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)
March 2017 - I have decided to stop undertaking any further interviews for Healing Agriculture, so I can focus on other permaculture work and designs.
Healing Agriculture was a core part of my learning and development throughout my Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design and I have gained so much pleasure, knowledge and inspiration from the people I interviewed, and the regenerative farming projects they designed.
I hope you continue to be inspired by the wonderful diverse range of Land and People featured here. I will continue to share related information on social media via the Healing Agriculture Facebook Page and Twitter account.
If you would like your own project to be featured in similar collections and connections of permaculture designs and people, then I can recommend Daniel Tyrkiel's podcast project.
About Healing Agriculture
Through creating Healing Agriculture I aim to profile and give a voice to the many people working in broad scale agriculture in Europe, aiming for ‘beyond sustainability,’ using the ethics of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share in their farming work and lives.
Across the planet, how we produce our food is killing our amazing Earth and all who live on her. In a very short space of time conventional agricultural practices have caused destruction on a horrific scale. On a daily basis the media informs us of the widespread harm and bleak future we all face because of our Governments’ and personal actions. However, there are people throughout the land who are working incredible hard on many different scales to change this. For some time I have thought about a way of being able to share to a wide audience the extent and depth of this way of farming in Europe.
The main goals of Healing Agriculture are -
* To raise public awareness about the very positive aspects of food production on a broad scale (sites bigger than 1 acre) throughout Europe.
* To build connections between farmers and projects who are using different design tools - RegenAG, Holistic Management, Permaculture - to undertake this restorative way of growing our food.
Water in Plain Sight
Judith D. Schwartz
St Martin’s Press July 2016
Water in Plain Sight is another engaging informative work from Judith D Schwartz. It furthers many of the issues she explored in her 2013 book Cows Save The Planet, alongside discussing some very timely new topics.
In Water in Plain Sight we learn many disturbing and essential to understand accounts about how our global history of violence towards our planet, in the form of agricultural practices, hunting and deforestation are drastically altering access to water. Then contributing to the destruction of our land and communities via political turbulence, discrimination, conflict and suffering on massive scales.
Judith takes us on a journey around the globe, Zimbabwe, Mexico, California, Ohio, Texas, Western Australia and introduces us to a wonderfully diverse group of people who are demonstrating some amazing ways of how they are re-engaging with the natural cycles of water, particularly in slowing water cycles down. In turn these scientists, farmers and caretakers of land tell the stories of soil, water and community regeneration through their practices.
The most powerful message I gained from Judith’s book though, is that drought is due to how soil holds and moves water, rather than a lack of rainfall, and that this flow and cycle is crucial to take into account in combating climate change.
Schwartz’s writing style as an Investigative Journalist, as in Cows Save The Planet, cleverly connects a huge amount of widely researched material which links the personal and the political. She ensures that the messages in her work are accessible to all of us, regardless of how much we already know about global water/drought subjects.
Reading and then rereading Schwartz’s work has again given me inspiration to make some very real positive changes in our communities and lands. I can recommend it to all. Water in Plain Sight provides us with motivation and hope, in the form of a whole global toolbox of solutions to actively heal our planet with.
- Using Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Spirit to as a tool to design my journey to Andalucía
The meaning of spirituality I connect with is one which is Earth based and includes being guided by, grounding in and celebrating the different moon and sun cycles which of course in turn determine our patterns of days, months, seasons. Central to this form of spiritual experience are the 5 elements - Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Spirit. These aspects are deeply linked to my permaculture life, work and activism.
This year I have undergone a big life change from being a hill farmer and palliative care nurse in a remote part of the Yorkshire Dales, to moving to the hills of Andalucía, Spain with my partner, dogs and cats, to a house with just under 2 acres of land. This post shows how I have used the 5 Elements to explore how my knowledge and practice of permaculture can be transferred and adapted to my next life chapter design.
In the Dales I spent years using permaculture tools to improve the health of the soil on the farm. Carefully designed grazing systems with a wide diversity of agricultural animals made big differences to the biodiversity in the grazing land and the edge with forestry land. I used animal manure combined with structures such as raised beds, hot beds, polytunnels, and then lots of successional planting. This greatly improved the fertility of the soil and also generated extra heat to be able to grow a range of species and variety of both annual and perennial plants I never thought possible.
Here in Andalucía, the soil is dry, rocky, dusty and steep. I wont be farming any agricultural animals so I need to design how I am going to create and maintain the highest level of soil fertility as I can. Many different perennial and annual plants grow here that I have no experience in growing before so there is much learning to be done.
The Earth Element is also about ensuring life force and motivation is given to other aspects of life, and I intend to use the specific qualities from this element to design and carry out some of the ideas and projects on my ‘to do list for my move here. This will include looking at what I will do in terms of my right livelihood, creativity and taking responsibility for my own health. Designing for this diversity should help to ensure that my life here is as resilient as possible.
Winters were long and cold in the Dales. Soon after we arrived there we invested in a heating system that heated the cottage there well, provided hot water and allowed us to be able to cook slow stews and soups through burning local wood. We often needed to keep one stove lit for most of the year, so needed a constant supply of dry wood. So we also designed a storage system for the large amounts of wood needed, to be as effective of human energy and time as possible. Our outdoors fireplace was also a really core part of our lives, providing a focus to cook outdoors and celebrate events.
