffering helps us build empathy for others, and empathy provides the musculature of compassion. We exercise those muscles by acknowledging our vulnerability and experiencing our own pain as fully as we can.

This is not to say we should seek to experience suffering. No need. We are human beings. Inevitably, suffering finds us. 

In August of 2013 our son Noah died. He was about a month shy of his 26th birthday.

He had struggled with his drug addiction for years. 

He died alone in an apartment we rented for him near our home, the culmination of years of addiction concluding in a suicidal drinking binge.

For most of us, I think, parenting is our most heartfelt responsibility and the most cherished task of our lives. Most people would probably say that the love they feel for their children is the most powerful emotion they have ever felt. We would, as it is so often said, do anything for our children. 

When our child succumbed to drug addiction and gradually descended into a hell of delusions and self-loathing, we naturally tried  to help in any, and every, way we could think of. And involuntarily, but with equal desperation, we searched our memories for a cause. 

Forever we ask ourselves, “What did I do wrong?” “What did we do wrong?” And more fundamentally, “How did this happen?”

I suppose any honest parent can remember thousands of mistakes they made, each misstep a possible cause of some psychic injury to a child. Certainly I can. When your child suffers from the illness of addiction you have a reason to compulsively sort through the full catalogue of those errors. I have. Of course there’s no direct line of cause and effect. We reexamine the record endlessly, and fruitlessly. 

When our child died we were left permanently without answers. We faced a few grim truths. We had loved him with all our hearts. We had invested all our hope in his recovery. And we had failed.

To fail one’s child can be, emotionally speaking, equivalent to failing as a human being.

The animal pain I felt when Noah died was, to me, shocking. Just the sense of loss was overwhelming. I realized that I would love him and miss him for the rest of my life, and that I might never love him less or miss him less than I did on that first terrible day. 

Through years of watching his disease progress we had, of course, had many reasons to worry for his life. We braced ourselves. We prepared for the worst. We visualized how we would cope. I can’t say any of that was very useful. There are some experiences that just can’t be prepared for.  

When I tell someone I had a child who died their most common response is, “I can’t imagine how that must feel.” That is a wise and accurate observation. You can’t. I couldn’t. I advise you not to try, because attempting to imagine that loss is painful and the visualizing won’t do any good. At least it didn’t do me any good.

When Noah died  I felt I knew, maybe for the first time, what it meant to have a broken heart.

In the dark canyons of my deepest grief I found I had been stripped of the armor I had worn to protect a sense of security in this uncertain and threatening world. I lost the sheltering illusion of my self-image as a good person and a good dad. I lost any sense of my family’s safety from suffering or bad fortune. I lost any sense that we were protected, successful or privileged. The worst could happen to us. 

Noah was a wonderful kid. He was a beautiful little boy with blonde ringlets and bright blue eyes. Always physically affectionate, we called him “monkey baby” for the way he clung to us, emphatically, resolutely, lovingly.

He was a sensitive boy. From the time he could talk, you could see he was working hard to say things that would make us feel good. As a toddler he knew how I relished a hug and a kiss from him and his sister before I left for work and when I got home. So he made the hug and a kiss his sacred responsibility. Having missed me one morning when I left early he told his mother, crestfallen, “I can’t believe it! I didn’t kiss my dad!” I think of that particular story often because it says so much about who he was and would always be.

When he was about 10 his classmate’s father died. He insisted on attending the funeral. I was a little worried about that because Noah’s sensitivity made him vulnerable to painful situations and sometimes that caused him to act out. I didn’t know how he would handle it.

In fact he was poised, sympathetic and graceful. He stayed close to his classmate and her family. He asked quiet, appropriate questions and listened intently. He laid a consoling hand on a shoulder or gave a hug at, it seemed to me, precisely the right moments. He was brilliant. 

We came to rely on his grace and sensitivity in social situations. Noah knew how to be good to people. 

He also had a sophisticated, dead-pan sense of humor that belonged to someone much older and more worldly. Sometimes I would realize that one of his offhand comments had been, in fact, a jab so finely crafted that I didn’t feel it. The humor in his gentle criticism would dawn on me, finally and I would laugh about it days later, and for weeks after that. 

His friends loved him. Our friends loved him. We really loved him.

His sensitivity also had its dark side. At home he could fly into a rage for the smallest reason, or no reason at all. We all lived in dread of his next tirade. He hated uncertainty, insecurity and transition. Any morning we were to leave on a trip – even a vacation he very much wished to take – we could generally rely on him to procrastinate his packing until the last moment and then explode when he was reminded that we needed to leave in 30 minutes to catch a flight. His anger was volcanic. Furniture was broken. Holes were punched in walls.

