Ecosystems Matter (How to Eat: Part 1)

There seems to be an emerging consensus that the choices we make around food, and thus agriculture, are important. That the individual decisions we make about food have planetary significance. These dietary beliefs are coalescing into words like conventional, organic, vegetarian, vegan, locavore and paleo. Each of these represents a different view of our collective situation and suggests how we might act if we wish to be of benefit to our world.

I’d like to begin with what I hope is an uncontroversial starting point, and then explore a little from there.

If humans want to continue to exist (in anything approximating our current population) we must provide for ourselves from within healthy ecosystems.

Okay, so what’s an ecosystem?

An ecosystem is a community of organisms living in a specific place. Ecosystems are dynamic and constantly changing. Species disappear and new ones arrive. Sometimes ecosystems “die” and sometimes ecosystems are “born”. Ecosystems can look like almost anything: a coral reef, a desert, or a forest.

Okay, so how do I know if an ecosystem is healthy?

The amount of life that an ecosystem can support indefinitely is called its carrying capacity. The maximum carrying capacity is determined by the resources and constraints of the place the ecosystem occupies (eg. sunlight, water, temperature, minerals, shelter, pollution, wind etc).

Exponential growth of population size over time.
Exponential growth of population size over time.

Ecosystems are healthy when the amount of life they contain matches the maximum carrying capacity of the place they inhabit. If the amount of life within an ecosystem is below the maximum carrying capacity and steadily decreasing — we can think of that as a “sick” ecosystem. If the amount of life is below the maximum carrying capacity and steadily increasing — we can think of that as a “healing” ecosystem.

Life within ecosystems is organised in complex food webs. As ecosystems heal not only will the quantity of life increase, but new species will arrive and new interactions between species will occur. As the complexity increases so does the quantity and availability of food. In turn, this will increase the carrying capacity until it eventually reaches the underlying limits of the place it occupies (eg. space, pollution, minerals, sunlight etc). This allows us to use complexity as an indicator of ecosystem health.

As ecosystems heal they increase in complexity.
As ecosystems sicken they decrease in complexity.

To assess ecosystem health you need to have some idea of its carrying capacity. Imagine an exposed, rocky hilltop compared to a sheltered, warm river valley. At full health, each might have a dramatically different carrying capacity and complexity. This can be confusing because a healthy desert ecosystem might be less complex than a sickly woodland.

Okay, so why are healthy ecosystems important?

As ecosystems degrade, the amount of life they can support decreases. If there are more humans than the ecosystems of the planet can support, then eventually humans will die back to a population that the ecosystems can support. Since human population is projected to continue growing (at least for a few more decades), it would be sensible for us to focus on increasing ecosystem health. We are especially vulnerable because many of our industrial practices create pollution which further damages the ecosystems we rely on.

The focus of this article is about food, but humans require more than food from ecosystems. In addition to our needs for fuel and fibre, healthy ecosystems also regulate temperature, create rain, mitigate flooding, reduce pollution, pollinate crops, etc. These are sometimes referred to as ecosystem services.

In a broader context, anthropogenic ecosystem degradation is not a new phenomenon. Humans have been damaging ecosystems for millennia. Perhaps the first major shock began about 50,000 years ago as we started hunting most of the world’s megafauna into extinction. Then about 10,000 years ago, our early attempts at agriculture began turning some of our planets most abundant ecosystems into deserts.

One of the unfortunate realities of long-term ecosystem degradation is that every generation sees their degraded experience as normal. It’s hard to comprehend what was lost before we were born, let alone what was lost before our grandparents were born. For most of us, the loss over the last 50,000 years is unimaginable.

Despite this long history of destruction, there is also a long history of humans working skilfully within ecosystems. All indigenous people developed rules and culture which enabled them to partner with the ecosystems on which they depended.

Okay, so what does any of this have to do with farming and food?

At this point I hope that we can agree on two things:

  • that healthy ecosystems are essential to a future of healthy humans, and
  • looking at the complexity of an ecosystem is a way to evaluate ecosystem health.

