Using Permaculture to improve how we die
I am a palliative care nurse and permaculture educator with a spiritual self which is deeply rooted in Earth-based seasons and patterns. Issues relating to death and dying are intrinsic to most aspects of my life. Several years ago, I started exploring how permaculture can improve how we die in the UK and in many parts of the world. Central to this was the fact that “Dying with dignity” appears in Holmgren’s Permaculture Flower, and generated many interesting discussions in my peer groups within the permaculture community. This eventually resulted in the launch of my permaculture project: Creative Dying, a free online resource.
Death and Dying in the UK
In the UK and in many other parts of the world. Death and dying is still a very difficult, taboo topic, cloaked in the fear and unknown. The way in which many of us die at present in the UK is at odds with permaculture principles and ethics. People do not often get the death they would like, many needlessly dying in hospital experiencing unnecessary and distressing procedures, tests and treatment, away from their home, with resulting feelings of confusion and lack of control.
Inequalities around whether a person is enabled to make decisions about what they would want for their end of life and care after death are huge – age, disease type, social class, sexuality, race, mental health, with very real consequences about whether someone then has a ‘good death.’ In my experience, fear, distress and lack of control about how we die can often mean life time effects on emotional and physical health to those left behind, due to complex bereavement.
The environmental impacts of how we die are also very significant. – from the resources needed for end of life care in hospital, to the damaging actions of many aspects of the funeral/after death industry, - embalming, cremation, coffin materials - and financial affordability (the average cost of a funeral in the UK in 2018 was £3500 for a cremation, and nearly £4300 for a burial )
My experience in the permaculture community is that even within groups of people who are very knowledgeable, empowered and solutions focused about other aspects of their lives are reluctant to talk about how their end of life might be.
So, what can permaculture offer as a way solutions focused way forward?
Before We Die
People who talk about and plan for their death, tend to have a much better experience of death, and those around them : - family, friends and community - then go on to have a more open and positive attitude towards death, loss and supporting others as they approach death. Planning for what we want to happen as we die and after our death is much easier to do when we are well, than waiting until we are unwell and perhaps too poorly to make decisions. There is a much greater chance that End of Life wants and wishes will happen if we have a plan, and others close to us, are aware of those plans.
Ways to start talking about death and dying, and making plans include:-
As We Die
If we had some control (most people, with the right support, do), what would we want our death to look like? Where would we want to be (if possible?) Who would we want to be there? What support would we need and want?
One exciting and rapidly growing role is that of a Death Doula – non-medical people who are trained to be alongside terminally ill people and support those close to them, at the end of their life. There are several places in the UK where Death Doula training is available now and the numbers of people working in this sphere is spreading steadily.
Obviously we cannot all predict how we die and for some we might not be able to achieve the ideal death we hoped for ourselves. It can be useful to have a ‘plan B’. For example, if you were to die in hospital, who would you want to be there? What kind of medical/nursing intervention would you want? What possessions, music, art would you want to surround you from home?
After We Die
What do we want to happen to our bodies after we die? How do we want our life to be remembered and celebrated?
With our present systems of after death care in the UK, many people can feel frustrated, and let down, with their experience of grief deepened, as after death care activities carried out by health care professionals and then practitioners in the funeral industry can feel impersonal and profoundly disconnected from the identity of the person who has died. In addition, the financial cost of much of this is beyond the reach of an ever increasing number of people.
There is no legal obligation to use a funeral director for after death care in the UK – though if you choose to do so, there are some wonderful Funeral Director and celebrant businesses who can ensure the whole process is as in keeping with the life of the person who has died as possible. In addition wherever we die, we can choose to have friends and families take care of us (wash, change clothing . Making this request known to health care staff involved can mean this is more likely to happen
In the UK one of the most Earth regenerating ways to care for the body of someone who has died, is burial, where the body is wrapped/contained in a locally sources biodegradable material, in a geographical location where other life can benefit from the nutrients released by our decomposing corpse. (I’m currently knitting a cover from UK grown wool – which will be used a blanket, for hopefully many years, then my plan is my body will be wrapped in it before I am buried as close as possible to the place where I spend my final weeks of life.) Organised Woodland Burial sites are the most obvious choice of location., but there are other perfectly legal options.
Globally there are some great projects emerging looking at ways of increasing Earth Care with relation to what happens to our bodies after we die. These include:-
Recompose - transforms bodies into soil so that we can grow new life after we die.
The Living Urn – growing trees from human ash
Ecoffins - environmentally friendly coffins and caskets
Permaculture design offers us many answers to how we can improve an experience we all face, and which connects every living being and system on our beautiful planet. Opening up conversations, exploring fears, empowering ourselves with knowledge and support and then making documented plans are all very real ways of ensuring we work towards Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares as we die.
