schirin oeding

under a peregrine star


Leave a comment

Beauty Is Twice Beauty

IMG_1251

I was introduced to the concept of systems thinking during my freshman year of college, by a a teacher, Ned Houston, who received a round of astonished applause at the end of a fiery lecture about ecology and humanity (in a class called “Humans & the Environment). Systems thinking, feedback loops, and connectivity, were all ideas that I knew existed, but hadn’t had the language to describe. I knew these loops and connections were real; I had seen them in action. To me, even now, several years later, systems thinking remains one of the most beautiful ways of interacting with and understanding ecology and humanity. Systems in nature are non-linear and so interwoven and interconnected and interdependent, it’s almost unbearable to consider them in the face of the destruction of our land. Nothing we do happens in a vacuum. Everything has an impact. We get to choose whether it is constructive, or not.

In June and July, I’ll be attending a six week intensive on ecoliteracy. Ecoliteracy: a wonderful word that, according to spellcheck, doesn’t exist, and otherwise causes some people to raise an eyebrow (“Uh, another one of those hippy-dippy ideas that don’t really mean anything.” Wrong! It means so much! Everything, perhaps…). In preparation, I’ve been rereading a book that I first read during college: Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. This book, which is part of the Bioneers Series, is a collection of essays by everyone from Wendell Berry and Alice Waters, to Donella Meadows (author of Thinking in Systems: A Primer) and Fritjof Capra. Apart from the fact that apparently everyone who contributed had to have a funky name, it’s a tome of enormous depth and wonder. What is ecoliteracy? To echo Fritjof Capra, when we design the human aspects of a landscape: our homes, our farms, our neighbourhoods, cities, etc., nothing brings us closer to true sustainability than mirroring natural ecosystems. Ecoliteracy means understanding these systems, “reading” nature, observing ecosystems in action, understanding the limits of our environment, and cultivating a sense of place. In terms of design, beauty in nature is twice beauty: there is what meets the eye, and there is what lies below (sometimes literally, the details and purpose we look hardest at to see)—what lies below is a perfect, intelligent (non-linear, and therefor harder for us humans to grasp) system. A system we can learn so much from. A system that inherently has form, pattern, and meaning.

What I see all around me (in the news, on farms, in city planning) is a tendency to forget that humans are part of this non-linear system, too. When we think linearly, as we might tend to, we might think in traditional economic terms: where input and growth are the only way forward. The past is behind us, the future unknown, but the end goal clearly mapped, though not often expressed so bluntly: growth until nothing can grown any more. But nature doesn’t underwrite this way of life. Nothing ends without becoming something else. No thing appears out of thin air. Every human being, no matter what their path, will eventually become compost, nourishing soil microorganisms and all the plants and animals that thrive in their midst.

On farms, cyclical thinking has many names: organic farming, sustainable agriculture, biodynamics. What all of it means is that the farm is an organism. The farmer stay on the land, committed to the cycles before and after him and/or her—they’re just another part of the cycle. Wendell Berry says is beautifully in his poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. Here’s an excerpt:

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

I’ve been inspired too, lately, by the work of Ben Falk, and his design firm, Whole Systems Design. If you have a moment, take a look at his videos. Ghandi’s words, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” have hovered close to me for many years now. Falk expresses this same sentiment from an ecological perspective: like many of us, he began his journey into agriculture, sustainable design, and a reduced carbon footprint by committing to make a smaller impact on the planet. Now, some years later, he’s convinced that making as big an impact as possible is the right path. That is, planting and growing food in a renewable way, teaching lots of people about it, creating sustainable landscapes for businesses, colleges, and private clients, and above all, really, thoroughly walking the walk. And celebrating all of it. Being big, joyous, and outspoke. I’m inspired by the minutely detailed systems that bring a dynamic, natural flow to his farm. I love that he heats his greenhouse with hot water warmed up in coils of pipe inside a giant compost heap. I love that his farm is brimming with edibles, from turnips by the woodpile, to raspberry vines leaning heavily into pathways. Every bit of space is used for food and beauty. Isn’t that cool? And doesn’t it makes so much sense?

