Domingo Morales was not initially concerned when he got a text message from his mentor, David S. Buckel, at 5:30 a.m. Saturday, calling out sick.
But I have to at least try to make this planet a better place for having lived on it.”
Buckel, a nationally known civil rights lawyer and, in his final decade, a master composter directing the sprawling site at the Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn, set himself on fire around dawn Saturday in Prospect Park. It was, according to his suicide letter, to make a statement about people protecting the environment.
Morales, 26, did not see the email until he finished work Saturday, where, for five days a week for the past three years, Buckel was his patient teacher.
“I was like, ‘What does this mean? Is he dead?'” Morales said. Growing up in the Woodrow Wilson Houses in East Harlem, Morales met Buckel through a volunteer environmental program and later became a staff member of the site, operated by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
“He touched a lot of people,” Morales said. “We didn’t come from privilege, we came from the projects. He was a light in a lot of our lives.”
The act of self-immolation was so shocking, the loss so sudden, that friends and family of Buckel struggled Sunday to make sense of his legacy, if not his death.
“He was very much someone who felt like he always wanted to make sure that while he was alive that he was doing more to make the world a better place,” his partner of nearly 34 years, Terry Kaelber said. “And he wanted to give more than he was taking from it.”
Suicide is, ultimately, ineffable, and experts caution that there is a rarely a single reason people take their own lives; they say there are often underlying issues, such as mental illness.
His family and friends acknowledged that Buckel had become distraught recently over the national politics of climate change — “all that’s going on with the Trump administration and the rollback by Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency,” Kaelber said, referring to agency’s embattled administrator, Scott Pruitt.
In retrospect, Morales said he knew Buckel had been upset as recently as February when he began discussing articles about the environment, for instance one about how 96 percent of humans breathe polluted air and another about the Arctic Circle experiencing record breaking temperatures.
Morales said two weeks ago that Buckel sent him an email with all his contacts for the compost site, showing him how to complete paperwork, annual reports and other documents that would need to be turned over to city agencies.
With a back injury that limited his work, Buckel was struggling over what he could do next. Kaelber said he interpreted this “dramatic act” as “what can a person at age 60 do that people would pay attention to.”
Buckel started his career as a Legal Aid lawyer, and gained national prominence by arguing cases with Lambda Legal, an organization that fights for the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Buckel was the lead lawyer in the case in which a Nebraska sheriff was found liable for failing to protect a transgender man who was murdered in Falls City, and was the strategist behind same-sex marriage cases in New Jersey and Iowa.
He retired from Lambda Legal in November 2008, and was a grant writer before starting at the composting site at the farm, across from an Ikea store. He felt composting was something that community members could do together to bring about a more sustainable world.
Buckel lived his message. He took showers with a minimum use of water, and walked one hour to work and back from his home at the edge of Prospect Park, rather than use fossil fuels. He refused even to use machines at the composting site, evidence of a passion that friends say was his true fuel.
“I think he had a purity of spirit that was not a possibility in this world and that pained him very much,” said Marisa DeDominicis, the executive director of Earth Matter, which composts on Governors Island.
Erik Martig went to YouTube to remember his mentor, who had made a series of instructional videos for the tight-knit community of urban composters. In his typical calm and methodical manner, Buckel explained how to make neat, rat-proof compost piles with pitchforks, shovels and teamwork.
“This is the David Buckel that I knew,” said Martig, 34, who worked with Buckel at the farm.
“I struggle to believe that this is a protest suicide. I think that, underneath, he’s got to be in a very dark place, it’s not characteristic of David,” he added.
On a grim Sunday, neighbors gathered at Buckel’s home.
George Bachman, a retired firefighter, would greet him tending his garden on a quiet stretch south of Prospect Park. His 16-year-old daughter knew Buckel’s college-age daughter, Hannah.
He knew the history of Buckel’s kind of suicide, but was perplexed. “I’m a Vietnam veteran so I’m well aware,” Bachman said. “Buddhist monks used to light themselves up in protest of the war.”
Buckel alluded in his letter to the self-immolation of Tibetans as protest against China’s government.
Tom and Isa Cucinotta of Lefferts Gardens spent a few minutes in silence at the site in Prospect Park where Buckel died. They did not know him, but they felt a kinship with him and his despair with the state of the world.
“It feels important because he was one of the people able to do something about these injustices. He was successful, whereas we can only do little things,” Isa Cucinotta said. “It feels like he has given up. What does that mean for the rest of us?”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.