Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology

Book Review: The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology  by Snorri Sturluson translated with Introduction and Notes by Jesse Byock (Penguin Books 2005)

The two Eddas – Prose Edda and Poetic Edda – were written down during the 13th century in Iceland and are thought to reflect material from the Viking Age (800-1100) oral tradition. There were two forms of poetry, eddic and skaldic, with the poetry of the skalds said to be more intricate, more metrical, and to more reflect the styles of individual poets. The Prose Edda is mostly in a prose form (new to Iceland at the time) with interspersed eddic poetry. The Eddas were written in Old Icelandic. For several reasons Iceland was well situated at the time to preserve trans-Germanic lore and story. The island was isolated and inhabited by settlers mostly from Norway and Norse colonies on the British Isles who desired to keep their old lore. It was less affected than the mainland by classical Mediterranean cultural and academic traditions. Not wanting to repeat the violent transition to Christianity that happened in Norway the transition was peaceful in Iceland with the old lore officially kept more as cultural heritage more so than as religion. The Eddas were written down a few centuries after the conversion to Christianity and Byock suggests that they were influenced by prose and poetic styles from mainland Europe as well as by a desire to keep alive old Scandinavian poetic traditions. The word “edda” means great grandmother but may refer to poetry or as Lee Hollander suggests, ‘Oddi,’ which is a place in Iceland where the presumed author Snori Sturluson studied. He is thought to have traveled around Scandinavia. His other known writing is a history of the Kings of Norway (Heimskringla) and is in the same style of mixed prose and poetics.

The Prose Edda (aka Younger Edda as Poetic Edda is called Elder Edda) is made up of four main parts: The Prologue – which is rather strangely Christianized and interspersed with Graeco-Roman mythology and thus shows a suspicious authenticity. The Gylfaginning – this is a dialogue between King Gylfi (or Gangleri) of Sweden and the newly arrived gods called the Aesir – where he questions three magical beings about their creation stories and the pastimes of the gods. Apparently this section of Prose Edda is very similar in all the manuscript versions. The third section is called Skaldskaparmal which means the ‘language of poetry.’ Apparently this section differs in different versions. Here there are also various tales of the gods and heroes from before Viking times back into the time of the Migration Period of Germanic tribes (5th to 7th centuries). So in this section history and myth intertwine as stories of kings from Eastern Gothic lands, Denmark, Scandinavia, Germany, and the Huns are recounted. The last section is a section about techniques of skaldic poetry called Hattatal, which refers to a list of metres. Only a sample piece of that section is given in this book edition as an appendix.

Byock notes some differences of the Norse gods to the Greek and Roman gods. They do not have the immortality of the Olympians. They meddle less in the affairs of humans. There are often unexpected consequences of their actions. Odin, Thor, and Loki are the protagonists in most of the stories. All are gods of the Aesir tribe or family, although Loki proves to be an antagonist. Magical manifestations such as shapeshifting and creating of visual illusions often occur in the stories. The main gods of the Vanic family are Njord, and the male-female twin-sibs-couple Frey and Freyja. The Vanic gods are mostly associated with fertility and it is often assumed that they were the original gods of the area with the more dominant Aesir coming later perhaps as an invading tribe. Originally there is conflict among these god families but they make a truce. Giants (Jotun), dwarves, and elves appear in several stories. The giants are thought to represent the danger of nature in the form of chthonic forces.

The Prologue begins in a very monotheistic Christian sense where Almighty God creates the world. Next is the assertion that Thor came from ancient Troy as the son of a King Mennon and Queen Troan, who was the daughter of the famed King Priam of myth. Thor was then called Tror and dwelled in Thracia near the Black Sea. Thor’s descendents are given. After 23 generations comes Odin, usually considered All-father, or chief of the gods. Odin traveled from the Black Sea region to Saxland (greater Germany) and eventually reached Sweden where he and his comrades encounter King Gylfi. They settled there and set up in the civilized manner of Trojans. This whole section is rather odd and often thought to be suspect – but perhaps there is some truth to it.

Next begins the Gylfaginning where King Gylfi is dazzled by three Aesir chiefs who tell him of the gods, the creation and configuration of the worlds, and the origins of gods, dwarves, giants, and men. These are all well-known stories so I won’t repeat them here. The worlds were said to have first arisen from the Great Void, called Ginnungagap. Next is recounted the World Tree, Yggdrasil, which forms the cosmological center of all the worlds. There are three wells where descend the three main roots of the tree. One is in the home of the gods, Asgard. The next one is in the land of the frost giants (where the universe arose from the Void) and this is Mimir’s Well where Odin gave his eye for wisdom. The third is in the dark world of Niflheim near the gates to the underworld and is continuously gnawed by Nidhogg the serpent. The three Fates, or Norns, attend the well in Asgard, called Urda’s well. These three are Urd (Fate), Verdandi (Becoming), and Skuld (Obligation). There are said to be other norns – elf norns, human norns, etc. They are the shapers of lives and it is said that the more noble of norns shape better lives whatever that may mean. Other interesting characters that inhabit the World Tree in Asgard include Ratatosk, the slandering gossiping squirrel and two swans who nourish themselves in Urd’s Well. The various heavenly realms of the light elves beyond Asgard are also described. Next is a description of all the gods, goddesses, Loki and his monstrous children with the giant Angrboda: Hel, the goddess of the underworld, the Midgard Serpent, and the Fenris wolf. Loki runs free and has many adventures with his comrade Odin, with both good and bad results. Eventually, he too, along with his three children with the giantess, comes to be in a confined state, bound by the gods. At Ragnarok – the final fate of the gods, aka ‘twilight of the gods’ they are all freed and war against the gods.

In stories, the gods often fall in love and mate with giants. The god Frey marries the giantess Gerd but loses his sword. Tyr loses his hand. Odin loses his eye. Loki loses his freedom. After more tales of the gods and the story of Ragnarok and the rebirth of the gods are told the Gylfaginning comes to an end. Curiously, in an epilogue to it there are some odd associations (perhaps conflagrations) as in the Prologue:

“... Thor of the Aesir, and Thor the Charioteer. To him they attributed the great deeds that Thor, or Ector [Hector] accomplished in Troy. Thus people believed that it was the Turks who told stories about Ulixes [Ulysses] and it is they who called him Loki, because the Turks were his worst enemy.”

