[WE Talk] Calla Rose Ostrander – Climate Change Activist on Grief, Regeneration, and Relationship

Calla Rose Ostrander

Climate Change Activist on Grief, Regeneration, and Relationship

On this episode:

  • How to hold the light and the dark in the movement to protect our earth
  • How honoring and respect for the world was cultivated in a Waldorf School
  • The balance between holding space for grief while still moving forward in responsible action
  • When led by truth and goodness, nothing can stand in one’s way
  • Relationship as the key factor for future sustainability

Episode Transcript:

Nita Davanzo: Hello and welcome to WE Talk, a podcast that explores the role of Waldorf education in helping children, parents and families thrive in an ever-changing world. WE Talk is brought to you by Shining Mountain Waldorf School and this is your host, Nita June Davanzo.

Nita Davanzo: Hello, dear listeners. Thank you so much for tuning in today. It’s a pleasure again here to be your host. Today on WE Talk I welcome Calla Rose Ostrander. Calla and I attended Shining Mountain together way back in the day. And since her time at Shining Mountain, Calla Rose has gone on to be an activist and organizer in the environmental movement. Calla brings together philanthropists, government leaders and business people to build new climate-beneficial social and economic structures. Currently, she’s working to scale the healthy soils movement from California to the western United States along with collaborators like Dr. Whendee Silver, John Wick of the Marin Carbon Project, and the philanthropist Jena King. Prior to this current, ever so important, work Calla Rose has worked directly in climate policy having co-authored the climate action plans for both the City and County of San Francisco as well as Aspen, Colorado.

While she was in San Francisco her worked helped support the adoption of 100% renewable energy by the city. Calla Rose’s work is formed by a background in political economy, ecological systems theory, and 12 years of her Waldorf education. She believes in the regenerative power of reciprocal exchange both in our relationship with the planet and with one another.

Welcome, Calla. Thank you so much for joining me on WE Talk today. It’s such a pleasure to have you here.

Calla Rose O.: Such a pleasure to be with you.

Nita Davanzo: So, Calla, along with being, of course, a Shining Mountain Waldorf School alum, you are an environmental activist and an organizer in the environmental movement. You noted that “you bring together philanthropists, government leaders and business people to build new climate-beneficial social and economic structures.” That is quite a monumental task, my friend. How do you begin to do this?

Calla Rose O.: Well, I’m pretty stubborn so that helps. And I’m also an optimist. That helps too. And I think it’s really my life’s dedication to this planet and to all the beings on it and our children. So it is fulfilling to me and it’s exciting to me. It feeds me. So I think that’s how I begin to do it. I also think that I have been blessed with a really unique background and education and life experiences that have led me to be able to plan for things over the long-term. And circumstances that have allowed me to play a long game, more like an infinite game. I think that’s really helpful too and when you’re looking at systemic change.

Nita Davanzo: So, Calla, how did you originally get started in this field? Have you always been interested in the environment? Were there any key moments from your time at Shining Mountain that you remember that you were like, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life?

Calla Rose O.: So I had the wonderful good fortune to be born to Barbara Rose who, in her life journey, really connected to the natural world and its role in supporting humans, so not really an indirect environmentalist but a direct lover of the planet. And my father, Arnie Ostrander who is a field geologist and spent much of his life outdoors in wild places with the Earth. So both of these people really taught me how to see and be in ways that it wasn’t about the environment or something external but just that this is the way the world was and this is how one could interact with it.

I also had the good fortune that they really saw that Waldorf School was a good fit for me because the education and experiences I got to have at Shining Mountain really helped to enhance those same things, that seeing of the world, that understanding of one’s place in it and one’s relation to everything from the seasons to plants and animals, different kingdoms. I always love Advent because of the celebration of all of the kingdoms of the planet: mineral, plant, animal and human, with the angelic realm guiding the way through the spiral, darkness into light.

So really was fortunate to have parents like that also to be exposed to a godmother and a godfather who worked in the scientific fields. My godmother was a restoration biologist and my godfather worked at NIST and NOA doing atmospheric physics. And then I also was … My mom would drop me off with Brigitte Mars, a long-time herbalist and naturalist in Boulder, and Brigitte taught me all about the plants in and around Boulder. One other person that had a lot of influence on my life came through Waldorf as well. Tap Tapley was a guide for a couple of our field trips on class trips and taught us about how to see how much sunlight you had left, how to start a fire, how to take care of wounds, so really outdoor and wilderness training that influenced me and stayed with me.

