Reflections on the Medicine Wheel Ceremony at VanDusen on the 2022 Summer solstice (June 21st)
The medicine wheel (also called the Sun Dance Circle or Sacred Hoop) is an ancient and sacred symbol widely practised by first nations people in North America. It represents balanced and peaceful relationships between humans and non-humans, holding rich meanings in the four cardinal directions, stages of human life, seasons, animals and plants for healing and harmonious well-being. When I heard about this ceremony of celebrating solstice at VanDusen, I was excited to learn and experience such a rich spiritual ceremony and embedded teachings in person.
After taking time to cleanse our bodies and minds with the smoke of burning sage, the ceremony began with singing and drumming. Elder Phil L’Hirondelle, who led the ceremony, invited us to close our eyes and think for a moment about the creatures, four-legged, two-legged, plants, food and rocks that surround us.
Sitting around the circle side by side with whom I had just met along the big rim of the medicine wheel, we together listened to prayers and oral teachings of the medicine wheel.
Each colourful flag represents the cardinal directions, seasons in nature, stages and aspects of human life. Although there is a difference between region and tribe, medicine wheels correspond to such meanings below.
Yellow South / Mind / Spring / Age of 0-25 / Mouse
Black West / Emotion / Summer / Age of 25-50 / Bear
White North / Spirit / Fall / Age of 50-75 / Buffalo
Red East / Body / Winter / Age of 75-100 / Eagle
Seasons of the year and stages of life
Listening to the rich meanings of each quadrant of the wheel, I was able to learn the cyclical perspective of our lived experience, our time experience as humans. Based on one of the elders’ teaching, thinking through the seasons of human life gives us a sense of perspective that what you will get by fall and winter time depends on what you planted in spring, in the earlier stage of your life.
I came to understand what this wheel asks us to do is the connection with our past, present, and future selves, the spiritual world and the earth concerning holistic health. Co-relationships of body, mind, emotion and strengths of other beings taught me the importance of harmony and cycles of living that are removed in quantified, measured, instant scales of time.
As the important part of the medicine wheel ceremony, participants were asked to bring a stone to infuse their prayers and leave it in the centre of the wheel, on the earth. At each turn, a group of four people stood in each of the four directions and introduced themselves with their ancestry roots. Hearing precious and sometimes heartbreaking stories and prayers from different ages, life experiences, and ethnic groups was a powerful and intimate gathering I had never experienced.
We ended the ceremony, again standing closely in cardinal directions representing each of our age groups who I had just shared intimate two hours with. There was so much value and depth in these native teachings that left me feeling of gratitude and appreciation. The gifts that were given were; the harmony that comes from connectedness, healing from deep listening and seeing a full circle of life stages among each other. If this framework of worldview was practiced at schools and workplaces, what would happen?
+ The medicine wheel graphic
+ 오방색 O-bang-saek (Five elements of colours) graphic: The traditional Korean colour spectrum
+ Combined graphic (because they are way too similar)
How has our relationship with nature changed over time, and what constraints our ecological relationship with nature in modern society?
I was participating in adult education programs at VanDusen botanical garden last summer. One of the programs was the Natural Heritage Guided Walk by the indigenous initiatives coordinator. He told us story after story about relationships between indigenous people and plants while we were walking around the Canadian heritage garden at VanDusen.
Pondering about the relationship between time and ecological everyday living, I noticed the patterns in my studio projects that have been helping me generate thinking forward. Through studio exploration, I was visualizing and materializing my findings of the gap between modernized, urbanized living conditions and traditional ways of living where people were more directly connected to natural surroundings.
After spending the summer digging deep into my curiosity, I started to imagine what I think a sustainable living society might take. Wanting to grasp and spotlight the differences between contemporary modern living and indigenous knowledge-based living, the modest plan that I devised was to talk to my dad about his everyday living in the past, growing up in a rural mountain town in South Korea during the 60s and 70s.
I asked my dad a series of questions based on my curiosity about his living condition in the past, such as 1. Where does his plant knowledge come from? 2. What plants does he still remember how to distinguish? 3. After he moved out of the rural mountain town and started working in the city, did he still go to the mountains for foraging? And when did he stop going? 4. Does he miss foraging in the mountain? 5. How long would it take for a beginner to learn all this? 6. Does he have any specific mundane memories from the everyday living of his childhood? 7. What were the main everyday activities that he had to do in each season? …
Talking to my dad as a project
My dad has an enormous literacy of edible, medicinal plants that I’m envious of. But I should be careful with the word “envy” since it wasn’t really his choice and desire to learn. Thanks to his place-based knowledge from his upbringing environment, I also grew up eating fresh herbs and roots he foraged from the mountains.
Pondering my projects around pluralizing and materializing perceptions of time, I started thinking about what would happen once my dad passes away. When my dad’s generation ends, what will happen to their knowledge that could only be learned during the time and environment they lived in, which can’t be mimicked or easily traced anymore? How was my dad’s personal life influenced by the last sixty years of compressed capitalist development and politically initiated modernization of the rural South Korean economy? (새마을 운동, Saemaul Undong) In 2022, can we still practice living the way my dad once lived, obtaining slow and observational place-based knowledge and having rich livelihood interaction with nature?
It didn’t take long to realize the assumption that I had about his early life after our first call. I assumed he gained his plant knowledge to bring food to the table for his family, but it was mostly for economic aspects. From middle school, especially after my grandfather passed away, he started learning from village elders and other older kids about mountain plants that were valuable to sell. Hunting animals and foraging edible medicinal plants were the only source of promised income so that he could buy daily necessities for his school and the household. Meanwhile, I was raised in an urban apartment for most of my life, and I never had to go to mountains or other natural surroundings to seek food. My direct dependence on nature to sustain living is diminished, almost never even existed, and my relationship with nature is more centred on experience, beauty, and my mental & physical well-being.
To live in harmony with nature with sustainability in mind, I feel the need to return to the traditional way of living, just like how our grandparents used to live before the global level of industrialization and modernization, somehow replacing my modern beliefs and desires. But this feels unrealistic and unaffordable to many of our generation, physically and mentally detached from day-to-day interaction with nature.
More than half of modern humans now live in urban areas, and the number is expected to grow faster. People have to move to cities to afford their living and seek better opportunities for jobs and education to improve their lives according to their goals and dreams of what life they want to cultivate. And this environment and its commonality across the globe make it seem unobtainable to promote the idea that individuals can attempt to live sustainably in this modern speed and context of life.
What values, cultures, movements and relationships would be required so that everyday living can be considerate of our individual ecological impacts? It’s challenging to imagine living independently and disconnected from any urban, industrialized infrastructures and products, such as the type of place we live, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear. Ironically, city dwellers are becoming more individual, independent and disconnected from other neighbours, citizens and non-human beings that we are surrounded by.
