The question that moves my work forward

Fountains, square tower with crenelated edge on top, small palm trees in the foreground, huge one in the back, stone-edged path, green grass and blue sky.
What can you do when everything seems so complicated? Image: English Gardens, Palermo, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

What’s the simplest solution?

This is the question that moves me forward when I get stuck. I’m not sure why it helps. Maybe it’s what my friend and writing mentor Susan Graham calls “making a decision.” Friends are a gift.

With this question, I move forward with the information I’ve already got. Information gathering stops. I try something out.

Do you have a question that helps you move forward when you get stuck? Share it in the comments below.


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Create something new: Lessons from a re-cycled Convent, a Peacock with a Looking Glass, and a Cow with a Drinking Problem

Fish pond in foreground, a line of trees and a convent behind with a blossoming tree.
Roman pipeline to convent to farm. Gut Schillingskapellen, Dünstekoven. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

In the small village of Swisstal-Dünstekoven, a one-time convent was built solely with materials scavenged from the Roman water line. Now it’s a farm with Scottish Highland cows and reflective peacocks.

Lesson #1: Try a bit of creative re-cycling. If Roman ruins are in short supply, maybe you have a fragment that makes you laugh. Or just a bookshelf in the wrong place.

Peacock looking at its reflection in a mirror in a sunny farmyard
Know Thyself. Gut Shillingskapelle, © Laurel Decher, 2016.

At least two mirrors are propped up against the historic buildings in peacock-accessible places. I’m guessing mirrors have something to do with peacock mental health and the display of feathers. It looks a little bit too much like “selfies” for comfort.

Scottish Highland calf, brown and shaggy in a green meadow walled in with a stone wall.
A four-legged Scottish Highlander. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This brown, woolly, Scottish Highland calf seems to have a sturdy self-image already.

Lesson #2: Don’t look in the mirror too long. Keep mooooving. (Sorry.)

An eccentric older relative was playing with the automatic water-er, slurping away noisily for a few minutes, then picking up its head to look at us, indignantly or defiantly. With that much hair over the eyes, it’s really hard to tell.

Black, Scottish Highland cow with head in waterer.
Slurping noisily at the automatic water-er must be fun. © Laurel Decher, 2015.
Black, Scottish Highland cow with head out of waterer and face covered with shaggy hair.
“Who are you looking at?” Black, Scottish Highland cow with indeterminate expression. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Who am I to say what’s silly behavior? I make up stories. Maybe this cow is a distinguished water musician. Not much audience yet. Doing the practicing in obscurity thing. That’s okay with me.

Lesson #3: Enjoy creating. Maybe the rest of the herd will be by later. Or not. But you will have had the fun of messing about.

Lesson #4: Notice the artists in your life.

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What do gardens, libraries and exploring have in common?

Tree like a cathedral, with flying buttress sort of trunks. Huge canopy of leaves and the trunks more than twice the height of a person.
Fantastic tree in the botanical garden. Orto Botanico, Palermo, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Planting a tree in Palermo a few hundred years ago means a gigantic tree is still living today. A botanical garden is a living library and so is a zoo, an art museum, or a national park.

These storehouses of genetic variability are important because today’s shortcoming may be the key to success in another era. A library works the same way: the ideas and stories in books are passed on to the next generation and they make new stories of their own.

A book is a kind of seed that grows into someone’s life and becomes what they make and do in their lives. Each library leads to the next and reading in one library might mean writing a book for another. In the same way, planting one garden makes seeds for the next.

Malcolm Gladwell’s THE TIPPING POINT applies epidemiology to the transmission of ideas. A epidemiologic causal chain describes the path of an outbreak: a reservoir to a portal of exit to a mode of transmission to a portal of entry to a susceptible host.

You break the chain in as many places as possible to prevent disease. Or connect as many links as possible to spread ideas.

Libraries, gardens, art museums, and forests are all idea reservoirs. When we explore the world around us in these places, we are susceptible hosts.

What matters to me is the way both libraries and gardens illustrate God’s generosity and the abundance in our lives. Scarcity has no place in a garden or in a library. Tragedies may destroy them–drought, fire, water damage, flooding, war–but gardens and libraries are a kind of sharing that can always be started again. Once they begin, they multiply.

In an unfamiliar place, I orient myself by sticking to the main path. I gradually extend my boundaries so I see new things, but still know where I am.

I make forays. My husband tends to surround a new place by going all around the edge.

