Love as Fierce as Death: A Tribute to Deborah Bird Rose (1946-2018)

Deborah Bird Rose
Deborah Bird Rose

If love fails to be as fierce as death, death becomes ever more powerful.
… Our lives are held in the hands of others; without them, there is no us.

– Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming

When Lise Weil asked me to write about the late cultural anthropologist, ecological humanist and ethicist Deborah Bird Rose and her work, all that came to me for a long time was an image. The image was of an Aboriginal Dreaming track on the canvas of our Earth. Alongside Deborah’s dance joyfully the dreaming tracks of a Dingo and a Flying Fox, two endangered creatures she was close to and cared deeply about. Together they weave in and out of aboriginal settlements in Yarralin, Australia, where she lived and researched as an anthropologist, and universities Down Under and in the US where she pioneered multi–species ethnography at the edges of post–colonial theory. Her track playfully spirals up into the starry skies to weave through the rising Southern Cross, harbinger of the spring winds, and then back down to the dusty red plains of the Australian outback to stomp the ground passionately with her Aboriginal friends in ritual and ceremony. Tenderly, it wraps itself around the hearts of all who in these times of extinction tell stories packed with crazy wisdom and love.

Deborah touched my heart deeply, first through her work and then in person as I was starting my academic career. Today, I move in different circles, those of New Age metaphysics and the healing arts. In these circles, we would know Deborah as a Way Shower and a Light Worker, a soul who sheds Light on the mystery that is life on Earth. She was fearless in witnessing death in this sixth age of extinction. In her thinking, our relationship to death and consequently life had warped. Ours was the moral failure of an imagination tragically distanced by intellectualization from up–close intimacy with the goodness of the Earth and the life teeming around us. She faulted Platonic thinking and our image of a Judeo–Christian god aloof in heaven, both of which would have us seek absolute truth in expert science and philosophy rather than in the here–now of the “Way of the Living World,” her beautiful phrase for nature.

In academia, Aboriginal knowledge (all indigenous knowledge for that matter) is acceptable as an object of study or a playground for theory, but not as a legitimate claim on what this life asks of us. As a white woman, Deborah dared to voice Aboriginal wisdom not only as worthy of our curiosity and respect but of great import to our dark times, especially their affirmation that we humans are literally kin to all living creatures, sharing substance and life. She performed this Aboriginal wisdom in her writing, laying herself bare to the violence of rejection by the academic canon and colleagues. At one of the first anthropology conferences convened to challenge the border between the human and the nonhuman, I found her shimmering with anxiety in a quiet corner just outside the main hall where she was to deliver that day’s keynote address. Awkwardly, I introduced myself, praised her work and beautiful prose, and asked if I might bring her some water. To my surprise, Deborah grabbed my hand to steady herself and looked me straight in the eye. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said. “Never spoken to this crowd before!” I was instantly flooded with the deepest appreciation and love for this woman’s candor and trust, for I, too, experienced terrible anxiety facing those same academic crowds with my research. Like her, I was trying to make visible impossible metaphysics where spirits, ancestors, and virgin births are facts of life and not merely the cultural beliefs of others. I shared this with her. Squeezing my hand sweetly, she said, “I am always terrified when I write. If you don’t have fear when you write, then you are not writing anything worth writing.”

I don’t believe Deborah would be embarrassed by my sharing this story. She knew this terror to be in so many shades a signature of our bloody history, a pervasive, yet ever– so– subtle anti–life posture that, at best, tramples the wisdom of the Earth and the souls of living beings, and at worst, kills in its name, creating zones of belonging and not belonging. She had an elegant and teaching way of writing about this anti–life current coursing through our language, habits of thought, relationships, and actions. In her breakout book Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics on Decolonisation (2004), she proposed the term double death to call out how the anti–life intent of genocide and ecocide work in tandem. Double death kills all that is deemed not to be life–worthy by killing and at the same time thwarting every possibility of renewal. In genocide, you kill men, women, and children, obliterating generational continuity. In ecocide, you kill or leave creatures to die while willfully destroying, polluting, and maiming habitats. In this double way, you incapacitate the land’s natural resilience and the myriad of seen and unseen networks of living things that depend on each other for their survival and flourishing futures. You do this without consciousness and with righteousness because you are certain the future you choose for yourself is the only viable future for all.

In a profound reframing, Deborah explains that double death creates such an accumulation of spaces wounded by loss that country — that “spatial unit large enough to support people, small enough to be intimately known in every detail, and home to the living things whose lives come and go in that place”—grows wild hence her title, Reports from a Wild Country (17). Deborah also puns on the irony of the word “wild” for we moderns have long imagined wild things or places to be the absence of civilization and culture. In Aboriginal registry, wild country is instead all those wounded places touched by double death “where things are in ruin,” wrecked and thrashed, in the wake of our civilizing ways (49). In wild country, things are everywhere overrun or eroded and gaping holes appear in the fabric of life. Water and the bees leave, plants yield less and less, the land dries up and shrivels, the sea empties itself of life, people dwindle and suffer, the past dies and is forgotten. Hearts and souls grow wild with grief while death, disease, and more violence stalk those that survive.

