A green way of dying

One of my many interests in life revolves around the death positive movement. Want to know what that is? Well the Order of the Good Death will sort you out.

Fundamentally, modern burial practices are incredibly destructive to the living, the dead, and to the planet. The peculiar obsession that we have in the West with embalming our dead, burying them in an incredibly expensive coffin, and then having that bank breaking coffin break down in the ground and leach any chemicals from it and the embalmed loved one contained within into the surrounding earth is just madness. And if you’ve spent some extra money and bought a plot so that your loved one is effectively enshrined in cement, never to return to the earth at all, well…there are some unpleasant truths about what happens in that particular instance that I will let you discover for yourself.

Whatever happens to us in life, we all have one life experience that we will absolutely certainly definitely all have – death. It is the one true leveller. Of course, we all wish for a quiet and peaceful death at a ripe old age, after having lived a good and fulfilled life. That’s not too much to ask surely? But what happens to us after then? While I’m not going to open up a debate about the existence or lack of an afterlife, we all leave a physical body behind wherever we end up floating off to. And that body has to be dealt with somehow.

Caitlin Doughty of the Order of the Good Death has spoken quite highly of sky burial, predominantly practiced in Tibet and Mongolia. A person’s body is left out in the elements on a mountain top to be scavenged by local birds. Not a bad way to return to nature if you ask me, but currently not legal in the UK. But there are other legal ways in which we can lay our dead to rest and still be in touch with nature.

Natural burials are getting more and more popular in the UK, with natural burial grounds appearing up and down the country. There are fairly strict rules for many of these sites, such as the body must be unembalmed (fun fact: embalming is not a legal requirement in the UK, unless a body is being repatriated) and any coffin must be made out of biodegradable components, so no shiny coffins with all those fiddly metal bells and whistles. But you do get to lay your loved one to rest in often very beautiful natural surroundings and you can plant a tree above their grave (permanent markers tend not to be allowed in many places) and leave them to go back to the earth. Quite beautiful if you ask me.

I haven’t mentioned cremation that much, mostly because it in itself comes with some environmental impact, but by following similar rules as per natural burial, you can reduce the impact somewhat.

So what prompted this blog post? I’m currently reading a book by Suzanne Kelly called Greening Death: Reclaiming burial practices and restoring our tie to the Earth and if I’m completely honest, it is sort of Peak Druid reading material. Kelly talks at length about how separated humanity has become from nature, and that the dying and burial rituals that we take part in are often no different. We deny the fact that we will all die and rot. We try to retain some semblance of permanency through embalming and other such practices. And its all for nothing really.

Kelly explores the industrialisation of the funeral industry and all the problems that that has caused, both culturally and environmentally. So far I’ve read about how embalming became a “thing” mostly due to necessity during the American Civil War, and I look forward to hearing more about how “reclaiming the corpse” can lead us to “restoring our relationship to the land”.  Highly recommended reading for any death positive pagan.

 

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Feminist pedagogy and paganism

I’m currently taking a short course in feminist pedagogy for my day job and so far it is really interesting, but also got me thinking about modern paganism. In a nutshell, feminist pedagogy is:

“…a perspective on teaching which is anti-sexist, and anti-hierarchical, and which stresses women’s experience, both the suffering our oppression has caused and the strengths we have developed to resist it”. (Berenice Fisher)

How does this relate to modern paganism? Well those who ascribe to this teaching approach also argue that:

“knowledge, truth, and reality have been constructed as if men’s experiences were normative, as if being human meant being male.” (Personal Narratives Group)

And it is that interpretation of reality being inherently patriarchal that really struck me. Because of course it is true. A book that I am currently reading for my course expands this idea further:

“Men traditionally have epistemological privilege. Epistemological privilege means that your way of knowing and method of knowledge production is favored and taken for granted, that your way of knowing is the world’s way of knowing, society’s way of knowing, that you’re in sync, in alignment.” (Maria T. Accardi)

The more and more I thought about these ideas, the more I realised how much of modern paganism has been driven by men. Take Druidry and Wicca for example. Both current incarnations were predominantly founded and forged by men. While one could argue that times have since changed and there are many women taking on leadership roles and contributing to the scholarly knowledge around practicing these paths (and others), there are still some uncomfortable echoes of these influences. Take as an example the leadership of the largest druid organisation OBOD, and key creator of the associated order teaching materials – a man. The same applies to the British Druid Order. And many of our US orders such as AODA, ADF etc. The same applies to influential authors and historians over the years who have contributed to Druidry – Iolo Morganwg, Ronald Hutton, John Michael Greer, John Beckett. I could go on but I hope you get my point.