By talking to my dad, I attempted to grasp what it is that we lost in our relationship with nature and what has happened to us over time to result in our current relationship with nature of exploiting and extracting resources without being responsible for the total cost. And what I have landed on is our activities to sustain our own lives depend on artifacts that (we think) we need as modern humans. And obtaining the life-sustaining artifacts is not directly dependent on me, or the place I live anymore. It depends on the economic outcomes of my everyday actions so that I can afford those things that were made by somebody else’s time and labour from somewhere remote from where I am. We no longer have to spend time and effort to obtain this slow, observational, multi-generational literacy of reading natural surroundings for food, medicine, and the warmth of the house. My dad’s direct dependency on mountains, although it was largely economic-driven, seemed to offer him a way of living with nature beyond beauty or disgust and fear from being so remote from nature.
I sense that the next step of this project is to either create 1. methods to travel time through memories of our family elders, or 2. visualize my dad’s day-to-day life to communicate and evoke other people to contemplate how their current way of living is not the only way to exist in the world. I have a gut feeling that it has to scale much bigger than the conversation between me and my dad.
Backcountry Camping along the traditional territories of the Tla’amin, Klahoose, shíshálh, and Skwxwú7mesh nations (Sunshine Coast): three sunrises, three moonrises
This project was one of the most intriguing projects I planned to do this summer. I wanted to relocate from the urban environment and its quantified structure of time to cyclical time in nature to compare my relationship with time in opposite environments.
Day 1-1. Sometime after I woke up, most likely morning
We spent a night at Crowston Lake. Today is the first day I’ll go on “the quantified time detox.” I woke up to the sound of the raindrops on our tent. What a luxurious way of starting my day, despite minor backaches. Last night before falling asleep, I was talking to my partner about how backcountry camping feels like the closest experience of being a hunter & gatherer in modern-day living, although the objects I rely on to survive are heavily artificial and industrialized. Why am I longing for camping? What does it mean to crave this experience? And how much are we willing to be in discomfort? How much are we willing to spend not to lose comfort and convenience during camping? Throughout this experiment, I’m going to pay attention to my relationship with time while being away from civilization. I hope I’m able to capture some thoughts.
Day 1-2. Sometime during the day
It feels weird not knowing the time. I don’t have a point in time to reference back. So It’s hard to tell how long I’ve been drinking coffee and giggling with my partner. It’s not that I want to know, or I have to know these things. But the fact that I don’t know what time I woke up, what time I should eat lunch, or how long it will take to drive back to town makes me realize how freeing it feels to not structure my mundane activities in the measured and numerical notion of time.
Day 1-3. Sometime during the late afternoon or evening
We made it to the campsite on the North Thormanby island beach campsite. Unfortunately, I know the approximate time because we had to catch a water taxi by 4 pm. (It sounds more like a water bus or train than a water taxi) And I accidentally looked at the quantified clock time from playing music on my phone and checking urgent emails to schedule meetings next week. We are going to camp here for the next two to three days. It seems like a perfect place to lose track of time and observe other things that could indicate time, such as this tide coming in and out right in front of the campsite. Freshly chopped cedar tree for fire smells so fragrant.
Day 2. Sometime in the morning
I woke up listening to the birds singing. I wanted to see how close they were to the tent because they sounded loud. Today I will attempt not to look at the time at all, probably my phone in general. My partner told me where north, south, east, and west are from the campsite. The sun is still around the east side of the beach in front of us, so it must be still quite early in the morning.
Day 3.Sometime in the morning
I woke up feeling refreshed since I went to bed quite early last night, although I don’t know how early it was. It started raining shortly after the sun went down. So we had to come inside the tent, and I must’ve fallen asleep quickly. Last night, I was laughing at myself about how long I could stare at the water, geese, clouds, and other beings surrounding me without getting bored during this camping. It might be because I feel comfortable doing nothing. In the urban environment, juggling work and study, clock time structures my day because I tell myself I need to get x amount of things done within a day, do this at 10 am, do that at 7 pm… I also need to coordinate my schedule with others frequently. But out here, things I need to do is cooking, collecting drifted wood for fires, and going for a walk before the tide comes back. They aren’t constrained by quantified time. Activities are connected to nature’s time, unlike the city time. I’ve been thinking about this idiom in Korean; “The sun is already in the middle of the sky.” This saying is usually used to tell someone that it’s already mid-day and they better wake up. This is how I guess time here on the island, looking at the sun’s location in the sky.
2. Tracking the sun path to tell time
After spending hours observing the sky, I remembered the cardinal points around the campsite would help me tell time depending on where the sun was located in the sky. Since I wasn’t entirely sure about the island’s geographic location, looking at the sun path also helped me understand the space I am in.
Dean Buonomano, in his book about the neuroscience and physics of time, talks about the early importance of astronomy to tell time prospectively, particularly the sun and the moon, as he describes “the two most prominent bodies in the sky.” To our ancestors, tracking time meant fundamentally calendric to predict the seasons and read patterns of potential prey for survival.
For most of my life, I lived in a city apartment surrounded by industrialized urban surroundings. Looking at the sky, guessing what time of the day it is feels foreign and almost silly when it was the primary way of keeping time across the culture.
3. Reading deep time: retrospective time in geology
North Thormanby island is surrounded by big light colour cliffs. I had to grab a chance to walk around the island to look closer when the tide was low.
My partner is a geologist, and sometimes I learn different time scales from his ability to read deep time in rocks and landscapes. Obtaining a glimpse of geological knowledge makes me look at the world through a different lens, even though it’s temporary. And this experience teaches me that I encounter things that hold an enormous time scale every day. How long would it have taken for pebbles to form around the construction site next to the campus?
When I got closer to the cliffs, I saw they are made of fine particles. And with my partner’s support, I came to understand these fine particle deposition cliffs around the island (also generally around the Vancouver area) tell so many stories of the past.
These fine sediments from the cliffs show that it wasn’t a high enough energy environment to cause turbulence when accumulating. And only a fairly flat water environment like a lake lets fine sediments come out of the water, for instance, mud and silt. And the sediment settles down to the bottom of the lake and stacks up on itself. However, we see these cliffs right by the ocean today, and for this area to be a lake, water levels would have been about 100 meters lower than they are currently. So the cliffs show the accumulation would have been caused during the last ice age when the glaciers were around, which helps us speculate they are between 10 to 14,000 years old sediments.
So the particular deposit that the cliffs are made of is called glaciolacustrine (glacier lake) and glaciofluvial (glacier river) sediments. And depending on which sediment is on top, you can speculate the glacier movements, whether it was retreating or advancing. For example, as the front part of a glacier melts, it forms a lake which creates glaciolacustrine sediments. And the lake eventually drains into a river, creating glaciofluvial sediments. So if you imagine a landscape with a glacier, lake and river like the picture above, as the glacier pulls back, lake sediments at the front of the glacier will be covered by river sediments because the entire system retreats. And this deposition of river sediments on top of lake sediments was what my partner was able to observe.
Also, when the glaciers come through, the weight of the ice squishes the rocks underneath it. Huge massive ice acts like a big bulldozer and will scrape and crush rocks while pressing and squeezing them with their weight. And we can see the layers on the cliffs to this date since they were preserved after deposition instead of getting destroyed by later glaciations.
Through a few days of backcountry camping without using quantified clock time, I got to experience different perceptions of time that was always around me but had never been paid attention to. The disconnection from civilization helped me stay in tune with the natural surroundings and allowed me to see different time frames beyond human lifetimes. I find something attractive about creating visual translation to capture imperceivable knowledge of time.
