schirin oeding

under a peregrine star


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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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On Looking Ahead

Looking inside.

Looking inside.

One of the childhood memories that comes back to me most frequently is the memory of declaring, to my mother, that what I wanted above all in my life was to be good. This replaced a previous need to be famous, which I thought was essential to changing the world. “Define world,” I might say to my younger self now, “Define change.” But it doesn’t matter, anyway. What I realised, somehow, provoked by an insight I can’t remember, was that what I really wanted was to be a happy person, with enough happiness to go around to anyone and everyone. Yup, it’s a vague goal (but noble, right?!).

I’ve been thinking a lot about plans, lately. A small handful of my friends are excellent planners. They seem to be blessed with an intensely clear vision of what their lives should look like, and, most importantly, what they must do for it all to fall into place. I always thought I wasn’t like them. What I thought about myself was this: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know! And when I occasionally felt that I did know (know what to do, what I wanted, where I wanted to be, etc.), I frequently found myself in a situation where the universe/fate/circumstance seemed to have something else in mind. I have never really suffered the existential boredom that lots of people I know swim into at some point in their lives—which leads them to make unexpected decisions and journeys. Even as a kid, I don’t recall being bored much (I’ll have to ask my mother to confirm this). I wasn’t like the writer Joseph Epstein, whose mother replies to a complaint of boredom that a person ought to, “[…] knock your head against the wall. It’ll take your mind off your boredom.” (An apt metaphorical epithet for what some people might characterise as the problem of my generation…) Ok, so knocking your head against a wall won’t get you anywhere—though it might shake loose some more productive ideas a few seconds before a self-inflicted concussion is suffered.

I guess the main thing to pull out of the jumble above is this: I wasn’t bored, because there was always something to do. But I didn’t think I was a planner, because I rarely sat myself down and considered what I really wanted to do with my life.  (On an explanatory side note I’d add this: one of my regular dreams is to have a house with a large garden to call my own, and large amounts of time to spend turning that garden into something magical, and then spending the next years, decades, watching it grow. It hasn’t happened, yet, and maybe the reason why this wish is so strong is that I want to feel settled, and stop feeling as though time is always at my heels.)

And still, all the while, plans and ideas and visions and dreams have been fermenting away somewhere inside of me. I clearly wasn’t letting life just “happen” to me.

I’m an extremely, frequently irritatingly, impatient person. I am impatient with others, with the pace of change, with the change of the seasons, and above all, with myself. I often find myself falling into the trap of believing that something I want to do won’t ever happen if it doesn’t happen right now. That’s why running has been such an achievement in my eyes: I always wanted to run, but the initial pain and discomfort always dissuaded me. I wanted to feel good! Now! But now I realise that good things are often slow to materialise. Especially those good things that are made to last, or those that bring changes that leave lasting impressions. Sometimes, I remind myself now, I just need to wait and wait some more.

Making plans for my life (even though, as they say, “Humans plan and god laughs”) and working toward them, and enjoying the journey, is a stronghold against impatience and frustration. Both of those are inevitable in my life, I know this for sure—but maybe the strength of the journey will help overcome the fear of not knowing.

One more thought on impatience and boredom (again via Joseph Epstein’s essay on the subject): ‘”I have discovered that all evil comes from this,” wrote Pascal, “man’s being unable to sit still in a room.”‘ Not sit still forever, I might add, but just for a moment, just while the dust settles. xo

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Looking back.


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Beauty Is Twice Beauty

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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 

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Wild leeks.