On raising heathens

Lately, I’ve been fielding lots of questions about religion from my kids; I’ve bumbled them all. My 4 year old, from the back seat of the car on the school run ‘But why did those people want to kill Jesus?’

And my 7 year old, who’s been combing through a Children’s Bible he got for his first birthday. ‘Jesus couldn’t really walk on water, could he?’ Like his Dad (and unlike me), he is ruled by logic. If it doesn’t make sense, it just doesn’t hold up. Then, after a recent school outing to a Mosque, ‘Am I a Christian or a Muslim?’

We could’ve sent our boys to the secular school across the road (boy, would that have been easier) but instead we schlepp across town so they can go to a traditional school with sound Christian values. I’m not a Christian, and my husband, like most of the people I know, is what I’d call a cultural Christian — born into a Christian family but not necessarily a Christian at heart, or a practicing Christian.

I did go to a Convent primary school and a Christian high school. To this day hymns (particularly those solemn Catholic ones) move me to tears, and I love going to Church. I think Jesus’s message was beautiful, but I’m also drawn to Buddhism. Without knowing why, I’ve always had a statue of the Buddha in my bedroom; it’s only recently, since I’ve delved deeper into Buddhist doctrine, that I understand why. For me, it speaks directly to the pitfalls of our frenzied, modern world, and gives practical tools for finding calm in the storm. The Baha’i Faith, my mom’s religion, has some wonderful beliefs too, like equality of the sexes,  harmony of science and religion, the unity of humankind.

It’s easy to be cynical about organised religion — after all, wars have been fought in its name, and some religions institutions are corrupt and rife with hypocrisy. But religion (or is it faith, I tend to confound the two) is a beautiful way to make sense of an uncertain world. Often it provides solace where nothing else can.  If, in your heart you believe in a particular faith and all its teachings, how comforting that must be.

Beyond being spiritual creatures, humans crave a sense of belonging. Religion, with it’s associated rituals and cultural practices, provides just that. Christmas is a time of family and togetherness, whether you’re thinking about those pressies under the tree or reflecting on the birth of Jesus. Likewise with Easter — for many, it’s as much about holidays and gorging on chocolate and Easter egg hunts than it is about remembering the death of Christ. It can be a sacred time, or one devoid of any religious beliefs; either way, it’s a time for the tribe to gather, and it gives you a sense of your place in the world.

But, back to those questions. What on earth do you teach a curious young soul about religion, if you don’t have one yourself? If, like many people who don’t belong to an organised religion like to say —  you’re ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Kids need guidance, some kind of compass with which to navigate the world, and they like certainty. But maybe it’s okay for them to know that there aren’t any solid answers; religion is a deeply personal journey, one they’ll have to take themselves. Their faith, if they have one, may be continually tested, but that’s part of the unpredictability and beauty of the human experience.

I told my 7 year old he doesn’t have to decide now; there are many religions in the world, and they all teach us important things. I wish I’d have remembered my favourite quote about religion, which beautifully encapsulates what I’d like to teach my kids, whether or not they’re baptised (they’re not), or we go to Church (we don’t):

My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.
-Dalai Lama

Notes from a Luddite

If someone had told you, back in the eighties, when we were tearing around (unsupervised) on our BMX’s, that when we were adults, we’d be addicted to hand-held (incessantly beeping) electronic devices that would connect us to each other 24/7, you’d have scarcely believed it. The words digital detox would have been a tough one to wrap your head around.

And yet I’ve just emerged from a 10 day screen hiatus; it was just the re-jig I needed. It’s not so much that I was spending too much time on social media — more that the constant distraction would derail me from whatever I was doing, or meant to be doing.

After mindlessly scrolling through my feeds, I’d be left feeling unsatiated and no richer for having done it (often I’d feel creepy and stalkerish for checking out the posts of people I scarcely knew, or didn’t know at all – the old-school equivalent of reading someone’s diary).