The Skaldskaparmal section begins with more stories of the gods and goddesses. These are told by Bragi, possibly a prominent skald of history  – but also the divine skald of myth. They are told to someone called Aegir. Told are the stories of Idunn and the Golden Apples, The Mead of Poetry, and my personal favorite – where Skadi seeks vengeance for the death of her father:

“Another condition of her settlement was that the Aesir must do something she thought they could not do: make her laugh. Then Loki tied one end of a cord to the beard of a goat and the other end around his own testicles. The goat and Loki started pulling back and forth, each squealing loudly until finally Loki fell into Skadi’s lap, and then she laughed.”

Also included in Skaldskaparmal are the stories of Sigurd the Dragonslayer nearly as recounted in the Saga of the Volsungs, King Atli (Atilla the Hun), and the Gothic King Jormunrek. The story of Frodi’s Mill is also given – about King Frodi of Denmark, a descendent of Odin who had a long and peaceful reign until he became greedy and was killed. There is another story of King Hrolf Kraki of Denmark. Many kennings, or poetical references, are given in these tales. Kennings are a feature of many oral verse traditions and were well developed among Nordic skalds. The last section of the Skaldskaparmal contains examples of kennings and kenning structure. There are quite a few traditional kennings. Since gold appears in many tales there are many kennings that refer to it:

“It can be called the fire of Aegir, the leaf of Glasir, the hair of Sif, the headband of Fulla, the tears of Freyja, the utterance, voice, or words of the giants, the drops of Draupnir, the rain or shower from Draupnir or from Freyja’s eyes, recompense for the otter, repayment fro the blow struck by the gods, the seed of the plains of Fyri [Kraki’s seed], the covering of Holgi’s burial mound or the fire of all expressions for water and hands, also the boulder, rocky islet or lustre of the hands.”

There are many more kennings for gold as well as for all the gods, goddesses, for various natural phenomena, and for weapons, battles, armor, ships, time, etc.

There is a final section in the Skalskaparmal about the names and lineages associated with King Halfdan the Old from Scandinavia. These names and lineages stretch from Sweden to France to Russia to Denmark.

Appendix 1 is a section about the Norse cosmos and the World Tree. Byock suggests an Indo-European origin for the World Tree concept but it may well go back much farther in time. Yggdrasil means ‘the horse of the terrible one’ or ‘Odin’s horse’ which is also a metaphor for gallows tree.

“This view assumes that the ancient Scandinavians saw a similarity between how people ride horses and how a hanged person’s head bobs up and down as he ‘rides’ the gallows. The gallows tree was an emotionally significant site for the passage between life and death, and is a fitting symbol for the World Tree as the causeway fro connecting the heavens and the underworld.”

There is also a nice representative picture of the World Tree with all of its inhabitants at the beginning of the book. There is one map.

In Appendix 2 is given the section about skaldkraft. There is more about kennings and heiti, which are simply synonyms. I can imagine clever wordplay where skalds might try to hide meanings through several layers of kennings and others might try to unravel them much like riddles. This seems rather likely as riddles are well known in the Anglo-Saxon poetry. Kennings also help with learning and familiarizing with tales and tradition.

Appendix 3 has a list of Eddic poems used for sources in the Gylfaginning. There is also mention of some lost poems mentioned by name such as Heimdall’s Chant.

Finally there are some genealogy tables of the gods, dwarves, and giants. There is also a short family tree of the lineage of magicians. Here Vidolf is the source of seeresses. Vilmeid is the source of wizards, and Svarthofdi is the source of sorcerers. I would not mind learning more about that one.

The Eddas are essential for understanding Nordic and Germanic myth and lore and Byock does well at explaining. I am currently reading Lee Hollander’s translation of the Poetic Edda for a change of perspective.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times

Book  Review: When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times by Pema Chodron (Shambhala Classics 1997)

This book is eminently practical and insightful as are all books and talks by Pema Chodron that I have encountered. These are teachings to convince one to look honestly at oneself. This self-honesty can be an invaluable aid to one’s quest for psychological and spiritual transformation. She suggests that we become intimate with our disturbing emotions – particularly with fear. Our tendencies are to avoid and to seek escape. Although one doesn’t typically think of something like meditation requiring courage Pema Chodron explains that indeed it does require it.

“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”

We have to develop the courage to let go of expectations and ideals. We cling to many habits simply due to fear. Letting go is letting go of our reactions to fear. Fear can be an opportunity to live in the present moment.

When we are faced with new and changed situations sometimes we cannot fall back on old ways and habits and things tend to fall apart. We are forced to adapt to new conditions. We can’t run away so we are compelled to let go of the habit of running away.

In Chapter 3 – This Very Moment is the Perfect Teacher – she states that:

“But for practitioners or spiritual warriors – people who have a certain hunger to know what is true – feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back.”

In discussing meditation she notes that it is more about opening up and relaxing into a difficult situation. The technique of meditation confines one into specific behavior. Reaction to stimuli is minimized as observing stimuli and potential response is the preferred method.

“Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limit and to not get carried away by hope and fear.”

In the formal meditation technique one practices not indulging thoughts and emotions but also not repressing them. The struggle of constantly returning to the technique after being distracted by thoughts and emotions is the point. Pema describes the meditation technique of shamatha/vipasyana that she learned from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and how he taught and refined it over the years. She mentions the importance of developing a non-judgmental attitude and equates this attitude with the Sanskrit word maitri, loving-kindness, or unconditional friendliness.

“... meditation is about opening and relaxing with whatever arises, without picking and choosing.”

As a teacher, she describes hearing from people with problems, often of hopelessness and feelings of inadequacy. Here she says that developing maitri (for oneself) is essential.

Cultivating mindfulness in all aspects of our life helps us to notice what happens when we are challenged. When we can do this we can develop the ability to refrain.

“Mindfulness is the ground, refraining is the path.”

She describes the practice of refraining as an important dharmic path:

“It’s the quality of not grabbing for entertainment the minute we feel a slight edge of boredom coming on. It’s the practice of not immediately filling up space just because there’s a gap.”

She describes a practice she was given once to notice what she did physically when she felt uncomfortable. She mentions such things as pulling on her ear, scratching nose or head when there was no itch, or straightening her collar. These various fidgety actions are what we do to try to avoid the groundlessness, the uncertainty of being.

