Turning to the so-called natural world to make sense of the so-called human one is a reasonable inclination—and a risky one. To do so without creating a false binary, and without making the beyond-human world a mere vessel for human hopes and woes, is a feat of listening, empathy, and attention—qualities we are much in need of at this moment. Jill Sisson Quinn’s “Sign Here If You Exist” offers them up in abundance. When I’m faced with the seemingly undying argument that the natural world is irrelevant or unimportant compared to pressing human matters, this essay makes for one of the best answers I can give. A skillfully wrought meditation on ichneumon wasps, natural selection, family, and the afterlife, it won the 2011 John Burroughs Nature Essay Award, and was reprinted in The Best American Science and Nature Writing . It’s well worth returning to now.
—Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Editor, Ecotone
The female giant ichneumon wasp flies, impressively for her near-eight-inch length, with the light buoyancy of cottonwood fluff, seemingly without direction, simply aloft. Despite her remarkable size, she is not bulky. Her three-part body makes up only about three inches of her total length, and is disproportionately slender; her thorax is connected to her abdomen by a Victorian-thin waist. Most of her maximum, eight-inch span consists of an ovipositor half that length which extends from the tip of her abdomen and trails behind her like a thread loose from a pant hem. Fully extended, she can be nearly as long as your Peterson’s Field Guide to Insects .
Her overall appearance of fragility—the corseted middle, the filamentous tail—portrays in flight a facade of drifting. But both of the times I have seen a giant ichneumon wasp she was on a mission, in search of something very specific: a single species among the 1,017,018 described species of insects in the world (91,000 in the United States, 18,000 in Wisconsin, where I observed my second giant ichneumon). To comprehend this statistic, there are many things one needs to know: the definition of an insect, Linnaean taxonomy, the function of zero, the imaginary borders of states and countries. The female ichneumon wasp knows none of this. Yet it can locate a larva of the pigeon horntail—a type of wood wasp whose living body will nourish her developing young—hidden two inches deep in the wood of a dead tree, in the middle of a forest.
Charles Darwin himself, it turns out, studied the ichneumon wasp. He mentions it specifically in an 1860 letter to biologist Asa Gray, a proponent of the idea that nature reveals God’s benevolence. Darwin, on the other hand, swayed no doubt by the rather macabre details of this parasitic insect’s life, writes: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars”—and then, as if to reach the layman, he adds, “Or that a cat should play with mice.” The tabby that curls in your lap and licks your temple, after all, has likely batted a live mouse between its paws until its brain swelled and burst. And the larvae of the giant ichneumon wasp eat, from the inside out and over the course of an entire season, the living bodies of the larvae of a fellow insect.
Like Darwin, I think I have put to rest my belief in a beneficent and omnipotent God, in any God really. Contrary to what I once believed, it is easy to let go of God, whose essence has never been more than ethereal anyway, expanding like an escaping gas into the corners of whatever church you happened to attend, into the breath of whatever frightened, gracious, or insomnious prayer you found yourself emitting. But it is much more difficult to truly put to rest the belief in an afterlife, the kind where you might get to visit with all your dead friends and relatives. It will not be easy to let go of your deceased mother, who stands in her kitchen slicing potatoes and roast, who hacks ice from the sidewalk with shovels; she is marrow and bone, a kernel of morals, values, and lessons compacted like some astronomical amount of matter into tablespoons, one with sugar for your cereal, another, for your fever, with a crushed aspirin and orange juice. You love her. You mark time and space by her: She is someone you are always either near to or very far from.
Can people live without the comfort of a creator? I think so. But relinquishing God—the Christian God, at least—does not leave everything else intact. A lack of the divine probably means that when you die what you consider your essence will cease to exist. You will no longer be able to commune with the people you love. Choosing to live without the assurance of an afterlife, therefore, feels like a kind of suicide, or murder.
