It has been quiet on this blog for the last couple of weeks. So either “quiet is the new loud” as the Kings of Convenience stated – and they are Norwegian, so they must know. Or I got something cooking, something that is so completely and utterly occupying that no time could be found to even spill the beans about it. Well, it is a little bit of both. Since arriving on Bergsmyrene I feel much less the need to tell and share a lot. I am having trouble keeping up with phoning friends and family, I work long hours and love every bit of it. It’s been many moons since I watched any series or movie and I do not get anywhere with my books. I do force myself to some news every now and then, but I feel weirdly detached from what is going on in the rest of the world. It has so little to do with my life right now, and admitting to this is an emotional mixed bag. How can I be so idle when there is a global health crisis going on? Not to forget about all the other preexisting crises.
Whenever I get ashamed and anxious about this shift of perspective and priorities I do try to remember that this is exactly the place and the state of mind I wanted to end up in. Doing something good for the people around me and my community, on a scale that is actually within my circle of influence. And letting go the overwhelming thought that trying to put out fires in all the hot spots at once is the goal.
I was dreaming of getting away from the buzz of the city, away from spending too much money on rent, from buying food that I didn’t know anything about. I did not want to be caught up in an unsustainable lifestyle and not being able to alter it anymore. And I certainly did not want to work in offices and watch the sky through the window. All together, it did make me feel quite miserable.
Playing violin to the seagulls
Instead, I wanted to live a life based on simplicity, love and care for the people around me and the place I ended up in. I wished to sit in a tree, sleep in a hammock and play my violin for the seagulls down at the fjord. I wanted to learn about growing vegetables, about seeding, planting and about harvesting. I wanted to go foraging in the woods and learn about all the edible plants and flowers. I wanted to taste dandelion spaghetti, nettle pesto, spruce shoot sirup and chervil blossom popsicles. I dreamed of living in a place where there was no need to lock doors and where even me, a light sleeper, would found ear plugs ridiculous. Where it was okay to have some staying black muck under the nails, not shower every day and let ones hair grow wild. I didn’t know how much pleasure I would find in cooking and baking, in learning about braiding hair, in slack-lining to the sound of birds, in going off-track running to the woods on endless summer nights. The sun rises at 4.21 and sets after ten o’clock now, and I have to force myself to bed.
Now, if you’re starting to think that this all sounds way too good to be real, and that life could not possibly be that idle, you’re not alone. About five times a day I feel like I have to pinch myself. It all feels surreal these days.
Weeding 100 meters of carrots by hand
What else is going on? I find way too much joy in pranking the people on the farm, at least to the taste of my boss. So far, I filled beds with straw and lunch packages with chicken food. I gave new color and meaning to clothing items and told some quite believable stories about magic mushrooms. When you sit in a 100 square meter carrot field and pull out weeds by hand, you have some time to come up with ideas. We play a lot of games while working (my favorite so far: “If I ran a cult”, that was about coming up with ways of setting up a cult that people would actually like to join.). We teach each other about things, sometimes we end up in heated discussions, we laugh a lot. It is great fun to hang out and work with the Bergsmyrene squad, with Doro, Severin, with Abby, Raphael and Toon. We could need more helping hands on the farm, and hopefully some people will find their way to Bergsmyrene. The intimacy of a small group is nice though. Departures are tough and it pains me to let people go, like Abigael last week. It feels like a break-up.
Café Koselig, your supplier of good coffee and delicious vegan cakes
As for the spilling of beans I did start a little project on the farm that has been occupying me in addition to everything else. I opened a little pop up café that is part of our farm shop. It is called Café Koselig (a Norwegian word with quite a few meanings and layers, “cozy“ is just one) and is open on weekends during the summer. I bake vegan cakes and try to use as much of our own produce as possible. And I serve good organic and fair trade coffee. I didn’t want to make a big investment, so I just bought the bare minimum of equipment: high-quality coffee beans and organic ingredients, a coffee grinder and a milk foamer to make a decent caffe latte. We got a sofa and nice chairs for free from people in the area and some granny-style porcelain service.
We opened last weekend and so far it has been very nice. A lot of people who come to the farm shop end up staying a bit longer for a coffee and some cake, a lemonade or a popsicles. The nicest thing is not having to worry about money, not having to pay rent, or paying off debt from an investment, and making the project profitable as fast as possible. I just hitched my café wagon to the Bergsmyrene farm and if all goes well, this will be a wonderful summer occupation. I do love serving good food, so why not in a small café setting? So far, the feedback has been very kind and generous. People seem to be generally appreciative and open to new things, comments on Koselig being a vegan café have been only positive so far. All together, I am quite busy these days. Yet, I still find the time to watch the clouds, lie in the meadows or stray through the woods, almost every day. How did I ever consider life fulfilled without?
There is nothing I find more soothing than to observe someone do work chores. The type of task that someone can do in their sleep, because they have done it for a long time, because they are good at it, or because it is a rather monotone type of work. When I am sick and I go to the doctors office I start feeling better as soon as the receptionist is typing in my information. The clicking of the keyboard, the routine questions…I don’t know exactly what it is – it might be a ASMR thing (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) – that gives me a sense of calm and sometimes even sends shivers of wellbeing down my spine.
The work on my farm entails a lot of tasks that fall in that category: seeding 300 pots of onions, sowing oats on a field by hand, watering 200 meters of lettuce, planting long rows of pak choi, harvesting, weeding and packaging, flattening a field with a tractor, feeding animals. Many of those tasks require you to focus only gradually and give you time to think or daydream or have a conversation (I am talking about the executive side of farm work, like watering lettuce). I am both watching people perform these tasks and doing them myself. While the first – observing someone do their job – often gives me this wonderful soothing, the latter is a bit different.