We have some fantastic voices out there who drive paganism forward in amazing and wonderful new ways such as Joanna van der Hoeven, Nimue Brown, Penny Billington and Emma Restall Orr, but for every incredible woman writer doing astounding things, there are often at least five blokes getting much more attention and coverage.

I suppose my huge concern is, how much of our paganism is based on what men think? How has that limited us in our philosophy, growth and inspiration? An interpretation from a predominantly white, older, cis-male perspective is not representative of the world, or even paganism itself. And if I remove the binary entirely, what about all of those who are neither male nor female? And those from ethnic minorities or cultures simply not captured by the modern pagan narrative.

We have a hugely rich history to delve into but it is one carved, created, and steered by men. And I for one am not hugely ok with that. But what can I suggest? I suppose thinking more critically about what we consume and transform into our own practices and beliefs? Evaluating whether we should always be inviting male speakers to present at pagan gatherings, and if we can do better with our overall representation? I know there are groups out there who are working on this and are getting it right, so this post isn’t really for you. It’s for everyone else who hasn’t even really thought about how masculine our entire movement is. And by that I mean the leadership, not the membership.

Are we raising people up through our practices and teachings? If the answer is no, or I don’t know, maybe we should start doing that better. The assumption that everyone experiences life, truth, and knowledge in the same way is false and needs challenging. We all know the stereotype of the old white man with a beard no longer represents Druidry, but he still roams in our influential texts and ideas.

The human-nature paradox

It says a lot about modern humanity that we have new terms to describe how we have separated ourselves from the very natural world of which we are supposed to be a part of. One such term that I have heard being used more and more is Nature Deficit Disorder. Coined in the 2005 book Last Child in the Woods by writer Richard Louv, Nature Deficit Disorder is used to describe how many of us, especially children, are spending less and less time in nature.

The impacts of this deficit can be wide-ranging with obesity and mental health issues such as depression being exacerbating by this separation from the natural world. Louv does state that Nature Deficit Disorder is not a medical diagnosis but more a descriptor of the way in which humans have consistently becomes more and more detached from the natural world. However, this idea is corroborated in part by existing scientific research that finds a correlation between good mental health or wellbeing and time spent in nature. Personally, I think there must be a correlation between lower engagement with nature and an increased lack of living in balance with the land, or at least considering how our polluting actions can impact on our wider ecosystem, so this whole area of thought always appeals strongly to me.

But with more and more of us living and working in urban environments out of economical and societal necessity, what is the solution? Well, getting outside of course! But this can be harder than it sounds so seeking inspiration from others is key. The inspiration for this blogpost comes from an NPR book review that I read recently called “Suffering From Nature Deficit Disorder? Try Forest Bathing”. Thinking it sounded a bit weird but also intriguing, I was definitely drawn in by the title.

The review focuses on a new book by Dr Qing Li who apparently is the “world’s foremost expert in forest medicine”. More specifically, the book is about the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing“. Apparently the book is quite wonderful and filled with photographs but is also backed up by some pretty solid science. The thing is, Dr Li is not just some woo doctor pedalling some alternative medicine to the masses. Nope, he’s a medical doctor in Tokyo and has been a visiting fellow as renowned institutions around the world including Stanford University School of Medicine. So, you would imagine he knows his stuff.

And the description of “forest bathing” makes a surprising amount of sense too. Studies cited by the book consistently show that spending time carrying out “forest bathing” reduces stress levels, including stress hormones, and anxiety among other things. Can’t get to a forest on a regular basis? No worries, smaller acts such as having house plants or using aromatherapy oils (specifically phytoncides) based around trees such as pine and cypress can have beneficial effects too. Also, getting out in a humble city park can also have a striking impact.

So I know I’ll be adding this book to my nature-based life improvement themed bookshelf as well as thinking more about how I bring more green and nature into my daily life, even when I’m undergoing the daily grind in my office in a concrete and steel building!

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When science and tradition collaborate

As part of my environmental science degree, I learned about the concept of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK. It refers to the sometimes quite considerable amount of experience, traditions, beliefs and stories of indigenous groups and can often be recorded in the form of oral tradition.

While categorised as a more anthropological field of study, TEK has slowly over time started to be tapped into by scientists looking for insights into areas such as baseline data of climate or species numbers, to consolidate statistics that they may have already gathered through empirical methods. Using a method such as TEK that relies heavily on anecdotal experiences as opposed to findings documented in a repeatable and rigorous manner, and so is still seen as controversial by some parts of the scientific community.

That being said, more enlightened scientists are recognising the value of the knowledge and awareness of their immediate environment of indigenous peoples and so are working with them to understand more about a whole range of topics such as the effects of climate change, weather patterns, and animal behaviour. One such fascinating insight into the use of TEK can be found via Hakai Magazine, which both wrote up an article and recorded it as a podcast about the intertwined relationship between the whale and the Iñupiat, an indigenous group living in and around the Arctic.

