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Hayley VanIderstine

Nature vs (Human) Nature

By | 2019 | No Comments

Throughout a series of visits to places like concentration camp grounds, battle trenches, war museums, and Hitler’s bunkers, I was beginning to lose faith in humanity: I mean, are humans evil by our nature, or do some people just mismanage their capacity for evil? Either case is discouraging.

However, a common thread among many of these physical places that I couldn’t help but notice is the sheer amount of life that was defiantly thriving everywhere I looked. I was struck by nature’s determination to break through the dark, deadly histories and grow into something so vibrant and full of life. At Mauthausen Concentration Camp, for example, a place that was once saturated in death and evil, life is insisting on taking back over. The quarry, where bodies were once worked to the bone and sometimes physically crushed, is now overgrown with lush grass. Every path, where prisoners once walked in fear and dread, is now lined with an unleashed array of colourful wildflowers and busy insects. The hospital grounds, once an area of unspeakable loss, discomfort, and contamination, are now an open field of fresh air.

These “before” scenes are now only detectable via the crumbling stone foundations outlining where the torture chambers once stood– just enough scarring to allow us to envision what horror once was. Similarly, Vimy Ridge is a place riddled with a history of gore, pain, and hatred. What was once a sloshy mess of mud, barbed wire, and bodies is now forests, abundant greenery, and flowers. This land is scarred with now-green craters and a stretch mark system of leftover trenches, but like the landscape of Mauthausen, those grass-covered scars serve as a reminder of what treacheries took place.

These landscapes are resilient: reclaiming their once-hellish spaces and turning them into places of avenging beauty and bursting growth. I may still be wrestling with what human nature means, but for now it’s enough for me to know that at least this kind of nature (flowers and trees and stuff) is good, beautiful, and victorious.

The Comfort of Hot Soup in a Cold Bath

By | 2019 | No Comments

The Greek scholar Archimedes may be best known for the moment of revelation that he had while bathing in a tub (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the subsequent scene of him streaking down the streets of Syracuse while exclaiming “eureka!” was what really stuck in people’s minds). Regardless, upon stepping into his bath, Archimedes noticed that the water level rose— leading him to the conclusion that the volume of the displaced fluid is equal to the volume of the object (in this case, his body) that is submerged. This is now commonly known as Archimedes’ principle.

Given our trip’s theme of (dis)placement, I’ve recently been revisiting and re-understanding this concept for the first time since elementary school science class. It turns out that Archimedes’ principle is applicable not only to bathwater, but also to other displacements such as the physical migration of people, as well as illustrating more abstract displacements like shifting ideologies and societal paradigms, learning processes, etc. But I’m not going into all of that right now.

Instead, I’m going to share a little slice of my weird Europe experience thus far. Like Archimedes, I too recently had a “eureka” moment regarding displacement. Also like Archimedes, this moment took place in a bathtub. Go figure.

We just spent the week in a heatwave-stricken Strasbourg— I’m talking the 40+ degree kind of heat that soaks your skin in sweat just for sitting still and boils the water in your bottle. For some reason, soup was one of the only meals our cooking group could muster up the money and energy for last night. In case you’re in the dark, soup is most typically served hot. That being said, we were dreading dinner time— until we decided to fill up our bathtub with ice cold water and eat in there. Having moved our dining room to our bathroom— side dishes set out on our (clean) toilet seat table and bowls of chicken noodle soup in tow— dinner was made more bearable.

It was in that moment, slurping on hot soup in a cold tub, that I was grateful that displacement need not imply full-on substitution. When something new is introduced and displaces another, there will still be some of the original environment left to mingle with the new addition. There I was, feeling more displaced than ever, despite having the comfort food of home and the relatively familiar language of this country. I usually try all the exciting, unfamiliar things— I enjoy exploring the world past my comfort zone. But last night, indulging in the homey flavours of chicken noodle soup, I was reminded that a comfort zone isn’t always a bad place to come back to. I was happy to have that trace of familiarity in the midst of my displacement.

Anyway, the heatwave isn’t totally over yet, so my brain is still in a semi-melted state… and these are all very half-baked thoughts. However, I can confidently say that bathtubs are proving to be a great place for both pondering and dining. Archimedes had the right idea, though I’ll probably hold back on the whole running-down-the-street-nude part.