Agriculture was developed on the floodplains of the world. The regular floods brought nutrient-rich sediment which makes floodplains some of the most fertile ecosystems on the planet. Most agricultural crops require ecosystems as fertile as the floodplains we originally cultivated them on. While carrying capacity and complexity can vary dramatically between ecosystems, when talking about agricultural ecosystems we can assume a degree of uniformity because the crops have similar requirements. By comparing the complexity of different agricultural production systems, we can get a sense of the ecological health they engender.

Below are some photos typical of conventional production. How complex are these ecosystems? How many species can you see?

Now let’s look at some photos of alternative production systems. How complex are these ecosystems? How many species can you see?

In both sets of photos it’s hard to see the climate, pollution, soil type, microbes, insects and the details of plant species. Even without those details, you can get some sense of their health and how close they might be to their potential.

All conventionally produced crops use a mixture of monoculture, tillage, irrigation, fertiliser, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Combined, these techniques kill soil microbes, cause soil erosion & compaction, cause drought & flooding, kill vast amounts of wildlife and poison our water. Sadly most organic food production is also destructive as it also uses monoculture, tillage, irrigation, fertiliser, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides (though the fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides are less toxic to humans).

When you buy food at a supermarket you are buying conventionally produced food. The amount of care and skill that conventional (and organic) food is produced varies tremendously from farm to farm.

While the amount of damage varies from farm to farm, the reality is that conventional production damages ecosystems no matter how much care and skill is applied.

That all sounds terrible, what’s the alternative?

The good news is that people have been figuring out how to produce food within healthy ecosystems for decades. The current catchphrase for farming systems which can also heal ecosystems is Regenerative Agriculture. However many farming systems have been developed with this intention. Agroecology, Permaculture, Forest Gardening, Natural Farming, Syntropic Agroforestry, Holistic Management, Analogue Forestry, and Biodynamics are some of the farming systems which attempt to produce food, fibre or fuel while healing ecosystems.

While there is a steady increase in numbers of acres under regenerative management, overall there are very few farms using these systems. In Western countries, adoption has been particularly slow. In part, because the increased complexity of these regenerative farms makes mechanical harvesting difficult (and the low cost of food and the high cost of labour means manual harvesting isn’t financially viable).

The good news is that we know everything we need to know to farm regeneratively. We aren’t waiting for a technological breakthrough, we aren’t waiting for scientists to figure something out. There are regenerative farms producing high quality, nutrient-dense food. And they’ve and making a good living doing it for decades.

What we are currently lacking is the political and social will to regenerate ecosystems on a massive scale. This is something that everyone can help with. Find your local regenerative farmers and buy as much as you can from them. Talk to your friends, coworkers and family about the importance of ecosystem health. Talk to community leaders and local politicians. After all, history shows that only 3.5% of the population is required to catalyse massive shifts in public perception and policy.

Part 2: Drawing Lines (coming soon).

Originally posted at adam.nz.

tripping over food

A few years ago, a friend gave us a (please note the singular form) shark’s fin melon. Also known as Cucurbita ficifolia, fig-leaf gourd, Malabar gourd, pie melon and Thai marrow.

We must admit to not eating it. Instead, it sat rather sadly in the laundry until we threw it into the compost. There it lingered for well over a year until earthworks moved the compost pile – and a mound of the surrounding soil – to the top of the paddock closest to the house. Over the summer, that patch of living ground was entirely ignored – we didn’t water it, no food, no attention – but when Autumn 2018 rolled around we discovered a bounty of 40ish melons.

After being harvested, the majority of those 40ish melons sat on the deck on the cottage, where Adam and I spent 8 months while the big house was renovated. One by one, as they began to decompose, I tossed them onto the bank. Side note, I remain faintly concerned that Adam’s Mum and Dad (Pam and Brett), who now live in the cottage, will wake up one day to discover pie melons trying to get into their house.

And so Autumn 2019 rolls around and it would appear that we missed a few of those indomitable melons in last year’s harvest. Wandering down amongst a sea of large cucurbit leaves we literally tripped over them…Easily 120, likely more, to be honest we lost count.

A friend sold a few at the local farmers market but most have been consumed by friends’ very large pet pigs, just up the road. Although, this time, we did eat a few ourselves but somewhat unfortunately the harvest coincided with our experimenting with a very low carb way of eating, and low carb they are not! Still, this land seems determined to grow gloriously abundant free food for us, so we will continue to let them do their in the paddock and hedge rows.