Seed dispersal timing and agents of 15 native trees in BC
I was first introduced to Natalie Jeremijenko’s Phenological clock work by my supervisor last year. Natalie is an environmental artist and engineer. She, Jake Richardson and Blacki Migliozzi created a beautiful data visualization tool that displays local flora and fauna timings on a Jan through December clock face. These seasonal events captured on the clock show connections and dependencies of flowers, insects, butterflies, bees, birds and trees in the perpetuating annual cycle from the innermost to the outermost rings. My supervisor and I wanted to bring this beautiful work back to life at Emily Carr so that everyone can collectively record numerous ecosystems that invisibly surround us.
While discussing the logistics and challenges of the work, I wanted to make an analogue example of the phenological clock to understand the design and the process of rebuilding this platform. I began to desk-research seed dispersal timings for 15 different native trees.
Data visualization and infographic
Attempting to create a native tree’s seed dispersal clock based on other researchers’ work, I wanted to understand what it means to put this work out in the world again, imagine what it can do, and how I’d visualize and communicate this data example.
Since I decided to continue my study after industry experience, I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility of my role outside the commercial realm. Graphic design is one of the most influential and strongest communication tools to disseminate information and diverse messages. After practicing this daily at work, I almost automatically use relevant skills to make the information digestible and “aesthetic.” However, thinking about the role of graphic design in sustainable everyday living, environmental conservation, and consumerism, I sometimes couldn’t help but feel skeptical and inadequate about my skills and strengths. Especially interacting with people making practical, social, and direct changes in people’s relationships with nature made me question whether the urgent work we collectively need to do as humans even needs graphic designers. A series of questions and doubts arising from reflecting on my practice and others’ help me ponder other ways I could expand my work. Could displaying, showcasing, and materializing significant but invisible time through ecological perspectives support and empower individuals’ daily decision-making with sustainability in mind?
While researching information to collect seed dispersal timings for the clock, I was slowly able to grasp some trees’ common reproductive features and seasonal cycles that I was unaware of. I also realized how each seed forms differently to be carried away by humans and non-humans and how accessible and open the related knowledge is through government and citizen-led science websites.
While desk-researching reproduction features and timings of 15 native trees in BC, I could recognize some of the seeds from the pictures. I was living in a house with a patio last fall. After rainy, windy days, little seeds often covered house entrances and the shoe rack. (I think they were Paper Birch tree seeds) I was curious about what they were but never knew that they were tree seeds carried by wind, rain and sometimes my housemates. After gaining this little amount of knowledge, I noticed I look at the ground more when I walk, trying to find seeds that I might recognize and see whether I can find the mothers that produced the seeds. I found myself interacting with city trees more consciously just because now I know some of their names, leaves, and seeds.
How can I visualize and communicate this experience with trees beyond the data? What do I want the audience to experience while looking at this information?
Stitching Tree’s Unseen Coworkers
After designing the clock, I printed it on a transparent film to play with different visual elements to add on top or behind. I was exploring possibilities of adding actual leaves and seeds I gathered walking around, but what I learned from this research made me consider unrecognized seed dispersal alleys should be part of the outcome. Therefore, I decided to stitch the icons of wind, water, human, bird, insects and four-legged animals on it.
Reflection on attempting to build a past phenological clock
1. What do this knowledge, the clock, and the pursuit of it, change or offer us?
Reforming and reflecting the modern relationship with nature
More than half of modern humans now live in urban areas, and the number is expected to grow more and faster. It’s hard to imagine living independently and disconnected from any urban, industrialized infrastructures and products, such as the type of place we live, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear. In contrast, city dwellers are becoming more independent and disconnected from neighbours, citizens and non-human beings. Time is a great frame that everyone can relate to, one thing that every finite living being experiences biologically. Knowing and comparing this shared notion of time and our limited human time on Earth gives us a pair of glasses that we can see the world through ecological prescriptions.
I have been thinking about our current relationship with nature in the summer semester. In the past, our relationship with nature was more than leisure activities to get away from city living and extracting resources without the responsibility of the consequences. Once upon a time, nature was feared, worshiped and respected sacredly. Growing up in a developing country like Korea, where nature had to become meaningless resources without economic purposes quickly, I worry about a future where most of the world is urbanized, altered and interrupted by humans to exist simply. People move to cities for a job, education, and other opportunities they desire to pursue, and this circumstance makes it difficult to answer what sustainable living means. With the knowledge I gained from collecting phenology data from citizen science apps and research papers, I began to pay more attention to my day-to-day environment and be curious about what other beings surround me with. Researching different plant timings and life cycles, I also expose myself to learning about the food and medicine nature offers to sustain us. It also relates to understanding the relationship between invasive species and native ecosystems in danger and keystone species that will help prevent extinctions. Working on this project makes me wonder what and how the phenological clock and its communication design can reveal to the public, who might haven’t been able to expose themselves to the complexity of our relationship with nature due to numerous social, cultural, political, economic and other matrices that shape us.
2. What people and ideas must be brought together to attempt to build one? Do the way I pursue it and the questions I ask change the nature of the clock?
If we were to build one dense clock to show the past phenology, we would need biologists, botanists, historians, citizens, elders, and numerous stories from people’s lives. The way I’m pursuing the clock through interconnected relationships makes me question, “what will this clock and the information it holds do to the public?” Because of this question, I sometimes feel a little lost in imagining what visualization method best represents different relationships and stories between people and species.
I struggle with finding the time to talk to my friends and family in Korea due to the time difference. I didn’t think much about how strange it is to have 16-17 hours difference between Korea and Vancouver when it only took 10 hours on a direct flight to get here. I don’t love being on my phone either, so sometimes it makes me feel like I’m not doing enough to maintain the relationships. But the real problem is the tiniest window of time I have that I can reach out to my friends and family; I have to be at home, not busy working, and it has to be the same for my friends and family. Besides, my friends are all over the world. (Mainly in Korea, but also in Australia, the UK, Germany, Mexico, Belgium, Berlin and even South Africa) There was an uncomfortable feeling rising about all these mathematic time differences. There was something about GMT that I needed to investigate myself.
The history of GMT
“In the second half of the nineteenth century, the world was rapidly becoming more interconnected. Markets for goods, capital, and labor; migration, imperialism, and colonialism; and internationalist movements reaching beyond the nation-state were different dimensions of globalization. A new infrastructure of railways, steamships, and telegraphs underpinned these cross-border movements.”Whose Time Is It? The Pluralization of Time and the Global Condition, 1870s—1940s (Ogle, 2013, p. 1380)
“Many people wished also to achieve a national time (in practice as well as in law), and even a world time. After the time-zone recommendations made by the Canadian engineer Sir Sandford Fleming were accepted by the Prime Meridian Conference of 1884 (along with Greenwich as the zero meridian), railway companies around the world began to move in the direction of coordinating their timetables with the new time zones in mind.” Clock Synchrony, Time Distribution and Electrical Timekeeping in Britain 1880-1925 (Gay, 2003, p. 126)
According to the brief research around GMT, there was a need rising to synchronize, standardize and unify time globally by the late 1800s, in order to communicate information around railways and telegraphs.
