The first time I met the Ecologist I was surprised at the strength of his handshake and at the speed with which he followed me down the hallway to my office. His stride was lanky and stiffish, like he had fought well with gravity for nearly nine decades, but with some inevitable world-wise wear on his frame. It was like he earned his stride. He walked like knowing wrinkles.
The ecologist had a soft face with darting eyes and liver spots on his forehead. He spoke in a professorial manner polished by several decades of lectures at a private university. It didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest that he was sitting down with a man less than half his age for something like this. He told me he’d received great care at this clinic from one or another provider over the years and expected the same from me. There wasn’t doubt in it and it wasn’t a challenge. There was a friendliness and a sense of trusting the world in his tone.
He explained that death scared the hell out of him and nearly teared up before gathering himself, the weightiness of it hitting him in a way that only saying it out loud can. The ecologist was fine with the practical matters of the entire thing. He described his ashes being spread along the coast in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, said that he could quite accurately even predict how these ashes would be swept up in a very particular way based on seasons and latitudes and lunar cycles and perigees and apogees. He did this in a far-off, impersonal way. “I can handle that, the prospect of it. You see that’s empirical,” he said.
But the amorphous and spiritual stuff harried him and clung to his nervous system in a palpable way as he spoke of it. He said that in his experience all of the walking, respirating people forgot about you after about ten years. These realities were tricky and bothersome in a way that even nearly a century of walking around and respirating hadn’t begun to resolve for him.
The ecologist had a scholarship with his name attached to it that would carry on at the private university. His finances were more than in order. He had children who he loved and there was a rare and complete absence of any sort of issuing around their life decisions, around their carrying on in distant locales and mostly only calling on or around obligatory-type dates on calendars. He accepted every piece of them in a way that was astonishing. There was not a traceable tinge of resentment in the air as he described how busy they were. None of this mortality business made him flail at the people around him.
The ecologist didn’t hold anything against his wife either, whom gravity had gotten to in a more pronounced way and who prevented him from doing various things that men twenty years younger couldn’t do but that he was certainly capable of. He pictured possibly some hiking and some traveling after he loved her for maybe another three or five years on top of the sixty years he had already loved her for. He wanted to love her more, and she in her incontinence and the whole thing was as loveable as she had ever been.
He talked at length about an upcoming talk he was to give at a local senior center. A friend had requested that given his background it would be interesting for him to describe the world that the good people at the senior center’s grandchildren were inheriting. It was an ostensibly minor event given the large lecture halls he had spoken with ease in front of on a daily basis for the past forty years and given the even larger speaking engagements he had done all around the country for the last couple of decades. Yet the topic was daunting in all of its open-endedness. “I don’t even know where to start,” he said.
He then started and described over the course of our several visits a vast array of all things ecological and empirical. And in all of the details around climate change and waste disposal and fossil fuels he seemed to come alive, to grow younger, the stiffness to leave his body and even the countenance in his face. I told him that as he talked about these things he became more animated and energetic in a way that he hadn’t when other topics were discussed. He smiled, laughed and said that he had considered writing a book about these things along with the hiking and the traveling.
I didn’t quite know what to say to the ecologist and I didn’t say much at all throughout our meetings. On one occasion I asked him in a rehearsed and feeble sort of way if there could possibly be some existential necessity in this fear of death he was experiencing. I asked why things that weren’t empirical plagued him like they did. I asked if this uncertainty might be doing something important for him. He grinned in a pleasant way.
After a pause the ecologist told me a story about the life cycle of a tree and about an entire forest, referencing an essentially untouched primeval place in Poland that I can’t remember the name of. He said that he might travel there in three years or five years. But then again he wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to leave his footprints in this forest.
This was the last time we met. He thanked me and said he valued and appreciated the time we spent together. I’ve been wondering since if there was some kind of empirical message to have been gotten from his description of the forest, or if possibly he quite intentionally thought that the uncertainty could do something important for me.