Death in the Garden: Appreciating the Beauty of Life

I knew in an instant it was dying.

As the evening descended, speaking on the phone with my friend nearby in Carmel Valley and gazing out at the shifting hues of water and sky in the cove, a struggling band-tailed pigeon flapped and flopped across the stone terrace.

“Oh no!” I exclaimed as my heart lurched in my chest. “There’s a wounded pigeon here.”

I watched it flap and careen almost drunkenly into the edge of the stone wall of the flower bed, then stumble across the gravel towards one of the cypress trees, flapping both wings irregularly. “Oh dear,” I said softly to my friend on the phone, “he’s not going to make it.”

Band-tailed PigeonCristin, who like me has a fierce, untamed heart that cares deeply for all wild beings, suggested, “send out a message to the coyotes… maybe they’ll come down and finish it off.” She meant it in all kindness and humanity.

I watched the bird a minute longer, feeling the constriction of sadness in my chest for what I imagined to be its pain and suffering, and then I turned away from the window and our conversation veered off to the local coyotes—whom we sometimes hear yip yipping at the moon, but who tend to stay further up in the hills.

Speaking of wild ones, I shared my landlady BG’s story of the bobcat who came and gave birth to her kittens in a sheltered corner of the property, and also of the mountain lion who, several years ago, ate the neighbor’s cat. Contentedly fed, it lay down just outside the house to sleep until the morning, when the neighbor phoned BG in hysterics––not only that her dear little cat had been devoured but that the cougar was still sleeping outside (it ran off shortly thereafter, just as BG arrived after phoning the Point Lobos ranger station).

In the shelter of my cottage, I hoped that some carnivorous creature would come along in the darkness and finish off the forest pigeon so that it wouldn’t suffer long.

The next morning, after greeting the dawn in my usual barefoot ritual and some hours of writing by the window, I stepped outdoors into the cool, salty air and walked toward the edge of the property where it overlooks the south cove. I had forgotten the winged one until I encountered it against a grey stone bordering the dirt path, as if sleeping, but obsidian eyes open and a single black fly walking down its feathered back.

Oh dear.

I had suspected that the feathered one wouldn’t make it through the night. I debated briefly whether I should toss it into some bushes and let one of those earlier-hoped-for wild four-leggeds, or even Crow, eventually find it as an aged and pungent meal; or simply toss it over the cliff into the cove for a sea burial. Somehow it seemed far too crass to simply put the bird in the rubbish bin. Instead, I decided to bury it, to return this soft feathered one to dark earth, a place a little being of treetops and clouds probably knew only through its small taloned feet.

I walked back up the garden paths, looking for a suitable place to bury the forest pigeon. At the foot of a stone wall, near an old wooden fence and a lanky camellia bush, a towering cypress overhead, with my bare hands and a flat stone I dug a hole in the rich, dark soil—a well-aged compost of dirt and cypress sheddings.

Returning to the lower path where the bird lay, I crouched down and gathered the bird in my hands. Suddenly my heart cracked open, and I unexpectedly wept as I walked slowly back up the stone path, talking to the feathered body as I carried it. There were no obvious wounds, and the bright yellow feet were tucked up, the flesh and bones already rigid beneath the soft cape of feathers.

I admired its appealing colors—breast plumage of dusky violet, a semicircle white collar at the rear of its neck, an iridescent sheen of greenish gold at the rear of its shoulders, and dark grey wings. A beautiful bird. Walking up the path, I mourned aloud that it would no longer appreciate the beauty of this earth, sky and sea. Despite the long hours of looking for food, the cold nights spent in the shelter of a windswept tree, surely to a forest bird’s eye the world can only be beautiful. No more would it know the pleasure of daily flight, of feeding, breeding, nesting, or looking out at the waves. There would be no more greeting the day, a small cooing voice silenced from the song of the world.

I do believe that when the spirit of an animal winks out another winks in, and there is not a pressing reason to become overly sentimental about death. Finding a dead toad or brown rat on the path would probably not have evoked such a strong sentiment. My unexpected tears flowed mainly from my own deep affection for birds, whom I love to feed and watch, those feathered acrobats of flight who have given me so many hours of genuine delight with their antics and songs. The creature’s soft, stilled beauty touched me.

