The Simple Things
In their element
THE ANCIENT GREEKS BELIEVED THERE WERE FOUR ELEMENTS VITAL FOR LIFE. FOR THESE WOMEN, AIR, EARTH, FIRE AND WATER ARE NOT ONLY ESSENTIAL TO THEIR LIVELIHOODS, THEY ALSO DEFINE THEIR WAY OF THINKING
EARTH Kanchan Dawn Hunter connects with the soil as a gardener
“What I teach is to spend two thirds of your life as close to the earth as possible. If you work in an office, you need to plug into the planet after work. The earth gives us everything we need, but we need to start extracting less and living in balance. We don’t have to go back to the stone age, but we can devise better models. Small changes are easy, I wish people would get rid of their lawns and instead plant pollinators to give back to the creatures that keep us alive. I watch our garden carefully for a decrease in bees and butterflies. I feel so connected to the planet; I hope that we’re going to be fine but I get so upset sometimes thinking about the people being affected by climate change who had nothing to do with making that problem.
The majority of my work is focused on our non-profit nursery, Spiral Gardens, where we sell plants to the community at low cost. I’m working with soil, with plants, watering, transplanting and answering questions from people new to gardening. About 10 years ago it dawned on me that plants are the true currency. I think that it’s a revolutionary viewpoint for humans to take because it goes against capitalism. Access to food is a natural right for all living things and it shouldn’t be regulated and monetised.
Understanding how to use the soil and learning how to work in collaboration with the natural elements gives us a deeper understanding of life. Gardening and growing your own food and plant medicine is a way of unplugging from a system that, in my view, is totally broken. The big agricultural organisations are such a top heavy, male-dominated model. The people actually doing the heavy lifting and planting on farms like those are eating that produce the least. More women are growing food, especially women of colour, so we’re steering the resources to the communities that need it the most. We’re trying to teach these communities how to grow their own food: it should be taught in schools really.
People ask me how I keep working so hard, but it’s the only thing keeping me sane. I am outside all day and I’m sure it’s the soil, the plants, the creatures – they all make me incredibly happy.”
AIR Gretchen Kimball navigates the skies as a hot air balloon pilot
“When you fly a hot air balloon, you’re surrendering yourself to the elements. There’s something so primitive and simple about it. It’s quite otherworldly, being able to levitate off the ground and to float without really being able to steer, but also having to be very accurate; there’s a sort of mystery to it, you really only have control of up and down.
I don’t think I’d have pursued this career if it hadn’t been the family business, but I grew up with it, it was fun, and I was good at it. I tried other careers but a few years ago my brother needed extra pilots and asked if I would come back and fly the small balloons.
Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions, but you can’t work from a place of fear. There’s a fine line between what we have control of and what we don’t. You need a tremendous amount of respect for nature, it’s always stronger and smarter than us. Understanding the dynamics and laws of nature allows you to feel humble in its presence. I think that anyone who does extreme sports understands the harmony that’s created when you understand the winds, the atmosphere and gravity. You may not understand it in mathematical form on paper, but you can feel it intuitively.
The sensation people have just as you lift off, when they suddenly realise that we’re off the ground and we’re lighter than air, floating away, is actually really tranquil. Passengers sometimes expect more of an adrenaline rush but it’s tranquillity and peace that buoyancy gives you, just floating on the currents. And when you touch back down, everyone realises they’ve just been on a very special adventure. The most wonderful moments are when people tell me it’s something they’ve wanted to do their entire lives, and I’ve made that possible and taken them into a realm they’ve always wanted to experience. Sometimes people joke, ‘You call this work?’ I’m glad I make it look easy!”
“You need a tremendous amount of respect for nature, it’s stronger and smarter than us”
FIRE Cjay Roughgarden harnesses heat as a welding fabricator
“I’m totally a fire person, when I work with it, I feel like I’m in contact with a raw element. It’s a direct bodily experience, when I’m using my own weight to pull against a piece of metal to bend it, or looking at the colour of steel to tell how hot it is. The man who taught me how to weld said,
‘These are the elements on the periodic table, you are manipulating them with light and heat.’ I can’t think of anything more spiritual than that.