Wild Dog Dreaming (2009), Deborah’s last published work, opens with a horrific image of double death. A friend had told Deborah about a tree strung with skinned Dingoes, the so–called “wild” dogs of Australia, on the side of a road bordering a national park. These hangings are trophy killings, not unlike the bodies of lynched African Americans left to rot from trees for all to see in the American South. The animal is ruled a pest and cattle ranchers can kill at will to defend their grazing herds. Deborah drives out to witness this for herself. The stench of death turns her stomach and the sight of so many skinned bodies preternaturally stretched, hanging by their bound feet from the tree’s limbs, sends her spinning to the ground with horror and fear. These dogs are dreaming kin to her Aboriginal friends and they have kin of their own. Her heart fills not with immobilizing righteous rage or despair, but with a soulful deep cry: “Dear God, where are you?” Where is God when killers don’t even feel themselves to be handmaidens of double death and irreparable loss?

Profoundly, Deborah moves us away from debates about the morality of killing or not killing — death versus life –– because these debates are sterile and without power to change our relationship to life or to death. For her, an ethics of love is the only way. Only a love as fierce as double death can help us in these dark times. To love fiercely, Deborah explains, we must first know ourselves to be “complexly situated in time and place, always up–close and face–to–face in both life and death” (Wild Dog 18). Up–close and face–to–face, we would see that:

on all of us death makes this claim: that we look into the eyes of the dying and not flinch, that we reach out to hold and help. Further, that we respond to death by affirming the continuity of life across the generations. And further yet, that we affirm and sustain multispecies connections. (Wild Dog 20)

Truly, how many of us have ever looked unflinchingly into the eyes of the dying? I was twenty years old before I first saw a dead body up close, sitting propped up on a garlanded platform that grieving kin were carrying to the cremation grounds through the streets of Madurai, South India. Sheltered from death by class and culture, it might have taken decades more had I not lived in India, where death is neither cleaned up nor made to disappear. It was a long time more before I was privileged to look into the eyes of a dying friend and saw what Deborah says we all would see if we did:

The beauty of death lies in its mystery. To see the light of life leave the eyes of a dying creature is to see briefly into a region that is unknown and unknowable. Unknowable and unimaginable, yet still intimate. (Wild Dog 25)

When I first read these sentences, I knew that I had seen this light of life shine through the eyes of my friend in her last days in hospice. They shape–shifted into portals reaching back to a dimension I was sure was beyond the room. I saw this same light in the eyes of my beloved cat Rafaella in the days before her death. Both times their presence grew more luminous and etheric in my vision and their eyes took into the depths of their souls the world and loved ones they were leaving. I never felt so close to either of them or to life itself as in those moments before their death. Animal, human — the light of life was the same.

This was Deborah’s point: up–close and face–to–face with death, we would remember what we’ve forgotten, that “Life always exceeds knowledge” and all creatures on Earth exist equally within a same unfathomable and grand Mystery (Wild Dog 9). Our task as she saw it is “to turn back death towards life” and abandon once and for all the finality of Judeo–Christian death and its promise of other–worldly resurrection that propels us like madmen to create brave new world upon brave new world, each engineered to heavenly perfection.

Death turned back towards life, Deborah argued, is the Way of the Living World when left to its own design. She writes, “Death and Life are partners in a metamorphic flow of comings and goings, turning and returning across zones of birthing and dying,” and a few pages later:

If life is always more than the sum of its parts, then living beings and groups of living beings are parts of broader domains of connectivity. Life’s desire for its own becoming is achieved through interactions of living and nonliving matter. Life’s desire therefore involves both eros and ethics. Eros is the desire — for life, for connection, for others, and for self. Ethics opens us to interactive, world–making dramas of encounter that facilitate the capacity to live together in the long term. (Wild Dog 115, 118)

In yet another powerful reframing, Deborah argues eros and ethics are not the prerogatives of humans but the prerogatives of Life itself, ever desirous of becoming and connectivity. Life will turn death back towards itself, coming forth again and again in form after form. This awareness humbles. In this wisdom, every creature, however tiny, is life–worthy and every harm accountable.

I met with Deborah in person only one other time, when I’d invited her to be an interlocutor at a think tank I’d organized at Wesleyan University’s College of the Environment on the theme of The Commons. What stayed with me were not the fascinating and heady conversations we had in our seminar room or the amazing keynote speech she gave, but a tiny feather, silvery gray just like her long hair, that gently wafted through my car window and landed ever so softly on the passenger seat she’d just vacated.

