schirin oeding

under a peregrine star


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Let the beauty we love be what we do

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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.

xo


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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.