Most parasites do not kill their hosts. You—your living, breathing self—are evidence of this, as you host an array of parasitic microbes. Only about 10 percent of the hundred trillion cells in your body are really your own; the rest are bacteria, fungi, and other “bugs.” The majority of these microbes are mutualistic, meaning both you and the microbe benefit from your relationship. A whopping 3.3 pounds of bacteria, representing five hundred separate species, live inside your intestines. You provide them a suitable environment—the right moisture, temperature, and pH—and feed them the carbohydrates that you take in. They shoot you a solid supply of vitamins K and B12, and other nutrients. But some microbes, like the fungi Trichophyton and Epidermophyton, which might take up residence beneath your toenail as you shower at the gym, are parasitic—they benefit from you, but you are harmed in some way by them. In the case of these two fungi, you would experience itching, burning, and dry skin. But you’ve probably never heard of anyone dying from athlete’s foot, because it has never happened. Successful parasites—parasites that want to stay alive and reproduce—in general do not kill their hosts.
The giant ichneumon wasp is one of a few parasites that break this rule. Actually, it is not a parasite at all; it is more correctly called a parasitoid because its parasitism results in the death of the host. This is not to say the ichneumon wasp is not successful. It can afford to kill its host because its host has a very fast reproduction rate. If we did not have the ichneumon wasp, we also might not be living in wooden houses, because the wood-boring insects that these wasps parasitize would probably have killed all the trees. The wasp might look formidable, but in terms of its ecological role, it is a friend to humans. This is what it does: A new giant ichneumon wasp hatches from its egg in a dark, paneled crib deep inside a dead or dying tree where the pregnant female placed it. Nearby, or sometimes directly beneath the egg just deposited, lies an unsuspecting horntail larva that has been chewing its cylindrical channels in the wood for sometimes two years. The wasp baby latches on to the exterior of the caterpillar and feeds on its fat and unvital organs until both are ready to metamorphose into adults. Then, when the host has chewed the pair nearly to the surface of the tree and the giant ichneumon wasp larva, which cannot chew wood, has a clear exit, the ichneumon kills and consumes its host. The wasp metamorphoses, possibly over the course of an entire winter, then emerges. Often before the newly metamorphosed females have even passed through their exit holes, they will mate with one of the plethora of males that have alighted on the bark for just this purpose. It’s a kind of ichneumon quinceañera , a spontaneous debutante ball.
The problem of where I would go after I died began with simple arithmetic. In our family there were five—my mother, my father, my two older sisters, and me. Yet the world never seemed to divide by fives or threes as easily as it did by twos: I stood between the double sinks my sisters occupied when we brushed our teeth; the chair where I sat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was pulled up to our oval table just for meals, positioned at a point not opposite anyone, and then pushed away when we were done—it didn’t even match our first dining room set; I sat in the middle of the backseat of the car, while my sisters each got a window; and when we bought a dozen donuts, the last two always had to be divided, somehow, into five equal pieces—or three, which was no easier, if my parents were dieting. At some point in my childhood, for some unknown reason—I have asked them, and they still can’t say why—my parents bought four burial plots. I couldn’t make any sense of this. I worried. Where would the last one of us who died—probably me—be laid to rest? All I could foresee was my parents and sisters lined up neatly next to one another for eternity. All I could do was fear my impending, everlasting physical absence from the people I loved the most. Now that my sisters and I have married and they have had children and I have moved away, I realize the accounting error was not in buying too few but in buying too many: There will likely be two empty plots next to my parents. I’ve become accustomed to physical distance from my nuclear family by settling eight hundred miles from where I grew up, but the problem of where I will go after I die, what I will be like, and who will be with me has not gone away. It has only magnified.
Megarhyssa , the Latin name for the genus to which the giant ichneumon wasp belongs, translates to “large-tailed.” The species that I saw was likely the most common of the eighteen species of this genus, Megarhyssa macrurus , which translates to “large-tailed, long-tailed.” These genus and species names, then, provide no information that an observer couldn’t pick up in a single, fleeting interaction with the insect itself. The tail is more precisely called an ovipositor, an appendage used by many female insects—and some fish and other creatures—to place their eggs in a required location. That place might be soil, leaf, wood, or the body (inside or out) of another species.
