sitting in the woods with a notebook

A while back, a writing instructor named Katherine Bomer told me, “Write about whatever you want.” So I did.


Among the tress in a dry-country Texas forest, many stand dead, but all have leaves. At the bases of dead trees, vines rise up from the earth like sentient ropes, life defying gravity, and cling to the crevices and fissures of dried bark as the creep toward the photosynthetic promised land. Armed against predation with an arsenal of spines, these vines stretch ever upward, spreading a few leaves wherever enough sunlight breaks through the canopy to allow them to feed. The vines, lying close to the trunk and bearing a nearly identical color, are invisible to all but those who actively search for them, and the leaves they spread throughout the dead trees–but for their incongruous shapes–give the impression that the trees themselves are alive and thriving. The transition from life to another is nearly seamless. Life rises upon the remains of past life, and the achievement of what has gone before serves as a scaffold for ongoing success.

In the tropical seas, tiny spineless corals have constructed edifices that rival humanity’s greatest architectural achievements. Untold generations of the minute beasts have spent their lives filtering sea water for food, dodging the attacks of predatory snails, and adding just a fraction of an inch to the reef. As each generation of corals dies, its descendants take root on the calcified legacy that is the reef and continue to build one of the richest and most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. Fish, crabs, sea plants, and lobsters live in the city built by millions of anonymous laborers. Life thrives upon the remains of past life.

Hermit crabs–small, slow-moving, thin-shelled invertebrates that lack any sort of formidable weaponry–seem unlikely candidates for survival in a sea populous with predators of all kinds. Mollusks, tiny pink gobs of living goo, seem even less so, except that they are blessed with the remarkable ability to generate bony shells of all shapes and sizes to protect their helpless bodies from predators. When these armorers of the sea do die–of disease, mishap, or age–hermit crabs, adopt their now-vacant shells as homes, and each shell serves to protect yet another tiny life that its creator could never have foreseen or understood. Life thrives upon the remains of past life.

Inasmuch as humans have discovered and developed a variety of ways to feed ourselves, develop communities, and shelter ourselves from the weather and predators, we do not seem to fit the trend of life rising upon the remains of past life; however, in the millennia since we discovered the advancements that have allowed us to lead lives almost completely separate from those of most nonhuman life forms, we have become creatures of ideas–and here, the parallel remains. The creeping vine ascends the dead tree in order to extend its leaves into sunlight; we use the ideas, values, and discoveries of those who went before us to build toward even greater achievements and epiphanies. An entire seafloor ecosystem thrives among the remains of generations of corals; we build communities based on the philosophies, theologies, and politics of our forebears. Hermit crabs take shelter in the shells of long-dead mollusks; we use the unfathomable multitude of ideas that is the unspoken inheritance of every human being as a defense against uncertainty and ignorance. As it turns out, humans, the most unnatural of all creatures, fit the pattern evident in the natural world we sought–and seek–to abandon. Life rises upon the remains of past life.


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