After 20 days of discussing and voting on where should be the centre of the meridian passing, the Loyal Observatory in London, located in a little outskirts town called Greenwich, became the initial meridian for longitude and a way to measure and calculate clock time in a unified form. Just like this, the country with the most powerful navy force and exploration knowledge officially became the centre of the world.
It is almost impossible to imagine how else to think and experience time outside the globally unified time structure decided in Washington D.C. 137 years ago. This meridian line is the artificial result of imperial, colonial, political and economic activities by powerful nations. It still governs the timezone, the longitude and the map, and the perspective of the entire world. To visualize this unknown story of GMT, I started cross-stitching a zig-zag line along the meridian line.
Visualizing time differences
Once I finished stitching the zig-zag line, I began materializing the time difference information between me, my friends and my family.
For the ones that have more than 12 hours difference between Vancouver, such as Korea and Australia, I stitched alternate straight lines with red thread.
I stitched stretched zig-zag lines with blue thread for my friends in Europe and South Africa, which have an average of 8-9 hours difference. The least complicated straight green lines show the range of places which have a 1-3 hours time difference from Vancouver.
After slowly processing and visualizing the time difference data, the idea of GMT became more explicit in my head. Cold, logical, intellectual way of seeing the world and its time got exposed through the stitched lines on the map.
International dateline has another unexpected story plot in the time synchronization history. This 180° line that determines whether each nation will be 12 hours ahead of GMT or 12 hours behind has been changing over the years based on colonization and trading relations.
For example, if you look at the islands between the top of the international dateline, they are geographically not that far from each other. But because some of them belong to Russia, they will be in the Russian timezone which is 12 hours ahead of the British timezone. But islands that are in American territory will be aligned with the American timezone, which is 12 hours behind Greenwich loyal observatory.
The international line gets more complicated with numerous pacific islands around New Zealand and Australia; Over the years, each nation developed a different economic dependency and relations with other regional countries. So this artificial international dateline has been changing little by little and sometimes the line is shown differently depending on which map you look at.
Ever since I started thinking about what design can do at Emily Carr, this quote I read somewhere when learning about early feminism movements got stuck in my head; The personal is political. My personal struggles and curiosity about “why is it so difficult to find a window of time to talk to my friends and family?” led me to this tangled, unknown, but important historical shapes of our relationship with time.
How are we shaping our personal decisions in our lives every day? Are they based on your personal preference and values as an individual? If not, why? What are the root cause and invisible forces driving this world’s unsustainability? If I all agree to slow down, what conversations have to start happening?
Observing other-than-humans in Vancouver #1. Daddy longlegs spiders
This project started from my curiosity about other-than-human rhythms and cycles of time that are no longer being paid attention to and don’t matter in this modern world. I grew up in Korea speaking the language which has numerous idioms and proverbs of ecological wisdom, especially to guess the climate and weather for farming; “if swallows fly low, it rains.”, “If nests of magpies are built low, typhoons will occur frequently.”, “When the starlight shakes, it’s a sign of a strong wind.” When thinking about my mother tongue, I sense a piece of strong evidence that my ancestors read complicated cycles of nature to thrive within nature. My ancestors believed we can communicate with and learn from nature if we know how to listen. And I think it’s similar in a lot of other cultures too.
My dad has an enormous amount of ecological knowledge that I’m envious of. But I shouldn’t use the word envy since it wasn’t really his choice to learn. He was born in 1961, 8 years after the Korean war. He was raised in a rural mountainous town in Korea, and it was his obligation to be responsible for what to bring to the table each day. Thanks to the ecological knowledge that shaped my dad’s childhood, I also grew up eating fresh herbs and roots he foraged from his treasure house, mountains. Pondering my projects around plural perceptions of time, I started thinking about what will happen once my dad passes away. When my dad’s generation time ends, what will happen to their knowledge that was only could be learned during the era they lived, which can’t be mimicked anymore? In Vancouver, 2022, can we still practice living the way my dad once lived, having rich conversations with nature? Can I still speak the language my ancestors used to listen to what nature has to say?
Observation and record as a method
I wanted to go to a specific park or lake frequently to observe what is happening in the non-human world every day, to be able to have a peek at their perceptions of time through my limited human sense of time. However, due to a recent swamp of deliverables, I spent a lot of time in my room, and therefore, the spiders in the corner of my ceiling became my first non-human to observe.
1. 2 Weeks time journal of the spiders on my ceiling
From March 15 to 30
Whenever I observed them from March 15th to 30th, I recorded where they were and how they moved. Squares are the sketch of my ceiling, X is the mark for the spiders, and blue messages are my comments.
From observation day three till day 10, they didn’t move for a week; more accurately, I didn’t see them moving for a week. When I finally saw them moving slightly, I was excited and somehow relieved because I started making assumptions about why they weren’t moving; Are they dead? Are they dormant? Maybe they are nocturnal?
Observing becomes caring
Going into this explorative project, I hoped to understand their day-to-day lives and may be able to get a sense of time patterns. However, now I realize in-door spiders probably don’t need to be as active as the ones in nature and instead, I developed a personal (even tho it is very one directional) relationship with them. One week of unexpected inactiveness of spiders generated questions and created a space of curiosity and care due to the lack of intellectual knowledge that arachnologists would have; why do they live in my room? what do they eat? (I don’t think there’s much to eat here) How long do they live? And my questions started becoming a little more serious; what is their ecological role? what if they are the last spiders in Canada? How would it make me feel?
With the series of questions I developed in mind, I started researching cellar spiders and spiders in general to understand who they really are and whether some of my assumptions are true. (Ex. when I thought they were dead because they didn’t move for a week, I took a closer look and saw leftover spider legs on the web. Do they also eat other spiders and even the same species?-and the research answer is yes.)
Cellar spiders can live for about two years, and it takes one full year to reach their full maturity. And female cellar spiders produce about three eggs sacs over a lifetime, and each egg sac contains approximately 10-60 eggs.
According to The Conference Board of Canada, the average human life expectancy is 82 years in Canada. How many generations would cellar spiders repeat while we live 82 years on this planet? If I were born on the same date with a spiderling, I would die with the 41st one. What if our life expectancy was as short as theirs? Would it affect the way we live now? How would they experience time while we live the linear Euro-centric perception of time, past, present, future? Over 41 generations during 82 sun cycles around the Earth, would they be adapting to upcoming climate change and the plastic planet? Can I understand what nature is telling us as my ancestors could in the past?
1. Avoid observing indoor non-humans.
“I want to observe urban non-humans I bump into everyday in Vancouver. Through observation, I hope to understand their day-to-day lives, life spans, and interesting features in a relationship with modern human time to bring their ecological roles visibly and hope to discover their hidden wisdom for us to learn.”
This was my intention for this project other-than-humans time in Vancouver trying to grasp their perceptions of time. From the spider time project, I learned I should avoid indoor non-humans since they live in artificial human habitats. If I were observing outdoor cellar spiders, I would’ve been able to pick up more patterns and rhythms.