Learning heaps of new things that you don’t know anything about can be quite intimidating, and here I don’t mean watering lettuce. I come from a family of bookworms and garden enthusiasts, I have read “The One-Straw-Revolution”, and I have always wanted to learn and understand. But when it comes to farming I don’t know anything. This feeling is especially intimidating now, that I have left other stabilizers behind at the same time. Like coming to a foreign country, neither speaking the language nor having friends, and stopping to work in my old profession. Leaving a place also means leaving a part of yourself. It is the part that needs no explanations, that knows what it is, that is about identifying. I used to identify in a certain way, and I had people around me, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, who backed me up on this self-identification. This „I am“ had a lot of dreams and ambitions, ways of life, seeing the world and seeing others. Some things were settled, like me voting left, being a feminist, trying to live as sustainable as possible, protesting against racism, and so forth. Others were more in fluctuation. Now, almost everything is in a state of flux. What holds a sense of self together then?
I am not shy when it comes to admiration towards other people and have always been curious, wanting to learn and understand and gain new perspectives. So, these days my sense of self is held together through these familiar traits: sympathy, enthusiasm and curiosity. The enthusiasm and sympathy I feel for the people around me and the place I ended up in. And the special combination of being nervous about not knowing shit (or dritt, as Norwegians say) about so many things, but also really wanting to learn and understand, and do a good job.
Honestly, how much do you know about life if you have no idea how your food is grown and being produced? The people who live on Bergsmyrene bring together a huge body of knowledge, all hidden from me until now. It makes me humble.
How wonderful it is to know all these facts about how to build healthy soil, like Severin, the young farmer does. To be experimenting with different sorts of manure and compost, to be dreaming of a vegan farm, one without using animals in any conventional ways. How impressive to be just as much focused on making your farm as sustainable and profitable as possible. To be maneuvering taking over more and more responsibilities from your parents, while improving old ways or finding your own ones. And on top of it, to be slaying it on slack lines and trampolines – flick-flacking, saltoing, backflipping – as if gravity was just a mental construct.
How amazing to be knowing so much already, like Doro does, my young co-worker from Germany. She is only 22 years old, warm-hearted and funny, and hops on the tractor as if it was nothing. She is in a 3-year training program in biodynamic farming, knits beautiful sweaters, speaks Norwegian, is handy with a lot of things and can lose herself in books about plants.
Edona used to work at Maaemo, the three-star big shot in Oslo. She is a machine, getting things done and being kind, funny and always helpful at the same time. Her experience with working in restaurants, whether in service or managing the place, has given her the most impressive organizational talent. She knows tons of stuff about farming, about making restaurants more sustainable, and about cooking and baking. She is equally gifted at fixing a roof as at cracking numbers or drawing beautiful signs for our farm shop. And she has endless patience for me and the many questions I shoot at her.
Toon from the Netherlands is staying one year at Bergsmyrene and knows heaps about permaculture design and alternative agriculture. Just like Doro he is in a 3 year long apprenticeship program for biodynamic agriculture called Bingn.
Then there is Finn, Severins father, who turned 70 but is still very much involved in everything that is happening on the farm. There is nothing he doesn’t know about germination, about the right condition for every plant to thrive, about any kind of seed type and how to cultivate it. Finn even has his own chilly plant named after him, because he cultivated the variety.
Severins mom is a strong and beautiful farmer, originally from Switzerland. She is amazing with horses and all animals, can pull off bell-bottoms like no other, and knows everything about medicinal plants and herbs.
All together, Bergsmyrene farm is an ocean of knowledge, and the people who swim and dive in it teach me to be 32 years old and, in a fundamental way, to be nothing still. I mean this nothingness in a positive sense, in a zen sense, if you will. To be nothing, to me, means to be empty and open, a vessel, something yet to be filled.
And if observing someone perform work tasks and then learning them myself sends some ASMR chills down my spine – even better. Learning means equally creating space and therefore letting go of some parts of your self-identification, if only temporary. The last newspaper I read was three days old. I browsed through it with pleasure, but it had already collected some farm dirt and was helplessly outdated. Letting go, in a nutshell.
When I set out on this adventure I called a personal climate strike, I thought I knew exactly what I was doing. Family, friends, colleagues kept asking about the plan – it’s a reasonable question and my answer was ready-made. I was on a mission and I used the big guns: the spiraling ecological crisis, the climate crisis, the crisis of injustice due to our consumption habits – all the crises in the whole world.
While gun-firing crises at the poor people who dared to ask what I was planning on doing in freakin’ Norway I could see them growing more uncomfortable with the minute. My attack went somewhat like this:
We need to change our lifestyle, our consumption patterns, our mode of travel, our economic system, our everything. Did you know that there is plastic in your poop?! That permafrost is no longer permanent? Don’t you care about the fact that half of the insect population in Europe has vanished, that Australia is on fire? Don’t you?
I should have worn a safety hazard sign on me. Save yourself if you can. With a gasp of air I ended my sweeping swipe, confessing that I was feeling increasingly depressed about the state of the world and that I needed to find a way of contributing something meaningful without going coo-coo. Hence, dropping out, heading to the Norwegian woods, working on farms for a while, or for ever. Any questions?
And all for some random #farmlife in Norway
It wasn’t only for my mode of delivery that people thought I had lost it. It is no small deal to leave your circle of friends and relatives behind, a city that took you long to feel at home in, a career that was going okay’ish, in total a good and privileged life – and all for some random #farmlife in Norway.
It’s been three months of this #farmlife, and so far I can say it is both nothing like I imagined it to be and all I could wish for. Coming to Norway feels and has felt not only like a mission but also like throwing in the towel; the towel called being a freelance journalist in Berlin. I had been putting a lot of pressure onto myself, pressure to come up with new ideas, to be more creative, to get better assignments, to make money. It was exhausting and there was a growing feeling of not getting anywhere. Yes, there were good assignments, among many mediocre ones, and yes, after some years of struggling there was some financial stability. But as soon as I took the foot off the gas the machine staggered, work oportunities and calls for assignments decreased. I feel it is about time to come to terms with the fact that I am just not as exceptional a journalist, as gifted a story teller as I wish to be. Admitting to your own mediocrity, to average, is not easy. Neither is it a good motivator. I think my climate strike, brought forth by the very real climate crisis, served a good deal as a cover-up for an internal crisis too.