In this article I have provided an overview about how permaculture design can help with way we die, which will hopefully engage a much bigger conversation.
The following resources can help you to explore this topic further. As part of Creative Dying, my own project exploring how permaculture can improve how we die, I have a regularly updated page sharing many online, in real life and print resources. Go to Creative Dying for lots more information and ideas about using permaculture to improve how we die.
Other (UK focused) favourite key online resources of mine are
Natural Death Society
Power of Attorney
For those people who use social media as a way of connecting and learning new knowledge, there is a wonderful diverse community of people globally working word to raise the profile of improving attitude and experience of death, dying and bereavement. The hashtag often used to link this work is #deathpositive.
Finally – I would like to acknowledge the potential for triggering difficult feelings relating to loss and bereavement that people may experience through reading this article. These reactions are totally understandable and healthy. Many of us have experienced events where grief has been ongoing and complex. If this has happened for you then giving yourself to engage in activities which for you can provide the support you need is very much ok. If you find that you are needing something more than your usual emotional support tools then I can recommend the following links as first steps
What’s Your Grief
Cruse Bereavement Care
An earlier version of this article "The Art of Dying Creatively" was also published in Permaculture Magazine (Autumn No 93)
I'm starting to put together a directory of permaculture projects in the UK, (demonstration sites, courses, events, other permaculture services), where issues of access for people with chronic illnesses, disabilities and/or neurodiversity, are included as part of the project design.
Does your permaculture demonstration site , course, event or other permaculture service, actively encourage the participation and connection of people with chronic illness, disabilities and/or neurodiversity? If so and you would like to feature in this developing online resource, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you a short questionnaire to complete.
For more information about accessing permaculture for people with chronic illness and disabilities click here
For a list of top tips about how to improve access to permaculture for people with chronic illness and disabilities click here
To connect with discussions about these topics and more, feel free to join the Facebook Group Permaculture, Chronic Illness, Neurodiversity and Disability
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can be spread to humans by infected ticks. It's usually easier to treat if it's diagnosed early. Not all ticks carry Lyme disease, but the numbers of those who do, are thought to be rising, in a response to Climate Change.
Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia, a spirochete bacteria. It’s the most common tick-borne disease in the northern hemisphere and there are multiple strains of the bacteria. Lyme disease is endemic in many parts of the United Kingdom, particularly in woodland or heath-land areas but disease carrying ticks can also be found in cities and gardens.
Lyme disease not treated immediately, or not treated according to 2018 NICE (NHS) guidelines, can result in long term severely disabling illness, which is nearly always much more difficult and sometimes impossible to fully treat.
Comprehensive information about Lyme disease prevention, detection and treatment can be found on the Lyme Disease UK website.
Given that most permaculture demonstration sites and events are based at least partially outdoors, it's essential that folk facilitating and attending these projects and events are aware about preventing tick bites, and then being able to identify early signs of possible Lyme Disease infection, alongside accessing prompt medical intervention.
Lyme Disease UK produce an excellent (free) awareness pack which includes both posters to display and leaflets and "essential info" cards designed to be given away for individual use. I urge anyone organising and facilitating outdoor permaculture events to send off for these packs to generate increased awareness of Lyme disease for people attending their projects and events.
You can send off for a Lyme disease awareness pack via the link below
Lyme Disease UK Awareness Packs
I will be posting more about Lyme Disease from my social media spaces throughout Lyme Disease Awareness Month in May . Feel free to connect with me on Facebook , Instagram and Twitter . You can also sign up to my newsletter for monthly updates about my creative permaculture projects, plus links to inspiring work from other women in permaculture.