I explore books in a causal chain, finding the ones connected to the ones I’ve already enjoyed. I’m not sure it matters how we explore. Only that we do.

Why do reservoirs matter so much? We need them to grow. To become someone better than the old you? Maybe. I’ve always valued the ability to surprise people with unexpected skills because they didn’t see how long it took you to learn them. Rising out of obscurity can be so entertaining.

But for me, Patrick O’Brian’s famous line from his Aubrey–Maturin series: “There’s not a moment to be lost” expresses the value of our lives. Our explorations of the huge, amazing, varied world bring us more than self-improvement. Our discoveries, the seeds we plant, the books we read and write, as well as the people we love, make a difference for the future.

What will you explore today?

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Create something new: What would you do with 500 olive trees?

Olive trees under a blue sky with a mountain in the distance and green grass underneath.
500 olive trees. Sciacca, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

I recently came across another inspiring example of using your inheritance to create something new.

Alessandro inherited 500 olive trees with his grandfather’s Sicilian property. Most people look at 500 olive trees and think olive oil, but Alessandro had a different idea: soap.

His engineering Ph.D. comes in handy for designing the tools he needs to create Saponi & Saponi’s soaps from local ingredients: bay laurel, prickly pear, oranges, honey, and, of course, olive oil.

Creativity isn’t limited to soap from olive trees. All around the house, his environmental worldview is in practice. A solar panel is installed just inside the gate. He has his own water purification and passive hot water systems and his house is heated with olive, persimmon, and pine grown on the property.

I’m fond of the sustainable mowing team: a horse and a donkey who are clearly good friends.

Horse and donket grazing among the olive trees. Sicily.
Sustainable mowing team. Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We got a glimpse into the culture of soap-making in the soap museum. The guided tour includes Alessandro’s steadily growing collection of soaps from around the world and an exhibit about the soap-making process (in English and Italian.)

I loved his story about the way soap is made in Aleppo–may peace come there soon!

Most scents fade away in traditionally hand-made soaps because of the long curing process. Aleppo soap is the exception. It’s a dark green color because up to 50% of the soap is bay leaf extract. It’s also a cube shape, rather than a bar, because the liquid soap is poured out in a thick layer on stone or tile floors, rather than in shallow frames and then cut.

Maybe the story feels even stronger if you hear it while standing in a stone building where olives were once pressed. The soap museum’s cool stone walls must be very welcome when the hot Sicilian sun arrives. Plain square tiles cover the floor, unpainted versions of the vibrant tiles common in this region. Local products, used creatively, yet again, this time by taking the decoration away.

Handpainted tiles with bright yellows, blues, reds and greens.
Ceramic tiles from Vincenzo Arena in Sciacca, Sicily.

Ceramic Artist: Vincenzo Arena

That brings me to questions I’ve asked before:

What in your life could be transformed into something new?

Or something beautiful?

How could you give new life to something you’ve had a very long time?

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Hope for Spring: Prince Charles’ Duchy Home Farm

Snow pea seedlings in a pot.
Tiny snow pea seedlings on the balcony. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We just watched DER BAUER UND SEIN PRINZ (The Farmer and his Prince) about Prince Charles’ organically run farm. I ordered the DVD from the local bookstore here in Germany. Oddly, it’s unavailable anywhere in the Commonwealth.

The film made me think about growing things and raising chickens. For years after failing with chickens the first time, I didn’t try again because it felt too frivolous and too much of a luxury to keep hens of your own when you knew you could buy eggs, even organic ones, at a fraction of the price.

The film reminded me of what matters to me. The farmer kept going into the middle of various fields and pulling out a plant or a handful of dirt and explaining why it was better or stronger or different than the plant/dirt in the control field. The smell of the good garden soil in spring is so hopeful.

The film gave me a new view of cows. Their cows loll around in a huge barn with deep hay bedding, looking for all the world like bovine matrons in the Roman bath. Comfortable is not a word I connect with cows in a barn. Resigned or placid, but not comfortable.

Prince Charles demonstrated how to make a hedgerow. He leaned thorn trees at a 30 degree angle and then wove all kinds of other things into it. There were lovely photos of established hedgerows covered with blossoms with flocks of birds sailing in and out of them. My resident zoologist has been saying this for years: Hedgerows are good habitat.

Prince Charles’ farm manager said that the average age of farmers in the UK is 59 and young farmers are needed. My youngest is interested in farming so we all perked up our ears. He also said that many young people don’t seem to have had the kind of practical childhood that would help them with farm skills. We’re all brought up to sit in front of computer screens these days.

