schirin oeding

under a peregrine star


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Dog Days

There’s a time when summer climbs to its peak, hot and sticky sweet, and that time is now. The university semester, in a counterproductive attempt to echo the progress of the season, also peaks right around now. Exams heap up, papers, projects, and last minute presentations appear out of the haze of heat. The farm calls out for attention, too. Cucumbers and tomatoes want harvesting from the greenhouses that are hotter than a sauna at noonday. The potato beetles are settling in for a long chomp. There’s something about the heat, though, and all the pressure of school and growing food, that sets the mind to dreaming big. My mental list of projects grows (especially during long lectures in the hot bowels of the uni castle). From cooking and fermenting (kraut, kombucha, ginger beer, and sourdough), canning and curing, to sewing, to putting pen to paper again, FINALLY, and writing stories. Call it escapism, but only if you must.

These dog days of summer, when the sun hesitates to set fully before 10:30 at night, are a time of incubation. In the spring, I’m full of energy. Lengthening days and greening fields reset the rhythm from winter’s introspection to springtime’s outward dance. Everything seems juicy and revelatory. Summer, on the other hand, offers us the long view. Vegetation slows down its explosive growth and begins to ripen. Fruits turn heavy on the trees. The bees are busier and more focused than ever. The heat makes us less hungry, and, like the bees, more focused on storing for when winter sends its cold winds our way again.

The wheat and barley fields are dry and golden. The outline of each grain head becomes crisply defined against the sky.

I find myself starting lots of sentences with, “I wish I could…” But we have to take life one step at a time, don’t we? Otherwise we’d be doing cartwheels. And in this heat, that’s hardly recommendable.

Mary Oliver has just the right words, as is so often the case.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
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.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

Black Forest lady

Berries in a bowlBlack emmerSummer beesSwimming

PS- Capture summer in a bottle by making a simple St. John’s Wort tincture.


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Swimming Lessons

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Life at university has felt like a series of dips into a deep, deep pool. The bottom is still murky, but the possibility of diving, deeper and deeper, is exciting. There are gems and secret doors, portals, to be found. It’s a process of exploration, and experimentation—of again and again refining my ability to notice and see.

What drives someone to keep studying (at a university, in this case)? A professors asked a group of us students this question sometime last week. Is it money? Is it the possibility of a brilliant career? Is it an inability to imagine other options? Or is it a deep hunger, a ravenous sense of curiosity? Take your pick, and I’ll take mine—and perhaps you can guess that it’s the latter.

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Here are a few dives into this deep pool—a few little gems (and splinters):

(All these pictures are, like the words, glimpses of this place. It’s all Germany—bogs, and lakes, and gummy bear cakes.)

In my economics lecture, we were told, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Most people in the lecture hall took this as a given—isn’t it something economists have believed for almost ever? Nothing, no nothing is free or comes without trade-offs. Still, there was a rumbling that went through the hall. A little huff of disappointment, maybe. Aren’t most of us still trying to be optimists? Somewhere to my left, a hand popped up and a small-ish voice said, “And what about sunshine? And love?”

(And yes, well, who cares if the asker is right or not. There must be room in our hearts for a little nebulous selflessness.)

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On a disoriented bike ride that was supposed to take me from the university down into town, I pedalled, accidentally, into a field of brilliant flowers. Cosmos, sunflowers valiantly blooming away the October blues, dahlias, malvas, zinnias, statice, sky-blue cornflowers. A little sign hanging from a post read, “Pick your own flowers.” Underneath the sign hung a little jar with a coin-sized opening. Two knives were provided. I got home with a backpack full of flowers, of course.

I discussed weather with a new friend from central Africa. We’re sitting outside, and I’ve stripped off shoes and socks. The grass is damp, but warm enough for autumn, thanks to the sun. He laughs. At home, he tells me with a smile, it’s never less than 20 degrees Celsius. I impress him with my story of living in a canvas yurt during a northern Vermont winter. I describe the feeling of blinking in weather so cold your lashes freeze together in an instant. I gleefully count layers for him: scarf, mittens, hat, sweater, thermals, woolen socks (2 pairs, maybe), felt-lined boot or mukluks… I get enthusiastic about ways to avoid frostbite. I suspect I adore winter. Together, we worry about this upcoming season in Germany: will it be too cold (him)? will it be unspectacularly balmy (me)?

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I go to class in a castle. It’s got an undeniably magical quality to it. Most people are blasé. They shlump around from class to class, trailing backpacks, coffee mugs, textbooks, stopping to smoke their cigarettes in hasty puffs. I, on the other hand, get giddy just thinking about it. Yeah, childish, perhaps. I might get over it. But I doubt it.