She describes hopelessness, or giving up hope, as an essential beginning. Hope is often intertwined with preconceived notions. It narrows our mind so that we have a distorted perspective. Traditionally giving up things is the practice of renunciation. This renunciation opens up possibilities. Giving up hope, desire, and all the things we habitually cling to, is really giving up our grasping at self, or at our misconception of self.
She also describes that clinging to hope is often a feature of theism where supplicating an external deity is akin to hope and conviction in an external authority and that:

“Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.”

She suggests that we are addicted to hope and that theism is also very often an addiction. So when renouncing things that are addictive, like sex and alcohol, as in monastic rules, what is really being renounced is the hope that we place in them for solving our immediate problems. If our spiritual practice is constantly infused with hope we are not being mindful for we are distracted by grasping at potential future conditions. Abandoning hope is akin to letting go of an addiction.

She discusses what are called the – Eight Worldly Dharmas – pleasure and pain, loss and gain, infamy and fame, and praise and blame. So there are four we typical like and four we typically don’t like. These are sources for our attachment and aversion. Again it is suggested that one observe and become familiar with these situations in our own life so that we can understand how we get caught up in them and so that we can eventually transcend beyond their influence. How we feel often is a result of how we interpret things that happen. Our states of mind are often subject to emotional triggers. So in a very real sense we very often create these eight illusory dharmas ourselves. We often perceive blame (or praise) when none is given and the same goes for the others. If we observe mindfully we can come to know how our own confusion works.

“Knowing our own confusion, we’re more willing and able to get our hands dirty and try to alleviate the confusion of others.”

She describes the –Six Kinds of Loneliness (or healthy adaptations to loneliness) – 1) less desire – refers to loneliness without resolution where we don’t react to it in order to eliminate it; 2) contentment – refers to cultivating contentment with loneliness rather than trying to escape it; 3) avoiding unnecessary activities – refers to avoiding escapism into habits that we use to flee loneliness; 4) complete discipline – refers to cultivating the technique of mindful presence regardless of our loneliness; 5) not wandering in the world of desire – refers to not scanning around for ways to escape loneliness, or not looking for antidotes, recognizing that loneliness is not a disease that requires antidotes; 6) not seeking security from one’s discursive thoughts – refers to not seeking refuge in the mental chatter of our own thoughts.

Next she examines the traditional Buddhist teaching about – the Three Marks of Existence - these are impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. She suggests that these conditions are not catastrophic but that our fundamental situation toward them can be joyful if we keep them in mind and respect them as a part of nature.

“Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality. Many cultures celebrate this connectedness. There are ceremonies marking all the transitions of life from birth to death, as well as meetings and partings,....”

Regarding suffering she notes the inseparability of pleasure and pain and that the end of one thing is the beginning of another. She also notes the inseparability and complementary natures of inspiration and wretchedness.

She equates egolessness with our ‘basic goodness’ and our ‘Buddha Nature’ (potential for awakening). Egolessness is unconditional. Ego covers up this basic state with conditions and schemes. As for how to celebrate these three marks in our lives she suggests that we do so by recognizing situations as manifestations impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. We should first recognize these manifestations without judgment so as to be able to better accept them and further notice our reactions to them and better be able to dissolve our delusions.

She discusses the Buddhist teaching about the Four Maras – or four demons encountered by the Buddha before his enlightenment. These are the main obstacles to being free of delusion. They are how we become ensnared in our habitual confusion. The first is the devaputra mara  - the child of the gods – this is the demon of always seeking pleasure. This is the source of our addictions as we seek pleasure to avoid pain. Second is the skandha mara – the demon of the ego self-perpetuated – this refers to recreating our familiar self as something to fall back on when we are faced with deep change. I have heard it said that this was the source of all the maras – the fixation on the self. Next is the klesha mara – demon of the afflicting emotions – this is the tendency of letting our emotions get out of hand whether desire, greed, fear, anger, pride, or jealousy. When we are motivated by such forces we fail to connect with our basic wisdom mind. The last of the Maras is yama mara – Yama is the demon of death – she notes that she considers all the maras to arise from this one – and certainly all fears arise from the fear of death. She describes this demon in terms of the fallacy of seeking a perfect life:

“Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. There’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later, we’re going to have an experience we can’t control.”

Basically, the advice for dealing with these demons is that we should keep an overall non-aggressive approach to them.

She mentions clarity, honesty, and kindness as keys to spiritual growth and that they work together. Other useful qualities are courage and confidence. These are particularly helpful to developing discipline. Working with others is how we bring up our own confusion. These conflicts with others show us what we need to work on.

The importance and challenges of practicing compassionate action are emphasized. Such action requires relating with others. Difficulties and unresolved issues arise when we relate with others. Most of us prefer to be compassionate on our own terms but often this is not possible and we must overcome obstacles through struggle and effort. She suggests abandoning the absolutes of right and wrong and fixed attitudes in general so that we can better relate to whatever situation appears.

In discussing Bodhicitta – the noble awakened heart she describes it thus:

“We awaken this bodhicitta, this tenderness for life, when we can no longer shield ourselves from the vulnerability of our condition, from the basic fragility of existence. In the words of the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, “You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion.”

She goes on to give the practice of tonglen – taking and receiving – which is designed to awaken bodhicitta. Here one uses the breath and the imagination to breathe in the suffering of all beings with the wish that they be free of it and to breathe out joy to them with the wish that they experience it. This is compassion training for oneself and serves to support the habit of thinking of others and holding the wish for all to be free of suffering. There are many ways one can do this and many situations where it can be applicable. Bodhicitta is always available. She gives some detailed instructions and for practicing tonglen as a formal practice but notes that it can be done in brief and on the spot at any time.

“Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process, we become liberated from very ancient patterns of selfishness.”

The six transcendent actions – generosity, patience, discipline, perseverance, meditation, and discriminating wisdom (or prajna) are all based on and dependent on prajna. Prajna refers to a way of seeing which is not based on conceptions and fixed attitudes. These six perfections are not rules or moral teachings but methods of unveiling that transcendent wisdom on which they are based. Generosity is simply learning how to give, without conditions. Discipline is simply following a routine in order to reduce distraction so that one can better connect to the present and develop that discipline as a baseline habit. “Not too tight and not too loose” is a good rule for discipline. Patience is the antidote to anger and irritation. Being quiet, listening, and tonglen are given is good ways to practice patience as is the more dangerous yet more potentially powerful way of subjecting oneself to potential conflicting situations with others. Our ability to practice perseverance (aka diligence, exertion) is often variable and often we rely on inspiration, or what she calls “connect(ing) with energetic joy.” Another way of expressing it is that we develop the ability to stick with long-term goals over short-term goals. When we meditate we connect (however much we are able) with the unconditional state of mind without grasping and rejecting. We practice remaining open yet we also focus on a technique.
The focus is perhaps a temporary way to anchor us to one point rather than following everything around with our senses followed by thought as we typically do. Prajna is non-conceptual wisdom. It is akin to groundlessness. These six trainings are the trainings of bodhisattvas.

