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Permaculture and Death – Part 1

A Reflection on Natural Cycles

As the balance of light and darkness during the day begins to tip even more towards darkness in the Northern Hemisphere, many are celebrating the various festivals of the beginning of winter. In the traditional cultures of the British Isles this time is sometimes known as Samhain (pronounced ‘sa-win’) [1], a time to honour and respect those who lived before us, and to acknowledge the presence of death as inextricably linked with life. Nowadays this day is usually called ‘Halloween’ in English-speaking countries, and is celebrated all over the world.

How is Halloween related to permaculture? At this time, it seems appropriate to contemplate the way we relate to death, dying and the departed, and to look at some ways of doing this which can encourage holistic thinking and practices.

 

Recognising cycles

Permaculture can help us to learn the cycles of nature and to work with them in ways which we have sometimes forgotten in modern society. For example, in industrialised agriculture, systems are often set up in a way that means farmers have to keep buying new seeds every year. This is especially true where seed-saving is discouraged or even made impossible by the presence of F1 hybrid seed strains (for more on this see my articles Seed Saving Part 1 [2] and Seed Saving for Beginners  [3]). If we wish to produce food which can be resilient and adaptable to change, as well as abundant in providing for our needs, it would probably be more efficient to save seeds from the plants we grow so that we can continue cultivating them. This is one reason why it is practical to encourage seed saving in permaculture design.

However, even if we engage in or support seed saving and other regenerative practical techniques, it can be argued that if we do not recognise that we ourselves are part of the same cycles of birth, life, decay and death, then we could be in a state of disharmony within our ecosystem.

 

Practising death

Permaculture and Death
Photograph by Jkoch562 (Pexels)

This may seem like a simple point, but in many cases it can be seen to be ignored. In a lot of modern societies, the perception of death has shifted from it being a natural part of life to something to avoid thinking about. As Ivan Ilich pointed out, modern medical systems (which he terms ‘iatrogenic’) de-personalise death to the point where dying is something which can only be done in a hospital setting with trained doctors [4]. This devalues our individual abilities to deal with death and also means that we are not educated in ways of practising for dying, so we can end up a little bit clueless about how to react to it when it does occur in our lives.

Facing death is one of the traditions of Samhain or Halloween, though in ancient times the practice was probably more about honouring our ancestors and all departed spirits than it was about ghouls and ghosts. The meaning seems to have been twisted to perceive death and the dead as a scary thing. However, in many traditional societies, dying is an activity for which one can practise. For example, much of the tradition of yoga involves practicing ‘letting go’ of your physical body so that when it comes to the time when you actually face your own death, you can make the transition calmly and easily [see for example “Closing the Gates, The Practice of Dying”  5].

 

More holistic death-perceptions…

It seems that what is needed at this time is a reviving of these traditions, though as we have recognised before, it is not enough simply to take on the traditions of a different culture.  We have to evolve them and weave them into new practises which are relevant to our own experience [see for example 6 & 7]. One of my favourite authors on this subject, Joseph Campbell, (who died around Halloween 32 years ago), said

“ One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life, but as an aspect of life. Life in its becoming is always shedding death, and on the point of death.”

Campbell, J; Moyers, B, 1991. The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers.

 

How to put this into practise?

In recognising the cyclic nature of life and death we can more readily accept our position within our ecosystem, and thus hopefully design resilient and balanced ways to deal with death and dying. It seems the most practical way to begin this is to start on an individual level and, as Campbell says, to accept and honour death as a part of our own personal lives. From this acceptance we can begin to radiate our awareness outwards towards accepting the death of other humans and indeed all beings. This may be a good time of year to begin putting these things into practice. In following parts of this article I will look in more detail at specific holistic examples of dealing with death and dying.

 

References

[1] Ancient Origins, 2019. ‘The Origins of Samhain’. https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/samhain

[2] Ashwanden, C, 2014. ‘Seed Saving Part 1: Seedy Issues’. Permaculture News, 18/10/14. https://pmnlive.wpengine.com/2014/10/18/seed-saving-part-1-seedy-issues/

[3] Ashwanden, C, 2015. ‘Seed Saving for Beginners’. Abundance Dance Garden, 25/3/15. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/28/seed-saving-for-beginners/

[4] Ilich, I, 1974. Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health. Pantheon: New York City, USA.

[5] Jivamukti Yoga, 2019. ‘Closing the Gates: The Practise of Dying’. https://jivamuktiyoga.com/fotm/closing-gates-practice-dying/

[6] Mollison, B, 1979. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari: Tyalgum, Australia.

[7] Abram, D, 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. Vintage: New York City, USA.

[8] Campbell, J; Moyers, B, 1991. The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (p. 125). Anchor: Hamburg, Germany.

 

 

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Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth) I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and since then have been traveling the world learning about and practicing permaculture. Born in London, I've lived in a number of places in England, Spain, the Basque Country, and Italy. My mum lives in Leipzig (Germany) so I've spent some time there. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and have recently become interested in dance meditation. Currently, I live in Thailand in a Forest Buddhism community school, so you can expect lots of tropical permaculture related articles in future.

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