It’s a long read (or listen) but I highly recommend it as it covers supernatural aspects such as visions and out-of-body experiences that led directly to a change in whale hunting practices, as well as the work of biologists to understand the complex cultures within whale groups, and by extension those within the human communities that live alongside these huge marine animals. It’s an absolutely fascinating insight into how some scientists are bucking the trend of their mainstream community’s ideas around the avoidance of anthropomorphising science and the wealth of understanding that that change in mindset can bring.

You can read the full article here: https://www.hakaimagazine.com/features/when-whales-and-humans-talk/ and listen to the podcast here: https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-pyzxr-8e8234

Header image credit: Tattooed Whale, 2016 by Tim Pitsiulak. Screen-print on Arches Cover Black. Reproduced from original article.

We need our own songs

The title of this blogpost is a paraphrased sentiment that I have heard a few times within the druid community…the importance of having our own songs to sing around the campfire and in other community situations, plus for those solitary times of meditation.

Over the weekend, I discovered the absolutely incredible sensory experience that is folk metal (or the uncategorisable) Heilung. I can’t find a huge amount about who they are or where they have come from but a great article on Revolver gives an insight into what they are trying to achieve: “amplified history”.

Through merging throat singing with Viking and Northern European pagan lore, the resulting music is a layered and complex spiritual experience. Listen to it for long enough and you start entering an almost trance-like state and feel that you are truly there with the ancient shamanistic peoples. Interestingly, band member Kai Uwe Faust also specialises in reviving Neo-Nordic tattooing practices, with phenomenal results.

So, get some good headphones or speakers, prepare to settle down for 76 minutes and immerse yourself in the primal wild experience that is Heilung’s live show, recorded at the brilliant Castlefest in 2017. You won’t regret it.

 

Should all druids go vegan?

So I watched this really interesting video from BBC’s Newsbeat about 1xtra radio presenter Nesta’s experience of going vegan for January (or Veganuary) after being a self-professed meat lover.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog how I’m vegetarian and don’t plan on going vegan any time soon for health reasons, even though I do often eat accidentally vegan meals anyway. I found this video really interesting as it did a great job of confirming that veganism isn’t the fad that some people think it is and highlighted some amazing example setting by others such as Forest Green FC.

Of course, the segment involving a chap explaining how animals are slaughtered was as uncomfortable as I thought it would be but he made a very good point – if you want to eat meat, then you need to understand that that will involve an animal needing to be killed.

In the past when I’ve been to druid gatherings, some people will make tongue in cheek jokes about how they love meat and won’t be partaking in the vegetarian/vegan food on sale during the event. While I’m fine for anyone to make whatever choices they want to make, I’ve always found that sort of attitude amongst people who profess to see nature as sacred (or some variant of that idea) to be really confusing. I’ve also seen some pagans talk about how hunting is a sacred act and part of their practice. But really, when you strip all the ritual and other reasons away, we are taking another animal’s life for our own pleasure and gratification and personally, that just doesn’t sit right with me ethically or spiritually.

I got a bit cross with the farmers who raise cattle who were saying that a meat-free lifestyle isn’t the way of the future but then I realised, of course they would say that. They have their livelihoods to defend and I respect that. However, something I didn’t agree with was one off-hand comment about meat rearing being more beneficial for the environment than being meat-free, or something along those lines and I wanted to check my facts before writing this post.

Now the research around the impact of growing soy, for example, has been pretty hit and miss with its conclusions. Sometimes it’s more environmentally impactful and other times it isn’t.  But the key thing in this narrative is who, or rather what, is actually consuming that soy. According to the WWF, 75% of soybean that is currently being grown for animal feed. Yes. Animal feed. So all that deforestation, pollution and other negative effects that you may have heard about being created through the growing of soy is nothing to do with the vegans, it’s to do with the beef industry. How do we combat this? Eat less beef! This animal feed also goes into towards producing other meats as well as eggs and cheese, through the food chain, so really we’re all eating the outputs of soy whether we mean to or not.

Does that mean we’re all going vegan somewhere along the line? #stealthveganism

 

Leave no trace

You may have heard about the concept of leaving no trace when going out into nature. In a nutshell, you should leave things as you find them (if not slightly better in the case of others not following these rules and you needing to clean up after them!) and as if you were never there. This is an especially useful philosophy to remember when visiting areas that may be more vulnerable to human activities such as finely balanced ecosystems or environments that are recovering from a recent destructive event such as an oil spill.

