I’ve always felt really comfortable with the Death card.
I started learning tarot around the turn of the millennium. By that time, it seemed like every resource made sure to open Death descriptions with some variation of, The Death card is not about death. Or, The Death card does not mean you will die.
The fear people had about it in previous generations (which I’m sure some still have) made it so that, at least for me, Death was one of the easiest cards to learn about and understand. Introductions tell you right up front, “It’s okay. This is Death, but she’s cool.”
People are careful to explain it doesn’t mean death death. It means change. A death, but likely a metaphorical one.
And yet, so many Death cards do look like death. Skeletons, skulls, the Grim Reaper. It’s easy to see how people might get the wrong impression at first, or might find Death unsettling even after hearing the spiel.
The Death card in Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s Shadowscapes Tarot is a phoenix. In my opinion, this nails it. There is death and ruin here, but the phoenix is rising from the ashes, reborn and radiant.
It shows change, but not in the way you change your clothes or even chop off your hair or rearrange the room (these might be symbolic gestures during a Death period, but are unlikely to be the Death itself).
The phoenix didn’t just saunter into a room where radiant change awaited. The phoenix had to burn in order to be reborn. The Death card isn’t so much about change as it is about transformation.
And yet, where a phoenix is reborn with renewed energy and enhanced wisdom, does it look different? Do you recognize it as a new phoenix? Sometimes the Death card may point to such a transformation: everything is different and new, yet to the untrained eye, nothing has changed.
Other times, the Death card may point to a more visible, complete transformation. Not from phoenix into phoenix, but more of a transmutation; the essence of the being is the same, the atoms are the same, you may recognize it as some form of the entity it was.
But you do recognize there is a was. What was once this is now clearly that.
Death is the phoenix, but it’s also Frankenstein’s monster. It’s alchemy. It’s Gandalf the White.
Death is a nurse log.
Nurse logs are fallen trees that provide a microcosmic ecosystem for new life. In other words, ferns, mosses, and even whole trees grow on them. They’ve died, but their story is not over. They are full of life (albeit no longer their own), they’re helping life to thrive, they’re giving wee seedlings a chance to grow in a competitive environment.
Nurse logs are common in, but not exclusive to, the Pacific Northwest. They’re enchanting to behold, and they’re a marvel of the natural world that I think deeply reflects the metaphysical realms as well.
Nurse logs look like perfect homes for faeries, gnomes, and other woodland spirits. And they are plainly home to plants that wouldn’t have found room for their roots on the flat ground, or wouldn’t have reached deep soil because of the thick leaf litter, or would have been too low to receive sunlight when surrounded by full-grown trees.
Nurse logs provide a chance and a home to the underdogs, and in doing so, they create a new community. They stake a flag that says, “Welcome, ye small and displaced; there is water here. You can thrive here. You can be elevated here.” The trees that grow on nurse logs stand out as distinctive and unique in a forest where beauty runs so deep, it starts to all look the same.
The nurse log is the town and the mayor and the foundation and the pioneer. It’s also dead. In order to provide and do any of these things, it first had to die.
There is a common but rough estimate that a nurse log decays at approximately the rate of its prior lifespan. So if a 500-year-old tree falls and becomes a nurse log, it might take about 500 years to decay. In death, it essentially has a full second life.
Before it fell, the tree may have been struck by lightning. It may have rotted. It may have been choked by invasive plants, cut down by a chainsaw, uprooted by an earthquake or storm, drowned by a tsunami.
The closest trees come to dying of old age is growing so large they can no longer transfer nutrients effectively between their roots and leaves.
So this tree either endured enough trauma to kill it, or simply outgrew its physical support system. In either case, the tree fell (or was cut to only a stump), and instead of simply dying, it was transformed.
Next time you pull the Death card, try asking yourself how you are like a nurse log. Have you recently undergone significant trauma or a life-altering, Tower card event? Or, have you grown so large in the space you’re filling that you’re no longer finding nourishment there?
Maybe you lost someone, either to their physical death or to the death of your bond. Maybe you lost a job, or moved thousands of miles from any part of your comfort zone.
Maybe you’ve written a book or painted something incredible, but you keep hanging onto it, keeping it to yourself, in case you realize there’s another edit to make.
Or maybe you have shared it with the world, but you’ve devoted so much time to talking about it that you’ve stopped working on new projects.
Whatever the case may be, acknowledge how your tree fell and honor that falling.
Then, decide what you might want to look like as a nurse log. Let the bugs and seeds and lichen and fungi know you’re open for business. Send signals to the fae and welcome them home.
Get excited that you’ve pulled the Death card. Your next life is about to begin.