There’s a popular saying in permaculture (coined by Bill Mollison) that says, “The problem is the solution.” Another way of saying it is, “Within the problem lies the solution,” or, “Turn the problem into a solution.” This isn’t a kind of zen koan–a paradoxical statement for mediation–but a real insight into the way we often waste time, energy and money dealing with problems, whether designing a garden or building a house. The simple example Mollison would give is, “You don’t have a snail problem, you have a duck deficiency!” Turn a problem of pests into a solution by creating space for predators (which also gives you food–eggs and meat–and fertility–manure).
There are many other examples, large and small, of this principle, but lately I’ve been thinking trying to apply it not just to sustainable design, but to life situations or “problems.” This isn’t saying, “just look at the bright side,” but genuinely reorienting our thinking toward creativity instead of reactionary thinking.
So, here’s a problem for me: winter.
I was born and grew up in deserts, then lived in some of the hottest, muggiest places in the U.S. (Houston and south Georgia). It certainly got cold at times in the winter, but not to the degree that Todd gets cold. (As I’m writing this–for comparison–it is 40 degrees, the low tonight will be 21; my hometown has highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s all week.) Most people know that I rarely complain about heat, but I get cold pretty easily. Also, all of my gardening experience has been in a place where gardening is a year-round endeavor, where the ground doesn’t freeze–so winter now is both a new set of challenges and a temporary halt to my work.
But taking a cue from farmers I’ve listened to recently, I’m learning to see winter as an asset, not just a drag. Instead of seeing the garden’s dormancy as a problem–I can see it as an opportunity to rest, recharge, study, and plan for next year. Some use this time to travel or do missions work abroad.
Winter isn’t just a problem for me as a frost-sensitive transplant, however, but for many people in the High Country. We often talk about the loneliness and isolation that can come from living in the mountains, and is exacerbated by the winter weather–especially for people with limited mobility or limited income to heat their homes. Ashe County has the highest suicide rate in North Carolina, and our long, dark winters certainly don’t help anyone struggling with depression.
Yet, there are other places in the world that have even harsher winters, yet do not have the same problems. A friend recently posted an article about Denmark, which, according to the U.N., is the happiest country in the world, yet endures bone-chilling winters, with only 6 hours of daylight.
The article points out that Danes endure the long winter in part with a cultural concept called hygge. It’s a term that is hard to translate, but comes from a Norwegian word for ‘well-being’ but also has connotations of “coziness” and “togetherness.” As one person quoted in the article states: “Coziness relates to physical surroundings — a jersey can be cozy, or a warm bed — whereas hygge has more to do with people’s behavior toward each other . . . It is the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality and contentment rolled into one.”
While we certainly have some similar themes at the core of our fall and winter holidays, hygge seems to be a sustained mood, something deeper than Hallmark-card lines and going beyond the holidays. I’ve been asking myself over the past week, how do we create this sense of hygge here in the High Country? In essence, it is no different than our mission to “seek the peace [ie, shalom, well-being of Todd, along the lines of Jeremiah 29, only applied to a particular season. How can we turn the problem of winter into a solution–rather than the cold isolating us can it be an opportunity to slow down and share warmth? How do we embrace our surroundings rather than recoil from them and each other? Even better: how have residents of Todd already found ways to do this, and how can we celebrate and continue them?