The ichneumon’s process of depositing eggs with her long ovipositor goes from mystical to complicated to bizarre. First, she locates her host by sensing vibrations made from its chewing beneath the wood. Her antennae stretch out before her like dowsing rods, occasionally tapping the bark, and she divines the presence of the horntail, catches it snacking like a child beneath the bed sheets who has made a midnight trip to the kitchen. She “listens” for the subsurface mastication of an individual caterpillar encapsulated in old wood.
Now the pregnant female begins the increasingly complex actions that will transport the eggs from her body through as much as two inches of woody tissue to the horntail’s empty channel. Keeping her head and thorax parallel to the wood, which she grips with her legs, she first curves her abdomen under, into a circle, touching its tip to her thin waist. Her ovipositor, as if its outrageous length were not surreal enough, now performs a magician’s feat: It separates into three long threads. The center one is the true ovipositor; the other two are protective sheaths that will help steady the insect’s abdomen and guide the ovipositor as it enters the wood. (When she is finished laying and flies off, you will sometimes see these three threads trailing separately behind her). The two sheaths, one on each side, fold back and follow the curve of her abdomen, then come together again at the very tip of her thorax and head straight for the wood, sandwiching her body in two broadly looped capital Ps. The ovipositor extends directly into the two sheaths where they join and disappears between them. In order to allow the ovipositor’s acrobatics, the exoskeleton at the tip of the abdomen splits somewhat and pulls back. At this stage in her laying, with her ovipositors perpendicular to the tree, her wings flat and still, and her legs spread-eagle, the ichneumon looks as if she has pinned herself to the wood as an entomologist might pin her to a cork for observation.
Before we hang up from our once-weekly phone call my mother says she has one more little story to tell. This one is about Kristen, my niece, at age five my mother’s youngest granddaughter.
The week before Easter, she and Kristen drove to the church where my grandparents and my mother’s little brother, who died when he was a baby, are buried. My mother wanted to put flowers on the headstones. Before they got out of the car, Kristen began talking about her own mother and her older sister, Katie.
“Mommy and Katie want the same,” Kristen said, “but I want to be different.”
“What do you mean?” my mother asked.
“I want to be buried,” Kristen replied. “But Mommy and Katie want their bones . . . ” She paused for a minute, thinking, then continued. “They want their bones burned.” Kristen paused again, then concluded, “But, really, I don’t want to die.”
My mother said she had to stifle a laugh. And I laughed, too, when she related Kristen’s words. Yet I can’t help but think our laughter was cover for some deeply rooted disquiet. It’s merely the brain’s best method for dealing with this cruel yet basic fact of life—that it ends—stated here so rationally by a little person just in the process of recognizing it.
My mother, always prepared for the teachable moment, put forward to Kristen, “Well, Jesus is going to give you your body back, you know.”
Kristen was not appeased. “That’s weird,” she replied.
The very intricacy—and weirdness—of the ichneumon’s egg laying makes it difficult for most of us not to wonder who came up with the complex series of steps involved. Part of that is because humans seem to be, as professor of psychology Paul Bloom puts it, “natural-born creationists.” His essay “In Science We Trust,” from the May 2009 issue of Natural History , posits that where humans see order—anything that is not random—we immediately assume that an intelligent being has created that order. Bloom sums up the research beautifully: Children aged three to six who were shown pictures of both neat and messy piles of toys, along with a picture of a teenage girl and a picture of an open window with curtains blowing, reported that both the sister and the wind could have caused the messy pile, but only the sister could have stacked the toys neatly; likewise, shown a cartoon of a neat pile of toys created by a rolling ball, babies as young as one year old stared longer than normal, which, according to developmental psychologists, indicates surprise.
