Posted by: Zane Maser | January 2, 2010



[I include this post because it deals with thoughts about death as it pertains to plants in a garden, animals, and humans. It is from a book Chris and I wrote. Note, when you begin reading, the “I” speaking is Chris.]

Killing is the taking of a life, but death is merely a horizon beyond which I cannot see. Whereas killing is violent, death may, depending on my point of view, be the peaceful beginning of a new journey or the continuation of an old one. “Death is the temporary end of a temporary phenomenon,” says the Compassionate Buddha.

In Spring, plants seem to arise in orderly fashion, like the eagerly anticipated birth of a child for whom I have long prepared. But in Autumn, plants die without my planning or consent, and there is nothing I can do about it. In Autumn, my garden seems to be in a prolonged state of chaos as each plant dies in its turn within a short period. For a while my garden is filled with fading colors, falling leaves, storm-tossed vegetation, and a sense of loss, grief, and mourning all about. I can, I find, more easily plan for a birth than for a death.

I have also discovered in my garden that killing and death are not the same thing. Killing is an act of which death is the result. But what exactly is death? Death is an unseen component lurking in all living things all of the time because it is the nature of life to decline and decay, which begs the question: When is a plant or animal in my garden dead? When its last cell ceases to function? It seems easier to tell when an animal is dead because it no longer moves or breathes or has the pulse of life, if I assume that a lack of movement, breath, and pulse means death. But how do I know when a rose bush is dead?

The concept of death in humans has an additional dimension these days (when is a person really dead) because of the increased practice of transplanting organs between a dead person and a live one. But how does one know when someone is dead? At what instant are they dead, at least dead enough to take their organs without killing them?

This is a relevant question because cases are known in which a person was pronounced dead by a physician and then, an hour later, the dead person woke up! Corpses in the morgue have even awakened to find themselves almost buried alive! The question, therefore, is one not only of when is a person dead but also of what is death.

I, too, wonder, as I work in my garden, what death is. I have heard people and animals called “brain dead” by doctors and veterinarians, but a plant does not have a brain as we think of it. How, then, does one define death in a plant? Must it be “stem dead,” or “root dead,” or what? I don’t know.

Zane implores me with the same question each time I extract from the soil a favored rose bush that has fallen victim to a late freeze: “How do you know it is really dead?” Sometimes I say this and sometimes I say that, but in the end, I don’t really know. I must go by my feelings, which in part are based on prior experience; they are all I have. And still, after having observed an apparently dead rose bush for one or two months for signs of life prior to pulling it out, I have occasionally found the roots from the rootstock below the hybrid’s graft to be alive and a tiny shoot beginning to come forth as it seeks the light, which poses a new dilemma. The grafted hybrid is dead, but not the rootstock onto which it was grafted. Is the rose dead? Well, it depends what you want, the grafted hybrid or the rootstock.

Although I yearly expect some plants, such as annuals, to die, it is the unexpected death of a beloved perennial that frequently gives me pause to reflect on how my life and garden have changed with its passing. A perennial, after all, has a continuity that it shares with me as the years come and go. And like me, it grows and changes with age as it passes through its seasons of life. In this sense, we grow together into a relationship in which each gives something of value to the other. I take care of the plant’s needs to the best of my ability, and it feeds my soul with the beauty and perfume of its presence.

It’s not that I can’t replace a perennial when it dies, but the replacement is different. It does not grow in the way to which I am accustomed. It does not fill the emptiness left by a lost friend, even after a time of grieving.

If I do replace the plant with another of its kind, I must be careful not to compare them, for the new one may not live up to the memory of the old. In short, a relationship had evolved between the perennial and me that I cannot easily dismiss just because the plant was only a plant and it died. Perhaps for the plant, as with a loved friend, human or otherwise, death may only be a change of environment, a different level of being wherein more beauty and radiance is present.

When a plant dies, I commit it to the composter, where it is reduced to the individual elements and separate compounds that once interacted in the chemistry of life to form its being. Now that chemistry reconfigures as the plant is undone and converted into fungi, earthworms, pillbugs, and slugs during the process of decomposition. Then they too will die and disintegrate into still smaller parcels of energy, a process that is repeated many times through many organisms until the resultant organic material is incorporated into the soil from whence it came. The atoms of life that were once my plant are not necessarily atoms of life in the soil. So it is with plants; so it is with people, as I learned when it came time to scatter my mother’s ashes by a mountain lake, where I remembered having had fun camping as a family in the late 1940s.

