The Nature of Death



“Without memory we cannot live, for it is what elevates man above beasts, determines the contours of the human soul; and yet it is at the same time so unreliable, elusive, treacherous. It is precisely what makes man so unsure of himself. We do not know, and stretching beyond that “we do not know” is the vast realm of ignorance; in other words — of nonexistence.” Ryszard Kapuściński


The last time I stood waiting to board the ferry to Maria Island, I was next to my best friend Leon. Two excited eleven year old boy scouts trying to contain the instinct to misbehave. I hated Scouts: saluting the Queen, having to pretend to believe in God, the uniform, the Dad´s Army inspired Scout leaders. Were it not for Leon I wouldn´t have been there. His unique approach to life, defined by random adventure and humour, never let tedium triumph.

En route from Devonport to Maria Island all those years ago, we stopped for a break in Campbell Town. Leon and I went straight to the phone box and looked for free-of-charge numbers. We found a dial-before-you-dig hotline and Leon dialled. Improvising, and utilising his abnormally deep eleven year old voice, he asked if there were any cables or pipes under the Campbell Town Park, because he was going to mine it for copper.

´What gives you the right to mine a public park?´ squawked an irate lady on the other end of the line.

´Well no one else is,´ replied Leon calmly.

A fifteen minute argument concerning the ethics of mining a public park in the middle of town then ensued as I convulsed on the ground with laughter.

Almost two years ago now, just short of thirty and weeks before receiving his doctorate for ground-breaking research on cystic fibrosis, Leon died kayaking a river in California. It took weeks to find his body. As I retraced some of our steps on Maria Island memories of times spent together washed up like flotsam on the shore. A scattered collection of shared moments beginning when I was six and newly arrived from Scotland, when I found my first Tasmanian friend in this boy of Aboriginal descent who lacked fear and went everywhere in bare feet – ending with a drunken embrace as I left for Latin America, neither of us knowing it would be the final moment of the thousands we shared.

Nature is all about life. The very word comes from the Latin nasci (to be born). Yet almost instantly, Leon´s death stirred in me sleeping notions of the natural world. A few long weeks after he disappeared underwater, the river still hadn´t given up his body. I was ill with grief. In the north of Peru – exiled from the solidarity of communal mourning – these words dripped into my diary:


It has been a strange and difficult few weeks dealing with the loss of my oldest friend Leon from afar. We´ve lost a special one, to a river, to nature. Fragile and pensive we made it to Peru, thankful for the warm welcome the country´s given us. Another grieving friend, who watched Leon disappear, recommended I seek solace in the natural world. The following night I awoke from a dream in which I was writing the words: ´Take time to sit with Mother Nature. Let her embrace you, converse with her. Let your family of millions surround you.´


Many of the greatest times shared were in the midst of the natural world – hiking, mountain-biking, jumping off cliffs into the ocean – so it seemed fitting that my memories of Leon should arrive framed by natural scenes. But it was more than this. Like forest reclaiming a ruined village, my mind had been captured and entangled by nature.

Fond memories flooding and the words of the dream echoing in my head, my love and I began walking to Gocta Falls in northern Peru, at over 700 metres, amongst of the highest in the world. Cloaked by the dim light of early Andean morning, we strode along a damp path worn only by feet. Around us, the deep green valley began to tighten its gentle misty embrace. Sadness clothed in exhilaration – death conversing with life. It began to rain – every cool drop from above a little wet reminder of life as they met my body. We rounded a steep rocky corner descending toward a small stream when suddenly before us a gathering of rupicolas ignited the dark green foliage with their stunning red plumage. We stood, statuesque, on a pedestal of awe and privilege, until in a burst of flames, they flew away.

For a few moments I stood years ago in a more familiar wet forest, Leon a few metres behind me, both of us frozen in mid-stride. We had been trudging back towards Arm River after a long day of trekking food into the half-way point of the Overland Track. It was raining. Soaked and exhausted we rounded a corner where a stream journeying from wet sclerophyll forest to button grass plain sometimes crossed our path, when staring at us from the middle of the track was a very young, very wet Tasmanian devil. We didn´t move an inch – savouring every moment – until the devil scampered off.