But on the whole he was wonderful. He cruised through school with good grades and good friends. He played music, partially to please his mother. He played tennis, partially to please me. Right up through high school graduation he was delightful, successful, and apparently sober.

He once told me, during a healthy interval later in his life, that he had never felt truly free of anxiety until the first time he got high. For him, prescription painkillers – Vicodin, OxyContin, fentanyl –  were a revelation. He had always been in pain. When the pills caused that pain to recede he said he knew immediately that he wanted to feel better, that way, all the time.

In retrospect we can recognize his rapid descent into full-scale addiction. After his sophomore year in college he was perpetually ill. His symptoms were varied, and vague. He interrupted our family vacations to make emergency visits to clinics and pharmacies. We tried to provide better doctors, to find some clarity about his health, but he stubbornly maintained control over his treatment. We thought he was just exercising his independence, demonstrating his self-sufficiency. I should have recognized the signs. But of course I didn’t want to. His mother, my wife Carolyn, was more perceptive. Several times, she suggested the obvious. I stubbornly resisted. I wanted to maintain my illusions.

With some apparent effort, he held his life together. He studied finance and Chinese, and seemed to do pretty well. He had a wonderful girlfriend, whom we loved. They moved to Hawaii to start a life together. We felt he was launched.

A year later, though, he still didn’t have a stable job. Finally he was hired by a bank. Then he failed a drug test.

After years of overlooking his symptoms and rationalizing his inconsistencies, I heard that news with a growing sense of dread. His relationship fell apart. He collapsed, emotionally. He came home.

I’m very surprised, thinking about it now, that he only lived three more years. Those years seem, in retrospect, like a much, much longer time. He seemed to have hit bottom when he got home. He confessed his addiction. He went through an excruciating period of withdrawal. He refused conventional treatment but apparently stopped using drugs. He got a job and did well for a while. He worked for the company I ran. For business he traveled to China and Vietnam. He was intelligent and charming. His work was pretty successful. His contribution was appreciated.

Then, after about six good months, he started disappearing. He contrived reasons to be out of the office. Then he contrived reasons to work from another office in a nearby city, then from home. Sometimes he just didn’t show up for meetings. His voice mail was full and wouldn’t accept new messages. It took him days to respond to an email. His coworkers were kind, then confused, then exasperated. Finally, confused myself, I was forced to fire him. He was very angry, then he was remorseful. 

We took him to detox. We took him to rehab. He got kicked out of rehab. He went into and then abandoned a different rehab. He went in and out of treatment. He went everywhere with Gatorade bottles full of vodka. He wrecked our cars. He got arrested. He got in fights. He was drunk at my mother’s funeral. He called in the middle of the night, telling psychotic stories of violence and illness, hospitals and murders and his own various unverified diseases. He called in the daytime with lucid reasons we should buy him a car or pay his rent. He moved back in with us until his rages and psychoses scared us so badly that we asked him to leave. Then, shattered, we asked him to come back. Then, terrified of him again, we rented him another apartment. Then we stopped paying his rent, so he moved in with a “girlfriend” we never met. When he was abandoned by the girlfriend and evicted by the landlord, we rented him a new apartment. He had a new job, or was about to get a job, or was just waiting for a space at a treatment center – the one that was going to finally help him.

Physically and emotionally, he deteriorated. He was thin and gray. He seemed relatively sober when he came over to see us. He was sweet, and sad. 

Carolyn and I reached the obvious conclusion, finally, that we were subsidizing his self-destruction. I told him we wouldn’t support him any more, unless he was in treatment. We knew he needed months in a residential facility to treat the disease in his body and his mind.  He thanked me, told me he understood, and promised to check into a treatment center right away. I told him I could take him. He said he had a friend who wanted to drive him.

Then he went silent and unreachable. That was not unusual, and we fantasized that he might have actually gone into treatment. But we hadn’t gotten a bill from any treatment center. We hadn’t received a call. It was early in August, 2013. I decided to go and check on him. Then I thought better of that. Instead of going to his apartment myself I asked the police department to do a “welfare check.” I left my office and went home to be with Carolyn. 

The police detective showed up at our door two hours later with the news. Our boy was gone.

Grief can be like the ocean. Its surface is turbulent. Waves tumble us about. We struggle to catch a breath before we’re submerged again, then we’re inverted 10 feet down, the pressure excruciating. Then, inexplicably, a flash of light and a breath of air at the surface again.