Ironically enough, a third crisis, the corona shutdown, to some extend brought both these crises to a halt. Needless to say, the permafrost will keep melting, regardless of some dolphins now jumping in lagoons in Venice again, or me seeding carrots and mucking out cows instead of working as a writer. Still, the full stop corona has brought to us (except to the people working in hospitals, health departments, to policy makers and of course to those fearing for their loved ones in critical conditions) makes me feel slightly optimistic. People seem to be reflecting quite a lot what is valuable in their lives right now. Being unable to shop, consume, travel, be over-productive, distract yourself with keeping the wheel spinning seems to be giving us some much-needed time to think and feel. Sure, most of us are longing for things to get back to normal as soon as possible. And all the postponed consumption might result in an increasing need for gratification, once that happens. But maybe this pause has some longer-lasting effects as well, like taking pleasure in things that are not for sale and that, by chance, are also less harmful for the world we are living in. It’s for sure the more mundane pleasures: checking in with friends, enjoying nature, going for walks, runs or hikes, caring for someone who might need a little help, taking pleasure in preparing food yourself, DIY-ing things that you might have bought before.
This is what I am doing now
As for me, this virus has – after some nervous days where I was contemplating what to do – brought some peace of mind to my adventure. It has brought me to the here and now, to the place where I am, physically and mentally. The feeling of missing out, of having made an unfortunate mistake, of having taken a bad turn, diminished. Instead, I feel more like I have arrived. This is what I am doing now. I keep thinking that while working in the green house where it smells of humid soil and I can see countless healthy earthworms and insects inhabiting the space. This is where I am now, I think while learning to differentiate tiny lemongrass seedlings from weeds, while dozing off in the shy spring sun. This is what I am doing here and now, I think while taking immense pleasure in cooking vegan meals for the farmers and the volunteers on Bergsmyrene Gård, the new farm I am working on. The Bergsmyrene family makes it easy to feel cheerful, being so appreciative, and providing a wonderful community, while equally being considerate of everyones private space. Farm life doesn’t feel particularly political, like I was really being on a climate strike. Other than spending and earning no money, providing people with good biodynamic vegetables, treating soil, flora and fauna in a sustainable way and nourishing myself well. Well I guess that is already something.
I don’t write much these days and currently I don’t brainstorm about new assignments. The ones that were in planning are all cancelled due to corona. I am ok with that. Instead, I work together with a small and wonderful group of people. We are outdoors most of the day, we eat good food, we take immense pleasure in baking bread together, I go for long walks, do yoga, go for a quick dip in the fjord. I read books and sleep tight. It feels like I am exactly where I need to be.
I started this post listing all the facts and drastic measurements that were implemented in Norway in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. I wanted to give you a proper update on what is going on here, up north. Norway is just as much in crisis mode as all the other European countries, with little hope that things will get better or easier any time soon. But to be honest, that is not at all what I want to write about. Like most of you I too find myself in a world that is changing faster than I can keep track of. The following post might be a little chaotic, it might be too emotional for your taste, and there might be too many spelling errors in it. For now, this is just the way it is. What I want to say to you (and maybe even more to myself) is this:
It is ok to feel vulnerable right now. It is ok to feel anxious, insecure, fearful or helpless. We all do. At least to a certain extend we share this experience and these sensations. We think of our loved ones, spread across countries, scattered in all the different places around the world. In times like these it is only natural to worry.
I think of two close friends with a young daughter in Germany. She just recovered from an almost-pneunomia and is now starting to cough again. I feel their worry and anxiety. I think of my two oldest friends, being stranded in India, not knowing when they are allowed to fly back home. When shit goes down in India, I really fear to be here, my friend told me. I feel her and I know she has reasons to be worried. I think of a colleague of mine who recently moved to Berlin. He doesn’t have a lot of social contacts yet, and the necessary physical distancing is making him feel even more alone. Many dear friends are self-employed and have no idea how to get through the coming months, with no income and little or no savings. I know their worry, I worry too. Another friend told me about her father, who just received a cancer diagnosis. His urgent operation is now being postponed. I think of my host in Norway, who wanted to travel to the Faröer Islands to visit her 90-year-old father. And how she had to explain to him why she couldn’t come and that she didn’t know when they would see each other again. I feel her sadness. I think of my family back in Germany. Although I don’t worry about their health too much I can’t help but wonder when I get to see them again. And although I am safe where I am right now, I would prefer to be with them.
Thinking of those who are most at risk
I try to extend my thoughts to all the people that I don’t know, that are even more at risk. This virus might spread among us, regardless of passport, religion, ethnicity or gender. But let’s not forget that it hits those most vulnerable in the most fatal manner. I think of the thousands of refugees, stranded in camps at the outer boarders of Europe, trying to stay alive under inhumane conditions, even before this virus turned the world upside down. I don’t dare to say I know their anxiety, their trauma and what they are going through. But I know we shall not forget them, even though we might be occupied with our own worries.
I think of all the health professionals and their tireless effort to keep going. About the people working in supermarkets, in pharmacies, operating trains and busses. I think of all the old and sick people, people in critical conditions, those who already suffer from depression and severe anxiety, and about their friends and families.
We know how to do this
And although I can feel waves of anxiety and helplessness wash over me, I know something else too: We human beings will manage almost anything, as long as our heads stay somewhat clear and our hearts open. Generations before us have gone through war, depression, epidemics, through famines and displacement. We know how to do this. It is deeply rooted in our systems to manage all sorts of crisis. As long as we steady our hearts and care for each other.