Facebook feeds can also be discombobulating. Scrolling from hot bods in bikinis, to a horrific crime story; cute faces of babies interspersed with pleas to sign petitions. It’s a melange of news/fake news, exhibitionism, trivia, entertainment, political insights and opinions that can boggle the mind.

Also — and perhaps most importantly — I was setting a very bad example for my kids. Monkey see, monkey do right? There are a glut of studies revealing how technology stunts our kids growth and development; the results are bleak. My boys are still young so I haven’t even begun to navigate the real minefield of technology. I hear it gets trickier, and riskier. Social media, gaming and cyber bullying? Lordy!

Steve Jobs was apparently a low-tech parent; he famously commented that he doesn’t let his kids use iPads. I’ve read many tech engineers are similar, sending their children to tech-free schools and restricting their usage at home. The fact that the inventors of those little tyrants in our pockets give them a wide berth surely gives us pause for thought.

The dialogue around technology’s hold over our lives is not likely to subside — it’s here to stay, so we need to find ways to exist peacefully with it. And of course, screens aren’t all bad. Curling up on a winter’s day watching David Attenborough with my kids — bliss. Listening to my husband and boys scream at the screen during rugby matches? Heartwarming. Flicking on Paw Patrol when I desperately need to send an email or am craving some alone time? Sanity saver. iPads on planes and trains? Only fair on the other passengers. And it’s pretty darn fantastic being able to connect with friends, family and like-minded peeps any time of any day.

My approach these days after my (very productive!) detox — dip in and out, every now and then — don’t hover too long or get sucked in too deep. Keep it sporadic rather than regular. Enjoy the modern miracle that is the interweb, but keep it firmly reigned in.

 

Coffee With: Renata Harper

It’s time for our next Q&A! Just love these soulful, beautifully crafted words from Renata Harper, editor of EnviroKids.

Renata Harper
Why do you do what you do?
The natural world is my muse. Writing is one of many ways that I can express my love for nature and celebrate her keepers and creatures. I took the position of editor at EnviroKids (WESSA’s quarterly magazine for young eco-champions), because it’s a powerful way to share the magic of our planet with young South Africans. As a reluctant “grown-up”, it also allows me to be childlike, to play and enthuse.

Even if wordcraft weren’t my chosen profession, I would continue to write for myself. I’ve written through confusion, anxiety and heartache and it always brings me to the other side. I guess I write mostly to make sense of myself and of the world.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be? 
I would love to have been born in a musical! More feasibly, I would work in wildlife rehabilitation (and write about it) or be a conservation documentary-maker. I don’t discount either as future possibilities!

The 3 books that have had the biggest impact on you?
Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari – it reminds us to look much further back and much further forward than we tend to.

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron – I experience it differently each time I work through it. More recently, it’s given me the courage to slowly opt out of routines and roles that don’t reflect who I am. Scary, but it couldn’t have come at a better time!

The Magic Faraway Tree series, by Enid Blyton – because I always knew trees held other magical worlds.

A quote you love?
“You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one…”

I also love this comment by Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: One Year of Seasonal Eating: “People often ask me whether I feel I’m missing out on city life. I look around, at the mountains, at the setting sun, and I wonder who is missing out.”

Your perfect getaway – forest treehouse or beach shack?
Forest treehouse. I love the coolness and wisdom of trees, the diversity of life they support, the dancing of the light. (But an unfenced rustic bushveld camp would win, hands down, every time.)

Your favourite way to recharge?
SARK, one of my favourite creativity authors, writes: “When a child gets crabby, put them in water.” My version would be: take me up a mountain. Movement, exploration and adventure energise me as much as rest does. And I love a good movie! I often go alone, and at unexpected times, just to escape and delight myself.

Top of your bucket list?
Costa Rica – I’m fascinated by its biodiversity, as well as the environmental ethos embedded in its governance. Then Botswana… I’m just waiting to win a 4×4.