There were 80ish in this pile
Friends harvesting melons for their pigs!
They’re amazing, really, they store for up to 7 years, and the seeds are rich in fat and protein. In Africa they eat the leaves and make alcohol from the fruit, in Asia and Europe, the flesh is baked and in Central America, the flesh is turned into a kind of confectionery.

so here we are

I (Tink) have been meaning to post regularly here for ages. Ages. But I keep getting stuck writing an update, trying to summarise what we’ve been up to for the last few years. I don’t like having our life at Peka Peka shared solely on Instagram and Facebook (as convenient as it is) so I’ve decided to start again here, with a few words, and a few photos each day. And in the the meantime, what have we been up too? Well, we built a cottage (or more accurately our wonderful team of architects and builders did), moved into it while the big house was renovated, moved back into the big house, Adam’s Mum and Dad moved up from Blenheim and into the cottage and gradually, with the earthworks complete, we’ve been chipping away at the garden. We’ve also dipped our feet into the waters of running workshops here and at some stage in the next year or so, we’ll turn our attention to the 10 acres of paddock running across the hill.

DragonKnows. Twice a year, the sun sets just in front of the Dragon’s nose and we celebrate.
Dog noses.
Vege beds.
After the renovation, so much light and space.
Adam
First test of the new, fat tyre, e bike in the paddocks.
As my understanding of the importance of soil health grows, so does my appreciation of rocks. Essentially, I’m increasingly curious about ‘life’ beneath our feet. On this note, I have a favourite rock (about the size of a sheep) in our south facing paddock and as coincidence would have it, our neighbour Jeff is a geologist. He tells me that it’s “Wellington Greywacke (German for grey rock). This is a nonspecific terrane term for a mass of jumbled geology but this area is mostly what is called the Rakaia Terrane … late Triassic to early Jurassic 230 to 180 million years old. It was formed on the continental slope if Gondwanaland (the original southern Super continent) probably off the coast of what is now Australia. Greywacke is notoriously hard to date with any accuracy. Gondwana started breaking up about 85 million years Uplift along the NZ spine has elevated it and at some stage our rocks have tumbled down (maybe earthquake maybe flood) and left to us mere humans to trip over.” Cool huh?
The boys.
Planting out the little old fashioned yellow banksia grown from a cutting from the rose which clambered up a trellis at my old family home.
Keto fudge – food is medicine here and we’re constantly exploring.
12 baby avocado trees, of 9 varieties, are growing.
Brassicas doing their thing.
This, this is – as Adam says – farkin delicious. Cherimoya. The texture is a somewhere between a melon, avocado and icecream. The flavour is complex, it begins with a kick of toffee, followed by guava, then something a little more tart, maybe strawberry. Just the right amount of funk. It reminds me of the Just Juice I used to drink as a kid which had – I think? – guava and passionfruit in it. But this is the wild crafted, grown up version. I spend a great deal of time trying to create deliciousness in the kitchen but right now, I’m hanging up my apron and bowing down to Nature. Fortunately, it would seem we can grow cherimoya here. We’ve already planted the seeds from last night’s fruit. Fingers crossed.
A mighty cabbage.
Full moon set.

Riding the Perimenopausal Rollercoaster

A fourteen year old Tink. Not looking particularly moody, but I can assure you I was.

In early May I turn forty-seven years old. Which at times, I find almost unbelievable because there are many moments in which I feel as uncertain and ungainly as I did at fourteen. Which, in fact, makes total sense because at forty-seven I’m as hormonally challenged as I was in 1986. Yep. Let that sink in. At forty-seven my hormones are as out of balance as they were when I was a spotty, moody, sometimes-really-unpleasant-to-be-around, teenager. Why? Perimenopause.

Perimenopause. Let’s say that again because it’s so unfamiliar to most people that my writing app tells me it’s not a real word.

Perimenopause, the stage all women go through, generally between their early forties and early fifties. These sometimes crazy-making years riding the hormonal rollercoaster which precede menopause and mark the end of a woman’s reproductive stage.

