I’ve been obsessed with life cycles lately. I spent over two years working on a picture book about a food chain and some of the life cycles related to milkweed plants and monarch butterflies. Two years seems long enough for the larval stage of a book, and I am happy to announce that it has wings; it’s out there in the big world, making its rounds and opening minds.
Opening minds to what? Well, I have a desire to connect humans to their inherent wildness, hence a main purpose of this blog. I believe the more we remove ourselves from nature – from green spaces and fresh oxygen, from mountain ranges and oceans bigger than ourselves to the small-scale life in our gardens, from the bacteria that share our human vessel and help with our life processes – the more we become detached from living. Kids are more open to giving nature a chance; they haven’t developed a fear of exploring or just being outside. That’s a big reason I chose to focus on writing for kids even though I enjoy what I learn when writing nature essays for this blog. Here however, I’m mostly ‘preaching to the choir.’ I hope to have a broader influence on the importance of nature in our lives as I grow as a writer. Inherent to understanding how we are connected to life on earth as we live is also the understanding of how our death is a part of the cycles and life processes on earth.
In the classroom we commonly teach life cycles without talking about human death. We use frogs, apples and butterflies – three species familiar to children. When kids are older, we make sure they understand that humans have life cycles too, but we really refrain from talking about human death, our death, at least in the classroom. Also, we teach food chains separately from life cycles, and so many children do not grasp how they are connected and how all life should be a part of the energy flow through ecosystems. I say should be because most modern burial customs cause a broken food chain where humans are concerned. In my new picture book, Milkweed Matters: A Close Look at the Life Cycles within a Food Chain, I’ve told a food chain story starting with the sun giving energy to a seed, in this case a milkweed seed. The story I’ve told is not the only food chain that a milkweed can be a part of, but by using the monarch butterfly as the primary consumer in the food chain, I’m using a species which is familiar to many children, in hopes of helping them better make a connection between what they know about food chains and life cycles separately and how both concepts are linked.
As teachers, we matter-of-factly teach about decomposers, a group of organisms crucial to recycling energy in nature, and placed at the ‘end’ of the food chain. Without decomposers – worms, flies, roaches, fungi, bacteria, and many other kinds of insects – life on earth could not continue, at least as we know it. Life cycles would be affected. Plants need the nutrients that decomposers release from dead bodies in order to grow, to start a new life cycle. It’s too sensitive to talk about humans decomposing, and so we don’t. But if we don’t talk about death, can we fully engage with the wondrous life part of our life cycle? For me, at least, I don’t think so. I liken it to how we can’t fully appreciate happiness without experiencing sadness, how we can’t truly grasp what it means to be grateful if we’ve never experienced hardship. All of this together, the ugly with the beautiful, makes up our lives. Having only good experiences might make us feel empty, while having only bad experiences can leave us bitter and feeling disempowered.
Death is sad. My thoughts on death have not ended by publishing Milkweed Matters. My mother-in-law, a very special woman to me and to her whole family, died last month. The childhood and adult stages of her life cycle were rich because they were a mix of good times and hard times, happy times and sad times. She gained a lot of wisdom in her 87 years. She wasn’t ready to die, but cancer doesn’t always give us a choice. We weren’t ready to lose her. I think we need to talk about death more because it is ok to feel sad sometimes, because the sad and the happy are related in creating our whole experience of life, in creating a richer sense of self.
I have always thought I wanted to be cremated when I die because I don’t want to take up space in a cemetery that does not have personal meaning to me. But as I get older and experience more death around me, as I contemplate my life and my death in the context of my increasing knowledge of ecosystems, and as I strive for ways to fully embrace my niche as an animal among all of earth’s inhabitants, I think perhaps I do want to be buried. But only if nothing will interfere with the decomposers who will transfer my energy and nutrients back to the soil – no embalming, no kind of casket that cannot decompose with me and no vault that is impervious to the forces of nature. I’m thankful there are now green cemetery options available; I’m equally thankful their existence means I’m not the only person with these thoughts.
I wanted Milkweed Matters to help children see the connections between food chains and life cycles. However, I think I was also exploring how to allow for more conversations about death with kids. It’s too early to tell if my main goal worked; there are only two reviews on Amazon at the moment. Is it possible to make death less scary? I don’t know. I drafted another life cycle story recently, playing with this idea. Of course, it still has an animal character to model what is otherwise too sad or scary to show with a human character. Maybe that’s the closest we can get. But we’re all going to die someday. I won’t know until it’s my turn, but I wonder if the dying part of my life cycle will be less scary if I continue to ponder and discuss death with those whose life cycles intertwine with mine.
If you’re interested in reading Milkweed Matters, here is where you can get it. I welcome any feedback. Thanks.