I haven't been well enough to grow any of my own food for the last couple of years, so It’s really great to be sowing seeds for an edible garden this year - These ones are getting ready to germinate on a warm indoor window ledge - super hardy “Latah” very early tomato, “Nigel’s Outdoors” green chilli and “Pretty in Purple” rainbow chilli - all from the fab Real Seeds Catalogue
I've also started sprouting seeds, again on a warm indoor window ledge. These ones - radish, broccoli, alfalfa, mustard and cress - are available in quantities suitable for sprouting from Tamar Organics. Later this week I'm also going to be sprouting brown and green lentils, and chickpeas. I use the sprouts as raw toppings to any dish, or added to a stir fry just before I turn the heat off, to enjoy warm. Sprouting seeds, pulses and grains increases their nutritional availability, as well as their fibre and protein content, plus they taste really great. And can be grown all year round inside, meaning that I can eat home grown food cheaply 365 days a year with very little work and time, (the sprouts just need rinsing twice a day), involved. And that makes me very smiley! You can learn more about sprouting here
One of my visions/aims for this year is to increase my knowledge about herbs. How to grow them, preserve them and use them for treating illness and improving health and wellbeing. I became really inspired by the work of Jekka McVicar a few months ago when I listened to an episode of BBC Radio Four 's The Food Programme about her. And reading a book written by Jekka seemed a very obvious first step for me and my learning. Jekka's Complete Herb Book, published in association with the Royal Horticultural Society, is a beautiful work of reference. 150 different herbs are presented in two page spreads and include; the common names, various species, history, cultivation, propagation and harvesting. And then for each herb medicinal, culinary and wellbeing topics are detailed in a really accessible way.
I've set myself a task of learning about a different herb each day, and it's already becoming a lovely and productive part of my mornings. The book also has sections on harvesting, preserving, making natural dyes common pests and diseases relating to herbs, a comprehensive yearly calendar and my big favourite...a gorgeous twelve page section on herb garden design, (including growing herbs in pots/containers).
I wholeheartedly recommend this book. I would say my knowledge about herb growing and use, is pretty patchy and fairly close to the beginner stage of understanding, application and confidence. Jekka's Complete Herb Book with its easy layout and stunning photos and illustrations already feels like it's going to be the ideal tool for my learning and my enjoyment of that learning. It's the kind of resource that would make a great present too. I've linked the book to the hugely dominating seller of all things online, but as ever, if you can, get your local bookshop to order a copy for you and know you've supported a business in your community where each sale matters.
A year long course by the Permaculture Women's Guild
I'm really excited to be illustrating this amazing online course being offered by the Permaculture Women's Guild. The course starts March 15th 2019 and folk will be able to start at their own pace anytime from that date. Students are invited to :-
"Design Your Garden, Home, and Community to be more sustainable, ecological, and regenerative!"
For more details, including how to sign up, visit the Permaculture Women's Guild website, where you will also find lots more courses and opportunities on offer too.
Earth Based Spirituality & Permaculture
I love to use the solar and lunar cycles and circles within Earth based spirituality, as a grounding tool and guidance for my permaculture projects. This weekend has been the wheel of the year festival, of Earth awakening, Imbolc. Here in Yorkshire, Northern England, there are signs of life emerging into the new light, from their long rest through the cold, dark, shortest days. At Imbolc, we can connect with the nature around us, observing and interacting, and slowly move forwards to the energy of spring. The earliest of seeds sown for edible gardens are starting to germinate and we too can plant and nurture our inner seeds of visions for our work and life, and watch them germinate over the coming weeks.
The Imbolc new moon arrives today its the perfect time to use the rising energy for new beginnings. and a perfect time for reflection and planning.
Here are some of the ways I have been using the energies of Imbolc in my permaculture projects and including my own wellbeing.-
I spent some time grounding and allowing my creative thoughts to flow without constraint, about the directions I would like my permaculture projects and life to take. I created this space with the five elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Spirit plus 2 oracle cards I had chosen, to help provide an extra layer of visioning and focus. I will be keeping this alter space as it is until the Spring Equinox in 6 weeks time. Seeing it on a regular basis, and as a tool for further reflection and grounding, will help me to continue to connect with the new ways forward in my projects on a regular basis. And, in turn regular connection can often mean that my visions and goals for my life and permaculture projects are become an achievable reality.
I have been using this "4 questions" reflection tool with focus on my permaculture work, and from the reflection, applying self regulation, and accepting feedback, have designed a realistic plan about creating and implementing new elements in each permaculture project. The plan is in my journal which is the "hub", the centre of my life! and I look at it many times each day. So again, observing it on a regular basis means that my aims and goals for each project are more likely to be achieved.
Sowing actual seeds! For the last 2 years my edible gardening permaculture project has been on pause, as I've been too unwell to be able to do any physical gardening. And currently I don't have a garden of my own. Over the last few months my health has slowly been improving and I have been feeling a strong pull to get growing food again, and creatively using and responding to change. Peppers (including chillis) and tomatoes like as long a season to grow as possible so I will be planting these hardy varieties from Real Seeds over the next week. I'm also going to start sprouting seeds and pulses again for daily use as a delicious and super nutritious addition to my diet. I've stocked up on sprouting seeds packs from Tamar Organics and really looking forward to getting them growing. For more ideas about connecting with nature inside if you are unable to be outside, see an article I wrote "Bringing Nature Inside"
So here are a few of the ways I have been using energies and characteristics of Imbolc in both my permaculture and general life projects. Please feel free to have a go at applying any of these Ideas to your own life and work.