Advice you’d give your 16-year-old self?
Reach out when you need help. Support – financial, spiritual, practical – is everywhere and comes in the most surprising ways, if you just ask for it. And take tango lessons – if you don’t, you’ll regret it when you’re 37. Conversely, she’d remind me not to let others, even (especially!) those who are well meaning, to deflate me.

Your favourite ‘wild’ place in the city?
A time rather than a place: dawn, because it’s precious no matter where you are. In my urban life, I am alert to wild moments all the time, like the African harrier-hawk that raided the Cape sparrows’ nest in our garden and the squirrel that planted its own crops (peanuts, of course!) in our veggie patch. Without these kinds of wild reminders, I’d feel “ecologically bored”, as George Monbiot describes it in Feral.

Humanity in a hundred years – where do you think we’ll be?
If we can listen to nature’s calls and our own deepest, most authentic longings… if we can rewrite our story to be more compassionate towards the planet… I can see us thriving alongside nature. There are enough of us who care.

Your source of strength when the going gets tough?
A belief in a bigger picture, and knowing that I don’t always see it in the moment. And the kindred spirits in my life, both human and animal.

For you, winning at life is ……….
… when I experience time as expansive. I’m very aware of death and time is the most precious resource to me. I’m happy when I lose track of it, when I can follow my curiosity, play within a creative process. I hate having to rush though my day or a project, or to focus solely on an end-product. I start to feel down when my time feels squeezed. This has made working in a deadline-driven environment very difficult for me at times.

What you’d still love to accomplish in this life?
I’d love to experience a natural area intimately, to understand its needs, to witness its challenges and victories, to know its stalwarts and upstarts. Professionally I’d like to write a book on creativity as a way of living, as well as a humorous animation with a strong conservation message (I’ve written one brief scene!). And I’d like to finally start a blog.

Biting the hand that feeds

Oupa's factory
Checking out Oupa’s plastics factory

A school friend grew up on a tobacco farm in Malawi, and like me, had been sent to boarding school in South Africa at a tender age. At our 25th year reunion recently the topic of smoking came up, and she told how whenever she gives her Dad a hard time about his smoking habit, he reminds her that tobacco paid for her education.

I can relate. Plastic paid for mine.  Visiting my Dad’s plastic factory is a vivid childhood memory: the squishy sacks of plastic polymer; the noisy machines compressing the pellets; standing at the end of the production line, waiting to see the colourful cups being spat out, still warm and steaming; the words ‘injection mould’ and ‘virgin material.’ I remember long trips back to boarding school, our Kombi packed to the rafters with plastics that we’d deliver en-route.

And yet my Dad, unapologetically capitalist, ended up with green-leaning kids. Plastic has been top of our hit list in trying to whittle down our waste. My sister, a scuba instructor who sees first hand the state of our oceans, recently shared something on Facebook and screeched ‘Stop Fucking Using Plastic!’ And my brother is seldom happiest than when knee deep in worm muck churning out compost.

It’s a tricky one. My Dad worked his ass off so he could give us what he prizes above all else – a good education. Without that (plastic-funded) education, one that lifted us out of the structural limitations set by apartheid, our lives might have taken a very different trajectory.

Something to be mindful of when we rail against the system? We all need to make a living in the world. If we’re lucky, smart, or both, we manage to marry our ideals with our livelihood; others bump up against all kinds of socio-political barriers – work is a way to pay the bills, it can’t always be aligned with our beliefs or worldview.

So while it’s wonderful to have choices and hold fast to our ideals, there’s always the flip side. Someone on the other end whose livelihood depends on the thing we’re lambasting or crusading against. It’s a theme that can be applied most anywhere – poachers trying to eke out a living; children working in sweat shops to help put food on the table. For everyone trying to build what they believe to be a better world by challenging the system, there’s someone propping it up, living hand to mouth.

Those are extreme examples and I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent. Bringing it back to those pesky single-use plastics that are choking our oceans, I still avoid them. But I’m seldom militant about it; our push and pull world is after all stupendously complex.