I continue to be astonished, ASTONISHED, by how little this is acknowledged or talked about. Here I am, in my fifth decade as a female human being and before I stumbled across perimenopause, while doing some health research four years ago, I had no idea that I would experience a second major hormonal transition in my life.

We hurtle into our teenage years with some anticipation of ‘hormonal stuff’. Our parents, caregivers and teachers are under no illusion that this period is challenging for the adolescent and the people around her. So why don’t we do that for perimenopausal women? We’re left to suddenly find ourselves in this unanticipated territory of mood and sleep disruption, short term memory issues, foggy brains, irregular menstrual cycles, heavy periods, migraines, digestive issues, low libido, weight gain, vaginal dryness and bloating, amongst other symptoms. We’re expected to continue moving at full tilt, all the while juggling careers and families, without any awareness or support. The people around us wonder what on earth is up with the sometimes crazy middle aged women in their lives, without understanding that their hormones are out of balance and it has a major physiological, psychological and often spiritual impact.

My perimenopause started in my early forties and was exacerbated by a series of miscarriages and the subsequent stress of these and other significant life events. Over the last several years I’ve come to understand how complex and extraordinary our endocrine system is. It’s tempting (but impossible) to tease out which symptoms are due to prolonged stress and which would have occurred regardless. It’s also a moot point because it’s just not that simple. For starters, pregnenolone – the master hormone for our sex hormones progesterone, estrogen and testosterone – is produced by the adrenal gland. The prolonged stress of our far-too-normal overwhelming lives, has a significant effect on our adrenal system and consequently how much pregnenolone is available for the necessary balance of sex hormones. In short, for most women in their middle age, life is chronically stressful.

So what can we do about it? How can we support each other and ourselves through this major hormonal transition? Well, quite a few things actually.

We need to talk about it, especially since our medical system certainly doesn’t.  It seems to me that one of the unhelpful consequences of the tiny nuclear families so many of us live in, is that we’re missing the wise grandmothers and aunties who can say to us, “Oh sweetheart, this is normal, I’ve been through it. I know how hard it can be, here’s something that will help.” In my experience, talking about this stage in my life with close friends, family and a knowledgeable and supportive health practitioner has made a huge difference. Understanding that this is natural and normal and that I am not in fact going crazy, has helped helped a great deal.

On a very practical level, what continues to be of quite remarkable help, is an awareness of those things that support me in managing my version of perimenopause. I’ve learned the hard way – as have many women – that while caffeine and sugar (dark chocolate, sigh) provide me with an immediate and glorious fix to my fatigue and low mood, the pay off is not worth it. These things stress my adrenals further, create even more imbalance and do not make for a happy Tink (or husband, for that matter). I’ve learned that stress makes perimenopause worse and so finally, after years of not really committing to it, I’ve found that a daily practice of yoga and meditation has a disproportionally positive effect on my mind and body. And finally (because I could go on but should get off my soap box), sleep. Nothing seems to knock me off my perch more than bad sleep, I’ve learned that having a light and early dinner in order to not overtax my digestive system, getting off my computer or phone by 9pm, in bed by 10pm and a short breathing exercise to relax my nervous system, are key ingredients for a decent sleep.

There is so much to say about this but in this instance, I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to finish what has turned out to be an emotional plea to really just talk about this stuff with a shameless sales pitch. In navigating my way through chronic illness, adrenal overload and perimenopause over the last several years, I’ve seen a number of practitioners. My GP is very good, but he’s heavily time constrained by a system that is fundamentally not suited to treating chronic illness or, in the case of perimenopause, responding to something that is not a pathology but still requires support. However, recently I’ve been working with (i.e. as a client) and for (i.e. writing social media content as a way of continuing my herbal medicine study) a Kapiti based naturopath and medical herbalist. Her name is Daisy Wood (her real name not a perfect brand name!) and she is specialising in perimenopause.

