By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann
I had never noticed how the melting snow of spring makes way for bones. One May morning, we wake early to walk the few acres of woods in the thumb of Michigan. Every few minutes, someone calls out “over here!” and we all rush over with our eyes on the composting leaves. A spine bone here. A skull there. Teeth still nestled in a jaw bone. A river otter? Fox? Racoon? Isaac tries to fit the bones back together in place and using his overly abundant 6-year-old animal knowledge attempts to determine the mysterious creatures. Later he will riffle through pages of his animal track books for further guessing. Cedar on the other hand just wants to fill his small arms with bones until he has so many he asks me to carry the extras. It’s not my first instinct to hold skulls in my hand with any delight or ease.
Nestled beside the bend in the stream I spot a bone. We pull back the leaves and a few wet feathers. There is a beak bone that must be five inches long. Too long to be a turkey vulture. Perhaps a heron? Big enough to be a sandhill crane? The wing bones are so long and thin you can’t help but hold them gently.
I admit that the time in the woods is good respite from facebook scrolling where the newsfeed seems filled with silently disappearing species and scientific predictions for human extinction. The numbers are mostly in my lifetime and certainly in my kids’. It’s the kind of reading that can fill one’s body with grief and anxiety and make it hard to breathe.
It also forces me to ask the holy questions about how we are living in these precious days and what we should to teach our kids. If the predictions come true, if we (esp those of us in the US) do not systemically change our impact on the climate, if my children are there as humans disappear, what do I want them to know?
I want them to love the earth and understand reciprocity. I want them to know how to work hard with their bodies and grow food. I want them to know the love of ever-expanding community. I want them to practice gift economy sharing out of our abundance and our scarcity. The list goes on.
But as I tuck the beak bone under Cedar’s arm, I realize I want them to know how to be with death. In a culture where death is emotionally and physically untouchable, I want them to be able to hold that sacred time with their bodies, mind, and spirit. Without fear, I want them to be able to hold bones in their hands.
With rising temperatures and an earth shifting into new time, there will be death…of honey bees….of song birds…of people. In fact, there already is all over the planet, if we have eyes to see it. I want to be able to look it in the eye, hold the bodies in my hands, and give thanks.
Cedar slowly climbs back up the hill careful to not let a single bone fall. As he saunters up, I know that soon we need to talk about burials and resting places. But for now, I’m grateful for a 3-year-old who isn’t afraid to touch death, who can hold bones in his hands, and love the land, her many creatures, and this wild, wonderful life.
Lydia Wylie-Kellermann is the co-curator of radicaldiscipleship.net and the editor of Geez magazine.