schirin oeding

under a peregrine star


It’s too late to be a pessimist.

Or maybe I should say, “It’s never too late to be an optimist”? Or maybe, simply, “Count your blessings”? The week has been full of quotes, aphorisms, figures, facts, predictions, moments of reflection. Observation. Concentration. Tears. Laughter. Confusion grabbing clarity’s hand. I’m writing in the evening light of another long day. Three doors are wide open to the bird song outside, warm, humid air streams into the classroom, waning shadows play on the leaves. I can just barely see the lake water, blue-grey, from where I sit. It’s been driven home to me this week that if we intend to do the work of turning around this great ship we call Earth, we need to rest, breathe, fall silent. Put our ear to the ground and listen.

This week, our class was taught by a group of people from the fields of biomimicry (Julie Sammons and Mark Dorfman), ecological design (Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd), soil science (Dan Kittredge), and biodynamic farming (via the keepers of Hawthorne Valley Farm). None of them are pessimists, even though all of them work in direct contact with the destruction and degradation of land, and its people, be it urban, rural, wild, and everything in between. I’m not much of a pessimist myself. Especially not when it comes to the future of our planet. I can’t be: it’s not worth the energy, all that sadness. And what’s more, I can’t stop myself from being an optimist when the earth, as Emerson said, laughs in flowers. When pessimism, or his dour playfellow, hopelessness, come to visit, I do my best, with varying degrees of success, to stop them at the door. It’s too late, pessimism, old friend, we’re on a path of no return. Every one of us who has ever been shaken out of his or her drowsiness by the shriek of a killdeer, the prick of a thorny rose, or a breath of wind on a hot, still day (and that makes every single one of us, I reckon), has been committed to the planet, if only by being born here, now, alive today. Some of us are the lucky ones—I count myself among them—who cross paths with teachers, wayfinders, experiences, opportunities to learn, and are perhaps endowed, through all this, with a powerful  sense of responsibility. There are plenty of reasons I could find to be pessimistic about life. I could make a list, and I might be up all night. But I need a good night’s sleep. It matters more. So tonight, instead of counting sheep, I’ll count my blessings.



A balancing act.

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Let the beauty we love be what we do


Hiya friends,

It’s been a little while since my last post (all about student debt), and here’s why: since last Sunday, I have been sequestered away on the campus of a beautiful center for holistic learning with a group of twenty-eight brilliant minds, delving into a six-week course of study ranging from permaculture, agriculture, and resilient design all the way to biomimicry and forest mapping. Life on campus is slowly setting into a routine, which includes daily yoga classes, swimming, journalling, work, and maybe some ice cream, too—and our 9am-5pm class, of course! Our first days were spent working with architect-turned-green builder Bill Reed. With Bill, the over-used, misunderstood concept “sustainability” was on the chopping block. I’m still digesting many aspects of our examinations from those days, so I won’t say much here. Just a few tidbits I picked up, to jog the memory and maybe spark some ideas:

  • The major problems of the world are based on the difference between how nature works and how people think (or are taught to think).
  • Resilience is the threshold of sustainability.
  • When designing, remember: the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts.
  • All life can be seen as a balance of activating and restraining forces. When the two meet, we face an option: compromise (and loose something on both sides) or reconcile (and identify potential).
  • Life is exchange.
  • Become a tracker: look for patterns everywhere.

Bill’s time with us was brimming with information, stories, examples, and design guidelines. It was rich and nuanced and colourful. His classes left me exhausted and curious, inspired, and tired. 🙂

Ethan Roland, of Appleseed Permaculture in Stone Ridge, NY, was our next teacher. Ethan’s focus, of course, was permaculture design. The groundwork we had done with Bill suddenly gained dimensionality. With Ethan, we spent time outside (phew! finally!), sitting and walking in the woods, and examining the minutia of our classroom building, which is nested inside a living machine (check it out) that processes about 50,000 gallons of  wastewater per day—oh, and no, it doesn’t smell. Again, I’ll leave you with a few tidbits from my notebook:

  • “Permaculture emerged as an immune defense to the degradation of the land.” —Bill Mollison (one of the first permaculture designers and teacher in Australia)
  • (Bill Mollison also said, “Permaculture is the art of not shitting where we sleep.” So there.)
  • A simple exercise you can do: draw a map of your personal needs and yields. Remember that your yields include things like creativity, ideas, love, toenail clippings, manure, and carbon dioxide.
  • What you design and plant should yield more than it needs.
  • Remember: humans can be positive co-creators of their eco-systems!
  • Understand the patterns of place. (Aka. Become a tracker: look for patterns everywhere.)

