I found the first bird dead under the power line in the field behind my teacher’s house.
The second bird followed the next day.
Both were small and black, their wings extended as if they were still trying to fly.
I mentioned them to my teacher over breakfast. “I think there’s something wrong with the power line in the cow field,” I said between bites of oatmeal. “I found a couple of dead birds.”
Gina put down her spoon and looked at me hard.
I stopped eating, taking in her sudden stillness.
“I didn’t do anything,” I said tentatively.
“Then it’s time you learn to deal with death,” she declared. “Figure out what to do with the birds.”
And so the Universe conspired to teach me about death that spring.
The birds kept coming—a crow, a tree swallow, a wee song thrush. Sometimes their bodies were stiff and cold and, at other times, I held my breath, waiting for them to move… or for the last heat to leave their small bodies.
I began to make a study of burial rituals, eventually building a cairn, each bird in its stone nest, the entire structure rising waist-high before it was done.
I was remembering this education as I walked through Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans’ Garden District. You’ve seen this cemetery in countless movies, the above-ground family crypts so different from the tooth-like tombstones of New England graveyards.
Each of these crypts is also a crematorium. Even if they are faced with stone, they are built from brick. The caskets slide into an upper compartment where they are left for a year and a day. After the allotted time has passed, the body, placed in what is essentially a brick oven, has been reduced to ash and dust. These fragments are taken out of the casket and poured through a grate into the crypt’s lower chamber, where the ashes mingle with the ashes of other family members who have passed.
Some of these crypts span hundreds of years. Generation upon generation.
Staring at these tombs, the sense of lineage is profound.
Gina, the Irish medicine woman who helped me build the foundation of my knowledge—not only of plants but of the magic of the stone circles and sacred wells, and the cycles of the moon and the turnings of the seasons—began every class with a recitation of her lineage, not by blood but by knowledge handed down, generation by generation.
Learning became not merely a part of my present but a thread from past to future.
Sometimes I think that is the greatest gift of this work—the sense of lineage, of continuity. When I am but dust and ash, this thread of Earth Medicine, this wisdom that runs through me in this lifetime, will spool into the future, reaching future generations through what each of you chooses to share.
So thank you for reading, for learning, and for sharing.
Thank you for pulling the wisdom of the past forward into the future. You are a part of this thread, of this lineage.