Daisy is at the tail end of perimenopause herself and the majority of her clients are women navigating their way through this phase of life. She is highly motivated, passionate, very thorough and kind. I haven’t delved into it here, but there are herbs that have been used by wise women (and indeed male healers) for thousands of years in the West and East to support perimenopause and menopause.  Daisy works with these herbs in addition to nutrition and other lifestyle factors. If you’re sceptical about naturopathy and herbal medicine, let me just add that my GP has prescribed the same herbs Daisy works with. If you live in Kāpiti, or the Wellington region, you can obviously go and see her, but she also has an excellent private Facebook group called First Flush where she very regularly posts material on perimenopause and converses with her community. Her posts on Instagram and Facebook are information rich and easy to read. If you want to learn more about perimenopause and find support for it, then my recommendation of her is wholehearted.

Originally posted at tink.nz.

What is Interbeing?

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the pre-fix “inter” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be. If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too.


When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist. Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is here and mind is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here- time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat.


Everything coexists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. “To be” is to be inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper, is because everything else is. Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of “non-paper elements.” And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without “non-paper elements” like mind, logger, sunshine, and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as his sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.

Thích Nhất Hạnh, excerpt from Teach Breathe Learn by Meena Srinivasan 

This is what I need.

I started writing this two nights ago, on the eve of a full moon, as the rest of the house was quiet, even the Guinea fowl. Last night, I was supposed to go to a gathering of wonderful women but I found myself too raw to be with people I didn’t know, so instead I continued writing. By the time I finished, I wasn’t at all sure what I’d do with these words. This is intensely personal, The thought of people I don’t know reading this makes me feel very vulnerable, but actually there are some things I really need my friends (and by friends, I mean my actual friends not just those slightly random people who’ve friended me on FB but I’ve never met) to know and maybe this will end up being read by, and resonate with, other women who’ve shared a similar experience.

We don’t usually have chocolate cake and ice-cream in the house but yesterday we had a special occasion, today there are leftovers and tonight I’m eating – without really tasting, fully aware that I’m self-medicating with food – my second bowl of chocolate cake and ice-cream.

A couple of hours ago, one of my close friends told me, with thanks to a sperm donor, she is pregnant. This evening, as she sat in front of the fire chatting excitedly to my husband about the amazing story of how quickly and easily she became pregnant, I stood in the kitchen out of sight, tears silently rolling down my cheeks as I cooked dinner. How could I possibly let her know that I found listening to this wonderful news almost unbearable? How could I tell her that this pregnancy, triggered in me a wave of grief so embodied it made my chest ache?

Last week I listened to a podcast entitled “Getting Grief Right‘ with grief counsellor Patrick O’Malley. He talked about the disservice that has been done by the dominance of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief and how there is in fact no one roadmap for grief. He went on to say that after decades of working with people who are grieving, it has become clear to him that one of the most important things people need is the opportunity to share their story and for it to be witnessed. People who are grieving need empathy, real empathy, which is actually much harder than it sounds (I know this from being on the giving end as much as the receiving one) because basically it means being able to be fully present for someone without giving advice or making well-intentioned comments designed to try and make the person feel different.

Over the last four years, when I’ve talked about the miscarriages nearly everyone has responded with undeniably well intentioned comments which are intended to shift the way I feel. For example ‘At least you know you can get pregnant’ or the variation ‘At least you know what it’s like to get pregnant’, then there’s ‘So many women go through this and go on to have a healthy baby, this will happen for you’, or ‘You just have to trust your body’s wisdom to have miscarried for a reason’, or ‘You’re still not too old’.

Even more challenging I think, has been when I’ve shared the decision to not continue trying and my process of making my peace with that decision and then having someone say ‘Oh that’s when it will happen for you, just stop trying and relax and you’ll get pregnant.’ I know they’re only trying to make me feel better, but essentially what this person is doing is disagreeing with me – I’m saying I’m not going to have a baby and they’re telling me I probably will.

Hardest yet, I think, has been this. A while ago I ran into a distant friend who is an older Mum to a new baby. She told me she was ‘shattered’ and went on to say that she wasn’t sure she’d recommend motherhood. She seemed to not entirely be joking, but I mostly took it as being something a wickedly sleep deprived new Mum might say. However within half an hour, she’d sent a follow up message saying that she knows babies is a sensitive topic for me, so she mostly wants to hide from me, but in this instance didn’t and said what she’d said because she didn’t know what else to say. Again, I have no doubt at all that she meant well and that she was exhausted but it had the opposite effect of making me feel better.

