Author Gene Logsdon Shares His Thoughts on Immortality, Bird-Watching and the Tao of Nature

Gene Logsdon discusses dying and the finer points of immortality, as explored in his newest book, 'Gene Everlasting.'
February 24, 2014
Gene Logsdon

Photo by Ben Barnes

Gene Logsdon is a widely acclaimed farmer and philosopher, journalist, essayist and novelist. He has written more than two dozen books, ranging from the practical (Small-Scale Grain Raising) to the ruminative (The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse). His most recent book is Gene Everlasting, in which he discusses his cancer diagnosis and a whole lot more in a series of essays that Publishers Weekly called “life-affirming” and Kirkus Reviews calls a “perceptive and understatedly well-written meditation.”

Shay Totten, Communications Director of Chelsea Green Publishing, conducted this interview with Logsdon on Feb. 10. Gene Everlasting was published Feb. 18. — Robin Mather, Senior Associate Editor, MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

Shay Totten: The subtitle of your book is “Thoughts on Living Forever.” So, after writing the book and thinking about it: Is immortality worth it? Is it overrated?

Gene Logsdon: I wanted to come up with a book sort of making fun of the concept of immortality, one that would be critical of conventional religious views but not show the kind of atheistic righteousness you see in books by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens on this topic. I more or less agree with them, but found them a little too angry and strident for the religious believers I grew up with and belonged to — too nasty. I used to be angry that way, but I got over it. That kind of approach just makes religious believers all the more convinced that they are right.

But it’s a tough subject to write and talk about without irritating someone. Ideology starts dominating the talk right away. Discussion quickly comes down to “my religion versus your religion” or “my lack of religion versus your lack of religion.” We’re all so filled up with such fear of the unknown about this topic. Even atheists can get religious once in a while, and by that I mean too fervent about their beliefs, as can those who believe that science has all the answers. I have made snide remarks about black holes being quite a stretch, and, in doing so, irritated scientists. I see where the famed scientist Stephen Hawking, who started the monstrous notion of black holes, now says they don’t exist. 

To answer your original question: I’ve come to realize that it’s really not worth it — immortality, that is. Ask yourself: What time of your life would you like to immortalize? I know that I don’t want to be immortalized in this winter; this has been the worst damn weather I can remember.

I think even religious people can chuckle about that — what time of life in which you’d like to be immortalized. That kind of mild humor is what really guided me in the writing. I wanted to write about all the Great Notions in a gently mocking way that didn’t irritate people too much — or maybe irritated each side a little bit, both those who believe in science and those who believe in religion. In the end, I think I irritated everyone.

ST: Birds are a recurring animal in the book — killdeer, bluebirds and even buzzards, to which you devote an entire chapter. How come buzzards have such a bad reputation?

GL: I’m an avid bird-watcher and have been for years, and often in the wintertime, I don’t want to go outside, and so I watch birds come to the feeder. And we get hundreds of them.

You don’t often see raccoons, coyotes or wolves, but birds are always around, and so I suppose that birds more often sink into my subconscious. But buzzards would anyway— they are the creepiest-looking things. Society has demonized buzzards and bats because they look so ugly, but when a buzzard is soaring in the air, it’s a very elegant thing. And bats in motion are awesome, too.

I describe in the book the time I saw buzzards circling over the pasture and I knew they had come across a sheep carcass. I sneaked over the hill very slowly so they could see only my head, and there were about 10 of them on the ground wrestling over the carcass, and six of them were on separate fence posts sort of overseeing the carnage. When those six black birds with their red heads saw me, they all spread their wings wide, each a 6-foot span— it was quite a sight. I defy anyone who travels to the farthest regions of the world to find anything more awesome than that, and it was right here close by.

Buzzards are a symbol of death in many cultures, and the more I thought about it, the more angles I found to write about—Andrew Wyeth painted them, and a friend of mine and his wife had one as a pet, if you can believe it. This is what often happens to me — this kind of serendipity where a subject will become interesting to me in a very tangential way and then feed into my writing.