Permaculture Tool Review
I bought these beautiful “Life Design” cards by Lisa Mcloughlin Art a few days ago and they are already becoming one of my new favourite things! - Lisa describes the cards as “a personal development companion and oracle for support and guidance” and to help “weave a different story” - the cards are created to be web like in their use and contain gorgeous images depicting permaculture design, permaculture principles, seasonal inspiration and astrological signs of psychological processes that are common to us all. A handy guidebook introducing ideas for how to use the cards for both personal and group work/use, and brief descriptions of each card’s functions is included with the card deck. I’m already starting to see how useful these cards will be for regular life planning and reflection, along with project designing too.
"Life Design," (and other wonderful nature inspired), card decks, are available from Etsy via Lisa's website - www.lisamcloughlinart.com🙌🏽🌀
One of the life tools I like to create at the start of a calendar year is choosing a focus word for that year. I create some art or craft work at the end of December or start of January, which goes on to become my daily reminder about my focus word and the energy behind it. It's a tool that has worked really well for me for several years now, no matter what is going on in my life at the time. My focus word for 2018 was "Creativity" - and when I chose this word in the January, I had no idea that the daily doodling I did, and shared on social media to help my emotional and cognitive wellbeing, would evolve into requests for Illustration work for prints, books and online courses by the start of 2019! While I'm sure this didn't just happen because of my chosen word, it certainly helped me to regularly connect with the intention behind it. So this year I have chosen "Activist", Activism is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as, "the use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one." Throughout my life I have nearly always been involved in various types of activism about issues close to my heart and spirit. Over the past decade this has very much been connected to my development as a permaculture practitioner and educator. I'm hoping that choosing this word as my focus in the coming months, will enable me to design my new form of activism, as part of my plan to continue to thrive while being unwell with Lyme Disease.
Over the last year I have been following the work of illustrator and online Mental Health Activist, Make Daisy Chains and also the Craftivism movement, especially the work of the Craftivism Collective Both of these are part of my inspiration for these first weeks of the year as I begin to design the early part of the journey, my focus word for 2019 will take. Im hoping to use the Wheel of the Year, Earth based festivals for times of reflection about my current permaculture projects, and how these are influenced by my new focus word. I plan to document the main topics of that reflective process, within future blog posts here.
Using Permaculture To Create A New Planner & Reflection Tool
As part of my portfolio of designs for my Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design, one of my favourite design created was a Reflection and Planner Journal , (This link isnt accesible on a mobile phone). This tool totally changed the way that I achieved the goals and intentions I set in my life and work. I have used versions of this design ever since. I also know that several friends have also used their own versions of the tool as well, with really positive feedback.
One thing I found when I first became very unwell and unable to work, last year, was that my Reflection and Planner Journal no longer felt as useful. The large spaces to fill on the pages, plus some of the content, was a constant reminder about how much my life had adversely changed through my illness. In addition the A4 size paper was becoming more and more difficult to physically manage to use as my movement, even when resting in bed, was very limited.
So I set about on a redesign! - I wanted one easily accessible place where I could record plans, ideas, reflections and resources ,using a variety of creative ways of documenting.
A friend had introduced me to the concept of Bullet Journaling several months before and I’d been considering it as something that I could well adapt to suite my own needs. Many commercially produced 'Dot Journals' typically used in bullet journaling, are A5 size, which means much easier accessibility in relation to my health needs.
The Design Web
I’m a keen fan of Looby Macnamara’s 'Design Web'- the Design Process at the core of her book People and Permaculture, for anything related to using permaculture design as a way of improving our own lives. So it was an obvious choice for me to use the Design Web to guide the design of my new Planner & Reflection Tool.
First of all, I decided to name my new Planner and Reflection Tool a 'Seed Journal' – a space to vision and record ideas, observations and reflections, many of which could become actual projects and designs, if, or when the conditions were optimal for them to germinate and grow. I purchased an A5 Dot Journal to try for the first time. (There are many different brands of these journals available. Purchasing one from a stationary shop local to you if at all possible, rather than from big multinationals, will obviously keep more money in your local community. )
Here is a summary of how I have used, (and sometimes creatively adapted), various Anchor Points from the Design Web as a core part of my Seed Journal Tool.
Seed Journal Overview
Ideas & Actions
Project Pages - Examples of these in my Seed Journal are :- Design pages, (a space to document information relating to a specific design); Blog post ideas; Lunar & Solar Cycles; Social media planning; Learning notes about a particular topic; Budgeting; Log of useful resources; Mindmap of project ideas for next year.