I once found at the mouth of a sizable hole along a favorite trail a mashed garter snake, a flattened mole, and a deceased opossum. They were each uneaten and—I knew intuitively—could not possibly have all died there coincidentally. Rather, I soon found out, they were a stack of “toys,” planted neatly by a mother and father fox at the den entrance, to occupy their kits in the dusk and dawn while the parents hunted and scavenged for food. (When the family moves to a new den, which they frequently do, the parents will actually move the toys as well.) A pile of sticks pointed on both ends, with the bark removed to reveal the white wood underneath, mortared together with mud and lined up across a stream, has never been the work of the wind in the entire history of the earth, but always the work of an intelligent being— Castor canadensis , the American beaver.
But being “created” does not inherently imply the existence of a creator, as evidenced in Darwin’s work on Natural Selection. Bloom explains, “Darwin showed how a nonintelligent process driven by random variation and differential selection can create complex structure—design without a designer.” So this instinctive assumption that complexity is the work of an intelligent being is true most , but not all , of the time.
Natural Selection, though, in itself, does not inherently negate the existence of a creator. It is possible to imagine that a creator put into motion several set laws—the laws of Newton, for instance, and the laws of Natural Selection—then, without interfering, let creation unspool itself.
But even this belief begs a question. I asked my mother this question once, when I was seven or eight. We were in the car, on the way home from my organ lesson. “What was there before God?” I asked. “Who created him?”
“There was nothing,” my mother said, and her hands left the steering wheel for a moment. Her fingers spread, like the fingers of an illusionist, as if she were scattering something, everything in the known world, I guess. These religious discussions of ours were delicate and infrequent, almost, like discussions of sex in our family, too intimate to occur between parent and child. When we did have them, it felt as if we were too close to uncovering something—for her, something too hallowed to be near; for me, something possibly too tragic. “I know,” she conceded, “it’s hard to imagine.”
But I did imagine it, using the only sequencing skill I had then: a two-frame comic strip. In the right frame there was a profile of a cartoon God, and in the left frame, just blackness.
Megarhyssa macrurus is a mixture of mustard yellow and auburn, with chestnut brown accents. From a distance, the wasp may look just dark, but pinned as the female is during egg laying and patient as the male is when waiting for the virgins to emerge, you can easily get close enough to notice the mostly yellow legs, yellow and auburn striped abdomen, and brown antennae and wing veins.
When the female is well into her egg laying, and possibly at the point of no return, she becomes even more colorful and, at the same time, more bizarre. We left her with her three tails separate and in position, and her abdomen curled in a downward circle. Once it is time to deposit the eggs, she uncurls and raises her abdomen so that it is nearly perpendicular to the tree and her body. Her tails remain in their same positions. But two of the segments near the tip of her abdomen open wide, like the first cut in an impromptu self–cesarean section, revealing a thin yellow membrane. The membrane, taut like the surface of a balloon, is about two centimeters in diameter. It pumps gently. It is as attention-getting as a peacock’s display, but wetter, more intimate. Within that membrane you can see what look like portions of the ichneumon’s three tails as they exist inside her body. Though the ovipositor appears to begin at the tip of her abdomen, as an appendage—like an arm or a leg or a tail—it must in fact be more tonguelike, and extend into her inner recesses. It’s as if you’re witnessing an X-ray, but even so, it’s very difficult to figure out exactly what is going on. There are too many parts, too many steps, too much intertwining. Watching the ichneumon lay her eggs is like trying to decipher one of those visual-spatial problems on an IQ test: If the following object is rotated once to the left, and twice vertically, will it look like option A, B, or C? Give me the 3.5 billion years that Natural Selection has had—whether here or in the afterlife—and I just might figure it out.