Four years ago I lost three babies, all less than eight weeks old, within six months. It is only recently I’ve been able to refer to them as babies rather than ‘miscarriages’. I am still grieving, although now not so much for them — as I consciously made time and created space to grieve after each miscarriage — but for me. For the loss of something I really, REALLY, really wanted and felt, deep in my soul, was a part of my future. I am now grieving for the loss of an opportunity to feel a baby grow inside me and to be a Mum to a tiny human Adam and I created together. 

I’ve just turned forty five. I’ve been unwell for the last four years. Losing those babies knocked the stuffing out of me. A whole bunch of tests later it would seem that a considerable amount of stuffing had been knocked out of me before I got pregnant. After years of prolonged stress, I was, the doctor assumes, adrenally fatigued before I conceived. Four years later I feel infinitely better, but it’s anticipated that I’ll need another two years to fully recover. My child bearing window is rapidly closing (if it hasn’t already). I would really love to have a baby but to be perfectly honest, right now it feels like a choice between me and a baby. At the moment, even a few days of insufficient sleep sets me back and while it seems that nothing is guaranteed with motherhood, I’ve yet to meet a mum who doesn’t suffer through months or years of sleep deprivation.

To add another layer to this story, I was, as a psychologist once said, a parentified child. I’ve spent a lot of my life being a mother to my alcohol dependent mother. I was still doing that, in many respects, when I got pregnant. It was only when I moved Mum into dementia care a couple of years ago that my whole body heaved a sigh of relief and I felt that weight of responsibility lift. So while it might seem to some people reading this that I’m being selfish choosing my health and vitality over a baby, the decision follows decades of putting someone else’s wellbeing ahead of my own. However this layer doesn’t diminish the grief I feel for the loss of mothering my own baby and it is a grief which is impossible to avoid because I’m surrounded by friends who are mothers of young children or babies or who are mamas-to-be.

I read this to Adam last night and he gently reminded me that I need to ask for what I need, not just for what I don’t need. So here goes. I need my friends to know that I love you and love spending time with you but sometimes it’s just too hard to go to your children’s birthday parties or your baby showers. I love hearing about your children and sometimes it would mean a lot if you would stop and acknowledge that I lost mine. Pause for a moment and say ‘I’m so sorry Tink, sometimes it must be really hard to hear me talk about my children all the time.’

I wish I’d had more time with my Dad to talk to him about his experience as a doctor. I have a deep interest in healing and I remember one of the few things he said about his life as a surgeon was that one of the great failings of Western medicine is it’s non-acceptance of death. In 2013, in June, then September and then again in December I lost a baby. Now I’m coming to terms with the loss of my dream of being a mother. Friends, wherever you are but particularly those of you I see more often, I need you to witness that grief and if you can, when you can, I would be so very grateful if you could hold a bit of space for it.

Originally posted at tink.nz.

The Wisdom of Rest

A little while ago, a friend admitted that when we first met four years ago, she found me slightly intimidating. I was, she said, doing all these amazing things and well on my way to becoming like another friend of ours, who is often cited as an example of an Amazing Woman Doing Amazing Things. But these days I’m not doing anything noteworthy and a part of myself, my ego most likely, felt deflated by her words. “Oh” Tink’s Ego said “but I want to be amazing again…”

An even littler while ago, I had a dream about not being enough. I dreamt of familiar people who do exceptional things, busy as bees in a collective working space and I felt I should be there with them. Instead I was on my way to a leisurely lunch with my husband and I was conflicted, the familiar voice of my inner critic was fierce with her Shoulds. “You should be doing something worthwhile” she said.

What haven’t I been doing? I haven’t had a job, I haven’t been out saving the world, I have not aimed for fast and/or high growth for ElementAll, my online clothing business. Why? Quite simply because I haven’t been well. Savings, a very small business, a family inheritance and a husband have supported my much lower key lifestyle.