This Anchor Point for me is a reminder about how important creativity is in my life. And each week I try and engage in some artwork that is just for the sole purpose of taking a break, often I will listen to some relaxing meditation music at the same time, and then I glue the creative piece into my Seed Journal.
I use this Anchor Point to focus on recording daily activities that are important to me, and symptoms of my illness. It’s a really useful way to look at the patterns and connections between them, then making changes for the next month as suggestions and solutions emerge.
I find spending time on indepth visioning for the month ahead, a creative and inspiring way to design beyond the edges of my comfort zone, as well as considering aspects of my life and work that may of had very little attention recently. I use a mix of Mother Peace Tarot Cards, various decks of Oracle cards, Gaia Craft Permaculture Principle Cards and Group Works Cards.
Goals &/or Intentions
Actually not an Anchor Point in the Design Web, but nearly always part of a permaculture design. I like to use the SMART acronym for goal setting . This link is a great one for expanding on the typical: - Specific; Measurable; Achievable; Measurable; Time bound. The monthly overview in this image above is collaged from the wonderful Earth Pathways Diary
Ideas & Actions
I have a page each month where I can literally write down ideas as they come into my head. Then at the start of each week I consider how they might fit into the days ahead, or possible connections with project pages in my Seed Journal
At the end of each month I spend dedicated time on reflecting how the month has gone, and link to my goals and patterns for the month. I like using Roses, Buds and Thorns reflection tool here, but it's also a great opportunity to try out some of the others too, for example PMI (Pluses Minuses, Interesting) or SWOC (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Constraints).
Weekly & Daily Journal
The small spaces in this layout work really well for me. Enough room to document, without too much space to feel overwhelmed about filling it! It takes me about 10 minutes to draw this out each week. It can be a good opportunity for thinking about intentions for the week ahead.
Not officially part of the Design Web, but an additional section I use to capture the general overview of the week, for example, significant moon phases, festivals, celebrations or other important times.
As part of my ongoing learning and growing as a permaculture practitioner I like to focus on a particular Permaculture Principle each week, and spend time throughout the week reflecting on how this principle can be used in the different areas of my own life, community (online and face to face), and globally. It can be a useful focus for me when I am not well enough to engage in much physical activity, (I have called this my ‘structured daydreaming’ tool, a redefinition of 'not feeling well enough to do anything'). Sometimes I journal about my thoughts relating to principles, especially if it seems like it would be a good reflection to ‘capture’ for future projects. And on other occasions, I choose a permaculture principle I know is going to be a useful one for specific plans for the week. At other times I use the wonderful Gaia Craft Permaculture Principle Cards to inspire me.
I use this space to document a particular quote, poem, song lyrics or anything else that resonates with me at this time. Reminding myself about it each day really helps to ingrain its meaning and connection for me in my life.
Ideas & Actions
I use these Anchor Points together. This space is for ideas for action throughout the day, plus a log of other actions that occurred without plan, throughout the day.
People I want/need to connect with during that day. And then at the end of the day, additional people who I connected with.
I really like using tarot and oracle cards as part of my daily routine, to inspire and perhaps encourage thinking and reflecting outside of my comfort zone. I briefly record these reflections here.
I use the Roses Thorns and Buds reflection tool to do a mini-reflection for each day.
Not an Anchor Point in the Design Web – but I find it useful to have a separate section to be clear about which permaculture projects I am focusing on each day/week.
Space for daily gratitude.
Some Thoughts To End With
So, this was a brief exploration through, how my new Seed Journal Tool, guided by the a people focused permaculture design process, the Design Web, works incredibly well for me. Implementing this design has been a really useful reminder of how ecological principles and the Permaculture Ethics of People Care, Fairshares and Earth Care, can be used in healing, resilience building and regeneration of ourselves. I've been using my Seed Journal, including, overtime, several useful changes, for 9 months now. Its emerged into a really positive core aspect of how I am adapting my life to several major life events, in particular the onset of chronic illness, over the last two years. Rather than a prescriptive ‘how to’, this blog is very much about sharing ideas that may inspire you, and could well be adapted for your own life.
In case you missed the link earlier on in this post, you can buy People and Permaculture by Looby Macnamara, featuring masses more information about using the Design Web for people focused Permaculture Design, from the Permaculture Market.
Welcome to my new blog, born at the festival of Samhain 2018, the Pagan New Year. Here I aim to share regular everyday examples of how permaculture can provide healing and regeneration for ourselves, our communities and our planet.
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