Last week, a friend of long standing and most excellent intelligence picked me up in San Francisco. Equipped with backpacks, food and her mother’s ashes, we were headed to Arcata’s Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, which is linked to a waste-water treatment plant- in flows the shit and out flows disinfected waste into the wetland and Humboldt Bay after (hopefully) all of the E.Coli and Enterococcus bacteria have been removed. You can smell the sewage at the marsh, but it’s a familiar enough odor, although a bit (ahem) concentrated. It’s not at all unpleasant as an olfactory backdrop. And it’s yet another prompt to think about death in all its stages.
Wetlands are also easy places to think about death and the cycle of life, as we pagans like to term it. The processes of reproduction, digestion and decomposition are in rapid and constant dialogue with each other in a wetland. The cycle is vastly sped up. There are organisms in a wetland that may only live for a few hours before becoming food for another organism. And wetlands are visually striking- long, flat places that reach into the distance; immortality’s portal flung wide, opening for the soul embarking on a long journey, if indeed, you hold dear the notion that the soul travels after death. Californian wetlands almost always have a western orientation: in Celtic mythology, the West is a sort of directional/elemental psycho pomp that guides souls.
My friend’s mother had died of acute myeloid leukemia back in October, ten months before we set about laying her to rest. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She lived alone in McKinleyville, a small town 5 minutes north of Arcata named after the nation’s 25th President William McKinley. McKinleyville is not a good place: it seems to be a small town filled with people who in my friend’s words “never smiled”. I saw a woman walking along a dirt road with a freshly blackened eye and a split lip which just deepened my dislike for the place. McKinleyville did not strike me as cheerfully disposed and seemed, in fact, to be a place that would worsen the condition of someone with mental illness.
“My mother used to sit in a room and talk to herself,” said my friend later. McKinleyville is the perfect place to do things like that. She had been estranged from my friend and I think most of the rest of her family. She could not get up the short flight of stairs one day; this is when she knew something was terribly wrong. She called a neighbor for help and was ultimately medi-vacced to Stanford hospital in Palo Alto where she died, in stubborn denial of the physical catastrophe that was rapidly sinking her ship.
My friend had fought long and hard to maintain contact with her mom. This was tough because in the throes of schizophrenia her mother had turned back to the Catholicism of her youth, which didn’t leave much room for understanding my friend’s particular arc; my friend is, in the words of semi-famous sign she held aloft at an anti Gulf War rally, a “transsexual, vegan, lesbian, epidemiologist punk” which is at totally at odds, any way you slice it, with conservative Catholicism.
My friend tried her best to maintain contact, but about two years ago said “you really must stop treating me the way you do” in so many words in an elegant, eloquent letter to her mother, who responded to the letter by calling her and scolding her. It was hard to tell- and I myself had wondered- how long her relationship with her mother would last. I was sorry when it happened but not surprised.
The death of the mother made the future of verbal communication an impossibility, and so my friend’s decision to stop speaking to her mother was given an unexpected and final seal of approval from the tall skinny guy who walks around carrying a scythe. Her funeral was complicated, too- my friend was dis-invited to spare the feelings of some family members who, for one reason or another, agreed that the inclusion of the mother’s transsexual, vegan, lesbian, epidemiologist punk daughter would introduce an unnecessary note of controversy. “Blood is not thicker than water,” my friend said. I agreed with her.
Her mother had made her wishes clear; scatter my ashes in the north Humboldt coast, she’d told my friend. So off we went, like thistledown on the wind, or Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, free-bootin’ our way up north, achieving a rare blend of focused and goal-driven indolence. We were a bit giddy, mostly because we both like these time-outs from everyday life. My friend is a tenure track academic, who does not live to work (a rarity in that field, I think). She had eulogized her mother expertly two days earlier, on a hillside in Las Trampas Regional Wilderness in San Ramon. I had read the 23rd psalm. I fell under the spell of this song and its calm certainty: The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. The ash scattering in Arcata was the final act in the process of laying her to rest.
After we passed Ukiah, the smoke from a distant fire in Oregon turned the blue sky white and tinted the ground a faint but distinct shade of pure orange. We stopped at Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area. The South Fork of the Eel River is at low-ebb now, judging by the enormous expanse of bare alluvium that lies exposed to the sun on the broad banks. But there was enough water in the river to form spectacular swimming holes in Standish-Hickey SRA. My friend and I walked down to the swimming hole, unsure whether we were going to do much more than stretch our legs and look around. When I walked out onto the small beach that fronts the swimming hole, I knew we’d be there for at least twenty minutes. I ripped my clothes off and jumped in.