Deep grief can be like the deep ocean. In the midnight zone, too deep for sunlight to penetrate, there’s no sign of the storm on the surface. It’s cold and dark. It can be very still. Not much is living there. One can feel the slightest current from something – or someone – swimming near in the darkness. 

In my abyss I felt newly connected to the suffering in the world. My own sadness was strong, so pervasive, so much a part of my moment-to-moment awareness that it didn’t feel practical or necessary to protect myself from the suffering of others anymore. I couldn’t disguise or anaesthetize my vulnerability. I cried, uncontrollably, in front of the television at home. I cried in business meetings. I cried in restaurants. I cried on airplanes. 

The currents of those passing in the darkness of my deepest grief became important to me. It was dark, but there were others there. I didn’t have the strength to push myself to the surface but I could follow the current as others passed, moving upward. I could sense a subtle eddy, a brief pressure buoying me up, fractionally, a few inches at a time. We are not alone down there. Far from it. But to benefit from others there, I had to become more sensitive to them and the almost imperceptible evidence of their buoyancy, as an example for my own.

My broken heart was damaged, for sure, but it was also more open than it had been. I grew more interested in the sadness and pain of other people, pain I realized I had been blocking all my life. 

Usually when I cried,  I cried because I remembered my specific loss. Sometimes, though I was brought to tears by other losses, experienced by other people, sometimes far away. I was emotionally vulnerable to the news. I was absurdly vulnerable to sentimental commercials. Even greeting cards could make my eyes well.

Eventually, of course, there was healing. The pain subsided. Old emotional comforts and habits showed up. I sensed myself subconsciously rebuilding the protections I once had against the sadness and pain in the world. 

And to my surprise and confusion, I wasn’t sure I wanted that to happen.

To say that the loss of a child is devastating is in part to relate the way it tears down the structures of our certainty and confidence. Fundamentally, you can’t be sure that your own nature – the way you were – wasn’t responsible for the disease and destruction of a person you loved. And so all your other certainties about your own value and virtues, if you had them, are swept away with this discovery: You can only be certain that you will never know what role you might have played in your child’s disease.

If you, God forbid, have lost a child, please also remember that you can never know that you WERE responsible at all, either. You may have been the absolutely best parent your child could have had, among all the human beings in the world. Addiction is a disease against which there is no reliable vaccine or protection. Maybe Noah’s addiction was aggravated by stressful experience. Maybe I could have saved him by preventing those experiences. Maybe not.

I think we must accept that we cannot know.

We must live in uncertainty.

If we are forced to live out our lives uncertain of whether we were a wonderful parent, or a failure,  then what, of any consequence, are we left with to be certain of? Precious little, I think. 

If you possess, as I do, hundreds of internal narratives about how you are healthy because of some fine personal quality; or safe because of that some other virtue; or good because you have accomplished this or that; those self-mythologies can become very hard to sustain under the pressure of a catastrophe. The truth becomes obvious. The simple fact is that no life is granted such certainty. Not only are we vulnerable, we may be culpable.

When our protective narratives rupture and begin to drain, punctured by trauma or grief, we have the opportunity to acknowledge a fundamental fact: the narratives are false. We are not superior. We are not safe. We are not even, necessarily, good.

Which means, of course, that we are like everyone. And we have the capacity, if we work at it, to give others our compassionate understanding from a place of actual knowing.

Losing a child is in many ways like an amputation. Carolyn and I lost an essential part of ourselves and we will never be the same. As my grief subsided I realized, at some point, that I was manufacturing a sort of emotional prosthesis. If I could never be the same, perhaps I could seem the same. I hobbled around on my emotional stump. I thought I seemed fine, at least for a while.

But then it occurred to me that I didn’t want to seem fine. I didn’t want to feign self-assurance. I wanted to maintain the connection I had felt in the depths of my grief to the grief of others, to all the grief. If my broken heart  or my amputated identity made me a little warmer, more understanding, friendlier to any degree, then I wanted to cultivate those qualities to whatever extent I could. 

Maybe if I could warm and open my heart a little,  that could be a small tribute to my son. Perhaps if I work at it I can allow him to help me be  a slightly better person. I could be a positive part of his legacy.

Of course this is not to say that I don’t wish, with every fiber of my being, that Noah was alive. I want him back. I wouldn’t have him suffer more. I wouldn’t have him inflict more suffering on others. But I want him back. Alive. Flesh and blood.

In his absence I have this broken heart. And maybe I am improved by it. I was not kind enough or patient enough or generous enough or sweet enough when he was here. Today, though I’m no epitome of any kind, I think I’m a bit more of those things. If Noah’s terrible sacrifices helped me grow a little, I guess I should honor that, to the best of my limited ability.