Remember when somebody hunted us? Remember when we paused in the forest to listen, with awe, because we had to? Remember when we walked among gods, secret and deadly, whose inexplicable and unpredictable power haunted us all our lives, and gathered us home unto darkness at the end?
I don’t really remember. It was hundreds, millions of years ago, and I was dead. But now I’m alive and I pause in the forest to bush-wack my way out of my own vining thoughts, reminding myself to appreciate birdsong. And I can imagine—what it was like to live with tigers, wolves. Remember? We used to listen to the birds with unbroken attention, because their tones and silences told us what lurked unseen. Every voice, every breaking twig, every scent signified something about what we hungered for and what hungered for us. Everything meaningful, everything necessary. We could never lose ourselves. We were bound by life and death to all the beings.
But now, civilization. Now we have done away with the old gods. We have fought so hard to preserve life at all costs.
Now we are so mighty, our death can only come to us in forms too small to see.
Now that we refuse to fear any gods greater than ourselves, whom else can we fear but ourselves?
We don’t recognize the new predator, which evolves out of our new, invincible humanity, our going everywhere and populating everything and laying waste the old—the virus of the moment, unknown and alienating. Our new death doesn’t connect us with the living world. Our only safety is to mask our faces and keep our distance, because what we fear now is each other.
But remember when death was conscious? Remember when it knew us, and watched us with eyes as feeling as our own? That contract was so ancient. And our lives were at risk, all the time, but we were alive. Surviving was a privilege, not a right. It meant not only a listening, a humility, a knowledge of community, an attention so profound there are no words or even thoughts to describe it—it meant also such intimacy.
What if death were still so pure, so boundless, so beautifully inevitable—whiskered and pawed, with eyes of laughing darkness, sides sleek with stripes of fire? What if its constant possibility awakened us to every subtle thing, so that instead of locking our doors, holding our breath as we walk past another masked human, hiding our smiles, we got bigger in our souls? What if death were a noble adversary, and trying to outwit it made us beautiful, the way the deer evolves to be beautiful, instead of making us small, conflicted, and alone?
They say the old gods are never truly dead, only awaiting the honor that is due them. Maybe like the grizzled heads of prehistoric creatures now rearing up from melting permafrost, our gods come back to haunt us now, in these days of strange reckoning. Maybe they slip into our bodies in a piece of stray DNA, on the breath of a forgotten animal in the last remnant of some forgotten forest across the world. Let us not, by trying to be greater and better than death, make ourselves so small. Let us, instead, make for these ghosts a temple. Fill it with levels of tangled greenery, raptor talons and python jaws, night-light eyes and shadow tails. Most of all, let us fill it with space. The kind of space a predator needs to roam.
And if we cannot imagine where to begin, if there seems no place left in this world for such a temple, then still we honor the old gods in the best way we know how.
We build the temple where the fear is. We build it within.