In order to manage overwhelming feelings, what I find helpful and soothing these days is to make lovingkindness and compassion my inner motor, my crisis managing system. Every now and then, during the day, I try to tune in and listen to my heart, asking: What can I do for you? What do you need right now? Just as much as caring for my own heart, I try to be there for the people around me, the very small community of people on the farm. What do they need? How can I be helpful to them? I try to stay in close contact to my family and friends, I try to let people know that I am there for them, even if it is just on the phone right now. I read about countless acts of love, care and solidarity all over the world, among strangers, families and friends. I guess a crisis really brings it out in you. Fear can motivate greed and egoism just as much as kindness and selflessness. It’s good to have options, isn’t it?
For now, I want you all to know that I am thinking about you and that I am sending love, care and compassion your way.
Living in Germany for a lot of people means to look at the nordic countries – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland – with a mixture of awe, jealousy and romanticisation. The usual comments go like this: “It’s cold up there but have you seen their wellfare system?” “Look at the schools, they have a way better educational system than we have!” Other remarks, expressed in the media or by friends, deal with the levels of gender equality (“SO many guys working in kindergardens!” “Did you know that employers pay you if you leave work to nurse your baby?”). My personal favorite is the annual World Happiness Report by the UN. The northern countries almost always take turns to lead: According to the 2019 report the worlds happiest people lived in Finland, followed by Denmark, Norway and Iceland, in the years before Norway led the list.
Then there is environmentalism and sustainability, and somehow we are led to believe that inhabitants of nordic countries are basically walking piles of human humus, messias of ecology, Jesus, Maria and Mohammed on an e-bike. We think of beautiful and tall København folks driving their bycicles. We think of happy Norwegians, hiking the mountains, sleeping outdoors, leaving behind no traces. The Swedes go kajacking or elk-riding, the Fins are humble and content as long as there is a sauna around. Naturally, all of the countries inhabitants are smart and mindful when it comes to thinking and acting green. Oslo was European Green Capital of 2019 – that must count for something, right?
Norway, not as green as I thought
When we look at the big cities, Stockholm, København, Oslo or Bergen, than in fact there is a lot of eco consciousness. A fair amount of people are working on more sustainable solutions when it comes to use of energy, (public) transportation, sustainable building, waste management and alternative agriculture. There is a variety of health stores, vegan burger places, organic supermarkets, bike lanes, car sharing services, road tolls for cars in inner city circles and so on. While some of these things are also symptoms of gentrification they are for sure developments towards more sustainable city environments.
But as soon as I leave the city, I can’t help but notice a ton of disinterest and outright ignorance, when it comes to dealing with a climate crisis that is already happening all around us. Did you know that Norwegians fly more than most other European countries? Only the inhabitants of Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, and Cyprus fly more (the two latter are island states). Norwegians on average fly eight times a year inland. For 2019 the national statistic institute SSB registered more than 40 million inland flights. Flying in Norway is the cheapest and fastest way to get you to places. On the contrary, train tracks only measure 4219 kilometers in this huge country and don’t go further north than Bodø, 1000 kilometer south of the North Cape.
My observations are made merely on the countryside, and I can only speak for the south of rural Norway, since I have not lived on the countryside of another Scandinavian country. This is not meant to be a rant but a sharing of observations, fuelled by environmental concern.
The lack of a green consciousness in rural Norway lies in details, some of them more obvious than others. Like in the absence of organic products at supermarket chains in the Tinn region. If you ask employees whether they couldn’t broaden their offer of organic products they will just tell you that, sadly, there is not enough request. In contrast, the same conventional supermarkets like Kiwi or Meny in Oslo offer an o.k. selection of organic products. Still, it is by no means comparable with Germany and its selection of organic supermarkets like Denns, Alnatura, Basic or Biocompany in almost every small town. In Norway there is simply no such thing as an organic supermarket chain, only small health food stores (I am not saying small cooperatives going big is merely a good thing). Because Norway is such a small country a lot of German organic brands end up on the shelves of health stores. They are of course much more expensive, due to import taxes and shipping, the latter making them also much less sustainable.
When you talk to Norwegians many of them will say that buying organic just doesn’t make sense. They think of it as a mere distinctional behaviour. They will say it is only more expensive, not necessarily tastier or healthier. While I am having trouble believing that (think of drugged-up animals, think of pesticides, GMO and fertilizers) let’s assume they are right. If you don’t buy organic for the taste or your own health it all boils down to one argument: in favour of a more sustainable agriculture. Now, Norway is quite a big country, especially in length, with five million inhabitants scattered mainly in the south. There still is a lot of space, there is an overabundance of supposedly untouched nature, of farming on a rather small scale. Weather conditions are only mild in the south and the sheer geography of the country makes XXL-farming impossible. If Norwegians go into nature and they don’t just happen to stumble across a mine, a mountaintop removal site or a salmon aquaculture farm where algae make the water slimy, the Norwegian nature seems to be doing fine, with or without them buying organic.
Buying organic food is simply for those with too much money, I heard people say. Mind you, Norway is one of the richest countries in the world. Yes, food, non-alcoholic beverages and toileteries are very expansive, but Norwegians still only spend around 11 percent of their total consumption expenditure on these goods, according to a study from 2019. Compared to their whopping incomes they spend not more on food than Germans (10,3 percent of their income in 2017). Somehow we have come to believe that we don’t need to spend any money on food – the thing, next to housing, that really sustains us and keeps us well and going.
You might wonder why I am stressing the food part so much, but once you have started to work in the production of food you come to see things differently. What we eat, where it comes from, how it is produced and processed are crucial parts, not only in environmentalism but also when it comes to social justice and the wellbeing of a countries society. Organic food in this way is not just about the taste, your personal health or doing good for the environment. And in this regard Norway for sure could do much better. However I don’t mean to say that on the other hand Germany is an eco paradise.
Another observation: Plastic bags are omnipresent in Norwegian supermarkets. When I made my own small participate observations in Oslo and around Telemark, everyone queueing in front of me requested a plastic bag. No supermarket I went to offered paper or jute bags (yesyes, those materials have their downsides too), and at least when I stood at the check-out no one in front of me brought their own bag. You might think these are unimportant, small observations that don’t necessarily mean anything. I would argue that collective consciousness shows itself exactly in those mundane practices and habits.