While we have a certain degree of control over our immediate impact when we go out and engage with wild spaces, what about our more global impact as individuals? The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have a neat quiz that allows you to report on your own day-to-day activities such as your diet choices, travel options, and recycling levels and in return you get a percentage of how much of your carbon footprint that you’re using up as well as tips on how to reduce that footprint.

But what is a carbon footprint anyway and why should we care about the size of ours? Well much like the leave no trace idea, the carbon footprint is a metaphor for the impact that our activities have on the environment. So while we may not be leaving literal footprints (or traces) on the landscape, we are all contributing greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, to the on-going crisis that is global warming. The idea of a footprint comes from the concept of the ecological footprint which is effectively a representation of the amount of biologically productive land (or Earths) needed to sustain populations considering the current rate at which those populations are consuming natural resources.

I have been trying to make changes to my lifestyle, something I think we can all do as individuals, and I wanted to see what impact those changes had had on my own carbon footprint. Now it should be said that what I do individually and what larger bodies that I have little control over such as the industry sector has different impacts on the idea of a carbon footprint but I am a firm believer in the idea that if we start getting things right at home and then campaign for changes more widely, we can bring about real measurable change. We can’t very well push for cleaner industry if we can’t be bothered to recycle our own crap now can we? [N.B. I know that many are limited by refuse services and other such things that are available to them but in the UK, we really have very few excuses.]

So what were my results? I’ve taken some screengrabs from the WWF website as I couldn’t find a way of sharing my results any other way. If you want to take the quiz, you can find it here: http://footprint.wwf.org.uk/questionnaires/show/1/1/1

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So I won’t lie, I was pretty relieved to see that my carbon footprint wasn’t anywhere near as high as I thought it might have been. I have made some real changes in my life which I think have influenced my score.

For example, I follow a vegetarian diet. I do think about going vegan but for health reasons I think a vegetarian diet is the right choice for me at the moment. I do have a car but I use it incredibly infrequently because I am fortunate enough to live in an area with good bus and cycling provision, plus driving to my work would take longer and be more stressful than just getting on my bike.

I don’t travel abroad that much and so my use of flights was minimal. While I have no issue with travelling abroad, I have recently been trying to holiday within the UK as there as so many amazing places here that I haven’t ever visited and I feel that I should make a better effort to explore my own tiny island before stomping about in someone else’s. Seems only fair. Plus it’s more economical.

I rent so my options for making physical changes to my home are limited but I try to make up for that by getting my energy from a green provider. My electricity is 100% renewable and my gas is around 12% green as it is made from grass and is carbon neutral which is slightly bonkers but still pretty cool. This does cost a bit more than one of the Big Six providers here in the UK but I feel it is worth it as I am investing in a more green way of providing energy through supporting a company that is campaigning to change how energy is generated in the UK.

I know I could do better with buying my food from local sources but it is a challenge. Not an impossible one but still a challenge. While I can pay a bit more for certain things in life such as my energy, buying 100% locally produced food is still financially difficult. I do try to buy local where I can but like I said, it is sometimes still just too much. That being said, I have managed to make a huge change to the environmental impact of my milk consumption as I now buy local through my milkman. Local milk in glass bottles which can then be recycled is a huge step up from buying non-degradable plastic bottles in the supermarket, so I’m proud of that surprisingly big change if nothing else.

As far as buying “stuff”, I tend to be pretty frugal and I don’t buy new clothes unless I absolutely need them. That being said, I would like to get into the habit of going to a charity shop first before going to the high street shops. I have found nice clothes in there before and have no issue with second-hand items, it’s just breaking a habit I suppose.

Deflated party balloon on muddy groundAnother thing that I want to start doing for myself, my local environment and by extension, my local community, is litter picking. I went for a long walk recently in the fields around where I live and I found not one but two rather large party balloons that had got tangled up in fencing. Well, one of them had. The second has inexplicably been tied to said fence for it to…I don’t know what. Biodegrade in the wind? Needless to say I was ranting about the stupidity of whoever thought that was a good idea while untying the death-trap ribbon so I could throw both balloons in a bin. I couldn’t help but notice that there were lots of beer cans and other bits of rubbish around so I ordered a litter picker so I can go out and do something about it.

As I have said already, I am a firm believer of individuals making a small change in their own lives. The cumulative effect of those small changes can be huge but we have to make those changes ourselves. We can’t wait for others to make them for us or to force us to make changes through legislation. One example: I think the plastic bag charges that came into force recently in the UK are an amazing idea. Of course it doesn’t stop people using plastic bags or leaving those bags as litter on the sides of roads, but it has made an impact. It just makes me sad that we had to be forced to make those changes through charging 5p per bag. It’s such a tiny amount but apparently enough to create change when the knowledge of the environment suffering from our bad actions apparently wasn’t enough. We’re a strange old species aren’t we?

Be more green folks. Thanks.