The language of nature is accessible to everyone. We can’t escape it (and why would we want to?), so we may as well learn to speak it. What an endlessly astonishing place, this world. xo

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

—Mary Oliver, The Summer Day 

IMG_1267

Wild leeks.


Leave a comment

Urban Ecotones & Other Music

Yesterday I did my running along some old railway tracks in my neighbourhood. The tracks are old, older than most of the houses that line them, and are still in regular use. Trains, mostly freight trains, rumble their way over these tracks on a daily basis. Right next to the tracks are backyards, hugging each curve of the rail-line, like they’re trying to eek out some space for themselves. Between yards and tracks there is a narrow paved path—an urban success in our car-focused culture— a bike trail, or walking/running path. Some good souls (the city, perhaps?) have planted a foot-wide strip of earth with black-eyes susans and daylilies. The tracks are a place where two worlds meet. Studded among private homes are old industrial buildings that served the railroad at some point in the past. Most of them are still operating today, producing steel beams or street signs, but have been reduced to the status of mom-and-pop factories, the kind that have ten employees, and are housed in buildings from an era when industrial structures still has some beauty and human-scale to their design. I feel most at peace far from traffic and houses. In a meadow, or in the woods, or in the places where both meet, the ecotones, the in-between places that are hard to define and even harder to recreate, once lost to settlement. And still, as I try to make a study of this small city in which I find myself, the language of nature comes up again and again in my mental descriptions. Humans, I think, still have a deep-set tendency to imitate the patterns and rhythms of the natural world. That is, if they allow themselves freedom from preconceived notions of industrial efficiency and “modern” design. It’s special, too, to see the way people interact with their landscapes in an urban setting. Planting the tiniest gardens between tracks and fences, sunflowers that eventually tower over these fences start conversations between passers-by. Yesterday, my running route led me by several backyards where signs had been stuck into newly greening grass: Idle No More. Put there for who to see? Runners, bikers, walkers, train conductors. Thank you. When people take ownership of their homes and neighbourhoods, even in small ways, magic happens.

IMG_6851

Last year’s pictures of the tracks. It’s not that green yet…

IMG_6856

IMG_6855


Leave a comment

Newly Minted

I resisted doing the blog thing for the following reasons:

1. It’s been done. And what could be worse (and more unavoidable, apparently) than being unoriginal?

2. I was lazy. I say “was” simply because I am no longer lazy. I’m not. Really. Ever.

3. I couldn’t figure out how to make my blog look as fancy as all the other nifty blogs I read. I still haven’t figured it out, but I am working on getting over it/not having blog-envy/being satisfied with (hopefully temporary) blog mediocrity.

4. I run out of things to write about.

Whatever the case may be. I am happy you’re here. I’m here, too, and so that makes two of us. It’s a party. I just celebrated my twenty-forth birthday, and by way of celebration, I made all kinds of resolutions (like you do), and this blog is step seventeen or something in keeping them. Another one is running three times a week. I am well on the way to success on that one, actually. Though I have yet to get over the pointlessness of running nowhere. I’m not very zen. Nevertheless, springtime is providing a variety of entertainment on my tri-weekly runs: green grass, flowers, melted ice. And the feeling afterwards is fantastic. As they say, it’s “type two” fun: the kind that’s great when it’s over. I’m preparing myself physically for a month of haying by hand (with scythe and rake) at 45˚ slopes in the Swiss Alps. That is not a joke. This will be followed by wall building as well as long-distance bicycling. The “long-distance” part may be up for interpretation. I say 200km is far. Like everybody else, all my resolutions are three parts self-improvement, and twelve parts self-entertainment. Adventure-seeking. Thrill-seeking? Perhaps. (Though Tuesday morning jogging is far from it, I admit.)

P1010269

Switzerland (2011): Tools of the Trade