Sun hours in our remote part of the Dales were very few and we designed food growing, animal care and our own holistic health to maximize the use of the available sunlight.
We need to heat our house for the coldest months of the year here in Spain and are already planning a wood burning system and accessing local wood to burn. Wild fires are also a very real danger in the summer months and how to avoid them and then protect our home and animals if they do occur, is something that is really key to our future life here.
The sun shines for about 340 days of the year at our new home which is a really big change for us Yields we can obtain from that amazing energy include growing a much more diverse and abundant range of food and the potential for heating water and generating electricity for power. The strength of the sun can also be damaging in the hottest part of summer, and creating shade for both our food growing and outdoor living spaces will be part of the design.
Energy and action are also inspired by the element of Fire and I am in the process of using this inspiration to explore how I am going to take my permaculture work (lots of energy and action!) forward from here. I plan to finish my Diploma soon, but then what? And how will it integrate and balance with the other aspects of my life to make sure my energies are used as efficiently as possible?
It rained a lot at our North Yorkshire home, with the yearly average being over 100 inches. Improving the compacted soil, and planting trees, (especially willow). helped to improve the impact of excess water on the grazing land. The raised beds and a human made drainage channel, (which used a wide water pipe, perennial plant growth and a mesh outlet, to avoid soil erosion), had a really positive impact in avoiding plants being damaged by excess water.
Water here in the hills of Andalucía is precious. There is virtually no rain between April and September, and the winter rains are often short and very heavy, with potential for damage to land through flooding and erosion. Systems such as capturing and dispersing rainwater, utilizing grey water, optimizing organic matter in the soil, mulching and growing drought tolerant edible plants are already being considered as part of our design
Water in the non-physical aspect guides our emotional selves. Water flows, as do our emotions. Healthy emotional health can mean working on aspects of our mental heal that we are ‘stuck’ in, so that positive flow can take place. How can I use permaculture principles and tools to promote my emotional well being during this transition time? Starhawk talks a lot about the connections of grief and the water element, (‘the well of grief’). Being mindful of the loss I have experienced over recent months and years will also feature in this part of my people care/self care designing.
The exposed location and height of the farm meant that there could be damaging winds through out the year. Restoring many of the barns and dry stone walls on the farm and planting trees along field edges improved the shelter and then health and welfare of our agricultural animals. Also choosing native hardy breeds of sheep, cows, pigs and poultry ensured they would thrive well despite the weather conditions that the strong gales brought with them. Where we chose to site the various edible gardens, raised beds, polytunnel, planting further windbreaks and then choosing type and variety of edible plants designed for short growing seasons, meant we could protect our growing spaces from winds that contributed towards limits to maximum potential.
The winds at our new home can also be strong, and especially so in the winter Designing our food growing areas to include shelter against strong winds will make a huge difference to the varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs we can grow and the length of the growing season they will have.
Communication and connecting is the inner strength from Element of Air, and here in Andalucía there is an abundance of different factors emerging for this - making beneficial connections with new friends, community and neighbours. Sharing permaculture knowledge and experience with them: Finding systems to have positive communication with friends and family now many miles away: and engaging further with parts of the global permaculture community particularly those who are undertaking permaculture work in the local area or in similar geographic and climatic locations.
Glennie Kindred describes the Fifth Element, Spirit, as ‘the force that unites all the actions of the elements together, so that there is no separation….’ Back in the Yorkshire my spiritual practice mainly focused around celebrating the Wheel of the Year sun festivals, alongside the cycles of the moon, in connection with patterns the farming seasons. My nursing work and interest in using permaculture in designing how we die, also links deeply to spirit and that same cycle flow of life an death. In addition I spent time on a daily basis appreciating my spiritual connectedness with the land I worked on and grounding myself in the present, while honouring the power and energies of the five elements.
It feels reassuring and comforting to know that in Spirit, the patterns and practices that have given me so much meaning and peace in the past will transfer to my future. There will be changes of course, open outdoor fires will be saved for winter months for example, and I can already see that the arrival of rain will be a time for celebration and gratitude…but fundamentally the wheel will keep turning just as it has done, and within it there is much here to connect to.
Using the five Elements has been a really useful tool in my move here to Spain. As well as exploring the differences in using permaculture principles and ethics in our two homes, its also really helped me to identify some really beneficial connects between the knowledge and practice I feel confident about in my life in the Dales and my design for our resilient future here in Spain.
The following resources have helped with this post
The Earth Path – Starhawk
Sacred Earth Celebrations – Glennie Kindred
Earth Pathways Diary 2015
Earth Activist Training PDC, California 2013 - Starhawk and Charles Williams
Growing food In a Hotter, Drier Land – Gary Paul Nabha
The text from this post is published as an article "Permaculture and The Five Elements" in Permaculture Magazine Winter 2015 No 86
This week, 'Permaculture and the Five Elements', an article I wrote based on one of the designs in my Diploma Portfolio, was published in the Winter (No 86) edition of Permaculture Magazine. Along with some beautiful art work (not mine!), it was really good to see some of my design tools inspired by my Earth Based spiritual connections, being shared with the big global permaculture community.
You can read the full design 'Journey To Spain' here
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regular updates and reflections about the permaculture designs in my life