A lone cottonwood stood at the water’s edge, a bright green tree embraced on three sides by darker green boughs of pines and firs. A few feet upslope from the cottonwood was a warm, sunny place carpeted with huckleberry bushes—just the place for Kim’s ashes I thought. She loved camping here, and she loved the sunshine and ripe huckleberries.

Gingerly, I opened the well-taped cardboard box and found a cheap plastic container held shut with “Scotch Tape.” Inside the taped plastic box, which I opened with a curious feeling of finality, was a knotted plastic bag, attached to which was a metal tag with a number stamped on it. So this is what we are reduced to in modern society—a number, a statistic.

Unlike every indigenous culture with which I am familiar, we in modern American society have sterilized death with certificates of passing signed by doctors; embalmed bodies; sterile, metal caskets with spring mattresses and satin linings; plastic boxes and plastic bags with numbered metal tags attached to them for the ashes following cremation. How did we become such a death-denying society that we distance ourselves from the physical attributes of death and decay in every conceivable way we can think of? When did we corrupt the dignity of death and decay, the continuity of generations embodied in touching the silent, breathless face of death with realness, of holding death consciously, willingly in our arms as the few remaining unspoiled indigenous cultures still do? How can we touch the authenticity of life if we cannot touch the reality of death and decay?

The sack, as I took it out of the box, was much heavier than I thought it would be. Unknotting it, a sharp fragment of leg bone greeted me—and the charred remains of a snap from my mother’s clothing. I touched her bone, and the face of death peered with unwavering gaze through all of time directly into my eyes. Death is real.

I have seen death literally thousands of times in my garden and in a number of countries on three continents, but this was a different matter. This was all that physically remained of my mother, who once brought me into the world. Then I was releasing her last physical remains back into the freedom of the Great Unknown from whence she had come.

A whimsical, teasing breeze blew a film of ashes over my hands and arms as the fine, gray powder sifted through the huckleberry bushes onto the soil. Once again I was touched by my mother as her physical remains became the individual elements and separate compounds, which she had borrowed for almost eighty years in life and then returned to the atomic interchange of the soil. And should I journey this way again in some future time and eat of the ripe huckleberries, the elements that were my mother can once again nourish my body even as they did when I was in her womb more than half a century ago.

There is yet another side of death this sense of finality impressed upon me, namely, that words of love withheld today may be forever lost should death come to one person or the other before the morrow. Conversely, cruel words spoken in the heat of anger may be everlasting should death come to one person or the other before the morrow.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead pictures a soul after death being weighed in a scale against the weight of a feather. Ideally, we are not to create pain and suffering in life. If perchance we do cause suffering and pain as we strive toward ever-greater consciousness, we must then also make conscious amends so that not even a feather’s weight is out of balance.

Balance. How do we balance life and death in our gardens and our lives? How do we balance joy and pain? How do we balance a plant’s, an animal’s, or a person’s being here in vibrant physical form one moment and gone the next? When loss is so acute, so apparently final for those of us left behind, how do we know what to do next? That is the realm of grief.


Related Posts:

• Circulation

• Life Circulates

• Life Survives

• Honor All Loss

• Quiet Spring

• Sacred Ashes

• The Cup Called Mother

Dedication in the Book

Although Zane, my wife, and I created our garden together, I have written this book, with her permission, as though it is my garden simply because I did not know how to write it otherwise. Be that as it may, this dedication is from both of us: In loving memory of Bemmy, who graced our garden with his presence and forever enriched our experience of it. Chris.

To my dad, Vernon Zane Evers, who in the last year of his life sat peacefully, contentedly in the sun by our pond and watched the goldfish. Now his spirit enhances our garden with his radiant love. Truly, where there is perfect love, there can be no separation. Zane.


Illustrations © by Leslie Edgington, 2005.


Text and Photos © by Zane Maser, 2010. All rights of Zane Maser and SunnyCat Astrology reserved worldwide.

This essay is excerpted from our 2005 book, “The World is in My Garden: A Journey of Consciousness.” White Cloud Press, Ashland, OR. 232 pp. Chris, my husband of more than 28 years, wrote most of the text, and I wrote the guided meditations. Leslie Edgington, my sister, crafted the illustrations.

(The UK edition was published by Polair Publishing, London, in 2003.)

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My editorial guru and technological wizard is Chris Maser, my delightful husband.

If you are interested in an astrological consultation and/or a specific question answered by a horary chart, please visit SunnyCat© Astrology.

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