What have I been doing? I’ve tried to rest but I’ve also moved my mother into dementia care, sold a family home, got married, taken care of our animals, slowly cultivated my relationship with Peka Peka, equally slowly cultivated ElementAll, tried to recover from miscarriages and learned a lot about food as medicine. None of these things are ‘tweet-able’ (with the possible exception of the clothing, although slow growth is far from sexy). For me, of course, they’re all significant but as far as my tribe goes, they’re not noteworthy, they are in fact very ordinary.

Of all the things I’ve been doing over the last four years, the most challenging and – in my experience – the most culturally unacceptable (apart from not drinking alcohol) has been rest. I differentiate here between sleep and rest because there would seem to be widespread consensus now that good sleep is critical for health. Rest, however, is a much more slippery creature.

If you search for synonyms of rest you will find a list of verbs that describe actions which are mostly neither aspired to nor celebrated: Relax, ease up/off, let up, slow down, pause, have/take a break, unbend, repose, laze, idle, loaf, do nothing, take time off, slack off, unwind, recharge one’s batteries, be at leisure, take it easy, sit back, sit down, stand down, lounge, luxuriate, loll, slump, flop, put one’s feet up, lie down, go to bed, have/take a nap, nap, catnap, doze, have/take a siesta, drowse.

If you search for antonyms of rest, you will find a list of actions we reward with praise, money (although generally much less of that in the world of non profit endeavours) and social media attention: Advance, awakening, busyness, action, energy, employment, action, labor, strive, struggle, toil, slave, sweat.

However it turns out that rest is essential for a healthy mind. “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times. “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”  (See also Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime)

The body also needs rest. “Right now you’re reading. But for a minute your thoughts may wander (you’re reading about rest, after all) and your mind shifts to random thoughts. You’re doing “nothing.” Meanwhile your body is re-making you with extreme velocity.”  As Matthew J. Edlund M.D. pointed out in a piece for Psychology Today, rest is regeneration. “Inside each of your ten trillion cells fly a billion protein-protein interactions every second. Every one is an information event. Every one helps change you, remake you, so you never, ever stay the same. But as far as you’re concerned, you’re doing “nothing.” You’re just “wasting time.”

The stress of significant life events and decades of relentless doing have left my body and mind depleted. This has shown up as fatigue, digestive issues, allergies and anxiety. Test results this week have confirmed – finally a diagnosis – I have adrenal fatigue or adrenal insufficiency. This means that my body is producing much lower than normal levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) which influences, regulates or modulates many of the changes that occur in the body in response to stress including immune responses, anti-inflammatory action, blood pressure, blood sugar levels and central nervous system activation, amongst other functions.

Adam has encouraged me, and my body has forced me, to rest. There are days where cooking meals, walking the dogs and vacuuming is all I can do before sinking into the sofa with a cup of herb tea. Until I find my attention caught by the long grass and drag myself outside to do twenty minutes of weed eating. Because it turns out I’m not very good at not doing and I’m very good at worrying about the things I’m not doing. I sit down and quite quickly become subtly agitated by the joint forces of my inner critic and busyness addict and within minutes I’ve thought of something which needs to be done.  A big house, an online business, animals and a spray free garden mean that there is never nothing to do and in case I run out of chores, I’ve also accumulated a huge pile of non-fiction books laden with information. Thus I get caught in a loop of needing to rest but resisting it and I end up doing everything – including the rest – in a kind of half assed way.

But finally I’ve had enough of taking one step forward and one backwards and slowly (everything seems to be slow these days) I am learning to rest, to provide myself with the essential space I need to heal.  Unexpectedly this space is teaching me other things. It is teaching me to befriend my Inner Critic,  thank her for The Shoulds and remind her that she is not in fact driving this vehicle. It is teaching me to befriend my fear, particularly of the unknown (being unwell for four years and not knowing why has done a stellar job of generating fear of the unknown). It is teaching me to find joy in the ordinary, in slow cultivation rather than instant gratification, and it is teaching me to unwind much of what my culture has taught me about growth and progress and success….It would seem that sitting in the vegetable garden and quietly observing has taught me as much as getting stuck in with tools and a determination to create order.

Poet, peace activist and spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh has said that “We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.”  Slowly, one very mundane day at a time, I’m reconnecting with this wisdom, disconnecting from the addictive busyness, letting go of The Shoulds and allowing my mind and body to heal.