I’ve always been crafty, but that first time I got to cut through metal with an accelerated jet of hot plasma, I was in love. I’ve done desk work, but I love working with my hands – the outcome is so tangible. I had Lyme disease in my twenties, which affected my capacity to work. Coming into metalwork my first thought was that I probably wouldn’t be able to do it; you walk into a workshop, there’s sparks flying, you don’t know how any of the big tools work. I learned that I could do it, but that I had to pay real attention operating equipment, because these things could kill people.
I’ve worked as both a teacher and a writer and found that if you make a mistake, you apologise and then shuffle around looking a little embarrassed.
But if you’re operating equipment, no one cares about apologies. You have to own your mistakes, it’s a different type of strength and confidence.
It’s not a very healthy job; without a lot of protective gear I’ll come home looking like a chimney sweep. And it’s dangerous: I’ve sat on a hot weld, fallen from a great height and sometimes pieces of steel fly in my eyes and I have to remove them with a magnet. It gets hot wearing a hood and leathers and it’s uncomfortable, but I think most people who are drawn to working in the trades are kind of used to pushing through physical conditions.
I’m part of an artist collective called Five Ton Crane. We make large art pieces for Burning Man, an experimental festival in the Nevada desert that showcases huge art installations. I’m one of the only female builders. It’s been a great exercise, as a human being, to get to know myself and what my capacity is. I am very grateful to the group – the women for being so inspiring, and the men for being excited to support us.”
WATER Aylana Zanville works the waves as a surfer
“I live in Santa Cruz, California –
I grew up here and learned to swim before I could walk. The ocean’s cold but exhilarating – you can’t stay out for long but you can surf every day of the year.
I moved to Hawaii for a while, around 15 years ago, and discovered that the water was warm and comfortable. I’d always surfed in a wetsuit before that, and I hadn’t realised that women’s swimsuits just don’t stay on when you surf. I was teaching surfing and right next door was a seamstress, so I brought one of my bathing suits to her and asked
“That first time I cut through metal with hot plasma, I was in love”
her to make a few adjustments; now
I have my own brand of swimwear suitable for surfing in (olachica.com).
In 2018, I got the right crew together to take over running ‘Women on Waves’, an amateur surfing event. It’s such a positive experience for young girls, less gnarly competition and more supportive. The surfing scene is still a bit of a boys’ club, although I feel pretty welcome, especially here in Santa Cruz, because people recognise me. However sometimes, when I travel, some guys still think a girl can’t surf. I’m not afraid to show them we can!
It’s never the same, day to day, that’s what keeps it interesting. Some waves are big and scary and you wonder if you can handle it. But there’s nothing like being barrelled – it’s almost like time slows down when you’re surfing inside the curve of a breaking wave and it’s super peaceful. People tell me I look young and I say, it’s the ocean. It keeps me youthful. It’s such a de-stresser. I have to swim or surf or kite-surf or something.
I surf in a helmet now because I was in an accident in Indonesia. The waves were great, but I’d been travelling for 24 hours and I definitely made a couple of mistakes, which is not the way I normally work. As I was pushing myself up to stand, my board dropped away from underneath me and the wave threw me around eight feet down, headfirst into my surfboard. I knew straightaway that I’d broken my nose, blood was gushing down my face. It turned out my cheek was broken, too. I needed plastic surgery and had to stay in hospital. When I eventually got home, I was out of the water for three months recovering. Once I was ready to surf again, I bought a helmet with a retractable faceguard. I felt a bit dorky at first, but I was just so happy to be surfing again, it was like coming home.” This feature was originally published in Oh Comely, issue 49.
“It’s like time slows down when you’re surfing inside the curve of a wave”