In an earlier post, I asked, “If I could convince you that every trace and memory of your existence on this earth will disappear within a comparatively short time after your death, how would you choose to live your life?” Or, to put it another way, “At the End of Days, why plant a tree?”
Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time there were two men. One was the king of a great city, the other his intimate friend. They were phenomenally beautiful, brave, and strong. Together the two men had many adventures. The king’s friend died, though, and the king himself felt both grief and terror — terror, that is, upon being reminded that he himself was sure to die. Accordingly, he left his city and traveled to the ends of the earth to find an antidote for his own mortality.
And lo, he finds a man and woman to whom the gods had given the gift of immortality. They set him a test: stay awake for seven days, and “perhaps you will prevail against death.” So he sits down with his back against a wall and immediately falls asleep. So much for immortality.
The king’s name was Gilgamesh. He was the hero of stories being told 4000 years ago in the land we know as Iraq. Here’s how his life ends, according to one of the oldest versions of his story. (The ellipses you see below, written like this “…..,” indicate missing words in the fragmentary Sumerian text that’s come down to us. The emphasis is added.)
…… hero …… has lain down and is never to rise again. …… has lain down and is never to rise again. He of well-proportioned limbs …… has lain down and is never to rise again. …… has lain down and is never to rise again. He who …… wickedness ….. has lain down and is never to rise again. The young man …… has lain down and is never to rise again. He who was perfect in …… and feats of strength has lain down and is never to rise again. …… has lain down and is never to rise again. The lord of Kulaba has lain down and is never to rise again. He who spoke most wisely has lain down and is never to rise again. The plunderer (?) of many countries has lain down and is never to rise again. He who climbed the mountains has lain down and is never to rise again. He has lain down on his death-bed and is never to rise again. He has lain down on a couch of sighs and is never to rise again.
And here’s the way that a later, much more polished version of this same story ends. Gilgamesh has returned to his great city and now says to a traveling companion (S. Mitchell, translator):
“This is the wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal.
See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun.
Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine,
approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar,
a temple that no king has equaled in size or beauty,
walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course
around the city, inspect its mighty foundations,
examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built,
observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens,
the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops
and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.”
See the mighty walls of Uruk — a great city that long, long ago crumbled into dust, once ruled by legendary Gilgamesh, the king who sought immortality but died anyway, and whose name, though enshrined in our earliest literature, is now slowly fading into oblivion. (For who among you has ever heard the name Gilgamesh?)
Do you see?
In my favorite episode of Gilgamesh’s story, he and his friend Enkidu travel to the Cedar Forest and kill its monstrous guardian, Humbaba. Next they fell the trees with their axes and float them downriver. A recently discovered tablet of cuneiform writing …
“[My friend,] we have reduced the forest [to] a wasteland, [how] shall we answer [the god] Enlil in Nippur?
‘[In] your might you slew the guardian,
what was this wrath of yours that you went trampling the forest?’ ”
And today, this is what is left of the Cedar Forest, more or less:
Do you see?
Forget the future. Honor the past but set it aside.
What you have is the present. You have your subjects, the living people of Uruk, who need you. You have your best friend Enkidu. You have your beautiful city.
You have only this moment to feel the (metaphorical) dirt on your hands and the (literal) joy in your heart, as you plant your tree, come what may.