Refusing Straws & Hugging Trees

During this week we’ll celebrate two special days, Earth Day on Sunday, April 22, and Arbor Day on Friday, April 27. A few years ago I wrote about the history of these two underappreciated events. Here’s an excerpt:

Did you know that the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970? It was a way to harness the energy behind the protests of the 1960s and turn it toward protecting the natural world. Inspired in large part by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the environmental movement was off and running. But it seems to be celebrated much more enthusiastically in other countries than in our own, and that needs to change.

And Arbor Day has an even longer history. Arbor Day was created by J. Sterling Morton, a journalist from Detroit who moved his family to Nebraska in the mid-19th century. The first Arbor Day was celebrated there in 1872, with the planting of over a million trees in a single day. And get this: When it was made a legal holiday in 1885, Nebraska City celebrated with a parade of a thousand people. So tell me, when’s the last time you saw a parade to celebrate the importance of Arbor Day? I never have. (Click the link in this paragraph to see the official story of the history of Arbor Day.)

This year’s Earth Day campaign is focused on ending plastic pollution. Their website says: “From poisoning and injuring marine life to disrupting human hormones, from littering our beaches and landscapes to clogging our waste streams and landfills, the exponential growth of plastics is now threatening the survival of our planet.”

Balloons blow logoFor the past few years I’ve had a link in the sidebar of this blog for an organization called Balloons Blow. Their focus is on eliminating those horrible balloon releases that result in so much litter in our oceans and beaches. I can’t tell you how many of those nasty mylar balloons I’ve picked up on the shore of Lake Erie while birding. The balloon fragments and their ribbons sometimes cause death to birds and aquatic animals who accidentally ingest them, thinking they are food. I encourage you to go to their website and read about what they’ve discovered in years of cleaning up balloon litter. (Hint: “biodegradable” balloons are not biodegradable.)

Stainless steel strawsRecently I’ve noticed another movement picking up a lot of steam, and that’s the one to eliminate single-use plastics like the straws you get with virtually every beverage you order in a restaurant, whether you need it or not. One of the best known is The Last Plastic Straw, a project of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. A few years ago, when I first became aware of the impact of straws on the environment, I purchased a set of four stainless steel straws. They’re reusable, obviously, and come with a brush so you can easily clean the insides. I keep a couple of them in my car so I can refuse plastic straws and use these instead. I’m can’t claim a 100% success rate on my efforts yet, but I’m improving. And I discovered a fun bonus to using these stainless steel straws too: they get really cold when you use them with iced beverages like milkshakes or iced coffee drinks. It adds a new level of “ahhh” when you’re trying to cool off on a hot day.

If you’d like some suggestions for other things you can do to help in this effort to reduce plastic pollution, check out this page on the website of Earth Day Network.

Hugging a tree with Julie Heitz at Woodlawn Cemetery
Hugging a tree with friends last summer

As for Arbor Day, the ideal way to celebrate is to plant a tree. I can’t add any more trees to my yard, but I’ve just removed three large invasive shrubs (burning bushes) and will be replacing them with natives. The burning bushes, although beautiful in their fall color, just had to go. It was a painful decision to have them removed, but I know it was the right thing to do for the ecosystem.

I purchased some native shrubs to put in their places: spicebush, serviceberry, and black chokeberry. These large native shrubs will support lots of native insects, which will in turn support our native birds. I’m going to start a series of articles here about my efforts to add native plants to my yard. It’s a big project that will take years, and I have a lot to learn, but I’m optimistic about being able to make it work.

I hope you find ways to celebrate these two occasions this week!

There IS Life After Death

Have you given much thought to your life after you die? I’m not thinking of any type of spiritual existence, but rather about how your body becomes part of the earth, one way or another.

Cemetery sign with toxic waste warning (800x533)As uncomfortable as it might be to think about it this way, conventional cemeteries are really toxic waste dumps. Think about it. Your body is pumped full of embalming fluid (formaldehyde and other chemicals) to preserve it long enough for funeral home viewing, then placed in clothing (often synthetics that take a long time to biodegrade), then placed in a wood coffin that’s been treated with chemical sealants and contains metal hardware. Sometimes the coffin is placed inside a steel or concrete vault, then the whole bundle of poison is buried six feet under and covered with turf grass that’s kept alive for all eternity by chemical pesticides and fertilizers. I don’t know about you, but I sure as heck don’t want MY final act to be one that poisons the earth like that.

Smokestacks for blogFor the past decade or so I’ve been convinced that I wanted to be cremated when I die. Cremation is actually fairly common in this country; about 42% of all Americans are cremated at death (per 2011 statistics from the Cremation Society of Great Britain). Cremation  seemed much more environmentally friendly than the other available methods, at least at first glance. You simply get reduced to a pile of ashes that can be scattered at sea or in a special wilderness place, or just buried in an urn.  But then I started thinking about the air pollution generated by the cremation process; specifically there are concerns about the mercury vapors from dental fillings. I don’t have any mercury in my fillings, but even so, I’m unhappy with the pollution aspects. So I started looking into other options, and I think I may have found the perfect choice for me.

But before I tell you about that, I found one other interesting option for people who still want to be cremated. It’s the “Bios Urn,” a biodegradable urn that contains your ashes and a single tree seed. The idea is that you help fertilize a tree, which then grows and
stands as a living legacy to your life. That sounds pretty good, but I’d be worried that someone would cut me down for firewood. Wouldn’t that be ironic if I chose not to be cremated and then I grew into a tree that someone burned in their fireplace? Funny.

Walking trail at Foxfield Preserve.
Walking trail at Foxfield Preserve. Photo used with permission.

So my choice is a natural burial. In a natural burial your body isn’t pumped full of chemicals. There’s no lacquered wood or steel coffin being placed into the soil to poison it further. What happens instead is that your body is placed in a simple cloth shroud (or sometimes a biodegradable pine coffin) and placed directly into the soil to decompose naturally. It gives me a feeling of deep peace to think that my body will fertilize the soil, and perhaps feed earthworms or insects, which will in turn become food for the birds I love so much. It might even be possible that a molecule from my body will one day fly across a meadow in the body of a beautiful Northern Cardinal or Red-winged Blackbird. How can you top that? (Of course my sister doesn’t like the idea, and says I’d probably poop on her car…funny girl.)

Gravesite at Foxfield Preserve, overlooking a natural meadow.
Gravesite at Foxfield Preserve, overlooking a natural meadow. Photo used with permission.

There are some great places being established as natural burial cemeteries, and I hope more will pop up as this idea gains support. There’s an interesting one in Northern Ohio called Foxfield Preserve, a lovely-looking nature preserve cemetery owned by the Wilderness Center. Take a look at their video here and see if it doesn’t seem pretty amazing. And even closer to me is The Preserve on Lake Maceday, the first natural burial cemetery in the Detroit metro area. I think I’ll make a point to go birding in one of these places this summer to get a better feel for what they’re like.

So what do you think about this whole idea of natural burials? Do you think it’s important or not? Would you consider it for yourself or your loved ones?

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Resources for further reading — I haven’t read any of these books yet, but offer them here as possible starting points for those who want to read more.

Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, by Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson

Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Burial, by Bob Butz

Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, by Mark Harris

List of Natural Burial Preserves in US – some of their websites have good information too.