Belief in an afterlife, and the manner of behavior, prayers, rituals, and burial practices necessary for navigating one’s way to it, can be considered a universal in human cultures. But belief in an afterlife cannot be considered the essence of all religions. Certainly there were cultures obsessed with it—the Egyptians, for instance, who took part in elaborate processes of mummification in order to preserve the dead and aid them in making the physical journey to heaven. But, hard as it may be for Christians, for whom a belief in resurrection and the afterlife takes center stage, to understand, other cultures and religions either simply didn’t address the afterlife, or had a less-than-attractive view of it. Those who originally penned the Hebrew Bible, for example, did not conceive of any type of survival after death; God harshly punished those who did not listen to his Word in this life with plagues, fevers, famine, and exile, and rewarded those who did with immortality only through their physical descendants. Were Natural Selection an option for the early Hebrews, I believe they would have been more accepting of the theory than today’s Americans.
Other cultures did conceive of an afterlife, but not the type that came as a reward for moral behavior or religious faith or acceptance of a certain savior. For the Babylonians and the ancient Greeks, immortality was reserved for the gods alone. Death for mortals meant a sort of eternal, shade-like, underground existence, where food and water would be merely sufficient. Incidentally, the Babylonian “afterlife” was so unappealing that it actually became the paradigm for hell in Christianity.
The concept that an afterlife is a reward for, or at least related to, moral acts carried out in this life was made popular by Plato and later by Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. In Hinduism and Buddhism, one can achieve immortality only by breaking the cycle of rebirth, something I am not sure, were I Hindu or Buddhist, I would even want to do. (The only thing more comforting to me than a religion with an afterlife would be the ability to exist on earth forever; returning even as a dung beetle could be quite exhilarating for someone who’d already had thrills at observing eight-inch wasps in this life.)
An appendix to How Different Religions View Death and Afterlife , by Christopher Jay Johnson and Marsha G. McGee, contains my entire former worldview. In response to the question “Will we know friends and relatives after death?” the spokesman surveyed on behalf of the United Methodist Church says: “We will know friends and relatives in the afterlife and may know and love them more perfectly than on earth.” This was a worldview I picked up during sixteen years of thirty-minute, weekly lessons in a tiny basement Sunday school room at Patapsco United Methodist Church, where my mother was organist and my parents purchased their bewildering number of burial plots. The church was high on a hill above a creek and across from a junkyard, whose collage of rusted colors I viewed every week through the window during Sunday services: old cars tethered to the earth by kudzu and honeysuckle, seemingly inert, but easily unfettered when a father or brother came in search of a hubcap, a passenger’s door. Belief in an afterlife has been the grounding expectation of my existence, the hope I find so hard to give up even after giving up the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Before and even throughout my adolescence I was a believer. I’d always held a sort of patient expectation for the Second Coming or some other miracle. As soon as I learned to write, I tried to speed things up a bit. Sign here if you exist , I wrote to God on lined white paper in a collage of yellow capital and lowercase letters. The color, which made the note barely legible, was not chosen for its symbolic connotation—enlightenment—but, rather, never even considered, in the way that children, caught up in the greatness of an act, overlook the details necessary to achieve it. I slid the note under my dresser, and checked it every day. One morning, I found that God had answered.
There came a moment of astonishment, then almost assurance, when I pulled the note from its hiding place. But too soon I recognized the blue Bic pen, the neat, curvy letters, the same arcs from the thank-you notes Santa wrote for the cookies we’d left him. Perhaps I would have believed it was God who’d answered if my mother would simply have done what the letter requested. Instead she wrote me a note about love and faith, probably a series of x ’s and o ’s, like she put in our Valentine’s cards. She was, and is, a believer; she would not forge his name.
Tim Lewens, author of Darwin , a book that deals with the impact Darwin’s thinking has had on philosophy during the last 150 years, has discussed the very same question I asked my mother in the car as a child on the way home from my organ lesson. Although the question applies to any type of creator, in Lewens’s interview for the Darwin Correspondence Project he specifically addresses the idea of the laissez-faire God who sets up the laws of physics and of Natural Selection and then lets them do their own work, the kind of God who might appeal to most scientists, the God that Darwin himself, Lewens says, likely believed in.