2. Observing became caring-building a relationship.
I started feeling attached to the spiders in my room that I only left alone because I couldn’t be bothered dealing with them. However, observing the same spiders for 15 days with the intention to understand their daily lives & patterns changed my attitude. Learning and discovering fascinating facts about them I now understand and respect their ecological role on Earth and feel very attached to spiders.
Spiders used to be one of the creepy insects I’d scream to my mom or dad to ask to catch. Now I see what they have that humans don’t have, how temporary they live compared to ourselves and how they are essential and complicated beings as a predator and prey to a lot of territorial ecosystems. Embodying this experience and seeing other peoples’ perceptions change, I also see a value in learning and sharing the knowledge about unfavoured, not appreciated non-humans that are commonly seen in urban environments, such as rats and silverfish.
3. plural versions of time
I visited Mon’s apartment the other day to watch crows commuting in her building. Organizing what time to meet was a hilarious experience since none of us didn’t know what time they would head back to their nests. Mon told me that as the sunset gets later, their commuting time has been getting later as well. (Aren’t these already fascinating factors to continue this project?) As she recommended, I arrived at her place around 530pm and we stayed on the rooftop until 730pm. Our attempt to watch crows commute didn’t work out that day, but it was an eye-opening experience imagining the speculative space of measuring time through different perspectives.
I want to continue observing other non-humans in Vancouver, but I’m wondering if there is a way to do it together with others. As my next observation, my candidates are crows, bees, geese and maybe cedar trees…
“Live in each season as it passes—breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, & resign yourself to the influence of each.” Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 23 August 1853
Starting my first studio project regarding my research question with the Korean lunisolar calendar generated much self-awareness. The most significant lesson was learned by realizing that being in contact with nature meant so much to my ancestors. As part of the multispecies seasonal cycles, humans had to notice changes in wind, trees, air and earth and translate them to live within nature instead of with nature. I became aware that although I am far away from the land I was raised in, I now stand in a different land that I need to learn and understand. Speaking of land, I have been buying and eating almost the same produce since I was in Korea after moving to a different continent across the Pacific ocean. I already have lists of meals that I cook in rotation; my main focus was mostly on what ingredients I can find here. In fact, since I could get a multitude of spices and a wide variety of rice and tropical fruit anytime, I didn’t need to adjust my habitual cooking. There was no need to learn new recipes and locally and seasonally grown fruits and vegetables. To continue my journey of experiencing different times for sustainable living, I decided to make a calendar for in-season fruit and vegetables in South West British Columbia.
How should I make it?
I knew I wanted to make a calendar that I can share the design with other people but I wasn’t sure about what method and medium to use. I didn’t want the information to be just printed on flat paper by a machine, looking nice on the wall but not being used.
As a first step, I started gathering information about seasonal vegetables from online resources like 👩🌾 BC Farmers Market,Buy BC,andFarm Folk City Folk. The information was already accessible to the public, however, the way the data was visualized appeared challenging to digest. I realize now this was the moment I started slipping into a conventional problem-solving-oriented graphic design approach. I noticed the information was represented overwhelmingly and confusingly so I impatiently started visualizing the calendar into something more consumable. What does it mean to design this calendar that already exists on multiple platforms? How can I create the calendar so that seasonal shopping and eating become easier? What will be the most effective way of achieving a a behavioural shift in my mundane grocery shopping which often becomes a burden?
What if it’s on my grocery bag?
I once bought way too many groceries from a supermarket chain and purchased their branded groceries bag. I don’t particularly like how corporate the bag looks with their well-designed brand identity, however, it is a handy size bag for heavy and bulky groceries. I started imagining a calendar that could be printed on groceries bags, not only mine but others so that people how are also interested in the idea can try to shop accordingly.
Before I explain the images above, I want to emphasize that I was under many time constraint obligations while working on this project. In the inescapable cycle of exchanging time and labour for money and achievements, I felt internally and externally obligated to show evidence of my progress. I rushed to wrap up my visual exploration to present the project to the class. I transferred my graph to a nicely polished mock-up image that I always depend on when I’m not happy with the outcome. I decided to spend another two weeks reflecting on my design process and the result by reminding myself why I had started this project. The main purpose was to motivate me, hopefully, others too, to eat more seasonally and locally and be more physically connected to the land I live in now. I began to realize I barely made myself remember any of the vegetable information while designing the layout more practical and less time-consuming to comprehend.
I visited farmers markets and organic local grocery shops which also serve seasonal food. For the first time during the project, I felt seasonal changes through eating freshly made nutritional meals, smelling flowers and vegetables, and drinking locally grown crisp apple cider. It wasn’t the most student-friendly priced experience, however, it granted me an opportunity to reconsider what other ways of exploring this mission are possible. The linear, rigid, and structured table chart didn’t contain the circularity of seasonal vegetables and each seasons’ inter-connectedness. The more I thought of the seasons and time, my body wanted to grab needles and threads again, further away from convenient and efficient design methods I am familiar with. I decided to change my method from screen to fabric, mouse to hand.
I bought secondhand scraps of fabrics which remind me of each season. Touching and cutting my winter sock that had a hole in it, feeling each of the stitched letters of vegetables with my fingers, I was able to slow down and immerse myself in what I was making. Other questions naturally began to appear: I’m not familiar with a lot of vegetables on this chart, how can I expand my recipes to practice seasonal eating? Are the vegetables I’m stitching actually from this part of the world? They are locally growable vegetables you can purchase seasonally, yet what other plants, roots and fungi have been used in indigenous cuisines?
By having a glimpse of seasonal living, and using my hands to embody the knowledge, I started to see what I wasn’t able to see through screens. When stitching the calendar, I intentionally chose thread colours for legibility. For instance, I chose the pink thread for vegetables that are widely available throughout summer, fall and winter, and the white thread for black winter fabric. While trying my best to prioritize legibility, letters that are stitched in the same colours still require more attention to interpret. Irregular spaces and text sizes make the diagram difficult to read as well. However, choosing a slow and unpolished making method to visualize data opened a different internal discussion around the practicality of my graphic design practice. Through these unified colours of hand stitched words, the vegetables reveal their possible relations between each of them to the potentiality of transforming one’s meal. By making people take more time to understand a design outcome, it allows both designer and design-consumer to slow down, and open a space for hidden dialogues. If information contains so much depth of knowledge, is it the right thing to make it easy to read? Does every graphic design language have to be clear, coherent and precise? The focal question is whether we can afford the time to understand this unevenly hand stitched seasonal vegetable calendar.
After gaining so much knowledge about the lunisolar calendar and seasonal customs, I was motivated to find my way to experience different perceptions of time in an urban environment. So I decided to write a time journal for a week to investigate my relationship with time.
How many times do I check the time during one day? When do I check the time, and why do I do so? And how does that make me feel?
I covered little corners of the screens on my laptop and my phone to bring this unconscious habit of checking the time to the conscious level. I knew it was going to be a challenging experiment since I’m in the middle of my semester and under a lot of obligations of attending classes and deliverables for my work. But at the same time, I was equally excited to see what I’ll come out of it and what this activity will teach me.
My week long time journal
On the first day of the investigation, I felt pretty lifted. Being conscious about checking the time naturally made me check the time less often, and consciously deciding not to check the time made me feel somehow I have more time in my hand.