So I think the answer is, I’ve always been interested in this work and been connected to it. And I’ve also been really fortunate to be surrounded by adults who were experts in it and a school and a community that valued the environment. And that really put me on the track, got me where I am today.

Nita Davanzo: What were your immediate next steps after you graduated from Shining Mountain?

Calla Rose O.: I went to the University of Puget Sound. I knew that this was the work I wanted to do very clearly in about eighth grade. I had read a book called Natural Capitalism by Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawkens. And I went to the Rocky Mountain Institute where Amory works and said, you know, “I want to work for you.” And they just said, “Well, you’re a high school graduate, we accept people with PhDs. So you’re going to have to go to college.” So I went to the University of Puget Sound and I got a degree in International Political Economy with a focus on Environmental Policy. And I think that really helped further shape my ability to sort of see the systems that we live in and understand the levers of change so that when I came out of there I went directly to work for Rocky Mountain Institute and then the City and County of Aspen where I did the first climate action plan and on to San Francisco.

So I really did tailor my education after high school specifically for this work. And then went right to work as soon as I graduated.

Nita Davanzo: You have been in it full on for quite some time now. And you just mentioned, you know, working on climate change even, what, 15, 20 years ago now? Which in many regards is quite early. I think a lot of people didn’t even have that quite on their radar as something that was happening so much. It’s such buzzwords these days. Along with climate change, something that you’ve noted that you work on and are a part of is the healthy soils movement. Can you share with us a bit more about what the healthy soils movement is?

Calla Rose O.: Yeah, for sure. So healthy soils and my work in it is really related intimately to climate change. I worked for the City and County of San Francisco doing their climate action plan which involves a lot of different pieces, things like sourcing renewable energy, working with transportation agencies on bike lanes and sustainable ways to get around town, things like recycling and composting. And what I learned while I was doing that was really we’ve been looking at climate change like it’s a pollution problem. Like all this carbon is pollution and really our planet is a carbon-based planet.

Carbon cycles through our living systems. In fact, it’s sort of the currency of life. And I began to see this as I did the work more and more. I also, at the same time, was fortunate enough to get a phone call from a person who worked for this group called the Marin Carbon Project. And I tracked their work for about five years and really saw that they had done something significant. They had put money in to fund new science and that science had showed us something that we didn’t know before. And it showed us that the soil could be a sink for carbon. Previously we had just thought that carbon sinks would be like a forest. And let me back up here. A sink for carbon is a place where carbon comes back down from the atmosphere and integrates into either the oceans or the forests or now what we understand is the soil.

Our oceans are always balancing out the atmosphere. And they have been taking a lot of the excess carbon that we’ve put up there into them but that’s doing something harmful for the ocean. Carbon, when it’s in the ocean, creates carbonic acid. So it’s contributing to ocean acidification. It’s also contributing to ocean warming. So the oceans are kind of full so to speak. They can’t really take any more carbon so we’ve got to think about well if we’re trying to balance this out, trying to pull down carbon from the atmosphere, where’s it going to go? And previously the scientific community hadn’t really considered soils as a possible place for that carbon to go.

So the Marin Carbon Project was one of several groups in the past decade that contributed to a body of science showing that soils can actually be a sink for carbon and that we can build topsoil while we make that sink much faster than we thought. So my introduction then to the healthy soils movement was really via the Marin Carbon Project and the work that they had done in California.

Nita Davanzo: What can the average person do to positively support our planet’s health and wellbeing on a daily basis?

Calla Rose O.: Yeah, it’s such a great question. I really love it. I think the bigger thing that I would ask everybody to do is to think about getting to know what you’re looking at. We’ve for so long just relied on instructions or ideas like, “Go do this. That’s good.” “Go do that. That’s good.” “Don’t do that. That’s bad.” But really what we need to do to heal our place within the cycle of life is to establish a relationship with what’s around us. A relationship really begins when you begin to see something. You really need to observe it. And again, I think this goes back to something I learned at Waldorf School which is observation–as the beginning of understanding. And now what I understand even more is that observation is the beginning of a relationship. The more you can really pay attention and love that thing and get to know it, to understand it, to see it, the more you will be able to understand how you can support it.

I guess what I would ask people is, on a big scale think about learning about what you’re looking at, learning to look at the trees in your city and see if they’re healthy, learning to look at the plants in your garden and see how they’re doing, learning to look at the systems that surround you and see if they’re regenerative or degenerative, and not just calling them bad or good, but really develop a relationship with them because fundamentally we need to support living things on this planet. And life systems. Technologies are not going to fix it alone. I’m not anti-technology but we really need to be able to understand what life needs to thrive. So that’s kind of the big picture which is like getting to know the life around you. What does it need to thrive? It needs shelter. It needs food. It needs water. It needs care.
Then I think on a more basic basis, I always support composting. So I hope that everybody who is listening or thinking about what they can do at home, whether you’re in a city or on a farm, if you compost your food waste you are participating in giving back to the planet.