 

Rookie errors

Broad Beans

I made some rookie errors when I planted our veggie patch last summer. I jumped in too quickly, without observing the patch – where the light falls, what the wind does – etcetera. The site is, it turns out, dank, with very little winter sunshine. But – never mind – I cut everything back, let it hibernate and ready itself for spring, and took a little break from urban gardening.

I also planted during a drought, which may have been a little unwise, but our well-point is up and running. The water tank and the patch are on opposite corners of the house (there were some space restrictions and it was the only way we could configure it). No worries – we’ve rigged up a very long hosepipe and fashioned a tap – and, with some effort, we’re able to feed the groundwater to our veggies. Minor obstacles.

It’s September and look at these gorgeous blooms that are springing to life!

 

 

When it hurts like a hot turd

When the ideas or the words aren’t flowing, my favourite way to procrastinate is to read about writing. According to Hemingway ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ Charles Bukowski advises ‘Don’t ever write a novel unless it hurts like a hot turd coming out.’

Those words always makes me feel infinitely better; if it’s agony for the greats, imagine the pain for struggling mortals.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to dealing with writer’s block. The first is to just buckle down and write. Sit in front of the computer and allow whatever puerile thing you have to say find it’s way onto the screen; it might not be useable but it’ll help loosen your writing muscle.

The second recommends stepping away. Your ideas may be half formed and need time to percolate and bubble up to the surface. They’re more likely to do this when you’re completely absorbed in something other than writing. Ideally something full-bodied and in-the-moment (dancing, surfing, cooking). But something meditative like going for a walk or cleaning the house can also work. As can mundane things like dealing with admin or filing. The point is to stop writing for a while.
quote-anne-lamott

 

During dry spells, I also try be mindful of that old adage that everything in life has a rhythm. There are peaks and troughs, things wax and wane. I sit tight and try keep the faith that the wheel will turn (and hope inspiration doesn’t come knocking in the middle of dinner and bedtime mayhem, as it’s wont to do).

 

They’ll de-vibe my vibe, still, these 5 eco-documentaries are on my list

Few of us need convincing that our planet is in peril (well, except….there’s that guy in the White House). The picture is often painted in broad strokes though. We have a notion that catastrophes are taking place — temperatures are rising, icecaps melting, flora and fauna are becoming extinct — but we may not know the specifics of what is causing it.

If you’re looking to deepen your understanding of climate issues, or drill down into the particulars (which behaviours are causing what destruction), there’s no shortage of documentaries out there.

Eco-documentaries are heavy going; it’s dire to contemplate the path we’re on, and most focus on the doom and gloom rather than the positive shifts taking place. But, sometimes, they give us a much-needed kick in the ass — we may be haunted by an image or stunned by a statistic, or suddenly make the connection between A and B — which in turn compels us to do that one small thing or make that one tiny change. And hopefully it snowballs from there.

Not light viewing, but these are on my list……

What’s on yours?
What are your must-sees?

Coffee With: Rhian Berning

Next up in our ‘Coffee With’ series, wonderfully uplifting words from Rhian Berning, founder of Eco Atlas.


Rhian Berning pic

Why do you do what you do?
I am so in love with our small blue planet and the deeply interconnected life on it, from the praying mantis to the rolling whales, from rainstorms to mossy forest floors, and all the diverse people that together form part of the intricate web of life.

Yet I’ve had a deep feeling and knowing for as long as I can remember that we really can do better as a species, that we’ve taken a wrong turn down our evolutionary  pathway, based on greed and short term benefits, and we’re rapidly unravelling the very living systems on which we depend.

I find it exciting that there are better, more innovative ways of doing things, that there are people doing them and that their stories need to be told because, added together, all those positive actions become a powerful wave of change that can turn our current trajectory. That’s why I do what I do. Eco Atlas is all about telling the good news stories, empowering people with information and connecting active citizens with the businesses that meet their needs for a better future.