Little inklings of homesickness, every once in a while, have left me breathless. I’m falling for this place, but there’s still the essence of who I am—mostly, it’s a yearning for specific people, or trees and trees and rocks. Distance. Wildness. My cat. A certain smell almost moves me to tears. Woodsmoke still clinging to a sweater I haven’t worn in a year. I crave a spectacular October frost, the kind that leaves everything covered in diamond dust. And at the same time, there are a dozen or more hands reaching out to me wherever I turn, and for this I am so grateful.

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Travels with My Grandfather

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My grandfather and I, on the occasion of his 86th birthday, have taken a trip together, to an island in the former GDR. It’s just the two of us, this time, which gives the house, and us, a slightly rattled feeling. Perhaps we’re a bit wistful, too. The rest of the family is at work, or at school, or both. Most of the time, he does the talking. He has things to say, and I, it turns out, know very little. Sometimes, I make valiant attempts at interjection, sliding sidelong a comment into a conversation—no, a monologue—I know nothing about. War, for example, or communism, or West Wall cement.

We ride our bikes very slowly through the seaside savanna: pines, oaks, sea buckthorn bright and heavy with orange berries that are too tart to eat before the first frost (though I try, anyway). I compose letters in my mind, or small poems about sand and wind. Erosion. How difficult is it to ride a bike and write, at the same time? (Wasn’t there once a man who could bike backward while playing the violin?)

Somewhere along the way, we curve toward the coast and end up among a handful of other people who have stopped here. Nearly 5 kilometres of tumbling evidence faces us: blocks and quarters and raised up ziggurats, slotted windows with steel bars across them, a battalion of broken glass and doors as far as the eye can see, everything sinking into the beautiful, fine sand. The ocean is less than 100 meters away, and has already consumed the most obvious leavings of former inhabitants. People, all of them of a certain age, are milling about, taking pictures and putting their hands to their eyes, tilting their faces up to try to take it all in. They ask each other, “Where were you, when—?”

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How much of a place should we know in a lifetime? Or should the question be, how many places? The book I dropped unwittingly into my backpack for this trip is all about Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands. So I sit in the Ostsee sand reading about green sea turtles and Johanna Angermeyer. All the while, it seems like my very soul is engaged in some kind of a sparring match with reality. Where the heck?, it asks, and all I can meekly reply is, I don’t know, either. It’s the kind of sparring match that involves broomsticks not swords, because it isn’t a battle so much as a push against the settling dust: somewhere in the corners of my mind, beneath bits of twigs and stones, somewhere under notes written by people I do remember, toenail clippings, plum pits, there is a tilting stack of place memories (not all of them my own). Where was I, when—?

Are our memories evidence like bricks and mortar? Years of my grandfather’s stories have made me weary of history. Not history as in stories, his stories, our stories, but history as a fully-formed, decisive thing. Unchanging, unmoving, unyielding. I think, now, that history is a soft and supple creature. Sometimes, when it lives in edifices and tumbling rows of apartment houses, it seems to speak for itself and we perhaps fool ourselves into thinking we understand. But trees are better witnesses to history than many people. Emptiness, the absence of something, sings history, too.

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My grandfather suffers no fools, but because we’re related, he’s familially obligated to put up with my unknowing. My questions tap, tap into dark corners: I simultaneously want and don’t want to know about the war because every story unleashes another one, and another one, and after a while it hurts to listen. I try sticking to small questions, like a map-maker, attempting at a bigger picture by way of bloodless detail. This rarely works. I ask practical questions, like How and Where. In the end, though, what I want to know is Why. But for Why, there are no answers that satisfy us. We comfort ourselves, and each other, by asking, over and over, “Where were you, when—?”


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Impostor Paints Picture

“As it is, we are merely bolting our lives—gulping down undigested experiences as fast as we can stuff them in—because awareness of our own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us more boring than simple being.  If I ask you what you did, saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted yesterday, I am likely to get nothing more than the thin, sketchy outline of the few things that you noticed, and of those only what you thought worth remembering. Is it surprising that an existence so experienced seems so empty and bare that its hunger for an infinite future is insatiable? But suppose you could answer, “It would take me forever to tell you, and I am much too interested in what’s happening now.” How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvelous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?”

~ Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

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(I’ll spend no time recounting what has happened since the last post. Why? Why not? It’s too much to tell, here, and more than enough of it has seeped through to all future words you’ll find here. I’ll keep consistently wallowing in inconsistency, I promise.)