The sentiment also arose from my own genuine appreciation of the beauty of this world, the poignant, feathered reminder in my hands that the day will come when my own heart goes silent and still. How deeply I love the beauty of nature, from a single flower blooming exuberantly in the garden to the wild expanse of sensual, untamed wilderness. As a Soul Artist, I am a great lover of natural beauty, and I search it out and sing (or write) its praise. Daily. Everywhere.

Beloved, I whisper softly—to gnarled tree, jagged stone, twinkling blue stars, purring cat, twittering little bird, tanged vine, or my dear mate sleeping quietly beside me—you are beautiful.

What a privilege to be ensconced in this human body—with all its aches, pains, wobbles, wounds, grumblings, odiferous scents, frustrating limitations and persistent hungers—and walk through this world with senses wide open to the sensuous symphony that surrounds. As I have written several times over in these journal posts, appreciating beauty and nature’s wild creation is a soul practice—and each of us is the Universe experiencing the wonder and creative grandeur of itself, both in shadows and light.

I crouched down and lay the soft but stiff body of the pretty bird into the freshly dug hole. As a tear fell from my eye, I wished the feathered one good dreaming and happy flying in other realms… or the next life. Then I covered it over with handfuls of fragrant, mulchy soil and gently laid a flat, triangular granite stone over the small grave. Perhaps it would discourage any four-leggeds who might sniff the body out in the days ahead and dig it up, but probably not. It wouldn’t really matter anyway.

For a moment I crouched there in a squat, feeling my knees groan softly but my heart wide open like wings—wide enough to hold the world. I felt an increase in the tenderness and appreciation I feel for my beloved, and my dear little doglets so far away in Hawaii. Brushing the soil from my hands, I sensed the silent expansion of deep gratitude in my chest, rolling out like a wave and meeting each thing it touched in the garden with a simple blessing. Holy… holy.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” the poet Mary Oliver asks. Death always tends to bring the preciousness of life into crystal clarity.

Climbing the stone steps to the top of the hill and then descending back to my cottage, I found myself both bemused and appreciative of my sentimentality for this simple bird’s passing. This was only a forest dwelling, band-tailed pigeon with whom I had no recognizable relationship. We are each of us only passing through, I know, yet may we suffer the beauty like an ache in our bones, appreciating these fleeing moments as they arrive, winging softly by with incalculable speed and grace.

Meanwhile, life goes on. (Also a line, I just realized, in another of Mary Oliver’s poems, “Wild Geese,” that I carry in my heart.)

cypress_sunsetI did not linger in sadness as if I had lost a pet or a friend. Yet I noted that my heart was wedged open a bit wider than usual as I moved through the ensuing hours. Cristin arrived for tea, her first time to my new cottage, and we sat outside at the mosaic-tiled, rusting bistro table, gazing out at the aquamarine waves orchestrating the rise and fall of floating kelp, watching sea kayakers navigate the far edges of the cove. I told her of the bird’s burial, my tenderhearted sentimentality for nature, and we both quietly appreciated the beauty of our surrounding world on a sunny day… listening to birdsong in the trees and the timeless chant of the sea.

Repeatedly in these posts, I’ve stated that Soul Artists take the time to appreciate beauty. They experience the world with open senses, engaged in a polysensory communion with the ‘other-than-human’ world around them. We are seduced by Eros, nature, and the Wild Beloved in moments that make us pause, a heart full of gratitude. Wonder, even. In such moments of unspoken common-union, the body and soul expand in their true, authentic nature. We grow… and shine.

Gentle reader, here’s hoping that you find moments to pause and appreciate the beauty around you. My hope is that you join me in becoming a conscious celebrant of the overwhelming beauty that enfolds us on this journey. If you consider that we dwell in a fully participatory and reciprocating universe, then the beauty that you acknowledge is really a reflection of your own, mirrored back to you.