If you weren’t an environmental activist, what would you be?
President. Ha ha, just kidding, although I am itching to have the ability to create more proactive positive change and I think the world would do well with more of the incredible, inspiring women we know in positions of power.  But realistically….I love working with children – their interface with each other and the world around them, their purity, their curious minds, their sense of wonder for our complex world and their ability to find solutions is inspiring and needs to be nurtured and stimulated.

The 3 books that have had the biggest impact on you?
Revolution by Russell Brand
Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My Year of Meat by Ruth Ozeki
(okay that was 4)

A quote you love?
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” ― Arundhati Roy

Your perfect getaway – forest treehouse or beach shack?
Well we live on the edge of beautiful indigenous forest so I get my forest fix. Our ultimate getaway is most definitely a beach shack, we are all at our happiest when we are salty, sun kissed and barefoot.

Your favourite way to recharge?
Lying in a hammock with a good book at one of the many isolated cottages we love to frequent, with access to pure nature and no cell reception, watching my children soaking up the landscape.

Top of your bucket list?
When I had just finished varsity I headed up Africa on my own traveling by train, bus, minibus and boat and it was the freest and most connected to my continent I have ever felt. My time staying with the Masai as the only mzungu and experiencing the balanced rhythm of village life was especially formative. I would love to head off with my children and husband and explore our own beautiful country and continent slowly, slowly.

Advice you’d give your 16 year old self?
Follow your intuition, don’t worry about what other people think, remember to be here now and seize the day, do what makes you happy, a swim in the sea is a cure for many things, remember to breathe, treasure your children when they are young.

Your favourite ‘wild’ place in the city?
In the Mother City it would have to be in the dappled light of a Keurboom tree on the soft grassy banks of Silvermine Dam. In my hometown of Plett it would be any of my favourite wild hideouts in Nature’s Valley.

Humanity in a hundred years — where do you think we’ll be? 
That is a very topical question! Stephen Hawking reckons that if we have not found an alternative planet within the next 100 years it’s not looking so good for us humans here on Planet Earth. I am more hopeful that enough of us will swing the status quo and innovate, regenerate and grow a verdant, abundant,stronger and better system that is in sync with all life on Earth.

Your source of strength when the going gets tough?
The effervescent, contagious laughter of my children that gives our whole family a good belly laugh round the supper table.

For you, winning at life is ……….
Being happy and healthy, living simply and sustainably and having a positive impact on the world around you.

What you’d still love to accomplish in this life?
Inspire people to realize their own power to make better choices for people and planet until we reach a tipping point – a critical mass for enduring good with highly functioning regenerative systems that positively feedback into the interconnected web of life.

Why I quit Plastic Free July

Straws!
I flunked Plastic Free July. Quite spectacularly. I tripped up on the first morning (yep, didn’t even make it to lunch time), again in the afternoon and a few times soon after that.

I felt like a right tool as there’d been some build-up on my social media (a bolshy ‘Coming atcha Plastic Free July’ on my Instagram just a few days earlier). I picked myself up, dusted myself off and dived back in. Only to be scuppered by a wretched fizzer after my son’s swimming lesson and a moment of weakness, an inability to resist my favourite (plastic covered!) magazine.

More beating myself up. And a healthy dollop of apprehension about our upcoming holiday (one where we’ll be on the move, staying with people and completely out of our routine).

So I decided to throw in the towel. At first it felt like copping out; like I was diluting my efforts for the sake of convenience. But it just wasn’t working and it was time for a recalibration.

Challenges such as Plastic Free July are not meant to be easy. I guess that’s the point – to challenge and even frustrate you, and, in this case, to create awareness around just how pervasive plastic is. Some people get it right, not just in July but Every Damn Day (check out the Zero Waste Home and Trash is for Tossers sites). We need the trailblazers and the purists — they show us what’s possible; their invaluable tips and tricks pave the way for the rest of us.  We may not succeed in completely emulating them, but it’s somewhere to start and we can do what we can, when we can.

