senescence

Nov. 12th, 2009 10:35 pm
alexandra_thorn: 2009, taken by Underwatercolor (Default)
October snow notwithstanding, my feeling is that this has been one of the more classic New England autumns that I've seen in a long time. The intensity of the color in the leaves reminds me of my first autumn at Wellesley in 1997, and the poetic language I used to describe the changing seasons in emails to my mother. The chill in the air excites me as something real. But the autumn color is also a cultural symbol.

Autumn is the season of our harvest feasts, marking the beginning of rich foods that we eat through the winter. The end of summer fruits and the bounty of fresh produce. It is also a time of year for reflecting on death and mortality. The animals and plants of summer die, depart, or fall asleep. Winter is a lonely time, and a quiet one (except for the continual celebrations, which help us to get through the dark and cold.

In the United States, November bridges the gap between Halloween and our Thanksgiving harvest festival. There is an odd symmetry between the two, made stranger by the associated cultural practices. Thanksgiving is a celebration of our living family. Halloween (or All Souls Day, Hallows Eve, Dia de los Muertos, or Samhain) is a holiday built around honoring dead ancestors, but the flavor of the celebration varies from quiet and contemplative to raucous. I suppose that one way of thinking about the chaos of Halloween and Guy Fawkes day, and the festivities of Dia de los Muertos is a welcoming in of the chaotic elements that are sometimes contrasted with the miracle of organization we find in life (but see Holi and Beltaine as counterpoints to the idea that spring renewal and orderliness go together).

The falling leaves might make you think of the inevitable victory of entropy that we encounter in death, but in reality, autumn color is the result of a highly organized biological process. These leaves do not change color because they are dying: they change color because they are actively exporting resources to be stored by the tree over the winter. A synonym for senescence is "programmed death." It happens in the leaves of many perennial plants when they go into a winter dormant phase (starchy root vegetables are in some ways like hibernating bears), and in annual plants when they move their resources into reproduction. It is a winning evolutionary strategy.

What if mortality in humans is also the result of evolution? It may well be. Are there similar processes that we go through to recover the resources of a dying or dead person? Earlier this year it occurred to me earlier this year that in many ways our funereal rituals might be geared toward keeping alive the accomplishments and contributions of an individual. I think I learned more about Ted Kennedy's life in the week that he died than I'd ever known about him while he was alive.

How many of our rituals around death have to do with reclaiming the ideas and information that a person created or gathered in life?

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alexandra_thorn: 2009, taken by Underwatercolor (Default)
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