The most fundamental of all struggles, according to Joseph Wood Krutch, is not that between living things, but between life and death, or between life and not life. Krutch calls this struggle “the Great Rebellion”.
The rebellion erupted on earth more than three billion years ago and it is still going on today. The forces of life have never been defeated, but every year in the bleakness of winter we get a hint of what defeat might look like.
There is a reason we call it the “dead” of winter. No current physical event takes a greater toll on the life of nature, and it can be pretty hard on us too. Life is beaten down to a bare minimum. Winter is death personified.
Funerals in winter are exceptionally somber, and they add a deeper chill to the frozen landscape. We drove to Idaho in December to attend such a funeral.
The farther west we went, the closer we came to utter desolation. By the time we reached Rock Springs, Wyoming, the temperature stood at zero and the landscape lay buried in snow. There were few signs of life, aside from the solitary magpies and a flock of crows feeding on a dead carcass by the road.
We gathered at the funeral, comforted each other and shared stories about our love one. A band played her favorite music and her son gave a eulogy that brought us to tears and laughter. Even in grief, the event turned out to be more like a celebration of life than a ceremony for the dead.
Celebrating life at a funeral is a useful strategy of rebellion. It allows us to regroup and recognize that we are dealing with a common enemy, and it keeps us fighting in the face of overwhelming odds.
We tend to forget, however, that the Great Rebellion includes other lives as well. The feeling is that most living things are too common to be worthy of celebration. ln fact, they are anything but common.
All organisms on the earth are found in the biosphere, which extends only a few miles above and below the surface of the earth. This zone makes up only a tiny fraction of our planet. In comparison, that’s about the thickness of a layer of paint on a six-inch globe.
In this paper-thin layer lies all the known life in the universe. Those little lives we think so cheaply of may turn out to be the rarest thing in the whole vast universe of stars and galaxies. It makes you start to think, like Whitman, that a mouse is miracle enough.
You might think even more of that mouse when you realize that, in the long run, the forces of life are fighting a losing battle. Astronomers tell us the stars will eventually burn up their fuel, the sun will fade out and a chill deeper than any winter will spread through the dark nothingness of space.
Our vulnerability has already been demonstrated. Five major extinctions have been identified in the fossil strata, one of which wiped out 90 percent of all species. These catastrophic events are thought to be caused by an asteroid striking the earth.
When an asteroid strikes the earth, it throws a thick layer of dust into the atmosphere. The dust darkens the sun and cools the earth, and the plants die off. Then animals that feed on the plants die, and soon the whole biosphere collapses.
The cooling effect of an asteroid strike is sometimes referred to as an “impact winter”. The last major impact occurred 65 million years ago, in the Age of Dinosaurs, but there is no guarantee it couldn’t happen again.
I take comfort in feeding birds in winter, for I know what they are up against. They are little fragments of life doing battle with the cold, unfeeling powers of the universe. The universe may win in the end, but the birds have another kind of power I can identify with. They are alive and the universe is not, and that makes all the difference.
On the way back from the funeral in Idaho, we stopped for lunch in Denver at the Burger King on the intersection of I-70 and Chambers Road. There’s a prairie dog town on two or three acres of land beside the franchise parking lot, between I-70 and a side road, and it’s been there as long as I can remember. I always try stop there to feed the prairie dogs.
That day the temperature was above freezing and the prairie dogs were out. I usually get them a fresh order of French fries, or something we have in the car, but this time I fed them chicken nuggets. They scrambled to the food and devoured it eagerly. They are the only prairie dogs I know that live on a diet of fast food.
How encouraging it was to see them thriving on that small piece of land, in he midst of a big city. I had a sense that we were celebrating together, the prairie dogs and I, rejoicing in a moment of victory on that bleak winter day.
Those prairie dogs, and all the frisky birds at my feeder, remind me of what we are fighting for.
Richard Weber is a nature
enthusiast living in Ellis County.