My strategy moving forward? Pick a thing – one thing – and hone in on it until it becomes ingrained. Plastic shopping bags – it was a process but now I’m done with them; it’s overs cadovers; the reusable bags are now an effortless part of my routine. Ditto the glass water bottles.

Next up – straws! Sometimes we get it right and remember to say those three magic words (‘No straws, please’), sometimes we don’t. We’ll just keep at it, until, eventually, we remember every (or most) times.

Plastic toothbrushes and cosmetic bottles? I’ll get round to ditching them too, eventually.

Also, it’s important to keep some perspective. Slip up? Move on quickly and focus on what you have done. I’d done some wonderful prepping in June — sourced and started using my closest bulk store, invested in reusable produce bags and stocked up on my glass jars, so, in a way, Plastic Free July did it’s thing on me. I just didn’t want to be lugging around all that guilt every time my kids asked for a mint.

I feel wonderfully unburdened. I can ditch the guilt — and the plastic!

 

Coffee With: Hayley McLellan

I’m super excited about ‘Coffee With’, a new series of Q&A’s with local eco-warriors committed to making the world just a little greener and wilder.

Plastic Free July is a few days away, so it seems fitting that our first Q&A is with Hayley McLellan, environmental campaigner and founder of Rethink the Bag. Here’s a little about the woman on a mission to get the plastic bag banned in South Africa.

Hayley Mclellan

Why do you do what you do?
Over my years of being involved with animal care and behaviour, the creatures inspired me to seek to know more about our natural world. In knowing more I found that I naturally cared so much more. By caring in this deeper manner, I found myself moved to take personal actions for a healthier environment.

Being a custodian of our earth can feel so overwhelming in our everyday life full of its challenges, and defend it is exactly what each of us should be doing. It motivates me to communicate simple ways ordinary people can feel empowered to make small changes in their daily living yet still affect big change.

If you weren’t an environmental campaigner, what would you be?
I strongly feel I would be involved in the world of dance as I had enjoyed this my entire youth. When I began my (accidental) environmental career, in the late 80’s, I turned down an opportunity to audition for a dance company. It was a real moment of “sliding doors” for me in which I found myself enamoured with the offer of becoming a dolphin trainer, and chose to walk through that door. The rest is history. I still attend many dance shows and dream about what could have been though.

The 3 books that have had the biggest impact on you? 
There have been so many, but these spring to mind:
The Natural Way
by Mark and Mary-Ann Shearer
Blessed Unrest  Paul Hawken
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

A quote you love?
‘Life is tough, suffering is optional’

Your perfect getaway – forest treehouse or beach shack?
Tough! Forest treehouse.

Your favourite way to recharge?
An after work stroll along the Sea Point promenade, easily accessible every day!

Top of your bucket list?
Travel to Alaska.

Advice you’d give your 16 year old self?
30 year olds are not old and one day, anytime in your 40’s, you will still feel 30ish!

Your favourite ‘wild’ place in the city?
Hiking a mountain trail or Kirstenbosch Gardens.

Humanity in a hundred years — where do you think we’ll be?
After reading Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest many years ago, I felt uplifted in that there are so many incredible and effective environmental and humanitarian movements taking place globally. In all of the everyday bad news and turmoil, I find this author’s insights very encouraging, especially related to the work that I engage with daily.

Ecoanxiety officially exists and one of the ways I deal with this occasional malady is to keep sight of what’s going right with the world. I believe that tipping points will continue to occur that will create a humanity that focuses on value-centric living which equates to more win, win, win in terms of people, planet, profit.

Your source of strength when the going gets tough?
Home to our family farm in northern KZN. There is truly nowhere else that feeds my soul the way being there does.

For you, winning at life is ……….
Experiencing and witnessing harmonious relationships between people and nature; A South Africa that acknowledges equal opportunities for all, poverty alleviation and a booming economy.

What you’d still love to accomplish in this life?
No brainer! A plastic shopping bag free South Africa!

*You can read about Hayley’s work at the Two Oceans Aquarium and the Rethink the Bag Campaign here.