Next is given a practice to simply notice our opinions when they come up. We can notice how certain things affect us and how we form opinions about them – perhaps even see those opinions forming. She notes that we should hold onto our opinions with non-aggression, so not too tightly. Aggressive opinions are at the root of many human problems. We can also mistake truth for opinion and need to examine closely to distinguish.

When we have a load on our system (usually emotionally triggered) it is hard to stick to our lofty aspirations. She calls this feeling ‘squeezed.’ These are the most important times for self-honesty comes to the forefront. The groundlessness of transcendent wisdom is just as available in these situations but typically harder to find as we seem to be overwhelmed. Presence of mind and ‘nowness’ is always available though we tend to forget when pressured by circumstances.

Next she gives three methods for working with chaos. Here she talks about working with our sense of burden:

“We practice to liberate ourselves from a burden – the burden of a narrow perspective caused by craving, aggression, ignorance, and fear. We’re burdened by the people with whom we live, by ongoing daily situations, and most of all by our own personalities.”

The first method of working with chaos is – no more struggle – here rather than struggling with our situations we take the time to observe without judgment and reaction. This is simply using the meditation technique. The second method is – using poison as medicine – here one does not immediately attempt to rid oneself of difficulty but to note it and utilize it. Tonglen comes to mind here. One might have anger or despair and aspire that their anger or despair takes the place of the anger or despair of others, noting that many others are faced with similar difficulties and a big part of the problem is simply selfishness. If one can consider the difficulties of others then our own difficulty diminishes and we can turn difficulty into a healing practice. The key notion that Pema Chodron and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche often emphasize here is that every situation we find ourselves in, no matter how bad or hopeless, is still workable. The third method is to – regard whatever arises as the manifestation of awakened energy – this is basically the Tantric method. The traditional image of this idea in India and Tibet is the charnel ground – where stinking dead bodies were strewn about. This is an acknowledgment of the illusory division of pure and impure. The wisdom mind, or awakened energy, makes no such distinctions, otherwise how could it be available in every situation and in every moment?

She refers to the Vajrayana samaya bond (samaya means commitment) as a commitment to sanity. She calls it a “trick of choicelessness” in that we are already bound to reality even though we make a commitment or oath in tantric practice to keep this bond with teacher and practice. She refers to our sense of choice as ego in that we think we are choosing different relationships to reality when really we are always bound to it in the same way though we have yet to discover that.

“Samaya is like a marriage with reality, a marriage with the phenomenal world.”

“In the case of samaya, when we talk about commitment, its total commitment: total commitment to sanity, total commitment to our experience, an unconditional relationship to reality.”

She mentions that dharma practice alone is insufficient for some people and that therapy is also a possibility. Both have a similar goal of reversing neurosis. Both involve changing habits, particularly mental habits. She calls it reversing the wheel of samsara. This involves first stopping then reversing habitual momentum which as we all know is no easy task and one that is good to have help in the form of teachers, friends, therapists, whoever.

“Every act counts, Every thought and emotion counts too. This is all the path we have.”

Finally, there is the reminder that the path is the goal. This she finds cheerful in the sense that whatever situations arise immediately become our path, our challenge. This means that our access to wisdom is always determined by what is happening to us at any time.

This is another very practical book with much to contemplate and consider. In many ways dharma is more of a spiritual psychology than anything else, as dogma is usually kept to a minimum – or has more of a subsidiary function.

Read this book!


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Thriving Beyond Sustainability: Pathways to a Resilient Society

Book Review: Thriving Beyond Sustainability: Pathways to a Resilient Society by Andres R. Edwards  (New Society Publishers 2010)

This is by the author of – The Sustainability Revolution – which I have not read, but I wanted to read something really up-to-date as timeliness is important in keeping up with the latest developments and issues. This is a book about transitioning beyond mere sustainability to conditions of ‘thriveability’, where we take into account the consequences of our actions, accept responsibility, and count success not only in achieving our own goals but also in terms of enhancing social and ecological harmony.
In the authors own words:

“This book draws a collective map of individuals, organizations and communities from around the world that are committed to building an alternative future that strives to restore environmental health, reinvent outmoded institutions, and rejuvenate our environmental, social and economic systems. It is my intention to describe the emerging ideas and actions so that readers will gain a better understanding of the challenges we face and a determination to be part of the solutions. Each of us has an important role to play.”

The first section concerns what we can learn from indigenous societies about achieving a harmony or equilibrium with the surrounding world. In the past, among some societies, this was a matter of survival. Weather prediction, sustainable irrigation, and following herds of grazing animals were means of necessary adaptation to conditions in various areas. In order to survive they had to adapt, know the rhythms of their surroundings, and develop resilience to any extremes with which they were faced. The author examines four manifestations of ‘traditional ecological knowledge’: Tibetan nomads, Balinese water temples, Inuit traditional knowledge, and South American Kogi traditional land stewards. The Tibetan example shows ancient ways that protected against overgrazing, the sustainable practice of barley agriculture suitable to the region, and the efficient and reciprocal relationship Tibetans once had with the yak. Apparently, the introduction of pesticide-intensive wheat production by the Chinese initially resulted in severe droughts. Also noted is that the harsh and delicate environment of the high Himalayas is a good early indicator of climate instability as here are the most extensive glaciers outside of Arctic regions. The example of the water temple irrigation systems of Indonesian Bali shows a very sustainable (over 10 centuries) and very beautiful way of irrigation. Local groups managed water resources based on a traditional calendar of planting and irrigation schedules. This system was abandoned beginning in the 1960s as the country’s Green Revolution sought to introduce new varieties of rice and new growing practices to help fight hunger. Food production initially increased quite a bit but a few years later the effects of this change resulted in pesticide dependence, pesticide resistance, increased bug problems, water shortages, pesticide runoff problems, depleted soil, and lack of seed availability due to dependence on higher-yielding hybrid varieties. The trend was partially reversed beginning in the 1980s and the water priests returned to managing some of the croplands. Regarding the Inuit he notes that their areas in the far north are also likely to be first impacted by climate instabilities where things like melting snow and ice along the coasts can reduce protection from storms.

