De-creation: The Noble Rot

by Jeannie Alexander God is about the business of de-creation now, and I sit seduced in the first nights of chill autumn air. Each year summer burns me to weariness, and I long for the spectacular carnival and affecting smells of the dying and transformation taking place on my forest walks. Make no mistake, do not speak of autumn falsely as alive in all her brilliance, we are in nature’s death throes now. What else could spike our pulse rate and run our blood so hot, like the sugar sap in trees rising to flash defiant scarlet and gold before their final fall. The season of the rut is the season of the hunt, and the price paid for spring’s regeneration.

We think we are supposed to fear death, and attempt to avert our gaze when presented with organic decay, but we look. What star burns so brightly as a dying star? There is a sweetness to this passage, the cycle into sleep so necessary for resurrection. I observe my yearly ritual of walking barefoot across the leaves of the forest floor on the first cool day of fall. I remember such a walk two years ago at a state park during the dying gold light of deep afternoon. My foot caressing the jaw bone of a deer many seasons gone, and the hum, slide, and rattle of a snake inches below the composting trees’ thick pile floor from years past. I wondered about Lazarus dead in the tomb, just beginning his fermentation in God. We are taught that his resurrection was a wondrous act of compassion and divine power, spoken through the lips of a confident messiah. But I wonder if perhaps it was the desperate act of a grief stricken friend unwilling to let go. How deep in the dream of God was Lazarus when pulled back from the dance of de-creation? He certainly doesn’t come forth with praise and thanks, but with the smell of decay, struck dumb and confused. Would you thank the man who pulled you from the arms of God?

But who could blame Jesus, how often do we attempt to interrupt death? Looking out my window I spy a moth, ragged torn wings in spasms caught in a web. His struggle only succeeding to twist the web into one impossibly strong strand that then scored his wings. A spider began to move, and like an idiot interrupting the third act of a play, I tear out of the house with a broom and snag the web, bringing the moth down to its fool savior. The moth’s body heaves as it struggles for breath, and my clumsy removal of the web serves only to further damage its broken wings. I place it gently on the grey wooden bench where after struggling for breath for another 20 minutes it dies in ragged confusion. And a spider goes unfed. I have managed to interrupt life as well as death.

Later, I kick a black walnut, and thrill at the sharp familiar scent of its green and black rotting casing, my fingers are stained as I pick it up for closer inspection. What trees would grow if fearful greedy limbs clutched the thick green casing indefinitely? The show must go on, so die already! Rumi says, “When grapes turn into wine, they are wanting this.” Only through the crushing, bruising, and fermentation is their essence realized. There is a fungus called botrytis, and when this deadly fungus infects grapes under the right conditions at the end of harvest, it is then known as the noble rot, and produces the finest of French desert wines, Sauternes. I do not know if poor Lazarus was Sauternes or vinegar, only that he was a filigree of articulated bones and plum bruised flesh brought forth stumbling in his death shroud. Most unnatural.

I lie down on the earth beneath the trees, my nose pressed into crunch brown leaves, last year’s offering. Above me the show is just beginning in colors bitter lemon and ruddy; deep gold and red are still two weeks off. But the chill is finally here and I shiver. Perhaps I just walked over my own grave, and I pray, “Dear God, don’t make a point with these bones as marionette, and do not be swayed by my mother’s grief. Just let me lie here and whisper shared dreams with the rattle snake in the earth below, and drink the memories of the hart taken by an arrow. Let patience be the nobility of my rot; resurrection delayed is still resurrection, and besides, I do not fear the dark.” I wait a moment and feel my heart pounding beneath my flannel shirt.

I walk home in the darkness, where hours later holding a glass of wine I give thanks for having been created a creature so inclined toward personal ritual, embrace the bruise and the bone, and court both the sleep and the dance.

Rev. Jeannie Alexander is the co-founder and director of No Exceptions Prison Collective, a legal and educational advocacy organization on behalf of prisoners and their families, aimed at dismantling the reality of mass incarceration in TN. She served as the Head Chaplain at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution for three years until September 2014. Prior to that, she was the volunteer chaplain for two years. As chaplain, she facilitated the creation of an unprecedented number of programs for insiders, both in minimum security and on “death row.” Before this, she worked as an attorney, but left the practice of law to become a community organizer and to complete a graduate degree in Religious Studies with a focus on Mysticism and Christian Ethics. As an educator, she’s been a professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religion. As a pastor, she’s served and developed interfaith communities in prison based on a model of liberation theology, as well as served as co-pastor to Mercy Community Church, a congregation where 85% of the members experience homelessness. She is the co-founder of Amos House and Open Table Nashville and was a writer for and sat on the board of The Contributor for four years. Two of her essays are published in And The Criminals With Him, and she features significantly in the documentary Tent City, U.S.A. She lectures and preaches frequently on the topics of mass incarceration as slavery, economic justice, Christian anarchism, transformative justice, and mysticism. She understands the Gospel as a manifesto for radical liberation now on earth and an invitation to experience God through the living presence of others and creation. She is also a lover of bees, bogs, and all things wild.