On new beginnings

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.

The house rules, put simply.

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.

Brown cheese, brunost, made in the most traditional way, over open fire outdoors.

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.

The 100 year-old oven, warming the hole house, more or less.

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.

A letter of grief, love and action

My dear friends,

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.

Rebellion Week in Berlin, October 2019. Potsdamer Platz is being occupied by concerned citizens, activists, children, families and NGOs (© private).

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.

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.

Naomi Klein about her book “This Changes Everything”, a lucid analysis on the correlation of the climate crisis and our economic system.

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.

Indigenious people are on the forefront of the climate crisis, yet they almost never contributed to the mess we are facing.

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.

Can you spot the glacier still? August 2019, Western Norway (© private).

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.

Treasures of the woods (© private).

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