On the sofa, no makeup (hardly ever, these days), wearing a slight frown because Dio is photobombing.

 

Originally posted at tink.nz.

A yellow kind of nourishment

The nourishment is yellow at Peka Peka today. The full moon glowed a soft yellow as it set over the water. There are bees, of the honey and bumble kind, rocking their yellow stripes as they stagger out of pumpkin flowers covered in golden pollen. I’m waiting for friends to arrive for lunch, after spending the last hour or so leisurely cooking dhal, delighting in the heady fragrance of freshly toasted and ground coriander seeds. 

Surviving the Future

Last weekend ten people (grown ups and  small people) sat around the large table in the kitchen at Peka Peka Hill and shared three whole organic chickens.  Andre the black cat, who is neither restrained nor svelte, was intensely interested. He seemed to be trying his very best to communicate that surviving his future entirely depended on getting his paws on some of that chicken.

Speaking of surviving the future you may have noticed on the home page that our dream is to create a small regenerative farm up here on Peka Peka Hill and to that end we continue to accumulate quite the reading pile. Actually, it’s more like a reading table these days and the below is a photo of just one of the piles on said table.

It begins with listening.

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My father Clive teaching my cousin how to putt.

I became aware of many of the lessons I learned from my father Clive after he died. In many ways, he provided an example of what not to do. As a workaholic surgeon, single figure handicap golfer and for most of my childhood also a more-than-part-time farmer, he’d nailed how to not sleep and how not to rest. How not to have a supportive, loving partnership. How not to eat well.

As I went to sleep one night in July 2014 (six months or so after three miscarriages), I noticed a tremor in my left thumb. I didn’t pay too much attention until I woke around 2am and noticed it was still twitching. Dad died of a particularly grim dementia called Lewy Body Dementia (patients experience the symptoms of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) and it occurred to me in those wee small hours, that a muscle twitch in the thumb or a finger is one of the early signs of Parkinson’s.

I’d previously been conscious (at least to some extent) that I wasn’t particularly well – I was really tired, had little energy and was often irritable. My twitching thumb and memories of Dad made me sit bolt upright in the middle of the night and realise ‘oh shit, I’m actually really unwell’. Of course I didn’t know I had any kind of neurological degenerative disease but from somewhere deep in my body a visceral awareness of a lack of well-being emerged.

Coincidentally, Adam had been researching nutrition and psoriasis for several months and he’d been sharing with me compelling evidence showing that nutrition can play a significant role in healing autoimmune conditions. As I lay there listening to my body, it occurred to me, that maybe Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are autoimmune diseases? My smartphone and Google confirmed that inflammation plays a causative role in both those diseases and there is increasing evidence for the hypotheses that both these conditions are autoimmune. Another Google search confirmed that people appear to be successfully using nutrition and other lifestyle factors to reverse the symptoms of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

As I lay there wide awake, I became aware of what felt like a message from Dad forming in the shimmering dark space of the room. “Do not follow in my footsteps” it said’ “you can heal yourself with food. Decide now, in this moment, to look after yourself.”

My road to recovery began with paying attention to my body and the wisdom of my elder. I listened when my body said “Oi, listen up kid, everything is not hunky dory in here, we need you to make some changes.” Our bodies are smart. They tell us when things are out of alignment. Recurrent colds, low energy, ongoing digestive troubles, achy joints, erratic menstrual cycles, mood swings. These are signals to ease off the accelerator a bit, even perhaps pull up, turn the engine off for a while and peer under the bonnet.

My healing began with listening and I heard my body telling me that my resources were severely depleted. Figuring out how to remedy that was the next step but there was no doubt in my mind that nourishing my body and mind was critical. However healing also began with learning from Dad and listening to the advice he gave (intuited or imagined) from beyond his grave. His DNA may live in me, but this does not condemn me to his disease. Epigenetics has much to say on this subject, but that’s a story for a future post.

In the meantime, I wholeheartedly encourage you to close your computer or put down your phone. Close your eyes, connect with your breathing and slowly sense into what your body is saying.

 

 

 

Originally posted at tink.nz.