Paying close attention to details has always been a skill of mine. Maybe it’s my superpower? It’s my refuge from the almost constant feeling of being out of place. At my college commencement a few years ago, our speaker introduced us green grasshoppers to the thrilling (ahem) official term for this feeling: impostor syndrome, she called it. Way to send us off into the world, you say? Well, why not. The fact is, I’ve found this definition delightfully useful. And flattering, since she put herself into this same category I immediately assigned myself to. Impostor syndrome: it sure put a handle on this feeling, which I safely say I’ve had almost my whole life, of being a foreigner somehow mistaken for someone else (someone who should be here, in this place). Don’t get me wrong—it’s not about feeling excluded or uninvited. It’s the feeling, which many of us have, of having been undeservedly included in some inner circle. Of looking out from the inside, rather than looking in from the outside.

When we watch something, we’re generally not participating in the same way we would be were we not consciously watching. We become impostors in a slightly different sense. Actually, it probably boils down to obsessive constant vigilance. (Two words that always make me think of the Harry Potter character Mad-Eye Moody. Remember him?) It’s fun to indulge in this obsession every once in a while—though I try to leave it behind on a healthily regular basis, too—especially when exploring new places.

I’m thinking about all this as I wander the streets of one of my favourite cities: Portland, Oregon. It’s hot and breezy, and the air is tinged with the scent of jasmine and buddleia. A homeless man (by the looks of him) is picking unripe rosehips from a rose bush by the side of the road and popping them into his mouth, one at a time. He chews slowly, eating around the seedy centre, which he spits out with an enthusiastic “Thwack.” His hands meander over the rosehips left on the bush, deftly examining them before choosing another one. On the other side of the street, small wooden tables crowd the sidewalk. It’s before noon, and men with sylvan tattoos and Converse sneakers drink coffee, while women in short skirts and bare backs sneak sidelong glances at their Iphones. An old dark blue Volvo pulls up beside me—no rust: it’s the West Coast, after all. On its roof, rolled up tightly and bungee-corded to the roof-rack, are carpets and black rubber dry-bags, the kind usually used for camping. The car itself is stuffed to the roof with duffle bags and boxes of books, stray volumes propped unintentionally open at some page or other. From the rear-view mirror dangles a tightly wrapped bundle of smudging sage, its edges already singed. Colourful feathers crowd the dash. A man emerges, smoothes one hand over his hair—which is long, gathered in a ponytail that reaches the small of his back, and used to be blond.

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I started listening to recordings of Alan Watts when I was about sixteen. A friend gave me a collection of CDs, long, meandering Watts oratories that I listened to over and over again. I think it was in these recordings that I first learned about what Watts refers to as “witnessing.” I spent weeks trying to perfect this method of imagining myself floating a few feet above myself, just watching. What ended up happening, in the process, was that I learned to pay better attention to the world around me. It’s a skill that’s come in handy often. The world, in fact, is endlessly entertaining.

The long-haired man from the dark blue Volvo makes his way to the sidewalk, where he walks over a tiny literary detail in the pavement. Someone, at some time, scratched the words “Wow = Me” into the setting cement. Certainly better than “Woe = Me” isn’t it? I like it. He ambles off into a nearby building and is gone. The Volvo stays behind, windows rolled slightly down, metal crackling in the mid-morning heat. A few steps further down the street, someone has parked an old VW Westfalia—hands down one of my favourite cars. This one’s acid green, rusty in spite of its California plates, and bedazzled with bumper sticker upon bumper sticker upon bumper sticker.

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The poet Mary Oliver said it best, or at least, most simply:

Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished. 

Tell about it. 

The tiny details of the every day are indeed the secretest (a word? why sure it is.) and simultaneously most accessible of messages from the universe. They are the dialogue between the semi-permeable realm of magic and enchantment that hovers just behind us and the tangible world we think we live in. These details are, if nothing else, fodder for stories. And stories are the building-blocks of our lives, so what better way to begin a story than by paying attention?

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PS— Don’t think the magic is real? Try thinking about it this way.


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Landing Again

This is day two of being back from more than three months away. It feels a bit like a crash landing, being back here, and suddenly there it all is again: work, errands, to-do lists, memories of the at times beautiful yet incredibly difficult spring of this year. Everything that challenged me is, of course, still in me. But after the amazing summer that I had, I do kind of feel like I’ve won the lottery. So what do you do when you’ve won the lottery? Celebrate? Go into shock? Knuckle down and figure out what to do with the winnings? I guess I am the type to go for the latter option. And so: where to, from here?

I am working on my list. Joining a choir is next, actually. I’ll keep you posted. And, as soon as the jet lag wears off: running again (which I am looking forward to, especially this new experience of autumn-running). And writing: pitching a few new pieces, getting to work on an article that I have been looking forward to almost all year (for Taproot), and enjoying coming home to find a copy of Pure Green—with my piece on working by hand in it.

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Hey you,

Moon-bound unhinged beauty,

Wake up to sun-found, earth-sound roots,

Plant star-seeds underfoot!