“Through observation they have developed pattern recognition useful in understanding animal health, migrations, and seasonal weather changes. The longevity of their settlements and adaptability to changing conditions serves as a contrast to our fast-paced, material-based culture.”

The Kogi are a very small isolated tribe high in the Andes in Columbia that eluded the Spanish conquest. They have survived the harsh conditions by planting various crops at different elevations which have different micro-climates. They also graze cattle. They are threatened by banana and palm plantations, the coca plantations and paramilitary activities of drug cartels, and by extraction of natural resources.

The value of traditional cultures is also cultural diversity and losing those cultures through destruction of their environments, dilution of their traditions by imposing modern ways on them, and by loss of languages is losing potential valuable knowledge. Another issue involves the rights of indigenous peoples. They can be susceptible to manipulation by governments and industrial interests as history shows.   

The word ‘glocal” refers to global localization and the view coined in the 80’s – ‘think globally, act locally. The interaction between global or regional technology, networks of communication, transportation, trade, money, and pollutants transferred by weather – and locally impacted environments has caused many difficult issues that remain unresolved. Examples given are in the realms of energy transition (from fossil fuels to renewables), regional climate protection strategies, and resource management. The examples demonstrate that well organized groups specifically focused on such projects can be successful.

There is a chapter about ‘greening commerce’:

“Decisions made by consumers, organizations and government agencies will lay the groundwork for a thriveable future as public awareness pushes business to take greater environmental and social responsibility.”

In 1994, John Elkington coined the idea of the “triple bottom line” which included environmental and social concerns with the economic. This has also been described as “people, planet, and profit” The idea is to be able to “measure, document, and report” all three of these results. One could also integrate them into one whole. A key issue here is “accountability.” People are demanding more accountability as time goes on and this trend will continue to grow as social and ecological justice issues go more mainstream. The author lists three trends that impact accountability as : 1) move toward globalization – which has brought up many issues of questionable local impact by trans-national businesses, 2) expanded communications – this has lead to increased globalization particularly with internet marketing strategies which allow for customization, ‘viral’ distribution of information, and potential instant networking of millions of people., 3) greater interdependence and a demand for accountability among stakeholders –

“Organizations rely on reciprocal relationships with marketers, suppliers, vendors, distributors, regulators and numerous others in the production and distribution of their products and services.”

So one product often involves very many different interrelated companies. Many different companies have a stake in this or that product and there is more and more demand for transparency. One could argue that all the people involved in any way with a product and the environment itself also have a stake or are at stake so the less direct stakeholder is also demanding to be acknowledged as well as the traditional shareholder.

Other ways of greening commerce include the intriguing idea of “biomimicry”, which refers to designing things based on natural systems as a model. Another is the “cradle-to-cradle approach which is a life-cycle approach that regenerates itself. This can manifest as closed loop industrial systems where heat, water, and energy are recycled as much as possible and where waste in one process becomes food or fuel in another process. Some have noted that recycling often ends up being “downcycling” where a lesser grade product is made from the original and the time to it becoming waste is merely delayed. “Upcycling” implies using the recycled raw material for a higher grade product thus extending the life cycle of the materials. Some manufacturers are now required to take back products and components and reuse the materials so many manufacturers now must come up with ‘recovery plans’ for recycling downed products and components. This has happened with used up computers electronics, appliances, etc.

Increased growth is inevitably tied to increased consumption and increased pollution. Acknowledging this, some companies are opting to donate to non-profits and socially responsible ventures, although traditionally, many corporations have been involved with charitable contributions of various sorts. Many corporations now have environmental staff and policies and attempt to be or at least to appear socially responsible as green is in. The author gives several examples of companies large and small and partnerships of companies that have worked together on promoting green products and donating to social and environmental causes. He even mentions companies like DuPont and WalMart who have been associated with social and ecological ills as making significant efforts at developing sustainability policies. There is some discussion of ‘tax shifting’ where there are extra taxes imposed for an industry that is associated with pollution. It is debatable whether this is ultimately useful and there may be better ways to minimize pollution. In any case the idea of greening commerce begins with sustainability assessments in the workplace.

Regenerative design refers to sustainable building practices and strategies. Energy and water conservation and recycling and waste reduction can be incorporated or retrofitted into building design. Buildings traditionally waste vast amounts of energy so there is much room for improvement with things like passive solar and efficient cyclic ventilation design. Urban renewal projects with pedestrian-friendly and bicycle-friendly features can also be considered a form regenerative design. Green building standards and certifications are being developed and implemented. The author gives several examples of green building projects and sustainable town projects.

In discussing biodiversity and preserving ecosystems the author notes biologist E.O. Wilson’s use of the acronym HIPPO to explain loss of biodiversity: habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, population growth, and overharvesting of species for consumption. Nature preserves exist and are being negotiated in various forms and sizes around the world. Some species need more space than others to survive. Criteria for biodiversity ‘hotspots’ have been designed so that orgs, governments, and land trusts can focus on key areas. These areas are in the most danger of losing biodiversity. Local species protection strategies are being drawn up in many places. Conservation philanthropy began with the establishment of the National Park system in the U.S. and continues as people donate money and land. Ecosystem services are noted. This is an acknowledgement of the services such as:

 “ -- purifying air and water, building healthy soils, pollinating plants and detoxifying and decomposing wastes. They also include seed dispersal, erosion and pest control, carbon sequestration, flood, drought, and storm protection and maintenance of habitats.”

When ecosystems are destroyed these services are destroyed as well. Loss of these services can mean loss of money in big ways like increased flooding and increased storm surges. Conversely, the restoration of ecosystems can increase protection. Ecosystem markets have been developed in specific forms such as the cap-and trade markets for CO2 and sulfur dioxide. This is not an ideal system but has been a way to manage the proliferation of these pollutants and greenhouse gases. Developers who damage wetlands are required to restore wetlands in other places in the same watershed. So we now have wetland markets and species markets based on requirements built in to the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. These ‘conservation banks’ determine prices of species habitats and wetlands and developers need to pay the price in order to get the land to develop. There is debate about ecosystem markets but certainly it is one way to mitigate loss of ecosystems due to development.