Motor out running, man indoor having breakfast
There is one thing that really came as a shock to me, senseless environmental ignorance in a nutshell: Everywhere I went so far, people leave their motors running. It is considered normal to “heat up” your motor, regardless that winter conditions in the south have not been harsh this year. Norwegians just switch their engines on and then go back in and have breakfast. They leave their cars running while going to the supermarket. One guy left his pick-up truck running and then hopped on to his tractor, happily driving off. I don’t know if he was ever coming back, but when I passed the car on my way back it was still running, more than one hour later. I yet have to find the courage to ask people in all seriousness why they don’t switch off their engines. My host Gaby made a joke the other day, telling me about this place in the Arctic where people must not switch their motors off from October till April every year, otherwise their engines break down. There’s always a place where things are worse, I guess.
In general, as soon as you get to rural Norway you need a car. Public transport is just too bad. When you meet Norwegians – as outdoorsy as he or she might be on the weekends up in the mountains – during the weekday they for sure will drive to work, most likely by themselves. Commuting is not really seen as a necessity. I have met sweet and genuinely responsible-thinking guys who never really considered biking to work, although the distance was barely 10k and they were in great shape. Yes, every second new car that is being sold in Norway is an electric car. But for your hytte tur on the weekend you make sure to drive your four-wheel-SUV up to the mountains, no matter how narrow the roads.
Are Norwegians just too rich to be green?
You could say that Norwegians have a little too much money. And they really like spending it. The love to buy flats, hyttes, several cars, big TVs, you name it. And their money derives from the wrong sources, and with that I mean the oil and gas industry that runs and ruins this country. You could also say that it might compromise your environmental consciousness just a little if your personal wealth and that of your family stems from working on oil rigs for two weeks per month and earning a shitload of money. I have come to believe that this hole country has a schizophrenic relationship towards fossil vs. renewable energy. While almost all of Norways own energy derives from green sources, hydropower and a little bit of wind, the countries wealth is measured by the price of oil and gas, its extraction and export. Almost all of the oil is exported so it doesn’t even make it on the sustainability bill. Oil and gas are not factored in when Norway proudly presents its ecological footprint, isn’t that handy?
Regardless of the Paris Agreement of 2015 and its vital 1.5C target, that requires the majority of existing fuel reserves not to be burned, Norway continues to explore for oil and gas, especially in the Arctic. It would be vital for Norway to set an example in climate responsibility: by ending further explorations for oil, by protecting the fragile ecosystem in the North and by using its immense wealth to change an oil-dependent economy. And how about banning those plastic bags that kill fish, sea mammals and end up in our bodies (other countries already led the way, and customers survived it)? How about educating people about sustainable agriculture, about local food chains and alternative shopping and producing cycles? How about not leaving the lights on when you leave your weekend hytte until next year (even if the energy is green)? And how about switching your car off when not driving it? Just some ideas off the top of a hobby organic farmer’s head.
Working on a farm lets me experience and consequently makes me think a lot about manual work. I once was sort of a manual worker, although you might not call it that way, and that was when I was in a training program to become a dancer. I spent some years of my childhood and youth exercising madly, training every day, dreaming big about perfect body control, about dancing center stage, about beautiful choreographies, and standing ovations. My bun was as tight as my abs. I wanted to become a dancer and I worked as hard as any young person with a big dream would. Pain, especially in my knees, became an everyday companion. When I was sixteen I got into a prestigious program at the Musikhochschule of Cologne, half classical dance (ballet), half modern dance. It might seem strange to compare this intense period of body work to working on a farm, but I often find myself thinking about my brief dancing career these days. Farm work is just as much about finding a balance of using, not abusing, your body.
After years of mostly sitting while working it feels again new and unfamiliar to use my hole body as a working tool. My body used to ache and suffer from working at a desk all day. The monotony gave me headaches, back pain and several typewriter’s cramps over the years. While sitting still and getting stiff, I often looked around, wondering if neither of my colleagues felt the same inner urge to move, to lie on the floor for some time, stretch out all the muscles, jump around, go for a walk, close their eyes for a few minutes, bend forward and so on. What would office life had looked like if we all could allow ourselves to move more freely? Of course, I am just assuming that other people might have had the same needs. Sometimes I would steal myself away to the toilet to do some stretches. It did not feel natural to stretch in a toilet box and I always feared that someone would come in.
New-found muscles in my thumbs
The contrast to farm work could not be bigger. I constantly need different muscles for different tasks. A lot of those tasks require a hole bunch of muscles that I rarely use. Like when I use a sharp hook to collect hay in the stable. I need to do a kind of lunge with my legs, then use the upper hand to press the hook down and into the hay and the other hand to pull it out. To collect the hay I bend my knees and take all the hay into my arms that I can carry. Wood logging is another complex manual work, just as much as kneading dough, shoveling snow, sprinkle sand on icy ways, work with horses and so on.
I did not know that I had specific muscles in my thumbs. But while milking the goats I noticed that I was in desperate need for some abandoned thumb muscle to grow and grow fast. Why did I never need this group/type of muscles?
My hands have begun sort of a metamorphosis. They are transforming from two little typing machines, that I occasionally beautified with rings or nail polish, into rough, teared and scratched paws. The skin is cracking from the cold and too much water from all the rinsing and cleaning. There is always dirt under my nails and I am too tired to dig it out every time. It took me one week to get out a nasty splinter that got infected and would make my index finger look like it had swallowed an olive. Repairing hand cream (the one and only “Norwegian formula“) is a lost cause. Damn those fishermen from the TV ad. In real life they probably use fish oil on their weather-teared hands. The cream dissolves into my skin in an instant and leaves it ever hungry for more. After the first optimistic days I now use protective gloves for almost every task.