Perspectives on Peace

By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

During a workshop with the staff from the MCC Xieng Khouang office in Laos, our group was asked to brainstorm some answers to the question “what is peace?” It seems like such a straightforward question, but it’s pretty loaded. I realized that I’ve never actually thought about this before. It turns out that the term “peace” can hold entirely different meanings to different people. MCC Laos’ Mittapab (meaning “friendship”) group even had to change their original name, which included the word “peacebuilding,” because the government claimed that the nation already had peace and therefore had no need for a peacebuilding group. Since the workshop, I found myself trying to define this crazy concept (I know that it’s already technically in the dictionary, but I don’t like the official definition. Peace must be more complicated than that two-line explanation).

I think that peace can look different within different contexts. It is bound to display itself differently as inner peace with oneself than it does as interpersonal peace in relationships, and even more so as peace on a national or international level. Anywhere on the scale, though, I’d say* that peace is not the absence of conflict, but having the ability to come together and listen to each other to come up with a cooperative solution when conflict does arise. Peace and conflict are not opposites. But that’s still pretty vague. Peace could be an environment of appreciation of differences, where a broad diversity of people and opinions is nurtured and can flourish. It could mean safety or refuge. It could mean the presence of a mutual understanding, or at least an active willingness to work toward that. Regardless, I think peace is a good thing and should be strived for.

I believe another big part of attaining peace can be found in the Zulu greeting “sawubona,” which is used as an equivalent of English’s “hello,” but translates into “I see you.” This is seeing a person’s soul, value, feelings– all that good human stuff. A deeper connection is made. It is saying you matter and are valid. To recognize this in a person is very humanizing and equalizing. After that, the response would normally be “sikhona,” which roughly means “I am here.” They exist after being fully seen by another person. Interconnection is important. When we take time to truly see, acknowledge, and appreciate others as humans with souls and stories, we can then learn and grow toward justice and equality, which leads to peace.

With our friends from the Mittapab Peace Group.

Maybe the concept of peace cannot even be encapsulated in a set of words or a strict definition. Maybe it just is (or isn’t). For example, I’m not really the city type. Smog gives me headaches, traffic baffles me, and I’m not a fan of having my butt accidentally and repeatedly touched while weaving through market masses. So Chiang Mai, as much as I loved it, was a bit much to handle at times. The Karen village that we had the privilege of visiting was precisely the breath of fresh air that I needed. It was totally non-hectic, both embraced by and embracing of nature, and had a small, flowy community lifestyle that just made sense to me. Peace was undeniably present when I was sitting under the tin roof of my host family’s house, listening to the pouring rain but seeing nothing but the pitch blackness of the uninterrupted night sky. It was there again as I stood at the highest mountain peak that we hiked, feeling emptied and breathless (due to both my being out of shape and the stunning view below) as I absorbed the wonder of what I was seeing. I knew that that was peace, even if I can’t define the word itself. I felt content and calm and rejuvenated and okay. Peace was present.

So, what is peace? I don’t know, but I want it.

*Disclaimer: I am no peace expert. I’m just spitballin, here.

The Bee’s Knees

By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

I’m a fan of bees. So naturally, I was ecstatic to come across forest beehives and signs of honey collection during one of our hikes through the forests of Ban Huay Hin Lad Nai Village in Northern Thailand. This Karen community in particular has been recognized as a model for self-sufficiency, responsible forest management, and sustainable living. Seriously– they’ve won awards and everything.

Some of that success can be credited to their forest beekeeping. Ban Huay Hin Lad Nai began harvesting honey around 10 years ago, when the then-dwindled bee population finally started to pick up again thanks to their reforestation efforts. Now, with their thriving, fertile, and natural forest ecosystem and the HOSTBEEHIVE initiative that partners with the community to turn their resource management efforts into a profitable practice by producing and selling pure wild honey, it is one of the three main commercial forestry products (alongside bamboo and wild tea) that provides household income for many of Ban Huay Hin Lad Nai’s families. Not only does a portion of every honey sale through HOSTBEEHIVE go right back to the community members and preservation of the forest, but a strong interdependence with nature is fostered. To summarize, though this is a fairly small-scale project, it has tremendous effects.

Anyway, back to these sweet hives. I almost didn’t see them because they were just chilling among the rocks and brush, blending in with their surroundings. They have a very simple design, but evidently get the job done. Each hive is basically a chunk of hollowed out dead tree trunk with a lid and an entrance that is just big enough for one little bee at a time. This is probably the closest a man-made hive can get to mimicking how the honeybees would do their thing on their own in the wild.


A nice looking hive – blending into the forest.