To deal with this question, Lewens draws from the rationale of philosopher David Hume. If you subscribe to this type of God, you are still left with the question of who or what was responsible for God, and who or what was responsible for whoever or whatever was responsible for God, and so on down the line, endlessly. At some point, Lewens says, if you want to be a theist you have to stop asking the question of what came before God or created him and just accept his existence as—in Lewens’s own words—a sort of “brute, inexplicable fact.” And if you allow for the existence of brute, inexplicable facts, then you might as well just accept the brute, inexplicable laws of physics and Natural Selection. If the only purpose for a creator is to set into motion the laws of science, Lewens asks, then why on earth do you need one? According to Hume and Lewens, whether God exists or not doesn’t solve anything.
When the question of a creator’s existence became for me just a matter of semantics and personification, it was easy enough to put the idea of that creator to rest. Would the ichneumon become any less immanent if it were created not by some one called God but by some thing called Natural Selection? Both warrant capitalization as text, and both require faith of a sort. This part of the equation is easy, but I find it much harder to let go of the one thing God gave me that I coveted: an afterlife, and a clear path to it. I blame nature for this.
About a week after my second sighting of an ichneumon, I encounter another on the same path, on the same tree, in what I have come to call the “pinned” position. I wait for her to curve her abdomen up, split it open, and reveal its inner workings, but I see no movement. I poke at her gently with a twig. She barely stirs. (I have read that occasionally during the drilling process, which can take half an hour, a wasp’s ovipositor will become stuck in the wood, and she will be left there, a snack for some predator that will pluck her body from her tail as if detaching a bean from its thin tendril. The ovipositor is left protruding from the wood like a porcupine quill.) A week later she is gone, and yet another ichneumon is performing her ancient task, already flexing the yellow circle. She is close to the ground, and the leaf of a small plant is obstructing my view. When I attempt to move it, my thumb and forefinger coming at the wasp like a set of pincers, she bats at me with her front legs, then takes off, detaching herself fully from the wood. Her membrane looks like a tiny kite. Her ovipositor and its sheaths, as well as her body, still warped into laying position, are like distorted and cumbersome tails, yet she flies, unimpeded, up and up, as if to another world.
Once, when I was nine or ten, I opened the screen door to share with my dog, who was lying on the back porch, the remnants of a grilled-cheese sandwich that I couldn’t finish. The family parakeet, Sweetie, was perched on my head. The scene must have looked very Garden of Eden–esque: a primate accompanied by a parrot feeding a canine. But I’d forgotten about the bird in my hair, and when I opened the door he escaped to a high branch on one of the oaks that grew behind the clothesline. A crow landed next to him, looking huge and superhero-ish. But nothing could coax him to return, not even his open cage, which for the next several days we stood next to in the yard, calling his name. Immediately after his escape, I had run into the forest in tears and was gone for the afternoon. Later, on the porch steps, I asked my mother if Sweetie would go to heaven.
Like many years before, she could not lie.
“The Bible tells us that animals don’t have souls,” she replied. Perhaps seeing my devastation, she added, “But it also says that God knows when even the smallest sparrow falls.”
According to Alan F. Segal, in Life After Death , my position is not unique: More Americans believe in an afterlife than in God himself. Furthermore, the General Social Survey he cites, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, shows that Jewish belief in an afterlife has jumped from 17 percent (as recorded by those born between 1900 and 1910) to 74 percent (as recorded by those born after 1970). Segal’s hypothesis, which is that a culture’s conception of the afterlife reveals what that culture most values as a society, fits right in with these statistics. Americans define themselves as defenders of freedom and individual rights. We believe we should be happy, wealthy, and healthy all the time. Why, then, even after giving up God himself, or even when subscribing to a religion that doesn’t pay much attention to the afterlife, would we consent to imprison ourselves with mortality? Why would we give up our individual right to eternal life?