ST: You talk about a lot of non-farm topics in the book, the Higgs boson, compound interest and even death cafés. What exactly is a death café and do they serve organic food?

GL: That would make a great article — Menus for a Death Café. Perhaps it should include a bowl of cherries. I’ve never been to one, but as I understand it a group of people get together, drink a little truth serum — alcohol — and tell each other what they really think about dying and death.

The interesting thing I learned about death cafés — or death dinners that people are now holding — is that far from turning people off, the subject makes them perk up their ears. People want to know more.

This is not about ushering off a dying person with a party — although I think that would be a good idea too— but people just hanging out and talking about what they think is going to happen when they die. The point that I think needs to be brought out — and what motivated me to write about this topic, and this book— is that younger people are not at all satisfied with what their religions have taught them about death. But there’s a hesitancy to start a conversation about it. When you get a dozen of them together, they feel freer to talk.

If you can bypass traditional ideological mindsets and just talk, then that’s when people begin to open up. That’s also where the humor can come in, and that was part of the challenge of this book — writing about death lightly without being flippant.

ST: People often play the games of whistling past the graveyard or holding their breath when they drive past one. Are cemeteries good for something more than just interring our dead? Should we be viewing — and maybe using — them differently?

GL: We’re missing an opportunity to use graveyards for a lot more than just burying people. First of all, we should be viewing them as arboretums and nature preserves rather than just a vacant park. A good place to go bird-watching. Sometimes in old cemeteries, you can find native plants that have been all but destroyed elsewhere. Cemeteries can also be gathering places. I’ve read about a cemetery in Washington, D.C., where some of the tombstones are shaped like park benches and people are encouraged to come in and eat picnic lunches there. I think that’s a neat idea.

I like cemeteries. They are so quiet, and you’re usually allowed to go into them without asking permission. Why not plant apple trees, pear trees, hickory trees for the express purpose of producing food? People could come in and harvest them and remember that this tree or that tree is growing right over Grandmother’s bones. She made the best pies with these apples. Trees could be grown for the wood, too, and if all of the cemetery caretakers got together and planned out a schedule for timber harvesting, they could change the places into ongoing sources of lumber, and wouldn’t that be fantastic? The trees are going to get old and die anyway, so why not use them? Make coffins out of them.

ST: On a serious note, you write, “There is no such thing as vacant lots or abandoned farms. Nature will always fill them with life.” This is a consistent theme in the book and seems to have a core realization as you came to terms with your own mortality. Why do you think people focus too often on the vacancy rather than what is filled around them? 

GL: Nature abhors a vacuum. Yes, this is a very important part of my thinking. There is no such thing as something empty or vacant in nature, and the fact that we tend to look at nature and see emptiness or vacancy is an example of how our education so often fails us. All around us, all the time, are marvelous wondrous things happening — like buzzards. We’re so eager to tell people that excitement comes from looking at the Seven Wonders of the World, or to get into an airplane and go far away. It’s just not so, and it leads to many misunderstandings about nature and reality. People think travel will relieve boredom, but boredom is a problem inside the mind, not outside it.

And the idea of there being nothing ever empty was a key inspiration for me because it led me to decide that matter is eternal. There never was nothing. This is where I upset both my religious friends and scientific friends. To my religious friends, God is eternal, and for scientists, every effect must always have a cause. If matter is eternal, they are both wrong.

Deciding that matter was eternal, that the universe in some material form was always going to exist, was electrifying to me because it got rid of all those haunting questions about how life got started. To me, the big bang theory is as ridiculous as a god hauling off and creating the universe from nothing. When I first thought of this, I thought I was brilliant. Or nuts. Then I learned that people have had this thought for thousands of years, and they call it Taoism. That made me feel a little bit better, because I felt that if I’m nuts, then at least I’ve got a lot of good company.

This gets us back to this idea of immortality — that there’s no such thing as an empty place and never will be. Time is only the overflowing now. Couldn’t this be the most uplifting notion of all? That the key to immortality lies in mortality? That in nature there is not death but only a change of form.