I realized how much pressure I was under from the notion of time, and following urge to be productive and efficient all the time. After starting my masters, I’ve always felt like I need to micromanage my time and minimize any chance to “waste” time even when I don’t have anything to do urgently. As a result, I was constantly thinking about what I should be doing instead of what I wanted to do and be present with the moment.
After a couple of days into this experiment, I noticed how difficult it is to avoid looking at the time wherever I go. Microwave, oven, and screens at subway stations kept showing me what time it was. I was planning my everyday commute perfectly, so I didn’t “waste” my time on the street waiting for my bus and my train. When I felt hungry, I wanted to check the time to see whether it was an appropriate time to eat. When I went to bed, I checked the time to know whether I could sleep 6~8 hours which I heard as a proper amount of sleep. From the moment I woke up until I went to sleep, my whole day was structured by time, and I couldn’t separate myself from it.
Ironically, I also realized I was expecting to see how I use my limited time every day from this investigation to see whether there is any room to squeeze in more daily making practice for low-impact living.
Constantly feeling like I need to be productive made me consider what productivity means to me. Wouldn’t we be more “productive” when we don’t always think about productivity? And be more intentional about doing what we are doing and slow down the process?
Cross stitching to mark and visualize the time journal data
After documenting my relationship with time, I wanted to visualize the data I collected. Without knowing why I remembered I used to cross stitch a lot with my mom when I was young. I wanted to transfer the data and visualize it on a cross stitch fabric and place it on a second hand clock. So I went to Value Village (one of my favourite places in Canada now) and found this clock that seemed easy to disassemble.
I bought 7 different colours of threads to mark each day separately. I chose colours based on the traditional Korean colour spectrum, known as 오방색 Obangsaek (means five-orientation-colour). Obangsaek is the colour scheme of the five colours of white, black, blue, yellow and red. In Korean traditional arts and traditional textile patterns, the colours of Obangsaek represent five cardinal directions. Obangsaek theory is a combination of Five Elements and Five Colours theory and originated in China.
Blue: East, wood
Red: South, fire
Yellow: Centre, Earth
White: West, metal
Black: North, water
I started stitching on the fabric to mark the number of times that I checked the time each day. Each stitch is aligned with ordinary clock time divisions to show how many times I checked the time within each hour. (If I checked the time at 11:30 am, 11 pm I’d stitch twice on 11 clock line.)
I started my time journal on Wednesday so I began stitching with the red colour thread from the centre of the clock, blue for Thursday, yellow for Friday, and so on.
This project of self-investigation with time somehow made me travel back in time. I remembered how much I enjoyed cross stitching as a little kid. I stitched flowers, characters, numbers and many other things and gave them as gifts to my family. Last time when I cross stitched was probably back in my middle school. I don’t know when and why I stopped, but getting back to this practice after so many years brought a lot of nostalgia, and lost memories of my childhood.
When I was sharing this work in the studio class, we had interesting discussions around productivity as one of the major modern values that influence our day-to-day lives. Louise asked us a question: When was the last time that you forgot about the time?
To answer this question, the first thing that came up to my mind was camping. When I spend time in nature camping, I wake up when the sun rises and go to bed when the sun goes down. Far away from obligations and artificial surroundings, I put my phone on silent and try to live present moment as much as possible. I also lose the track of time when I’m really immersed in the way I’m spending my time, just like when I was cross stitching for this project. Things that I enjoy doing eliminates the notion of time in my head, and all the to-do-lists disappear…
These are the examples of the calendar that I’ve used my whole life growing up in Korea. We use the Gregorian calendar, but most holidays and traditional customs are based on the lunar calendar. This was pretty much all I knew, and I’ve never paid attention to why and how this works. Since my research inquiry is focused on exploring the relationship between the use of time and sustainable living, I decided to return to my root and dive deep into the usage of the lunar calendar and traditional Korean culture interacting with the natural environment.
Little did I know, our traditional calendar was actually a lunisolar calendar. The date of lunisolar calendars indicates both the Moon phase and the time of the solar year, which is the Sun’s position in the Earth’s sky. A solar term is a period of approximately fifteen days that takes the sun to travel along 15 degrees of its annual circuit around the zodiac. Thatwaswhy we had two dates marked in each month to indicate these seasonal divisions.
I also discovered the names and explanations of seasonal divisions are based on the climate of the Zhou dynasty, which is Huábei region (Northern part of China,) and Korea has been using the Gregorian calendar since 1896.
24 Seasonal Divisions
In the lunisolar calendar, spring starts in January and winter ends in December (You can compare the equivalent dates of the Gregorian calendar in the table chart). Each of the 24 seasonal divisions holds meanings that convey rich interaction with nature. As I mentioned briefly, these seasonal divisions are based in Huáběi region (Northern part of China) so the dates and meanings don’t exactly match with the climate in Korea. Translating the original meanings of the Chinese names and exploring how they’ve been used in Korean was quite an eye-opening experience. I realized adapting this calendar system into the Korean environment also influenced our language and created numerous idioms and proverbs.
Natural changes in climate were significant in traditional agricultural societies like Korea, which is why 24 seasons were utilized. Compared to the lunar calendar, using the position of the sun to divide the seasons allowed people to know the exact trend of climate. We have a saying called “철이 들다 chori deulda“ which means you are matured and grown up as an adult. I’ve been using this phrase in my entire life without comprehending that 철 chor is another term to call season and -이 들다 i deulda means being coloured, influenced. Back in the day, the true indication of being a grown-up person was being influenced by the seasons to understand the land and the cyclical flow of farming.
#6 Spring Seasons
I started collectingtraditional customsfor each seasonal division to understand how people interacted with the lunisolar calendar in the past. I also wanted to find a historical reference of the climate of seasons to get a better sense of the natural environment at that time.
입춘Ip-chun (Start of spring) Ip-chun is one of the seasonal divisions that it’s still commonly used and referenced in Korean culture up to this date. All I knew about Ip-chun was this is when the weather starts to warm up. Since it is the first season of the new year, one of the traditional customs that still happens on Ip-chun is writing good phrases on paper and attachting them on doors, wishing good luck to come.
우수 U-su (Rain water) U-su means that snow melts and becomes rain water, which indicates the cold winter has gone and the spring has come.
경칩Gyeong-chip (The awakening of hibernating insects) Gyeong-chip means that hibernating insects under the ground come out surprised by the sound of thunder and lightning. In Korea, due to the climate difference, it is known to be the time that frogs wake up from hibernation because people could start to hear them crying. People also believed eating frog eggs will keep them healthy. Drinking Mono maple tree sap is another traditional custom in the southern region of Korea during this season. People thought they could receive new energy of the year by drinking the first early spring sap that starts to rise in the trees.
춘분Chun-bun (Spring equinox) Chun-bun is when the Sun is exactly above the Equator and day and night are of equal length. This is the time the year’s farming officially begins. Farmers start to plant spring barley and collect wild leaves and herbs to eat.
청명 Cheong-myeong (Blue sky) Cheong-myeong is the season that means the sky gradually clears up. People start plowing fields and paddies to grow grains and vegetables easily. There are also many weather-related myths in various regions since it is an important time to plan farming.