The author lists five global trends that we are challenged to deal with: ecosystem decline, energy transition, population growth, economic disparity, and climate change. About half of tropical forest habitat has been destroyed. Ocean habitats have been devastated by over-fishing. Energy transition is happening at a very slow pace as technology gradually increases efficiency of renewables and viability of new forms of energy and various fossil fuel-renewable hybrids. Energy conservation and efficiency always has room for improvement. Green energy subsidizing has yielded mixed results and energy transition may end up being slower and more gradual than people want. Though there is much debate about the ultimate effects of greenhouse gases, most scientists consider it to be a very serious potential problem that has the potential to go past a tipping point in the near or very near future. Even large corporations are studying and planning for reduction, capturing, and storing greenhouse gases, increasing renewables, and preserving and expanding natural carbon sinks in the form of tropical forests. Fuel-switching, typically from coal to natural gas for electricity also produces fewer greenhouse gases as well as significantly fewer pollutants.

Organic and local food movements and sustainability education on campuses also helps get the word out to encourage more environmental and social responsibility. Local food is big (and successful) where I am – and this trend needs to spread more. Green collar jobs have been promoted by Obama but perhaps have not taken off as much as hoped. Green thinking is gradually becoming mainstream as is organic food. As these ideas become less and less associated with extremism and more associated with common sense they will be adopted by more people.

Another idea brought up is the ‘Open Source’ approach to innovation where problems are solved through collaborative efforts. Examples are the Linux computer operating system which is designed and modified by volunteer contributors and offered free. Another example is Wikipedia, which for all the accusations of inaccuracy has been found to be more accurate than Encyclopedia Britannica – and far more and inclusive I might add. Open-source collaborative websites and think tanks have also sprung up to collaborate in problem solving.

There is discussion of the idea of ‘resilience’ – of natural systems to rebound from crises and to build resilience into our buildings, cities, commerce, and social institutions. He describes resilient systems as having: 1) diversity – diversified services and resources or choices so that if a problem occurs with one there are others to fall back on; 2) modular components – this refers to similar pre-made components to systems such as the electric grid or transportation system which can allow them to better react to problems. He gives the example of the mortgage sector lacking modular components that may have aided a faster rebound to the ensuing economic crisis; 3) tight feedback loops – this refers to depending on easier and quicker accessible goods and services from local sources which creates a shorter feedback loop than the global which is a much longer loop; 4) close social networks – this refers to trust and human connections, especially during times of need, which helps people rebuild from a disaster or recoup from a financial loss much more readily; 5) redundancy and flexibility – this refers to having alternative sources, back up supplies, and various sorts of safety nets in case of problems.

The ‘Precautionary Principle’ refers to being sensitive to the possibility of a problem even if there is insufficient evidence to know for certain. This is how I have always thought about the climate change debate – that it is better to assume it is true and plan for it even if may be found to be less dangerous than thought. It was developed from a 1998  conference about threats to the environment and human health. It is simply erring on the side of caution. This is considered as a life-affirming approach. Here is how it was described:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Finally, there is the idea of ‘thriveability.’
“The environmental, social, and economic predicaments we find ourselves in call for a movement from sustainability to thriveability, shifting from a model of scarcity to one of abundance that taps into the spirit of possibility.”

“ The essence of thriveability is a belief in the capacity of the human spirit to collaborate in creating new possibilities for lasting solutions.”

This book is one of a number of important new guides to developing a sustainable society and culture. I think reading such guides helps to keep one well informed, up-to-date, and
better positioned to help out.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hesiod's 'Theogony' and 'Works and Days'

Book Review: Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days  translated by M. L. West
(Oxford World Classics 1988 – originally 700’s BC)

Homer and Hesiod are the two earliest Ancient Greek writers. Here are two works by Hesiod. The first is the Theogony which contains the genealogy of the Ancient Greek gods culminating in the triumph of Zeus and the Olympians. The alphabet of the Greeks came from the Phoenicians and the translator notes in the introduction that recent archaeology indicates that Ancient Greece was more influenced from the Near East than was previously assumed. As a poet Hesiod claimed that he received instruction from the Muses who told him to sing of the “family of the immortals.” The second book – Works and Days – is more a collection of advice about daily life and how best to do things. The translator points out several instances where Works and Days may have been influenced by Near Eastern (Sumerian, Babylonian, Hebrew-Canaanite, Persian, or Egyptian) literature styles and stories.

In the Theogony Hesiod praises the supremacy of Zeus and the Olympians. Zeus is often referred to as – resourceful Zeus or Zeus the aegis-bearer. Apparently the aegis is a buckle or breastplate made by Hephaestus that conveys the power and religious authority of the god. The kenning for Zeus as aegis-bearer is also used in Homer’s Iliad.

The author mentions that in Greek these works are written in hexameter poetry as are the works of Homer and with similar kennings and descriptive schemes. Homer is associated with the epic tales of heroes while Hesiod is concerned with genealogy and didactic poetry.

First Hesiod tells of the birth of the nine Muses from the union of Zeus and the goddess called Memory. The first names given them are Fame-Spreading, Entertaining, Festive, Singing, Dance-delight, Lovely, Rich in Themes, Celestial, and Beautiful Voice (Calliope). He praises their ability to bless humans with respite from sorrow.

He describes a creation scenario where Chaos (which in Greek means abyss, or chasm) is first and then Earth (Gaia) and then Eros, the handsome god of sexual love. Also out of the Abyss came Night and from night came Day. Earth bore the Sky or Heavens (Ouranos) to cover her all about. Ouranos and Gaia bore many children and as the well-known story goes – some were deformed and monstrous. Ouranos hid them imprisoned under the earth. Gaia sought revenge for this and was appeased when her son Kronos (Time) took the sickle and ended the possibility of further children by cutting off the genitals of Ouranos. From these genitals floating in the sea foam was born the youthful goddess beauty and love Aphrodite. Eros and Desire accompanied her to the family of the gods and are often depicted with her. The children of Ouranos were called Titans. Hesiod also describes lineages of various anthropomorphized human qualities, situations and afflictions:

“And baleful Night gave birth to Resentment also, an affliction for mortal men; and after her she bore Deceit and Intimacy, and accursed Old Age, and she bore hard-hearted Strife. Hateful Strife bore painful Toil, Neglect, Starvation, and tearful Pain, Battles, Combats, Bloodshed and Slaughter, Quarrels, Lies, Pretences, and Arguments, Disorder, Disaster – neighbors to each other – and Oath, who most harms men on earth, when someone knowingly swears false.”