Nita Davanzo: So you talk about this observation and this building of a relationship with our world around us, which I just love. I, too, so relish those memories of my time at Shining Mountain where we had that, that relationship was constant. We were taught to interact, to engage, to observe the world around us.

Calla, as you observe and engage and have this relationship with our world around us, are you hopeful or are you worried about our planet’s future?

Calla Rose O.: Well, today’s a beautiful day so I’m feeling good. Last week we got some news that the east ice sheet up in our pole, North Pole, is melting which is going to cause some serious rapid sea level rise and further destabilize the climate system. So that’s bad. I think, what I’m trying to say is I’m both. I think that part of what I love about the education that was given to me throughout my life beginning with my parents, including Waldorf and the 13 years I was there, is that I feel like it’s okay to hold both the light and the dark. We’re facing a level of change and shift that sort of modern humanity has never seen before. I don’t think we can conceptualize the type of … I don’t think we can conceptualize what’s coming at us with climate change.

So it’s really big. And I think in that respect it can be extremely overwhelming and just not something that we can deal with. So there’s a lot of fear there. And sadness. We’re losing a lot of species. There’s a lot of people who are displaced around our country as well as all over the world. And then famine because of climate change. So there’s a lot of sadness there too. The thing though that I’ve learned and why I left working for the City and County of San Francisco and dedicated this part of my career to the healthy soils movement was that the planet is incredibly regenerative.

Natural systems can come back. Animals can come back. Forests can return. Rains can return back to landscapes when the animals and the forests come back. We have an incredible ability to heal. If you get hurt, your body’s going to heal. Life is really powerful and it’s really abundant and I think we underestimate or we take for granted the kind of capacity that life has, the life force of our planet, the force of life itself. So, in that respect, I really think that it’s about our ability to see. And it really comes back to that because when you see that capacity, when you understand what our planet can do, it’s incredible. And then it fills me with hope and it fills me with an optimism that is entirely possible for us to live as humanity on this planet in a way that’s balanced, participatory and regenerative.

Nita Davanzo: In this seeing, in this sight and this visioning, Calla, if you were to hold a vision for an ideal future, if everything could go according to your ideal plan, what would that look like? What would a healthy, sustainable society look like in the future?

Calla Rose O.: Well, I think I know enough to know that I don’t know, right? It’s kind of life my mom always says, “Give thanks for the unknown blessings that are on the way.” So I definitely see that it’s going to be systems that I haven’t even imagined. It’s going to look in a way that I can’t even begin to really comprehend because it’s going to be so different in a lot of ways. But for me, when I talk to people about it, I think what really makes a lot of sense, in a practical way, is if you can just think about the food you eat, the clothes you wear, buildings we live in, tools we use all being endlessly recyclable or compostable then you’re talking about something where pollution is solved, where scarcity and food production is not an issue, where water is abundant in the landscape because when we return these things back to where they’ve come from or we repurpose them instead of taking virgin resources, we’re participating in that cycle of life.

So I guess a vision of all of our food, fiber, fuel, and flora, even our medicines being endlessly recyclable, compostable, that’s a vision that I think, if you can think about it practically, begins to make sense. And in that, and this is something I also talk about and I think I’ve talked with you about before, I think we really have to face our fear of death.

In my ideal plan everything would be cycling. There would be no taking too much of a virgin resource, no waste or pollution because things would be in balance and within a cycle instead of a linear system. And also we would, in that, really have an understanding of what it means to be stewards for the end of life. I think our culture is pretty afraid of death. We don’t have a lot of ways of dealing with it, of talking about it, of really being with it. One of the fundamental things that Steiner says, and I know some of your other guests on this show have talked about with biodynamic agriculture, is feeding life from its beginning through compost and through these tinctures and that really is about … You know making good compost is about being a good end of life steward. You have to participate in taking this dead, yucky thing whether it’s a dead animal or old food that you’re taking out of your refrigerator and processing it in a way that creates this beautiful life-giving material.

If we can steward that end of life process, if we can be present for death and present with it long enough to cultivate it back into life, into taking what’s good whether that’s knowledge or nutrients and moving it to the next generation actively and consciously, then I think we’re going to be doing well.