Since I suffered from a lumbago after my first week of working I am more cautious with my lower back, always taking care to bend the knees and engage the abdominals while lifting things or bending. I do some yoga in the morning and I am trying to pay attention to the way I move. When I am aware of a certain movement I try to do it another way, with less effort. I am trying to ask myself often: Do I need all these muscles engaged? Can I do it with less vigor? With more swing? Using my left hand and arm more often is another attempt to even things out a little. My right side is way stronger than the left one, and this has been a source of shoulder pain in the past.
Chopping wood, much like dancing
Other than the lumbago and a few sore muscles I can feel my body very much enjoying all sorts of variations in my everyday movements. All the muscles get to work, they get to stretch and, eventually, relax. My face is glowing from being outdoors a lot. At night I sink into bed and feel a strong sense of satisfaction. I sleep long, deep and without any recollection of my dreams.
Nothing so far has given me a bigger feeling of accomplishment than chopping wood. The mixture of control, force, concentration and momentum is immensely satisfying. So is the handling of a perfectly sharpe axe. So yeah, I get it: All the ads with those hobby lumberjack guys, chopping wood while selling deodorant, cars, insurances, you name it. Working outside in the sun and snow today, side by side with my host Gaby, I was in some kind of wonderful zone. It was just me, my axe and the piece of wood in front of me. It is in a way a choreography, the swinging arms, my breath, the controlled forceful hit, the cracking wood, the rhythm of it all. A little like dancing. I could do it for some time, blacking out everything else. At lunch, I was sweaty, starving and my left arm wouldn’t stop shaking. But I felt immensely alive and well in my own skin.
I used to always struggle finding extra time for workouts back in my city life. Now I can feel my body growing stronger just by living this new everyday life.
Two weeks ago today I started my first day of work on a small organic farm in Norway. The farms name is Skifterud and it is situated in the region of Tinn in the county of Telemark, up on the side of a mountain. The valley is wide and opens down to Tinnsjø, a large lake that could as well be a Fjord. It is up to 460 meters deep and the mountains on both sides fall steeply to its shore.
My hosts are Gaby and Rupert. She is from the Faroer Islands, he is from Germany, but both have been living in Norway for close to 40 years. They met in Christiania in Copenhagen. Rupert was engaged in the anti-nuclear movement in Germany but wanted to leave for Scandinavia in search for a new place to live. Norway seemed like a good country: Clean air, clean energy, and enough space to live in freedom and according to your own set of beliefs. Gaby had already been working in Norway for two years back then. They came to this area with some friends and several horse wagons. The village people, as one can imagine, were not amused by this bunch of long-haired, long-bearded, colorfully dressed hippies with their horses, pictures of Indian gurus, their meditation practice and their dreams and ideals of another society. Rupert, Gaby and their friends stayed outsiders for a very long time.
Whereas when I arrived here, I was welcomed in the most amazing way. I came with a lot of ideas in my head, about farming, about community, being outdoors, working with my hands. I was also extremely nervous, doubting my decision to come at all. Before, I had been living in Berlin for seven years, and I knew for quite some time that it wasn’t the right place for me anymore. Still, you can put up with a lot of things. You make the best of it and over time you even loose your hunger for change, the trust in something new. I feel lucky to not have given in to this.
No police sirens for two weeks
On my first morning here I awoke before everyone else in the house. I could hear nothing other than natural sounds. Some distant river whooshing, a light breeze that hissed in the spruces. The wind chimes. That was it. Not even the rooster was awake yet. Later, when we went to the stable, Gaby was very clear that she didn’t expect anything from me. I couldn’t know a lot of things and it would take a lot of time to get to know them day by day, she told me. She has been repeating this a lot and it has been the best possible advice. It doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t get exposed to heaps of new tasks, work procedures, and duties. A lot of it is great fun: like hand-milking the goats Susi and Philippa, feeding them, playing with them, learning about the distinct personalities of them and the other two goats Philipp and Snella. If they get petted they forget to eat. They will just let their heads sink into the hey, in total surrender, eyes closed, muscles relaxed. Every day I wait for them to start purring like cats.
I already learned about two different ways of making cheese: the complex and lengthy procedure of making brown cheese, the infamous Norwegian brunost. It takes two days and we cooked it over an outdoor fire, at night, in the snow. And another type of white goat cheese, that is more like a semi-firm Halloumi. We make it fresh almost every day and it is absolutely delicious.
Another day I worked with Rupert in the forest, felling dead trees to make firewood. He did the felling, I stood like a red light on the road – high-visibility vest and orange construction helmet on – air-paddling wildly with my arms and blocking the very few cars passing by. After felling, we hooked the trees on to a sledge that was then dragged back home by Snøblomst, one of our working horses.
A mouse trap is a mouse trap is a mouse trap
Other tasks are more ordinary, the million things that need to be done on a farm: working in the garden, making fire, cooking, repairing, wood logging, chopping wood, remodeling, washing, baking bread, making yoghurt, organizing the selling, paying bills and so on. A big part of Ruperts and Gabys life is in fact cleaning. Because they are producing cheese and eggs, they take great care of hygiene. There’s a ton of rules. Rules on the clothes we wear for certain tasks, on the containers we use for the dairy products, the brushes for washing the containers. We have about ten different brushes hanging over the kitchen sink, and each is exclusively for either vegetables, dairy containers, ordinary dishes or pots and frying pans. We wash with cold clear water, then with hot soap water, then rinse it again cold. Also drying the containers is a big concern, no towels, just drying over the warm oven. There are rules about how to move between the outside and the inside of the house. Because the house is very old and has all these nooks and crannies we spend a lot of time sweeping and washing the floors, the walls, and I don’t know what else. I have not seen many farms but I feel that this one must just be the tidiest one. For instance, I have never seen a tidier outside toilet (utedo) in my life. Cleaning things for sure is not my favorite duty, but I have come to see it just as much as a part of farm life than caring for the animals or working in the garden (of course this time a year there is not much garden work).
The landscape is incredibly beautiful, weather and light are ever changing, so I often pause in the middle of a task just to take it all in. The daylight takes a long time to disappear, around 1,5 hours in the afternoon, and especially during the blue hours there is all sorts of stunning colors in the skys. At night you can see all of Milky Way. Working in a beautiful setting for sure teaches you one thing or another about mindfulness.