The births and lineages of numerous gods, goddesses, nymphs, gorgons, magical creatures, and many other beings that make up the world of Greek mythology are recounted. There is not much detail in some of the stories here but many are well known in other accounts. He tells of the birth and status of Hecate as a favorite honored by Zeus and valuable to be venerated for increasing honor and prosperity. She is said to aid judgment, fame, battle, glory, competition and success. With Hermes she is said to aid herdsman. He talks quite a bit about Hecate which suggests to the translator that Hesiod may have had a family affinity for Hecate.

He then describes the children of Kronos and Rhea: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Zeus. Then being jealous of a future child usurping his power Kronos began swallowing his children and so Rhea devised a plan to deceive him and hide away the child Zeus on the island of Crete. He tells the story of clever Prometheus stealing the fire and of the fashioning of the first woman as Pandora, molded by Hephaestus and clothed by Athena. Many feminists have a problem with this story as it paints women as a bane created as a punishment to humans from the gods.

In the Theogony he goes on to detail the battle of the Titans and the Olympians where the Olympians prevail. He also details the dreaded river goddess Styx whose waters long punish an immortal who veers from truth according to the commandments of Zeus. He tells also of the various children of Zeus and their mothers. These include Athena who rose from his head, Persephone from union with Demeter, the Fates, Graces, Muses, and many others, and from union with Hera were born Hebe, Ares, and Eileithyia. There are alternative origin myths for some of these deities that are likely older as many speculate that the war between the Olympians and the Titans represents one of the invasions of Greece from the north where the deities – many with well-known Cretan and Anatolian origins were more or less co-opted by the Olympians who are thought by some to be more Indo-European in focus – co-opting the Aegean gods and goddesses. Also these lineages come not too long after the introduction of better iron weapons to add to the bronze (maybe 350 years earlier) and so perhaps the veneration of the sky god Zeus and his lightning bolts is well-timed there as well.

The Theogony is a short work that lists quite a bit of names but with few details in most cases. I am thinking it may have been something encouraged to commit to memory due to it being metrical poetry and a list of names and genealogy – as tribal genealogy was often said to be kept by the bards in Indo-European societies.

In Works and Days after initially praising the qualities of Zeus he mentions that there are two kinds of Strife, one that causes great pain and turmoil and the other more beneficial kind that compels men to work. Then he tells again in more detail the fashioning of the goddess Pandora as ‘woman’ – as a vengeance unto humans in revenge for Prometheus stealing the fire in the tube of fennel and giving it to them. This was by the design of Zeus.

Next he tells of the four races of men created by Zeus. First is a race made of gold who were god-like and became watchers over men and bestowers of wealth. Next was a race made from silver. They were a lower level of gods but were prone to crimes and bickering and refused to sacrifice to the gods. For this they were less honored but still had some honor. Third was a bronze race fashioned from Ash trees. They were fierce and violent and after killing each other settled in the realm of Hades. Next there was made the race of heroes, called demi-gods, from unions of gods with mortal women. They too were said to have much killed off one another through warring, with the Trojan heroes being some of the last and some heading off to be with the gods. The last race given is that of humans – the race of iron. He notes that we are a mixture of good and ill and that the gods will destroy us as well in the end.

He speaks of the virtues of Justice and that violence should only happen for an honorable cause. In some of this book Hesiod speaks rather directly to his own brother Perses who he fears is too lazy and lacks ambition. He speaks of the virtues of work, the value of friendship with neighbors, and the dangers of deception. He goes on to detail the best ways to farm and prepare for the seasons and what to focus on at different times. Time is often reckoned by the appearance of stars – the Pleiedes, Sirius, Orion, Arcturus, etc. Indeed much of – Works and Days – amounts to practical advice for that time and place and culture that Hesiod imparts to Perses. He gives much advice, some quite curious – such as not facing the sun while urinating – and some about auspiciousness, omens, and superstition. He advises trying to avoid being the subject of rumour:

“Rumour is a dangerous thing, light and easy to pick up, but hard to support and difficult to get rid of. No rumour ever dies that many folk rumour. She too is somehow a goddess.”

There is some moral advice given that is generally applicable to all times:

“Be a friend to him who is your friend, and give your company to him that seeks it. Give whoso gives, and give not to whoso gives not : .... For if a man gives voluntarily, even a big gift, he is glad at the giving and rejoices in his heart; but if a man takes of his own accord, trusting in shamelessness, even something little, that puts a frost on the heart.”

“Do not be known as a man of many guests or of none, as a comrade of the unworthy or a reviler of the worthy. And never venture to insult a man for accursed soul-destroying poverty, which is the dispensation of the blessed ones who are forever. The tongue’s best treasure among men is when it is sparing, and its greatest charm is when it goes in measure. If you speak ill, you may well hear greater yourself. And be not of bad grace at the feast thronged with guests: when all share, the pleasure is greatest and the expense least.”

Besides the Theogony being a very old hymn of the gods and their various lineages these works do seem to offer a rare glimpse into the time, place, and culture of a rural early Ancient Greece. The description of the four races of gold, silver, bronze, and iron bear a marked resemblance to the similarly described ages of the Vedas. One can conjecture that maybe the possibly Indo-European Achaeans invaded bringing in the Mycenaean culture and the ideals of the Olympians.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Going Out Green: One Man's Adventure Planning His Own Burial

Book Review: Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Burial by Bob Butz (Spirituality and Health Books 2009)

This was an easy to read book about Natural Burial which is basically burial without the use of embalming with toxic formaldehyde, expensive metal caskets, and concrete vaults. Also the services of undertakers and funeral directors are limited or eliminated. Over the last decade or so the Green Burial movement has gradually picked up steam. Previously, in the few decades before that more and more people have opted for cremation which turns out to be only moderately less toxic than chemical and materials-rich burial. Butz approached the topic from the standpoint of an investigative writer and nature enthusiast. He read books, traveled to natural burial preserves, interviewed pertinent people, compiled information comparing the laws of different states, and pervaded the book with his own sense of practicality and common sense, as well as considerable humor.

Hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic embalming fluid, copper and bronze, hardwoods and exotic woods, steel, and reinforced concrete are buried every year. Cemeteries are also typically maintained as pure grassy areas by the use of herbicide-intensive landscaping.