곡우Go-gu (Spring rain makes 100 grains rich) By the time of Go-gu, the farming season begins in earnest by preparing rice seeds. There are various proverbs related to farming around Go-gu, such as “All grains wake up on Go-gu,” and “When it rains on Go-gu, there is a good harvest in the year.”
#6 Summer Seasons
입하Ip-ha (Start of summer) Ip-ha is the beginning of summer. This is the time when earthworms wriggle in the yard, oriental melon flowers begin to bloom, and the sprouts of rice seeds grow in full swing. People are in the midst of silkworming inside of the house, and busy pulling out weeds in fields and paddies.
소만 So-man (Everything grows and fills the world) So-man means that the sun is abundant and everything grows in full. Around So-man, people are busy preparing rice transplanting. This is the season when barley sprouts grow, and wild plants bloom, bear fruit.
망종Mang-jong (The right season to scatter grains) Mangjong means it is the right time to sow seeds of grain with beards like rice. Around the time of Mangjong, people harvest barley and plant rice in paddies.
하지 Ha-ji (The extreme of summer) Summer solstice Ha-ji means the extreme of summer since it is the day of summer solstice. The sun rises highest and the length of the day is the longest so the surface of the northern hemisphere receives the most heat from the sun. In Korea, this is when the monsoon season usually starts hence drought often continue until before and after Ha-ji. The central part of Korean agriculture is rice farming, so rain is what determines the success or failure of farming. Therefore if it doesn’t rain until the summer solstice passes, rain rituals were held and various indigenous methods were mobilized.
소서So-seo (Small heat) So-seo means small heat which connotates the summer heat begins around this time. Meanwhile it’s still the rainy season in Korea so humidity is still very high. Transplanted rice take root in the ground so people pull out weeds and look after the paddies.
대서 Dae-seo (Big heat)Dae-seo means big heat. The rainy season is over in Korea and the weather starts to get really hot around this time. There is an old proverb that says “Goat horns also melt because of the heat.” There is a custom that people visit valleys or mountains to drink alcohol and eat nutritious food to avoid the heat and stay energetic. Around Dae-seo, late July and early August, is still the peak of summer holiday seasons in Korea up to this date.
#6 Fall Seasons
입추Ip-chu (Start of autumn) Ip-chu means the beginning of autumn and it’s a time when rice is in full swing. Farmers hoped for continuous clear weather and they thought they can predict the success of the harvest based on the weather on this day. Cool winds begin to blow at night after Ip-chu so people start getting ready for autumn. In particular, radish and cabbage are planted around this time to prepare making Kimchi in November.
처서 Cheo-seo (Heat stops) Cheo-seo means the heat goes away and fresh autumn comes. After this season, the scorching sun softens and weeds no longer grow, so people mow grass in the rice paddies and ancestors’ graves. People used to dry damp clothes and books since the rainy season is over. The air starts to feel cool and fresh in the early morning and late night, so there is a proverb that goes “Mosquitoes’ mouths become crooked after Cheo-seo.” Just like it says, flies and mosquitoes start to disappear, and crickets begin to appear one by one due to the coolness of Cheo-seo.
백로Baek-ro (White dew) Baek-ro means white due since you start to see dew forming on leaves at night around this time. Rice should be ripened before Baek-ro at the latest because when winds become cold and frost begins to fall, it’ll affect the yield of rice. Therefore, especially around this time farmers carefully observe the way wind blows to predict the success of the harvest.
추분Chu-bun (Autumn equinox) Chu-bun is when the length of the day and night become the same again. People were aware of this day as a turning point of the season because after the autumn equinox the night gradually gets longer. Autumn equinox and spring equinox are both the same length of day and night, but when it comes to temperature, the autumn equinox is about 10 degrees higher. This is because the heat of summer still lingers.
한로Han-ro (Cold dew) Han-ro means cold dew since it’s the season the dew meets cold air and turns into frost as the air gradually cools down. The harvest must be completed before the temperature drops further, so rural areas are in full swing of harvesting. Around the time of Han-ro and Sang-gang, people also enjoy a loach soup called chu-eo-tang around this season, which translates to autumn fish soup.
상강Sang-gang (Frost falls) Sang-gang is the season when the temperature at night drops quite low in contrast to sunny autumn weather during the daytime. This is the late autumn season so colourful autumn leaves reach their peak and chrysanthemums are in full bloom. Sang-gang is also the end time of the harvest of the year, so people slowly start getting prepared for the winter.
#6 Winter Seasons
입동Ip-dong (Start of winter) Ip-dong means winter begins from this day. People cut rice straws and make them into porridge to feed cows since the grass dries up in winter. People also pull out radishes and cabbages from the field to make kimchi. It is said that the kimchi made around five days before and after Ip-dong tastes the best. However, kim-jang-chul (kimchi-making season) is now almost the end of November, perhaps due to climate change.
소설 So-seol (Small snow) So-seol means small snow since the first snow falls around this season. This is the time when proper cold begins so people used to rush making kimchi before So-seol.
대설 Dae-seol (Big snow) Dae-seol means big snow since it starts to snow heavily. We don’t necessarily have a lot of snowfall during this season due to the climate difference from China’s Huáběi region. People start fermenting soybeans to make Meju. Soybeans are boiled, shaped into squares, tied with rice straws and placed in a warm place so microorganisms that are beneficial to our body can grow. Meju makes fermented soybean paste, red chilli paste, and soy sauce which are key ingredients of many Korean dishes.
동지 Dong-ji (The extreme of winter) Winter solstice Dong-ji is winter solstice when the night is the longest and the day is the shortest. After Dong-ji, the day starts getting longer little by little so people thought the sun cheers up and used to call Dong-ji the little new year. I also learned that early Christianity commemorated the birth of Jesus by using the day of the Persian Mithra religion’s festival of sun worship, which is around winter solstice. The Saturnneria Festival of Saturn which is an agricultural god of the Roman people was held from December 21st to 31st, of which 25th was especially celebrated as the solar revival day after the winter solstice.
소한So-han (Small cold) So-han means small cold based on the weather in China but it’s actually the coldest time in Korea. Farmers are fully prepared for the freezing cold weather until the beginning of spring. In snowy regions of Korea, people stock up for firewood and food for about a month since it gets difficult to leave the house.
대한Dae-han (Big cold) Dae-han is the last season of the 24 lunisolar seasons, which translates to big cold. Like I mentioned above So-han is colder than Dae-han so people start preparing for spring by repairing houses and organizing house moving.
Learning about the Korean calendar that I’ve used my whole life gave me a lot of insight into the aboriginal knowledge in Korea, and its ecological sense of knowing. Paying attention to something that was always in my background helped me recognize how connected Korean people were with the land and other non-human beings in the past. It showed me there is so much dept in my language and culture that I’ve been unconsciously influenced by. It was also interesting how being far away from home allowed me this time and space to reflect on my life experience growing up in Korea. I told my parents about this project and my dad, who grew up farming in a rural area (he is still very connected to the land and natural environment around him), told me these seasonal divisions are still widely used to plan farming throughout the year. However, I’m living in an urban environment of Vancouver, Canada far away from the land I was raised. I don’t own a piece of land where I can practice this knowledge. Now, what are the options for me to experience different perceptions of time?