Nita Davanzo: Oh, Calla, you speak so eloquently about the big picture, about the light and the dark, about the consciousness that we need to hold for the sustainability of this planet. I really appreciate what you bring in of … right, it’s not all about the hope and certainly of holding both that optimism and awe so that’s reality of what is right now. And that’s fascinating to me of bringing in this piece of the fear of death, of the fear of the end. I, too, often think about, yes, death is just another … it’s a piece of life. Our Mother Earth here has gone through many, many transformations and this is yet another one. In the great space of the eons of time this is kind of a small blip of things. Not that it makes it insignificant but really when we look at the big, big picture of things to remind us all somehow of our relationship in the bigger presence and purpose of everything.

So, Calla, if our listeners were to want to get to know a bit more about you or just how they can get involved in the healthy soils movement or learn more about the Marin Carbon Project, where might they go online or other to find out more information?

Calla Rose O.: Sure. So the Marin Carbon Project has a great website and everything that’s there is available for the public. So you can go on marincarbonproject.org. You can also look up the, if you’re a really big policy wonk and you want to find out which states are working on health soils policy, the Soil Health Institute has a list of all the different states and current actions that are being taken on increasing soil health across the country. That’s kind of for the wonky folks. There’s a great little short out called the Soil Story which sort of explains this concept relatively quickly, three to four minutes, so you can share it with your friends or learn more about kind of this concept of rebalancing the carbon cycle.

If you’re in Boulder and you’re in the area around Shining Mountain there’s a great organization called Mad Agriculture and they’re doing a lot to really promote this healthy soil and carbon farming, not just within the organic community but also with some of the large scale commodity crop growers, maybe even folks who are working with GMOs, really crossing political and cultural lines to do this really important healthy soils work in Colorado. Mad Agriculture is this great organization. Check it out if you live there.

And then otherwise if folks want to get in touch with me, I’m going to give you my email, and give it once, so catch it now. It’s callarose, C-A-L-L-A R-O-S-E @gmail.com. And I’m happy to point you in the direction of work that’s happening in your state or in your area or field of work if you’re interested.

So those are some good resources. And I guess I just want to say one thing because when you were talking about grief, I think that grief is like … That’s what I mean by taking time to really steward death. We really do have to take time to mourn because I’m not advocating for a society that’s like, “Oh, the planet’s going to be fine. Life cycles through different things and we’re just a blip and it doesn’t matter and we can just disengage.”

I absolutely grieve the loss of the species on the planet and watching the fish lose their homes as the reef is bleached and the polar bears starve. And people on the train who I saw last week who are leaving Florida because their homes were destroyed and they’re going to live with a friend in California and they had enough money for a train ticket. There is so much and we really do need to take a moment and just allow ourselves to grieve it, allow ourselves to see it. Because when you can process that I think that’s the composting work.

That’s the work of seeing, of acknowledging, of acknowledging the people who are most affected by this, who are not you and me, who don’t have the privilege of the type of education or economic status that we do. Or animals who don’t have the ability to move to a new home, [inaudible 00:24:52] you know, find food at a grocery store. So that’s really important and I’m really just I want to say I’m not advocating for disconnecting and allowing something greater. I’m really advocating for us as humans to take our role in shaping the cycle of life and really understanding how we can steward and give back to the life on the planet, how we’re part of it. And that means both understanding birth and light and also understanding death and darkness and being able to be present for and have knowledge about and have relationship to both of those things.

I just want to make sure that listeners don’t walk away from this thinking that I am pro-death or that I’m pro…like letting life take its course. I think that’s sort of abdicates our responsibility that we really have to step up right now and acknowledge the impact and the incredible power that we have as humans.

Nita Davanzo: Thank you, Calla. Thank you for being on the show with me today and even greater, deeper gratitude and thanks for your work on this in the world. I for one truly appreciate it and I’m sure all of our listeners will as well. Thanks, Calla.

Calla Rose O.: Thank you so much, Nita, for giving me an opportunity to talk with you and asking such wonderful questions.

Nita Davanzo: Take care, my dear. Have a great rest of your day.

Calla Rose O.: Bye-bye.

Nita Davanzo: Thank you for listening to WE Talk brought to you by Shining Mountain Waldorf School and hosted by Nita June Davanzo. WE Talk is made possible because of listeners like you who invest in the production of the show. Share your appreciation for what you’ve heard today. Help us explore the value of Waldorf education in preparing our children for the future by going to patreon.com/wetalkpodcast. If you’d like to be interviewed, have a suggestion for an episode ahead or simply wish to share feedback, please email us at wetalk@smwaldorf.org.