Sunday, December 12, 2010

When I die...

When I was in fifth grade, I was the worst kind of nerd. I was determined to get 100% on every assignment. My teacher didn't help things by giving us regular updates on how many points we had overall, how many were possible, what our overall percentages were, and what sort of grade that translated to.

I was never in danger of anything short of A+. Extra credit opportunities abounded, and I took advantage of every one of them. I probably was somewhere in the range of 120% when, in science, we entered the "circle of life" portion of the curriculum. It was all about the food chain and homeostasis and the way an ecosystem was one big machine in which every member gave as much as it took. I was fascinated by this idea.

Well, one day I came into class, and it suddenly occurred to me that our weekly extra-credit assignments were due that day. I didn't need extra credit — I was a nerd, remember? But I loved to build up that stock of extra credit to pad my grade and ensure that I remained in the A+ range. So I panicked. I looked over the list of extra-credit opportunities, and I settled on one: Write a poem about the food chain.

There were about 10 minutes until class started, so I decided I would take a stab at writing that poem. It was, after all, worth 10 extra-credit points, and I wanted them. Here is what I came up with:

There was grass on the ground.
It grew all around.

There once was a rabbit.
Eating grass was its habit.
It ate the grass on the ground
That grew all around.

There once was a hawk
With a nest on a rock.
It ate the rabbit
With the grass-eating habit
Who ate the grass on the ground
That grew all around.

The hawk choked and died
Nevermore to glide.
It fertilized the ground
And the grass grew all around.
I remember that poem well, not only because my teacher printed it up and hung it on the wall but also because it reflected my early understanding of how amazing our ecosystems really are. It sounds so nerdy — some things never change — but that idea really resonates with me.

I've spent my entire life engaged in one duty: ingesting organic material, metabolizing it, and turning the byproducts into parts of my body. Every cell of me bears components of some broccoli, a little chicken breast, a bowl of ice cream and millions of glasses of water. And lots and lots of other stuff. The food and beverage I have ingested in my life represent probably millions of miles traveled, tens of thousands of gallons of oil consumed, and thousands upon thousands of plants and animals whose lives were lost in the interest of feeding me.

When I die, I don't want all of that effort to be sealed up in a hermetic box, my entirety embalmed with chemicals meant to prevent my cells from breaking down, and then all of it encased in concrete before being dumped into the ground. It might sound a little hippie-dippy, but I want to become a tree. I want nitrogen-fixing bacteria to hang out at a party of worms, and for all of them together to identify the parts of me that most whet their appetites. I then want those bacteria and worms to excrete their little excretions, and for those excretions to become the soil that nurture the next generations of plant that becomes food for some animal, who poops me out to become yet more food for yet more plants, and on and on until I'm truly dispersed throughout the metabolic systems of countless types of flora and fauna.

But in our hygienic times, dumping my body into a hole and filling it with dirt isn't only culturally shocking — it's illegal. Cremation doesn't really thrill me because I harbor this irrational fear that despite being dead I still might suffer the pain of being melted down for parts. And besides, ash surely must be a less-effective nutrient than unadulterated moldering Doug, right?

So I have no idea what I want to happen to me when I die. What about you? If you were to write a last will and testament, what would you ask to have done with your remains?