Come in, come in, with peace and the right intentions
So far, for me the biggest adjustment is not the manual work but the living together with other people. Before coming here I actually didn’t give too much thought to the communal living aspect of my new life and how I would feel about it, how I would find my place in it. Far and foremost it is just a huge change to the way I used to live before. I enjoy it big times. Rupert and Gaby are sweet and welcoming and they have been working with volunteers, wwoofers and work away-people for thirty years now. We have guests over for dinner a lot, two of the three grown-up children are here often and I find myself enjoying the company of all of them very much. The food is exceptionally good, all the products, every grain, every walnut, every shampoo is organic. It very much feels like the slogan on the board next to the door says: Skifterud is an open house, as long as you come with peace in mind and the right intentions.
When it comes to the farm work I feel that there is still a flood of new information and too little time to process it all. Much of it though is routine, I guess. Some things you have to learn fast. Like the mechanism of a mouse trap. No need to get your finger jammed in it twice. Also, all the knifes in this house are sharp as hell. Also, wood splinters can be nasty, just as much as having to go to the outside toilet at two in the morning.
After one week of work, I suffered from a minor but howlingly painful lumbago (hekseskudd). I was in the stable, made a wrong move and all of a sudden could neither walk nor breathe. Funny enough the goats must have sensed that something was off, they were totally quiet and not as usual demanding loudly their hay delivery. Somehow I made it back to the house and crawled on all fours to the bed. I felt miserable, both from the pinching pain in my lower back and from sheer disappointment. I came to help and after only one week people that I hardly know had to help me, take care of me.
Fortunately it wasn’t too bad. Instead of lying around and becoming stiff (did that the last two times I suffered from a lumbago) I slowly and mindfully kept moving. I wandered through the house, up and down the stairs, did the dishes, did some mini yoga movements, and so on. The first two nights were very painful, I couldn’t turn and just lay there, like a beetle turned upside down. But my back has been healing way faster than the last time. Besides some feelings of minor discomfort in some movements I feel like myself again. It was a fair warning though: to take it slow, giving my body and mind some time to adjust. After all, this really is a new beginning.
what I am about to say is hard to say, it is hard to hear, and it is even harder to act on accordingly. Nevertheless, I would love for you to take the time to read. While doing so you might think that you know all this and have heard it before. Yes, we all have.
We are in the middle of an ecological crisis. Our earth is becoming increasingly uninhabitable. Millions of living beings are suffering or vanishing all together. Hundreds of thousands of trees in German forests alone have been dying the last two summers. With them dies biodiversity, die countless insect species. With them die birds and with them any animals which prey on birds. On and on it goes. The activists of Extinction Rebellion call this undergoing the sixth mass extinction. But it is not solely the trees and birds and bees that vanish. With the trees goes the soil which is held in place by their roots. Without trees the CO2 levels will rise and rise. Continuously increasing levels of CO2 in our atmosphere come with a number of foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences.
All living beings need oxygen, water and healthy soil to thrive and survive. Without sufficient oxygen, the soil turns acidic, so do the oceans. With global heating, glaciers and permafrost are melting. Both are already melting much faster than scientists predicted only a few years ago. The melting of permafrost land will discharge uncountable tons of one of the most dangerous greenhouse gases into the atmosphere: methane. Rising see levels, super storms and droughts will cause millions of people to lose their homes. Scientists recently started to talk about tipping points, moments, when a number of different factors all come together, fuel and intensify each other. There are no accurate models for these tipping points.
We talk about the climate catastrophe, as if it was a blockbuster
We all know this is happening. We have read the facts, we have seen the talks and we have watched the protesting citizens, among them students, kids, families. All this is common sense by now. The research is out for everyone to read, newspapers write about it and people talk about it at parties. We have seen pictures of the burning Amazonas, the burning tundra in Siberia, the burning bush fires in California, in the south of Europe, in Germany. We know about the dying coral reefs, the millions of tons of plastic in our oceans. We know about the evermore dire cries for help of various island states that are already facing the consequences of the climate crisis, namely that they will no longer exist in a few years from now.
And yet we go to work everyday and we talk about the climate catastrophe, as if it was the scenario of a blockbuster movie which we enjoyed while at the same time it gave us the creeps. We let one devastating study and urgent discourse after another wash over us. As if we were not playing the most significant part in this. As if we were no agents of disaster or change. As if „saving the planet“ was something we graciously did for all the other nameless species on earth, not to save our very selves and our descendants.
We know that our economies addiction to growth and more growth is destroying whole countries, natural reserves, the living conditions of countless first nation communities, of vulnerable minorities, of the poor and the unfortunate. And that, eventually, it will also destroy our own neighbourhoods. Deep down, we, the people of the Global North, also know that this insatiable economy deeply affects our health and the lives of future generations. But many of us still stand by. We are caught in our own little worlds with actual problems to deal with. I feel you.
We know and yet we choose not to know
We buy things we don’t need because they make us feel better. Because we think we deserve something nice. Because we have had a rough day. Because we feel isolated and sad or overwhelmed by our own struggle to live a good life. We know about the slaves, many of them children, who dig for the scarce earth materials and metals which are required for the production of devices to satisfy our ever faster consuming societies in the Global North. We know and yet we choose not to know. I feel you.
We save up to go on holidays. We say, after all the hard work we deserve something nice and a little bit of luxury for a change. Maybe we are engaged in spiritual practices and we feel it is necessary to learn from the ancient sources. So we fly to India, to Thailand or to Japan to learn from the masters. We book teacher trainings and retreats on solitary mountains, where we sit on cushions or practice on our mats. Somehow, we couldn’t find that focus, that quietude, that peace of mind in our home countries. We long to roam the world, regardless the consequences. I feel you.