All that is just a tiny glimpse I wanted to share. More will come! The title of the post is quoted from a poem by Jalal al-Din Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. One of the magical things about being here is the convergence of seemingly unrelated streams—becoming a tracker reveals worlds hiding in plain sight. Last night, for example, I attended a reading: Coleman Barks reading and reciting Rumi poems, accompanied by David Darling on cello and Glen Velez on hand drums. So many of the poems I heard last night struck me right at my core: design is just another word, but life, that process of becoming, has the potential to be a real masterpiece. So, let the beauty we love be what we do.

I want to leave you with a short video showing Bill Mollison in his Australian garden. Maybe you’ll be charmed, too.



The Borrowers: Student Debt

For a big chunk of my childhood and teenage years I lived in a mid-sized university town in Canada. My mother taught at the university, and I spent a fair amount of time wandering around libraries, student lounges, and green spaces on campus, pretending to be a mini-student. I remember that there was a popular cafe, run by grad students, right in the middle of campus. It was an old brick house with a patio. Sometimes, I would meet my mum there, and we would have a bite to eat on the patio. One of the exterior brick walls of the cafe, abutting the patio, was covered in numbers written in chalk, many of them running into multiple-digit lengths that were beyond the comprehension of my twelve year-old math skills. I kind of admired their colourfulness. It was neat that students wrote stuff on walls. (I’ve always had a thing for graffiti.) At some point, when I was older, maybe fifteen or so, I realised what those numbers actually were. Written way up high, above the scribbled, colourful digits, were the words: Wall of Debt.

The numbers represented individual students’ debts and loans, accrued over their years as undergraduate and graduate university students. I don’t remember any exact figures from the wall, but, looking at current student debt stats, I’m sure many of them floated around, and even more above, the $20,000 mark. And that’s just Canada. In the US, undergraduates who finance their education wholly via loans can expect at least this much debt in just three or four years, let alone tacking on two or more years of graduate studies. As a young person planning to enroll in a graduate degree program next year (and excited about it), these numbers turn my stomach.

Let me take a step back, though. I’m a twenty-four year old woman without a high school diploma. I homeschooled/unschooled the last two years of high school (actually, I spent most of those years either travelling or working on biodynamic farms). I don’t have a lot of money. In 2008, I applied and was accepted to a small, private American college based on a portfolio, rather than a GED, SAT, or high school transcript. Thanks to this portfolio, I received a full scholarship. I now have a B.A.—and, more importantly, I received an absolutely superbe, enlightening four years of intensive study. And all that for the cost of room and board (which isn’t negligible, but also doesn’t add up to a $20,000-$40,000 debt). I graduated with zero debt. Most of my fellow students didn’t share this experience. During my time at college, I didn’t generally stop to consider how much money I wasn’t spending on my education; I couldn’t hang a price-tag on my experiences, no matter how many zeros I tacked onto the figure. Nevertheless, debt was real: at the beginning of every semester, most of the other students were summoned up to the financial aid office to figure out their loan and grant packages. Figures were floated by me at the dinner table. I felt lucky, and relieved. I also felt increasingly angry that my friends were being faced with enormous financial burdens that might just slow them down on their way to pursuing their dreams. Financial burdens that would follow at least some of them into their fifties and sixties. Because yes, 2.2 million Americans over sixty still owe money on their student loans.