About four years ago, I started learning the environmental impact that a modern human individual causes. I got deeply engaged with low-impact lifestyles and started educating myself to reduce my waste in day-to-day life. I minimized using mass-produced products and started making my toothpaste, hair products, food. During this personal transition, especially after becoming a vegan, my friends and family also began to change their attitudes and practice sustainability on their level. Seeing the impacts I made on other people has motivated me to continue my sustainability journey. However, after moving to Canada for my master’s degree, I noticed how quickly my behaviour has changed. I was consuming things mindlessly. Due to the lack of time management and financial stability, my priority had to be changed. The convenience and efficiency of consumption became more “valuable” to me. This reflection on my personal experience instinctively birthed my research question: What can design do to help people engage with daily making practice rather than short-sighted quick consumption? How can we bring back the good old way of living, where we pay attention to surroundings and make things from scratch with natural materials around us, for individual pursuit of sustainability?
My research questions tie strongly around the relationship between modern capitalistic society and its perception of time. Time is quantified and measured as resources, just like money. The overflow of digital productivity tools shows our fear of wasting time. Increased obsession with efficiency and productivity constantly pressures us to not waste time. But is it such a bad thing to waste time? Are we wasting the Earth’s time by saving our time? Then what is the true meaning of a “waste” of time?
To identify a small project that begins this larger journey, I decided to make my own toiletry.
I tried to purchase the ingredients from a zerowaste store in Vancouver called The Soap Dispensary and Kitchen Staples on Main street. This store is Vancouver’s first dedicated refill shop, so you can bring your own containers to shop without packaging.
Xylitol is found in small amounts in many fruits and vegetables. Xylitol can starve the harmful bacteria in your mouth, reducing plaque buildup and tooth decay. This can help prevent dental cavities and inflammatory gum diseases. Therefore, it is also a common ingredient in sugar-free chewing gums, candies, mints, diabetes-friendly foods and oral-care products.
🥥 Benefits of Coconut Oil
Current research shows that coconutoil may help to decrease plaque buildup on your teeth and reduce inflammation to fight gum disease. In one pilot study, oil pulling with coconut oil for 30 days significantly decreased plaque buildup and signs of gingivitis in 60 participants with plaque-induced gum disease.
1-2. Mix Everything
Put all the ingredients into a bowl and mix everything. Coconut oil has a melting point of 78 ℉ (25.56 ℃). To stir everything thoroughly, pop the bowl in the microwave for 30 secs or put it into a bowl of hot water to melt.
1-3. Voilà! All-natural DIY Toothpaste
You can run it through hot water or microwave it for 30 seconds to soften and keep it in the fridge in summer to harden.
Boil the soap nuts & flaxseeds with water for 10 minutes, reduce heat and simmer for 20 more minutes.
🥜 Benefits of Soap Nuts
The shells of the soap nut contain a natural soap, called Saponin. When the nutshells absorb water, the saponin is released, which creates a soaping effect. Soap nuts are known to be antimicrobial which makes them an excellent alternative to chemical detergents. Soap nuts are also rich in Vitamin A and D. The nutrients in soap nuts provide strength to the roots of your hair which foster hair growth.
🌱 Benefits of Flaxseeds
Flaxseed creates a gelatine texture when it is boiled. This gel helps hair grow faster and longer by providing nourishment to the hair follicles. The presence of Vitamin E provides nutrition to the scalp and reduces free radical damage. Track your hair growth before and after using the natural shampoo to see the difference yourself!
You can mash the nuts with a potato masher to bring out the most saponin while they are simmering.
Once it is simmered for 20 minutes, check if the liquid is thickened up enough. You can also add extra water while boiling if the consistency is too thick.
2-3. Drain the mixture
Use a strainer to drain the liquid. Soap nuts can be reused up to 6 times, so I kept them in the freezer for the next use.
I squeezed more juice out of the strainer with a spoon and poured the shampoo into a jar. Once it cools down, add 10 drops of essential oil of your choice. I added Ylang Ylang to mine.
2-4. Store the shampoo jar in the fridge
Your all-natural DIY shampoo is ready to go! Store the jar in the fridge until use.
Safety Gears 👩🔬 Gloves, A Mask, Goggles (I used swimming goggles)
2 ½ hours to make 6 soaps with 2 different additives + 4~6 weeks to cure
3-2. 🦺 Safety Guide: Working With Lye
In order to make soap, oils must emulsify with lye, which begins the saponification process. During this process, it’s important to make safety a top priority. Sodium hydroxide lye is highly caustic and has the potential to burn the skin. Like driving a car, sodium hydroxide is safe when handled properly. But because lye has the potential to be extremely dangerous, it’s important to take every safety precaution.
ALWAYS wear goggles, gloves, masks, and protective clothing when handling lye.
NO short sleeved shirts, short pants, or sandals. Wrap yourself up to prevent any situation getting lye on your skin.
Once you have the correct amounts for your recipe, start melting the coconut oil. I put the coconut oil bowl into a bowl of hot water to melt but you can pop it in the microwave as well.
Whilst wearing safety gears, add the lye to the water in a heat safe Pyrex, or stainless steel or heavy duty plastic bowl. Remember, always add lye to water, never water to lye! Doing so can cause the lye to expand, or erupt, out of the container.
3-4. Wait till the temperature drops to 110℉
When the lye solution and coconut oil are at about 110℉ (43℃), we can slowly pour the lye onto the coconut oil, stir with a spatula, and start blending. It’s better to use a stick blender but I used a normal blender I have at home. You can also use a cream whipper to manually mix the oil and lye, it will just take more time and effort.
3-5. Add additives & Blend until the soap starts to trace
Blend the mixture with additives of your choice (I used ylang ylang essential oil) until it achieves “trace.” Trace is when the mixture leaves a trail when dripped, which means the soap has thickened and blended enough to form a stable emulsion.
3-6. Mould & Cure the soap
Once we’ve achieved trace, it’s time to mould! Pour the soap into the mould, let it rest for 24 hours before you unmould it. After removing soap from the mould, the soap needs to cure for four to six weeks. Soap should be stored in a cool, dry and well ventilated space for curing and during this time the water and lye used in the recipe evaporate.
One of the main reasons to cure homemade soaps is that when they are first made, they tend to be on the softer side. A soft soap will dissolve away more quickly as it’s used, meaning that your uncured soap won’t last as long as one that has been allowed to dry and harden.
The two dark soaps on the top left are based on coconut oil with dried chai tea leaves and ylang ylang oil, and the white soaps are without the tea leaves.
This is just a friendly reminder for people who are new to DIY zerowaste toiletry products: Don’t expect them to be the same as conventional items. Most of the ingredients are from nature, and there is a limit to resemble the chemical effects of factory-made toiletries.
For me, the main motivations for making my own zerowaste products are the value of sustainability, the benefits of natural ingredients, and how they make me feel. Using my handmade toiletries makes me feel self-cared, mindful in my mundane activities of washing myself. It’ll take time to get used to their natural textures, fragrances, and how they work, so explore different methods and experiment with various ingredients you want to try.