But I feel something else, too. For some time now I have been experiencing something that you could call climate grief, maybe even a climate depression. I read all the papers and studies, all there is to know from science. I read well-researched and sharp analysis about the correlation of capitalism and the climate crisis. I almost buried myself in studies about the state of the earth, after global warming will have hit it full frontal. I became engaged in the Extinction Rebellion. I watched countless speeches of activists, of scientists and young students who take action.
The inevitability of it, the lack of political will and action of our elected representatives, the failure of democracy, the amount of injustice, the lack of economic consequences and the size of this global challenge – it might just be the biggest challenge humans have ever faced – it paralyzed me to an extent where I wouldn’t know what to do or where to go. I felt so much grief that I feared it could break me.
We all need to become activists
The only thing I know and I firmly believe is this: With this knowledge there is no going back to some idle life. The climate crisis is not a view point among many others. It is a point of no return, an existential crisis for humankind.
You would think that my work as a journalist fits me with opportunities to give people a stage who already live more sustainable, engaged lives. That it provides me with the task to make readers consider the consequences of their behaviour and ultimately change it, too. In an ideal world I would probably do exactly this kind of reportings and feature writings. But wouldn’t that make me an activist then? For me, the line between journalism and activism, in regards to the climate catastrophe and climate justice struggles, is no longer of much value. All of us, regardless of occupation, country, religion, gender or ethnic group, need to become activists in fighting for climate justice.
However, in reality, my work is not even a struggle between neutrality and engagement. For me, freelance journalism is an ongoing crisis itself. Every now and then, a wonderful job that even pays well, comes along, while along the way there is much more production work, trouble making ends meet, doing work which has nothing to do with engaging in the climate crisis. I am in a state of mind where I question many topics and issues which we discuss in our society, or which we value as human accomplishments. For me, they all get relegated, given the massive challenges we are facing. This challenges need all our energy, our focus, our love and compassion, our rage as well as our care and collective power. However, there are many different ways and mediums to engage in this and I strongly believe that everyone can find a place and a form of engagement that suits them well.
Socio-political activism, civil rights and social justice movements should always go hand in hand.
Socio-political activism, civil rights and social justice movements should always go hand in hand, they are just as much allies in the environmental crisis as in their own fights to be heard and seen. So are any form of recreational work, of art, music, spiritual practices like meditation and the like. What I realized for me personally is this: If I focus my engagement of environmental activism in my current hometown, the city of Berlin, it will stay a very abstract fight. As much as I admire the collective power of demonstrations, of civil disobedience, of political debates and citizenship initiatives, I have not been at home in this city for a long time. I am longing for a place, a state of mind, but also an actual place in time and on this earth, where I can engage in some sort of activism which combines educational work and activism with actual working the soil, working the land.
A personal climate strike
I feel like I have forgotten much about the actual purpose of why we want to „save the earth“ in the first place. Prior to this summer I haven’t been putting my hands into actual earth for I don’t know how long. I haven’t seen and felt and experienced this earth, which we so desperately need that I forgot all about her power.
The idea of a personal climate strike was born. And I knew from the very start that for this strike I needed to leave the city. The details of this climate strike are still in the making, but the outline stands. I will be living on different organic farms for one year in Norway and in other European countries, working in agroecology and permaculture projects, and working in exchange for food and shelter, not for money. The wonderful wwoofing network that I have been using quite a few times in the past couple of years, will provide me with addresses. I long to learn as much as possible about sustainably and self-sufficient living and working, about biodiversity, about working with animals and plants. I want to know how to build things, how to make them from scratch, how to DIY and improvise. I want to cut back as much as possible on spending money. This is also a necessity, given the very limited financial resources that I have. I want to adjust my diet as much as possible to things that only grow or are produced in the country I am living in. This rules out a lot of luxuries like coffee, tea, cocoa, many spices, nuts and vegetables. I am very curious how my plan works out. I haven’t been flying all year and I certainly will not board a plane in the coming year. Traveling all over Europe is quite easy with busses and trains and I will also try hitchhiking.
Over the course of the year I will try and document what I learn and what I experience on this blog. There will be some theme-related assignments from newspapers and radio stations too.
This is as far as my plan goes.
I realize that this is a very personal form of climate strike. And it is certainly not the most potent one. To force our governments and our political leaders to tell the truth about the state of the climate crisis and to act appropriately it is more important to take to the streets, to protest, to block, to demonstrate, to make yourself heard and seen, and to get more people on board. It is all about the critical mass. That is why I encourage everyone to get engaged with some sort of movement, one that you feel is potent enough to generate attention and make a difference.
Yet, for me, it is overdue to leave the city that I have been struggling with for so long. This is why “I went to the woods“. I went to the woods out of love, respect and care for this place, our home planet, and for the millions and millions of species, of living beings.
“We act on behalf of life“
However, I am not withdrawing or retreating from the wold, I am not leaving out of naivité or disappointment. I am going to the woods in the spirit of activism, in quite the same spirit that drove the American poet, philosophist and essayist Henry David Thoreau out to Walden Pond in 1845. His account of the two years living in simplicity and self-sustainability in Walden was just as much an act of political disobedience, for he strongly rejected the Mexican-American War and slavery, both happening and still going on during his Walden years. I believe it is no coincidence that he also wrote a piece called “Resistance to Civil Government“, also known as “Civil Disobedience”, in the very same years.
I found an updated version of Thoreaus critic and call to action in the declaration of Extinction Rebellion, merely 170 years later:
“We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void; the government has rendered them invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately. We call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us.
We demand to be heard, to apply informed solutions to these ecological crisis and to create a national assembly by which to initiate these solutions needed to chance our present cataclysmic course.
We refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations by failing to act now. We act in peace, with ferocious love of these lands in our hearts.
We act on behalf of life.“
This is where I’m at right now.
Resources I find useful and helpful
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. the Climate David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth. Life after Warming George Monbiot, How Did We Get Into This Mess Extinction Rebellion This Is Not A Drill Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth. The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass. Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants Vandana Shiva Who Really Feeds The World J. Russel Smith, Tree Crops. A Permanent Agriculture