The debate about student loans is pretty wrung out. It’s not a useless debate by any means, but the fact is that as the conversation carries on, millions of students go further and further into debt. It sucks. I’ve been slow to wake up to this reality. It’s easy to set it aside when you’re “getting a free ride.” I feel deeply thankful to my alma mater, and when the time comes that I can give back financially (more than the tiny amount I send to the annual fundraiser), I will, without a doubt. You might wonder why I say that, since all the student debt might look like the college’s fault to begin with. I think in many cases that’s true: the quality of the education isn’t on par with the cost. But I went to a school that did its best with what it had: minimal endowment, a tiny student body, and no big-name corporate sponsors. Every on-campus student was guaranteed a work-study job, and those with higher need were eligible for actual pay-checks. That’s quite a feat, for a small school, especially one that’s geographically located in the most “inconvenient” place (when it comes to finding work as a student, anyway). And have you heard about schools divesting their fossil fuel stock holdings? They did that, too, and they were the third college in the U.S. to do so. All that is something I believe in. (Though all the while I wish the college had had more scholarships, grants, and alternative funding available.)

But for now, I get to plunge into the experience of financing my graduate degree head first, with no experience, and no thick skin, whatsoever. Oftentimes, in the conversation about student debt, the example of free education in Europe is brought up. I was born in Germany, and spent part of my childhood there. I’m an EU citizen, which means that I could take advantage of free education in the old world. There are plenty of reasons why I probably won’t do that, which include that the education I am seeking just isn’t available in Europe. It’s a longish story… But back to free post-secondary education. It’s great, right? Well, I’m not sure. It’s a tough call to make, especially because I seem to be arguing against tuition. The thing is, though, that a university education isn’t right for everyone. It’s not a class thing (or, it shouldn’t be), or a judgement call on my part. I know plenty of people who were much happier, and more successful, learning outside of the university environment—in some ways, I am, too. The problem with free education is that while some people who should have access to post-secondary ed. really can’t afford it, some people can. There is value to this kind of learning, and as much as some of us would like to avoid putting a price-tag on it, there is one. It’s inevitable, since we live in an economy based on, um, yes, sadly, cold, hard, cash. And so, those who can pay, should. In my opinion, the best way for universities and colleges to handle the gap is to adopt the work-college model that is used by some schools in the U.S. There are only seven registered work-colleges in the U.S. Really? Come on, right? I know most schools offer some work-study positions, but these colleges take it to a whole new level. At some schools, like Berea College in KY, all (ALL!) students work 10-15 hours/week, and thus are able to pay off all their tuition as they study. This translates to zero, or very little, debt. I went to one of those work colleges, and while we only worked 4-8 hours/week, it was an interesting, enriching, and educational component of my time at school. Yup, working taught me stuff! I love the fact that we basically had to work while we studied. I think this is smart in an obvious kind of way. (Oh, and by the way, I had to work even though I had a scholarship. I think work should be part of everyone’s education.)

Now that I’m looking at grad programs in the U.S. and Canada, I’m saddened to see that, from the small handful that offer the degree I’m interested in, a number suggest that first year M.A. students not work. The course-load is too heavy, they write, to make time for part- or full-time work on the side. This is just wrong. The course-load should accomodate work. I’d gladly add an extra six months or a year onto my degree if it meant graduating without debt and, even better, working in my field of study and earning money while pursuing my degree. I’m not interested in an insular education that demands I detach myself from the rest of the world and live in temporary and unrealistic stasis, dependent on a fake income that will later come back to haunt me. I love learning, and I love the concentrated amalgamation of resources and experience that is a university. But I also love to work. And I don’t believe that I should experience undue stress (and pressure from faculty who believe that working students cannot focus fully on their studies) because of this. For now, I am trying to be optimistic about the process. I’m excited about the prospect of doing an M.A. (M.L.A., actually, for those who might ask), and I’m trusting that the details of financing my education will come together without too many hiccoughs.

I’d be curious to know about other people’s experiences with the big Wall of Debt. Do share, if you feel so inclined. And thanks for reading! xo

Enter at your own risk.

Enter at your own risk.