Anna and I walked on, drawn toward the immense force of water celebrating, feeling what Leon and I had felt years ago in that Tasmanian forest, where, because it exists now only in my mind and at that moment, it is always raining. Soon we were standing at the colossal foot of Gocta Falls, engulfed by her loud breath and soaked by her fine mist – so like the mist of sadness – for a moment I was overwhelmed by the certainty of being alive. Sinking deeper under the weight of scrambled thoughts and memory, again I attempted to empty my mind by filling my diary:


I have always thought of rivers as a calming and exhilarating force, a life force, the veins and arteries of Mother Earth. What could be a greater symbol of life than a river? As this river plummeted hundreds of metres before us, I stood without words or language, but flooded with feeling. There is a spirit in nature, be it something, or everything. Whom we lose she finds. In her sacred unspoiled places she will let us be with them.


I confess those words fell from clouds of sorrow and not from the rational reflection that time constructs. But, reading them now, it seems that I felt Leon hadn´t just disappeared, but rather had joined something profound, and, that the closest I would get to him now would be through letting nature absorb me.

Strangely, standing humbled beneath a waterfall seemingly descending from the heavens, being blessed by the same sacred water that somewhere else in the world had just taken my friend, I have never felt more acutely human nor more alive. Not only did I feel the presence of Leon, but I felt as if a part of every element and moment of my life was swaying in the leaves, falling in water or resting in stone.

As time passed, I began to question why nature´s shadow had cast itself over thoughts of Leon. Before escaping the dark confusion of grief, the answers were more abstract or spiritual. Perhaps, I thought, it was born of his loss to the river, that wise ambassador of the wild. It seemed reasonable, with Leon lost in one of her veins, that I must enter the domain of Mother Nature in order to commune with him.

Then I wondered if, drifting about the Andes, the spirit of Pachamama was influencing me and that perhaps it was really something more specifically human going on. Maybe death and subsequent grief strips us of all we´ve created, all the clothes of progress, and returns us to our most fundamental – an intelligent animal in the wild. Jolted by the raw power of humanity, was it nothing more than a sharp reminder of the complexities of thought and feeling that make us human?

I began to unpack memories of past deaths. A familiar phrase from my grandfather´s funeral jumped out at me. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Clearly, the idea of returning to nature arrives in death’s entourage. It seemed rational that nature offers lessons on the interpretation of death, that in attempting to understand life´s greatest certainty we must begin by looking at its fundamental structures.

At times the abstraction dissolved and I assumed that, unconsciously, I simply needed the strength and renewal that nature offers, or that I merely sought a calm place from which to reflect.

Then, after months had drifted through me, I thought, ´This is all about memory.´ In the natural world, as our ancestors were, we are sometimes left alone with our imagination. Too often dormant in the modern, manufactured world, it is imagination that allows us to remember. In the early days of loss we feed on memory.

In Spanish, recordar means to remember. Recordar comes from the Latin ´re´ (return) and ´cordum´ (the heart) – ´returning to the heart.´ Memory is more than a collection of dead people, dead feelings and dead moments. We remember to keep things alive, to recognize that they still have a place in the present, to trump death. Memories provide the roots that allow the love of something or someone to flourish. Grief is coming to terms with the realisation that a particular family of memories will no longer grow.

In quiet moments over the few days on Maria Island – a place for people but where nature still rules – I relived those early days of loss. Like the green ferns and grasses punctuating the black carpet of bushfire, time had allowed new life to sprout from thoughts of death. Memories of Leon´s life began to bloom. Upon seeing wombats appear at dusk to feast on grass, I recalled trying to get close to them with Leon all those years ago. The sight of dolphins unleashed the wonder we´d shared when a pod passed our sacred swimming place where as teenagers we jumped off cliffs and swayed with the swell. When the wedge-tailed eagle soared above the Island I saw anew, still soaring in the past, the one that swooped Leon´s car so closely that for a second, the view through the windscreen was nothing more than dark brown gold-tinted feathers.