More soon. For now, xo.


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Getting Older, Being Young, and Making Lists

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Hi friends,

Ok, the title for this post might be kind of ludicrous: it’s generally not culturally acceptable for twenty-four year olds to talk about aging. I mean, these are THE YEARS of our lives. Right? I agree with that entirely, but I’m also completely convinced that THE YEARS are always, if we want them to be. So when I talk about getting older here, I’m not complaining. Actually, over the past few months, as I’ve travelled, studied, met new people, been offered jobs (yeah, this might be an awesome perk of getting older, even if I do turn all of them down), made minor and major life choices, I have felt, more tangibly than ever, a growing sense of responsibility for my self and my life. All of this, this thing that might be “getting older” ( I wouldn’t know, it’s my first time), hasn’t been easy or obvious. I still don’t always know if I am making the right choice (who does?), I know I make plenty of mistakes, and I feel, more and more and more, that I have so much left to learn.  The more I see, the less I know, right? It’s true, and yet all of that feels like an enormous gift. I feel full of energy and optimism —not always, not constantly, but pretty much overarchingly (that’s not a word, oh well…)— and I feel like making a list. So here goes, straight from the clear mountain air of the Swiss Alps (is the altitude getting to me?) , to you*. I’ve never been much of a fan of making lists like this. (I’m not a peak bagger, either)  I’m not sure why. Does it seem superficial? Do we tend towards listing things that probably won’t happen anyway? Is it hollow a way of making ourselves feel better when we feel like we’re not getting anywhere? I’m putting all that aside. This list is not a Life List (life isn’t a checklist, after all), or a Bucket List, or anything particularly rigid or closed to change and/or revision and/or interpretation. Just some ideas that have been floating around my mind, that seem to warrant writing down. Perhaps it’s a way of setting intentions, or reenforcing them, or giving them a life of their own. Actually, I don’t have a lot of doubt that these things will come to fruition—I am, after all, working on making them happen as I write. Maybe you’ll be inspired to write a list of your own… I’d love to know what you’re planning, too. Maybe we can work together.
* A nice thing about being young and writing about getting older is that (hopefully) those of you who are older and wiser will forgive me for any weird assumption and assertions. I am, after all, still kinda young.
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Within the next ten years, I will have…

1. completed my masters in landscape design/architecture and will have built a successful, systems-based design business that focuses on farm, urban niche, and rural design. (And LOVE  my work!)

2. built a house (even a VERY small house) with my own two hands (and some friends and family) out of basic ingredients like straw and cob.

3. hiked parts of the Olav’s Way in Norway. (I don’t really feel like hiking all 560 km of it—just the choicest bits.)

4. begun learning a new language—Danish or Swedish would be at the top of the list here. (I know, this won’t help much when I am hiking in Norway…)

5. travelled to Asia, especially rural Asia. (And especially Japan and Vietnam and Thailand.)

6. travelled to India—and met some of the amazing biodynamic farmers now working there.

7. eaten a Pawpaw fruit. Seriously: I’ve been a sort-of student of permaculture for more than five years now, and while I’ve heard a heck of a lot of praise for this elusive fruit, I have yet to eat one myself. I’m starting to think they’re mythical. Okay, they’re not… 

8. grown rice in a northern climate.

9.  become a better public speaker. I got a chance to do some spontaneous public speaking with a professional this summer, and boy, did I feel nervous and crazy and filled with adrenaline. I really think that good public speakers can convey messages and tell stories in stunning, memorable, lyrical, and life-changing ways—I’d like to aspire at least to some of that. Here are two great speakers for you: Elizabeth Gilbert on creative genius, and Sarah Kay on spoken-word poetry, growing up, and life itself.

10. continued to write and publish: articles, stories, poems. You can find my writing in Taproot, as well as here, and occasionally in a few other places.

11. been singing in a choir. I miss singing. Especially like this.  (Village Harmony would be THE people to sing with.)

12. bought a piece of land to build the house (see #2) and plant the garden that I’ve been dreaming of for a long time. A place to stay put. A place to hang my hat.

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That’s all for now. It’s a long list, though not an all-encompassing one by any means, and not impossible either. I’ll keep you posted on my progress. (Ten years, right?)

xo


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Mountain Days

Phew! It’s been such a long time since I was here last.  I’ve been in the Swiss Alps for a little less than a month now. We’ve been making hay almost every day, up on the high, lush fields of these mountains. Every morning, I take care of some goats, milking and feeding them, and letting them out of their tiny barn into a huge, steep field where they spend their days climbing and grazing and sleeping among some rocky outcroppings. When there’s time, I hike. The days have been flying by…

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Have a beautiful day!

xo