We had talked for a long time about life’s signs and wonders with a candor not possible in the formal setting of the think tank. In Wild Dog Dreaming, Deborah tells us that if we were to train our vision to those “broader patterns of connectivity” appearing in the intimacy of up–close, face–to–face living as her Aboriginal teachers taught her, we might catch a glimpse of the “quantum” or “metamorphic god,” a shape–shifting god in our midst, who sometimes comes forth to teach us in human form, sometimes in other forms (Wild Dog 105). Sitting in my car, she’d movingly shared about a large yellow butterfly that had danced around the circle of friends and family gathered for the burial of the feminist philosopher Val Plumwood, her dear friend and colleague. After dancing around the circle, the majestic creature landed for a poignant moment on Val’s casket right above her heart. Those present knew of Val’s love for these large, colorful butterflies that kept her company whenever she gardened. The recognition was instant. Grieving hearts filled with peace and wonder as the quantum metamorphic god of living things made its appearance in Val country.

Deborah gifted me with another story of quantum connectivity before we parted. She’d culled this story a few months earlier from a short report in the Seattle Times. I read it avidly. A large pod of thirty–six Orcas had delighted passengers on a ferry crossing the Puget Sound by circling the ship and frolicking in its waters for the entire trip, all the more remarkable because there are so few West Coast Orcas left, just seventy–five at the time of this writing. On board was a Suquamish chief returning home from unrelated business along with over five hundred ceremonial, ancestral and human artifacts being repatriated to his people. When interviewed, the Chief noted that the Orca, “their fellow fishermen in the Sound,” had taken “a break from their fishing to welcome home and put a blessing on the sacred objects.” The reporter went on to acknowledge the Suquamish have a cultural belief in a spiritual connection with these whales, but that the Puget Sound waters must have been rich in fish that day for so many Orca to gather.

I researched the history of those sacred objects. They had spent decades away from home in museum custody after archeologists in the 1950s excavated a ceremonial Long House the US Army burnt to the ground during the days of Chief Seattle. These acts were double death work, twice over, tearing holes in the hearts and souls of not just the Suquamish but also every creature the tribe had shared life with in now broken networks of mutual dependency and reciprocity. In a world of quantum connectivity, where life–worlds communicate, would the Orca not feel the goodness of the return of the sacred objects and celebrate the making whole again of Puget country that had become wild for them, too? For the reporter and likely most in his audience, the Orca could only have been fishing in abundant waters, driven by biological necessity.

I kept the little silvery feather that wafted into my car in Deborah’s wake. Its sweetness connected me to her and reminded me in my anxious moments in the academy that I was not alone in feeling the world as I do or in yearning for a world genuinely hospitable to the Way of the Living World. Deborah offers us this other Aboriginal wisdom in Reports from a Wild Country: that quiet country is the true opposite of wild country (Reports, 4). In quiet country, she says, the love and mutual care of all species ensure that Life lives on and flourishes. In quiet country, death turns towards life, always. In quiet country, the quantum god of living things can rejoice in creation and we humans know ourselves to be neither separate nor exceptional but just one among many weaving the kinship of Life on Earth.

I believe Deborah would have said that healing is what happens when we find our way back to the Way of the Living World and bodies, hearts, minds, souls, and country grow quiet again. She called on us to fearlessly and humbly witness all the wounded spaces of our creation in this sixth age of extinction and to come forth in fierce love to overpower double death, just as the Yarralin Aboriginals do when they set camp on the mass graves of their kin murdered during colonial–settler genocides and “keep the bones company” (Reports 29).

In answer to Deborah’s soulful cry when she swooned in front of the Dingo Tree of Double Death – Dear God, where are you? – I say that the quantum god of living things came forth in Deborah that afternoon to witness the terrible wounding of its flesh. In that here–now, she brought to the thrashed souls and bodies of her Dingo kin the Light of Life and the fiercest of loves.

May your Dreaming return to visit us often, beloved Deborah.

I for one will know your spirit track.

Deborah Bird Rose died from a long illness in December 2018. Her blog, still up, is Besides the books cited, I highly recommend her essay “Dreaming Ecology: Beyond the Between” in Religion & Literature, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Spring, 2008), pp. 109–122, for an extra–ordinary recasting of our modern and deathly propensity for dualistic, atomistic thinking.

Rose, Bird Deborah. Wild Dog Dreaming. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
——. Reports of the Wild Country: Ethics on Decolonisation. Sydney: University of New South Wales, 2004.

About the Author

Gillian Marie Goslinga was formerly an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Science in Society at Wesleyan University. Environmental hypersensitivities, cancers and Lyme disease catapulted her in 2014 to Sedona, Arizona, where she shifted her paradigm and embarked on a deeply transformative healing journey in the company of nature, new friends, her horse Spirit Feather and her cat Shaba.

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