Nature taking a dear friend, only then to comfort me through the loss still confused me. As I sat watery-eyed from sadness or joy, overlooking a wondrous view of the world the way it once was, my mind flashed with moments when nature summoned me: staring up at a Huon Pine born before Christ; a monkey taking my hand as if it were my child; sitting on a rock in The Lost World high above Hobart as black cockatoos passed overhead and dissolved time before my eyes; the huge sad eyes of the cows who stared at me as I cried trying to hold my broken nose in place after crashing my mountain bike; our late cocker spaniel´s joy at seeing me; the skinks I rescue from our flat in summer, who panic until they feel the warmth of my palm; the unfolding tragedy of the Tasmanian Devil and the young one who stood in the rain before us. These memories live like organisms to be nurtured as a parent nurtures their offspring.

Nature was offering more than a visit from a lost friend, it was unlocking memory. Sometimes surrounded by nature, there is a sense of an ancient collective memory – every cell preserving a complex system of memories sculpted by millennia to build one continuous story – just as I am woven together by the threads of moments through which I’ve passed, moments that are too fundamental to my formation to discard. Nature – the great living archive of memory – throws open its doors, embraces me and whispers a reminder that we are part of her story.

I wonder what filled Leon´s mind in his last seconds, and whether those seconds were like hours or years. Was he flooded with images and feeling from his 30 years? Were some of those moments the ones I now live again?

´It´s how he would have wanted to go,’ so many have said, but they don´t mean drowning. Their comfort comes from an understanding that he lost life doing what he loved, at one with instinct, in an environment he cherished. Leon was taken by a world that for him was perfect, a powerful force of life that gifted him the rush of adrenalin that erupts with joy at the astonishing certainty that one is truly alive. He died at a moment when his relationship with nature was granting him a heightened state of being alive. Whether this makes his death any less tragic, I do not know.

Within the natural world we find a reality less contaminated, manipulated, deluded – as pure as sadness or joy. Perhaps it is when we converse with nature our memories are most able to awaken and return to the heart. Memory alive in leaf, stone and water – our story flowing like the river, shaping and shaped by all it touches. We rediscover what Peruvian poet César Vallejo described as ´an innocence almost completely animal.’ Leon, in his own way, knew of this. With any chance he was in the natural world, walking, mountain-biking, kayaking, and anything else. He knew that to truly live, to be truly human, he had to regularly allow natural instinct to reclaim control.

Beaten and stripped of my man-made defences, I surrendered to Maria Island´s invitation and for some precious moments, emptied my mind of all but the forest, grassland and sea that surrounded me.

Time, endless river, has flowed on. The treacherous memories that tried to make me question how much I meant to him or if he knew how much he meant to me have, as they deserve to, washed away. With no great concern for the answer, I assume there are many reasons why his death allowed the natural world to reclaim my mind, but this journey has ensured that every time I see a wild river or receive the touch of nature, the moment comes with memory of Leon.

I sit shivering atop the small ferry, scanning the glittering sea for dolphins or a seal, as Maria Island shrinks behind me. I understand memory as a living thing and it shows me how Leon and I have shaped each other – there is equilibrium not unlike that of the natural world. I stare glassy-eyed, a witness to the symbiotic relationship between nature and memory. I see my dearest unspoiled places as temples of personal remembrance and sanctuaries for the ancient feelings and connections that are woven into the collective memory that binds humanity. I see special places, where we embrace our family of millions and where the dead live on.



These words are dedicated to Leon Wescombe (1980 – 2010). May the memories he gifted to so many be nurtured and thrive.




This essay is taken from Essays from Near and Far. Order it HERE with free postage throughout Oz.