Bodies decompose. They bloat and distend and stink just like roadkill. Embalming slows this down for a while – often just so people can see a re-touched corpse that was drained and re-filled with fluid and manipulated in many other ways – just so they can see it at the funeral ‘showing(s).’ This has only been standard procedure here in the US for about 150 years. Coffins and caskets only delay decomposition for a while. Eventually the soft parts will turn to fluid. Better to keep out the poisons and just let the body unite back with the soil and enrich the earth that enriched it – or perhaps through the ashes being shared with the earth. Embalming and caskets seem to be for the public ritual and industry that has sprung up around the event of death in our strange and ‘civilized?’ world. Natural burials and home funerals can be way cheaper, more intimate, more meaningful to relatives, and more in harmony with the natural way of things.

The author makes considerable criticism and fun of the $5000 ‘Ecopod’ casket that is totally biodegradable – but which must also be shipped 5000 miles across the Atlantic. He notes that a better choice might be a heavy-duty cardboard coffin offered for about $100. There are many other choices. There are also burial shrouds, often used by Jews and Muslims, and some can be expensive. I suppose if I end up being buried – why not just naked in a hole. It was good enough for the dogs and cats.

He mentions the story of Edward Abbey, a nature writer/poet/backcountry ranger who was buried in his beloved desert illegally by a group of his friends. Those of us who live out in the country can be buried in our own land and there are still rural cemeteries for those who wanna be there. I remember coming across a few headstones at a rural Buddhist temple in Kentucky but I am not sure if the bodies were there or perhaps just the ashes.

The author then sets out to visit a natural burial preserve in Ohio. He notes that there are very few of these ‘green burial preserves,’ the first being Ramsey Creek in South Carolina which opened in 1998. I remember reading about the one he mentions in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York about 4 years ago. He visits Foxfield Burial Preserve in north-central Ohio which opened in the summer of 2008. Each state has specific laws for private burial and a few even require one to utilize the services of an undertaker or funeral director to sign off on the death certificate.

For some reason the author wanted to dig a grave – which he eventually does in his back yard in the sandy soil of Michigan. I wager it would have taken him a bit longer in the heavy clays of southeastern Ohio. Most graves these days are dug with backhoes and are probably too deep to enrich the topsoil. I remember when I was in high school a few of my friends would dig graves when needed for extra cash – I almost got in on that. 

The author did note that very few people involved in the conventional funeral industry were willing to talk to him or show him around. His desire to observe an embalming was not indulged, likely he thinks due to the fact that he was writing a book about alternatives to embalming. The author notes quite obviously that the current conventional funeral industry is mostly about making money and is often assisted in this by the state laws.

The next section discusses the services of the “death midwife.” The author mentions two types of death midwife. One might assist the dying with the actual process of dying more or less like a priest or shaman. The other is one who assists the remaining family with the home burial. One may, of course, have a natural or green burial in combination with a typical funeral (sans the embalming) but perhaps more often one might choose a home funeral as well which certainly seems more natural and organic. The author interviews Rebekah Benner of Akron, Ohio – a death midwife who is also a UU minister that has trained and worked in hospice as well as several spiritual healing modalities and meditation. She goes through the typical questions that she would ask a family considering a home funeral – “Is this your will? Are the wishes in writing? Who has the power of attorney? Who will be involved?” Other questions might be about cleaning and moving the body. She also mentions that the funeral is both for the dead and the living – to try and honor the last wishes of the dead but also to help with healing and dealing with the grief and guilt of the living.

He also interviews death midwife Nora Cedarwind Young. She mentions that the washing of the dead body can be sort of ritualized into an act of love as she has seen people do. It can be a way to help both the dead and the living keep up a positive bond, at least theoretically. This can be done in the home among familiar surroundings and friends rather than among strangers in an ‘official’ death place.

“More than anything, a home funeral is about the healing that’s facilitated by the hands-on physical contact with our beloved dead.” Young says. “I’m still in touch with many of the people I’ve helped through this process, and I’m always humbled and amazed by the ones who have written or called or come up to me years later to tell me the experience was one of the most beautiful in their lives. It’s empowering [for the living] to be a part of those final actions.”

She also describes things like abdominal purging, and ways to set the eyelids shut (perhaps with coins but heavier stones work better) and set the jaw by putting a roll of toilet paper under it. She also mentions the use of dry ice (placed strategically in pieces in paper bags near major organs) to slow decomposition of the body.

Says Young,

“People always say these things are sure things in life. But whereas we talk about taxes all the time, we don’t talk about death. I believe people would be better off if they started having these conversations, and a home funeral is a place where that can happen.”

I noticed when walking one time with some yoga buddies of mine, all women, that when passing a funeral they seemed to want to get as far away from it as possible – possibly due to the superstitious mind. Perhaps some of us think that even to think about death confers bad luck.

The author also mentions Jerrigrace Lyons, who is credited with starting the modern death midwifery movement after carrying out the written wishes of a friend of hers who died. She offers workshops, kits, and books about conducting home funerals.

I also know of certain Tibetan Buddhist death rites (and kits of a sort) but most of this stuff is more ritualistic-oriented than body prep practicalities. I suppose I want my own home funeral to be with some of these practices and meditations but also mixed with the fun spirit of a wake – with games, drinking, and music.

The author discusses some of the laws of various states. In a few states only undertakers can sell caskets. In a few states one is required to hire the services of an undertaker. In Michigan a funeral director is required to sign the death certificate and supervise the handling of the body.

“In cases of non-traditional unions, Michigan is even more rigid and unfriendly with funeral law saying that next of kin – and only legal next of kin – can make arrangements for the deceased. A brother you haven’t talked to or seen in a couple of decades or a father who went to the store late one night for diapers and formula and never came back – they trump the funeral and burial wishes of a best friend or same-sex life partner.”

He then mentions paperwork required for green burial and home funeral in most states (44 of them) as relatively easy. Nora Cedarwind Young mentioned a list of six essentials:

1)      Will
2)      Living Will/Health Care Directive
3)      Durable Power of Attorney Health
4)      Durable Power of Attorney Finance
5)      Disposition of Body Form
6)      HIPPA (authorization forms, patient consent, privacy practices)

She recommends updating these yearly and keeping them in a safe place known to those closest to the person or people.

A final issue the author brings up is that many cemeteries are full or nearly full, especially urban cemeteries. This is so in places like New York City and London.

Finally there is a resource section of books, films, websites, orgs, materials, natural burial preserves, and info on home funerals and death midwives.

Although the author probably overdid it a bit on his own hunting experiences (possibly to display his solidarity with nature or whatever) it turned out to be a good book with tangible and practical information that can help those of us – and I predict there will be way more of us in the very near future – who wish to ‘go out green’ in one way or another.