Paul Bloom would attribute my tendency to believe in life after death simply to being human. Humans, Bloom maintains, seem to be born already believing in an afterlife. In his essay “Is God an Accident?,” published in the Atlantic in December 2005, he argues that humans are natural dualists. He does not mean that we are born with a Zoroastrian belief in the opposing forces of good and evil, but that we hold two operating systems in our minds—one with expectations for physical objects (things fall down, not up) and another with expectations for psychological and/or social beings (people make friends with people who help them, not people who hurt them). These expectations are not learned, but built-in, and can be observed in babies as young as six months old. These two distinct, implicit systems cause us to conceptualize two possible states of being in the universe: soulless bodies and, no less possible, just the opposite—bodiless souls. The two systems are separate. Therefore, when a human’s body dies, humans are predisposed to believe that the soul does not, necessarily, die with it. Bloom cites a supporting study by psychologists Jesse Bering and David Bjorklund, in which children who were told a story about a mouse that was eaten by an alligator rightfully believed that the mouse’s ears no longer worked after death and that the mouse would never need to use the bathroom again. But more than half of them believed the mouse would still feel hungry, think thoughts, and desire things. Children, more so even than adults, seem to perceive psychological properties as existing in a realm outside the body, and therefore believe these properties exempt from death. According to Bloom, “The notion that life after death is possible is not learned at all. It is a by-product of how we naturally think about the world.”
I want my mother to read Bloom’s essay. I’m not sure why. Throughout her childhood my mother walked of her own volition up the hill from her house to go to the little church across from the junkyard. Her mother and sister went; her father and much younger brother did not. When she was nine or ten she was chosen by Mrs. Myrtle, the church organist, to receive free piano lessons. My mother had an old upright piano in her family’s unheated front room. Some of the keys did not play, so the ramshackle instrument was eventually chopped up for firewood. Then she had to practice at Mrs. Myrtle’s, and was sometimes politely sent home when she played too long. My mother has been the volunteer organist at Patapsco United Methodist Church for more than thirty years.
She is sixty-two years old. Why, at this late stage, do I want to push Bloom’s essay into the face of her contentment? Why does it feel slightly cruel, as though I am a bully, and why do I want to do it anyway?
I bring “Is God an Accident?” with me during a summer visit. The first page has been somehow lost on the plane and I have to make a special trip to the local library to download and print out another copy. I’m hesitant to give my mother the essay but when I find her one afternoon on the couch preparing for her Bible study—they’ve reread the entire book of Genesis, she says—it feels like an open invitation. She puts the essay to the side to read later and the discussion that ensues between us is as unfulfilling, as inconclusive, as this discussion is everywhere—in high school biology classrooms; in rural, local papers’ letters to the editor. It ends only with her decreeing, exasperated, “Your faith is stronger than mine.” She does not mean my faith in Natural Selection, but my faith in God. She believes, perhaps counterintuitively, that all of my research and questions indicate some sort of allegiance to the religion I was raised with, or, at the very least, an inability to simply cast it aside.
My mother could live for forty more years, another entire life, longer than my own life has been so far. Or she could be dead in just eight years, at seventy, before her youngest grandchild reaches high school, possibly before she meets any child of mine. The current life expectancy for American women lies somewhere in the middle of that. Of course I know I could die in the next fifteen minutes from a brain aneurysm, or be murdered by the man tuning my piano, but those are exceptions, and each would be a shock. If I were certain of the afterlife, what should not be a shock, what should be normal, is this: Our mothers are going to die, and for a while we are going to have to live without them. But if I abandon my belief in life after death, am I putting my mother to rest before I really have to?
My mother tells me about an e-mail she sent to another of my nieces, Julie, who is seventeen. Julie had just lost her guinea pig, Charlie, a faithful pet for seven years. Twice in the last month she had found him lying in his cage, with his neck askew, unable to move. The second time, he died the next morning.
