This Phenomenon Called Life

What is all this living and dying for, and how did it come about?

Walt McLaughlin
8 min readMay 16


Photo by Jesse Bauer on Unsplash

People I love are dying. That we are mortal creatures isn’t news to anyone, but it’s different somehow when death hits close to home. In recent years I’ve lost my parents, two boyhood friends, and other friends I’ve known for decades.

There seems to be a flurry of death going on in my life these days. I suppose this can be explained to some extent by my advanced years. I’m in my late sixties now. Not long ago, there was a flurry of birth going on as my grandchildren came into this world. This makes me wonder what all this being born, living, and dying is for. What is it all about?

On many occasions I have wandered deep into the forest and have marveled at the fecundity of nature. There trees rise from the ground in every direction as far as I can see. Some of them are dead and have fallen to the forest floor where moss, lichen, mushrooms, and insects are breaking them down. Moss and lichen cover rocks, as well.

The forest floor is also thick with other vegetation: bushes, ferns, and a wide variety of flowering plants. There are flying and crawling insects all over the place. Beneath the plants is several inches of decomposing leaves and other organic material where worms, beetles, and a multitude of microorganisms live.

Field mice, chipmunks, and squirrels scurry across the forest floor, as snakes slither about looking for an easy meal. While scanning the understory, I often spot a well-camouflaged frog or toad. Occasionally a fox or larger predator appears, as does a deer or moose. And the forest canopy overhead is full of birds flitting about, singing, and looking for food.

Every living thing is looking for food one way or another — in the forest, in the sea, and everywhere else on this planet. Every organism is a knot of energy that must be constantly fueled to sustain itself. Sustained for a while, anyhow. Eventually all these organisms die, but not before some of them have a chance to reproduce.

The fecundity of nature is an amazing thing to witness, really. But what exactly is this phenomenon called life, and how did it get started in an otherwise inorganic universe?

What Is Life?



Walt McLaughlin

Philosopher of wildness, writing about the divine in nature, being human, and backcountry excursions.