It’s hard to move toward the future, even when you are convinced it’s worthwhile to do so. We resisted getting a car for three years because we know that petroleum reserves are already so low. But now we have one even though I wanted to go everywhere by train.

I’m wondering how I can contribute to conserving the soil and growing more organic vegetables on my balcony. It’s easy to say: “There’s nothing I can do about it.” But there are always seeds to plant.

In January, I looked up a planting calendar for my area and planted snow peas in a big pot outside. Now they’re coming up. We can’t eat them yet, but they make me welcome the rain.

It’s like writing a book (or reading one). You don’t get guarantees about how it will come out. But we know, inside ourselves, that the attempt is worthy. Even if we fail, this is what life is about.


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Spring is coming. Let’s not give up on hospitality yet.

Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany.
Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if migration is our natural lot and living peacefully in one place all our lives a rarity. Cranes are migrating and their calls remind me of spring.

The current news shows destroyed cities in Syria, failed cease-fire talks, and a refugee bus being shouted down by people in the former Democratic Republic of Germany.

At my mother-in-law’s birthday party, some friends told how their families fled from the invading Russians, near the end of World War II. One family fled as late as 1945. Here’s my rough translation into English:

A knock came at three o’clock in the morning: we had to get out. We fled in a matter of two hours, with only the clothes we had on. The snow was up to the horses’ bellies and my mother packed us into the hay wagon with bedding, so we wouldn’t freeze.

Our father was one of three men assigned to the farm, to keep producing food. Unarmed, they were supposed to stay at the farm to defend the front against the Russians.

The countess, our angel, helped us to get out. She didn’t take any extra luggage for herself and invited three new mothers with their infants into her carriage, so they would survive the trip.

She bought a big sack of bread whenever we came to a big bakery and hung the sack from the side of the carriage. We had a camp kitchen, a “Gulaschkanone,” to cook huge quantities of soup. We had plenty to eat then.

Once we came to an abandoned town with a castle and people had fled, leaving everything behind. We slept anywhere we wanted, even in the castle. The houses were full of food, because these people had also fled. But after three weeks, we heard the Russian guns.

Eventually, we arrived in Schleswig-Holstein.  The countess’ brother had made arrangements for us, but the Nazi’s were still in charge, so they assigned people to various houses in the village as they saw fit. It was awkward and unpleasant.

We lived over a bakery in a tiny room with five other people. Baked goods were rationed, so we smelled a lot more bread than we ate.

People looked at us funny because we weren’t from there. My mother and sister argued about words for years, because my mother didn’t want us to blend in. She thought we were still going “home” one day. She wanted us to fit in there.

Epidemiologists like to study the “immigration effect.” That’s the idea that people who stay home are systematically different from the people who don’t.

For example, people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar in their home country may have a low risk of colon cancer. If some migrate to a country with the opposite pattern, they will probably increase their risk of colon cancer compared to those who stayed at home. But because they keep some of their home country traditions, they will probably have a lower risk of colon cancer than the natives of their adopted country.

For epidemiologists, a pattern like this means the risky behavior is “modifiable,” not genetic. If you can get people to eat more fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar, then you will probably see less colon cancer. It’s hard to change behavior, but it’s possible. It means hope.

After World War II, many, many people fled from the Eastern block into West Germany. They know what it means to be forced to rely on strangers. They know first-hand that the scarcity mentality isn’t true. Hardship can teach us generosity, if we let it.

We all wish for peace, but in the mean time, people all around me are eager to help the new arrivals feel at home. When peace comes, I think our hospitality will be gladly returned.

Spring is coming. Let’s not give up hope.


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Wait–My free calendar from the health food store has predictive powers?

Wild boar with nose dusted with snow from January page of my 2016 calendar.
January’s Wild Boar from my ReformhausMarketing GmbH 2016 calendar. Image: Horst Jegen/ImageBROKER/mauritius images

My youngest took a horse for a walk in the forest this week. I went along.

The horse, Rökkvi, is a shaggy, black, Icelandic pony with a mellow disposition. We were walking along one of the forest’s old hunting roads when Rökkvi pricked his ears and turned his head to the left.

When we finally looked, we saw a wild boar hurtling through the forest parallel to us. The boar shot past us, made a 90 degree turn, crossed our road, and disappeared into the forest on our right.

Rökkvi’s expression: “I told you there was something.”

I haven’t turned the calendar page yet to see what’s coming up in February.


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