My mother wrote to Julie that she would never forget her cutting up vegetables for Charlie, making his daily salad. He had a good life, she wrote, and you just might see him again one day.
I can’t help but notice the difference between my mother’s unsolicited response to the death of Charlie and her answer to my direct question years ago of whether my escaped and presumed-dead parakeet would eventually make it to heaven. Perhaps, with age, my mother’s views have softened a bit. Honesty has become less important than comfort. What she would like to believe has superseded what she once took as fact. We come to see that death is less about losing the self than about losing what was built between selves when they were alive. When she dies, my mother will be in a casket on the hill outside Patapsco United Methodist Church. The question I would like to ask is: Will we find each other again? But that is not it at all. Rather, I must find a way to live now knowing that one day we will no longer be mother and daughter.
Now that I have discovered the ichneumon nursery standing in my woods, I will revisit it often. In spring I want to see the newly metamorphosed wasps born from the horntail’s tunnels, these burrows that double as grave and womb. I’d like to see how many will emerge, how big they are, how long they rest on the dying tree before their first, seraphic flight. I’d like to search for whether there is any evidence of the horntail larva that nourished them—an exoskeleton, perhaps—or whether the larva is now present somehow only in the new body it has helped to form. All winter I will anticipate the decaying oak’s promise: the giant ichneumon wasps’ emergence.
There is life, it seems, after death—but it may be only here on earth. Nature provides too many metaphors for us to so easily give up on this idea. It pummels us with them season after season, and has done the same to others, I suppose, for thousands of years, playing on the human mind’s ability to compare unlike things in its search for truth. I once shook a nuthatch from torpor on the side of a red pine, where it had stood unmoving, facedown—as only its kind can—all through my breakfast after a night of below-zero weather. I lifted a mourning dove, seemingly frozen into my cross-country ski trail during a surprise snow squall, in my own two palms, from which it flapped as if from Noah’s hands. In my parents’ woods, where my mother pitched a flower left from her mother’s funeral, a patch of daffodils came up the next year—and has come up every year since—on its own, through a foot of dry leaf litter, shaded and un-watered. And there is the freezing and thawing of wood frogs in northern climes; the hibernation of chipmunks and groundhogs and jumping mice; the estivation of turtles in summer; metamorphoses of all kinds, but in particular the monarch butterfly (what Sunday school classroom has not used this metaphor at Easter?); the dormancy of winter trees; the phases of the moon; the seasons themselves; sleeping and waking; monthly bleeding; and, though it is too early to remember, probably birth, even.
This is what it comes down to. My mother, in giving me life after birth, also engendered in me the idea of God, and the unstoppable desire for life after death. We live on an earth where it seems nearly impossible for humans to have ever avoided inventing heaven, an earth that throws things back at us so reliably it is hard not to imagine that one day we will be resurrected, too, and that we will live forever. Sign here if you exist , I once wrote, but the question of whether God exists is really a question of whether we do. Without God and the promise of resurrection, you become extremely short-lived. Or the other option: You live forever, but what you currently perceive as yourself is a mere phase, a single facet: once oak, now horntail, soon-to-be ichneumon.
What type of afterlife do I need to survive—not so much in the next life, I realize now, but to get me through this one? I got my elements from stars: mass from water, muscles from beans, thoughts from fish and olives. When Edward Abbey died, his body was buried in nothing more than an old sleeping bag in the southern Arizona desert. He said, “If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.” Abbey is right. Your trillions of cells—only 10 percent of which, remember, were yours anyway—will become parts of trillions of things. And even the 10 percent wasn’t really yours to begin with. You were only borrowed. We’ve had it backward all along: The body is immortal—it is the soul that dies.
“Sign Here if You Exist” was first published in Ecotone 10, fall 2010, and is reprinted with the permission of the author.