In nature, they tend to choose spaces such as dead trunks for their homes due to the thermal properties and sufficient vertical space they offer that allows them to build and shape their comb as they deem necessary. In these trunks, they are not restricted to a man-designated frame to create their comb that goes against their every natural instinct of being a bee. Here the bees are given creative freedom and a comfortable studio space to do what they do best. Forest beekeeping is also great in that it doesn’t completely relocate the bees from their natural habitat. It brings the human side of things to meet the bees where they are already living. While urban beekeeping has its benefits, I feel like it’s always a good thing to keep wilderness as wild as possible and limit human intervention– the bees know best.

So, yeah. I just thought the hives were really neat.


A natural beehive coming out of a tree trunk.

Moose Bones and Truth

By | 2016 - Aski Learning Tour (Ottawa & Timmins, Ont), Education for Reconciliation, Short-Term Trips | No Comments

[The fourth in a six part series of posts from SSU students participating in a First Nations Learning Tour, hosted by Mennonite Central Committee. The group is travelling in Ottawa & Timmins, Ontario from April 26th – May 8th, 2016.]

Well folks, here we are in Timmins, a city so dusty that many of the graffiti tags are done with fingertips on glass windows (I don’t know whether to blame the spring, the mining, or the unfrequented selection of roads along our route). This marks the beginning of the segment of our journey with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) for the Aski Learning Tour. Today was a day of exploration. We started with a presentation by CreeGeo Mushkegowuk Information Services, and from there set out on winding back roads that surrounded our train of vehicles with grey clouds of dust to get to Miken-otaski. When the tall teepee and glow of the warm fire became visible, we were welcomed with smiles and got the opportunity to participate in a traditional cookout consisting of goose, moose, bannock, dumplings, and Labrador tea. After our stomachs were stretched to their full capacity, Annie pulled out a box of freshly caught whitefish to smoke over the fire. We stood in awe as she dexterously decapitated and gutted the fish. However, we were not warned that we were standing directly in the splash zone of the gory deed. That’s a story for another time, but I just had to mention this incredible feast.

The real highlight of my day was what began as nothing more than an impromptu stroll. Amanda (the 14-year-old daughter of our MCC Learning Tour coordinator, Lyndsay) led me down the trail to see an older cloth teepee on a nearby site while pointing out different plant species and their uses along the way. We found that the teepee had been taken down, but I learned a lot from the 4-foot-something wealth of knowledge on the expedition. In addition to the typical conversations about school, pets, and family, she told me about exciting and hilarious encounters with animals in the woods we were travelling in, identified droppings, and explained several traditional ceremonies. By this time, we had been joined by a few more members of the group. We decided to make the most of this time by doing some exploring in the area surrounding the trail. In the clear, flat area where the old cloth teepee once stood, we came across scattered bones of some poor unfortunate soul that were picked clean. Among these remains was a spine, the size of each vertebra comparable to a small dog’s pelvis. Based on this enormity, it was unanimously decided by our bunch of unqualified people that this thing must have once held a moose together. In myself, this discovery revealed a possibly morbid fascination in skeletal systems and paleontology.

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Don’t fret: this little excursion did not pass by without a lesson. If I hadn’t gone on this little hike or cut up my legs by trudging through thorns and branches in the woods, I wouldn’t have found those bones. I wouldn’t have had my interest in historical traces peaked, and I wouldn’t have learned from Amanda. Something I’ve noticed in my observations of the First Nations cultures is the great amount of value they place in the passing-down of knowledge and tradition. Amanda (an indigenous girl herself) is more aware of her culture’s traditions than any non-indigenous person her age that I’ve met. I myself know close to nothing in comparison about my own ancestral history, but a new determination to dig for it has been placed in me. Like the moose bones and truths about First Nations, it will have to be intentionally sought after. In the same way, if you don’t go out seeking answers and truths for First Nations issues, you won’t find them. They are intentionally buried, and you won’t just stumble upon them by walking along the beaten path. The government and the public make sure of this by working hard to conceal the abominations to this nation and to our own unearned European dignity. If we sweep all of our unflattering history under the rug, we won’t ever need to address it– out of sight, out of mind. But the truth is that it did happen, and it’s time to move the rug and clean it up. The key is knowing where we come from and who we are, awareness, and education– whether it be self-education, curriculum-based education in school, or educating the public on corrected misconceptions of indigenous issues and the people themselves.

On another note: although today I ate moose meat for the first time- heck, I even held the very core of the animal’s physical body in my hands- I still have yet to see a living, breathing moose. I’ve made it one of my goals on this trip to spot at least one of these (increasingly likely to be mythical) creatures, which has proven to be a challenge. Wish me luck.