“How’s the water?” called my friend. Her face was bright.
“It’s perfect,” I replied. “Get in here!” She got in.
We saw small juvenile fish darting around, probably Steelhead trout. There was no sign of the rivers’ namesake, the monstrous-looking Pacific Lamprey, an anadromous fish with a serpentine body and a mouth part straight out of hell. I saw them once, almost twenty years ago when I first visited Standish-Hickey with my sister. They were dead, having just spawned, belly up, mouths gaping. My sister and I stared in fascinated horror.
My friend and I swam. We jumped off rocks. I dove underwater and pulled her legs. I imitated a lamprey. We pulled ourselves up on a rock next to a small rapid. My friend sat looking up the river, thinking. She looked at me. She was content, and her eyes were calm, but I’d seen weary sadness in them all week. That emotion was there now. “We should hit it,” she said. We waded out, retrieved our clothes and left.
We pulled into the marsh at 3:40. My friend walked to the trunk, unlocked it and pulled the box of ashes out. “Hold this for a sec,” she said, handing it to me. Human ashes are weighty, I thought. I’d noticed this when I scattered my dad’s ashes back in 2007: an entire human body reduced to rubble and grit still had some heft to it. On one the side of the box, someone had used a black sharpie to scrawl the word “fly”. Was this an order to my friend’s dead mother? We started walking briskly up a narrow path. The smell of crap and organic matter rotting in the marsh hung low in my nostrils. I didn’t know what the plan was, or where we were headed. Neither did my friend.
“I’m looking for a good place,” she told me.
“Be careful of the wind direction,” I said.
“Like the Big Lebowski?” she replied. We cracked up. “I’m thinking we’ll do a little at a time,” she said and she made a gesture, like a person scattering sugar in their coffee.
I got distracted by the Himalayan blackberries bordering the path. They are a nuisance plant, and wildly invasive, but they do have large blackberries, which I began to pick. When I turned around she was opening the box. At her feet was a small pond, fed by the hydrological system but totally enclosed by reeds. Duckweed floated on the surface.
What took my breath away was not the shape but the color: mint, peridot, jade, leaf, lichen- every tint, color and hue of green was packed tightly into one small spot. Green, as a color, lives or dies according to the material it’s composed of. Cotton jersey, for instance, is not kind to green. It doesn’t distribute light at all, which is why green cotton always looks Gumby-green. Green needs light to animate it.
This little pond was absolutely glowing: the woody, herbaceous materials of leaves, reeds and duckweed were translucent and shot with a fierce vibrancy. It was a green chapel in the marsh, ready to receive. “I feel like I’m in the Emerald City,” I said to my friend.
She opened the box and shook the contents of it into the pool carefully. A mist of fine grey dust floated through the air. Light hit the ashes and illuminated them.
From an interpretive sign at the marsh:
“Coastal Mudflats… transition zones between land and sea, are among the most nutrient-rich ecosystems on earth.”
Waste is different than death, I thought, wincing at how obvious this was when I said it out loud to myself. A person may die and be turned to dust, but there’s no real waste involved, is there?
“The essential elements that contribute to this wealth are present in abundance: deep penetrable mud; oxygen; sunlight; and a dependable supply of mineral-laden water from the sea.”
A friend who is famously agnostic about almost everything, said to my friend and I a week before we left that he had arrived at a feeling of certainly about the question of whether there’s life after death. “Of course there is. Everything is food for something. It makes total sense,” he said. We nodded. It does. The body just gets taken up by something else.
“At a glance, the acres of mudflats appear to be a wasteland suitable only for garbage dumps and landfill. However, this oozy mixture of life supporting elements creates an eco-system far from desolate.”
It was a good thing that my friend’s mother was here.
“Billions of microscopic plants known as diatoms transform sunlight into literally tons of energy.”
She had lived by herself for a long time, and now she was part of a system that had room for her.
“Since we are part of the food chain it makes sense that we protect what remains of this habitat that feeds us.”
Blood is thicker than water. My friend is a good daughter.
RIP, Catherine Anne Dinno.