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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville

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Op-Ed

Nov 16, 2018

Hemp: A Little Plant; Powerful Enough to Spark Big Change

The time of irrational trepidation is over. The movement to legalize marijuana has overlooked hemp's divergent benefits to combat climate change.

WRITTEN BY

Maren Krings

Maren Krings is freelance photographer and artist, with studios in Germany, Austria and Sweden. Her work entails documenting projects with a special focus on sustainability. Since 2016 she has been working on a long-term photojournalistic documentation about the rediscovery of the hemp plant and its environmental benefits worldwide. You can find out more about Maren here.

As the deadly California wild fires continue to blaze, the time is right to consider our collective impact on the environment and what changes can be made to benefit the planet and ensure our survival as a species. The year of 2017 was declared to be the worst that the state had ever seen regarding wildfires. This year has made sure that 2017 didn’t hold that title for long, with fires that have already killed more than 60 people. These extremes in weather conditions will soon make parts of our planet uninhabitable for human society. Yet, even as this unfolds in front of our eyes, most of us are not prepared to reconsider our industrial or personal practices.

Self-Portrait of german photographer Maren Krings, in a hempfield in Bar-Sur-Aube, France

The same plant that can be used to smoke a joint might also hold the potential to change our future.

The plant we are talking about is cannabis sativa. The same one that can be used to smoke a joint might also hold the potential to change our future. Hemp is highlighted as a political conversation topic worldwide, as we’ve seen a wave of decriminalisation at the state level in the US as well as a full scale legalisation in Canada this October. However, a strong understanding of this plant is unusual. Most people are unaware of the many positive purposes of hemp. My own lack of knowledge and curiosity has been the driving force behind the intensive research that I have undertaken. In turn, this has ultimately been the foundation for a book about hemp, which I have now been working towards for two and half years.

It is important to understand the differences within the strains that derive from the same plant family but deliver very different products. While cannabis sativa is the botanical name for the plant family, experts differentiate by using three terms:

  • Industrial hemp: Any cannabis plant that contains 0.3 or less % of the psychoactive ingredient THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
  • Medical cannabis: Cannabis that is cultivated specifically for medicinal purposes, and contains higher amounts of THC.
  • Marijuana: Usually used exclusively for recreational purposes.

Very few of us have sufficient environmental awareness

As a photographer, it is alarming to observe our lack of urgency regarding global issues like climate change, waste-management and the preservation of natural resources. Furthermore, very few of us have sufficient environmental awareness and understanding as to how we should conduct our daily lives and  find solutions to these important issues. This all changed when I took a closer look at hemp, perhaps the most forbidden plant on earth throughout the 20th century.

Photo: Hemp harvest in Keshan Country, Heilongjiang Province China. By Maren Krings.

Even if you are a climate scientist or a habitual user, you’ll be surprised to learn about hemp’s adaptive attributes:

  • It is a fast-growing crop that can absorb vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.
  • An Italian building-materials specialist, Werner Schönthaler, calculated a 60% negative account of CO2, on buildings he constructed with hemp stone.
  • In the past, farmers have turned to hemp due to its ability to grow without the heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, chemicals that were often required for their other crops. A Swedish farmer Thomas Jacobsson reported that despite all of his other crops dying, his two hectares of planted hemp were the only crop that was able to adjust to the Swedish drought during the summer of 2017. This is because hemp has the ability to adapt, with roots that can grow much longer than other plants.
  • At the scene of nuclear disasters, not just Fukushima and Tchernobyl, but also smaller areas that have been contaminated by industrial accidents, hemp has been used for the biological process of Phytoremediation, a process that pulls contaminants from the soil.
  • Hemp is a source of food, textile making and medicines. For many years it’s been common to see stores stock hemp seeds, oil and flour. The clothing industry has been using hemp-yarn for woven and knitted materials,

Our irrational trepidation for hemp was inherited from more than 70 years of prohibition. The time is right to finally move on. The worldwide hemp-growing community, which dedicates time, money and efforts into reintroducing industrial hemp and fighting for legalization of cannabis is growing exponentially and there is a good reason for this to happen.

Hemp has become the new answer to many problems that were previously unsolvable. This plant can be used to respond to a growing global population and people’s need to be fed, sheltered and medically provided for. Hemp has become a synonym for people who are willing to think differently – people who want to start changing their own lifestyles to induce change on a bigger level. It has become the crop of people willing to take action and make the changes that do not seem to be able to initiate quickly through politics.

Photo: Hemp harvest for textile purpose in North China. By Maren Krings

WHY SHOULD WE THINK DIFFERENTLY? 

Regardless of whether the majority of us do not know where this island is, nor what it feels like to lose the earth beneath our feet, nature’s responses are devastating.

We are all familiar with the debate that is often held on climate change, whether it is a human-made problem or just a natural cycle our world is passing through. It is true, our climate has always gone through periods of change, even prior to industrialisation. However, it has never happened so quickly and so drastically as it has done today. The Island of Kiribati, located in the Central Pacific Ocean along the equator, has become the symbol of nature’s response to our carelessness. The island is slowly drowning by the rising water level of the ocean. The chief of Kiribati has been unremittingly traveling the world, speaking on climate conferences and UN conferences to find new land for his people. The chief of Kiribati also wants to make us understand that we have to take up our responsibility for the changes that are happening now. Regardless of whether the majority of us do not know where this island is, nor what it feels like to lose the earth beneath our feet, nature’s responses are devastating. For the hurricane and storm stricken inhabitants of Kiribati this is more than a nightmare, it is the end of their culture.

Photo: The harvest work done for the medicinal use of the company Medi-Hemp in Austria. Maren Krings

My New Life’s Mission

It’s not just a project anymore, I now realize the urgency of the topic.

My journey to photo-document hemp, its industrial uses and the positive impact it can have on the environment, has taken me to 17 different countries so far. In order to follow this road, I have left my home and made my car a rolling bedroom and office. I am about halfway there, having completed half of the work required to complete the book. Having edited all the images captured over two and half years and documenting my story along the way whilst looking for a publisher and running a crowdfunding campaign to support the project, I’ve spent much time to reflecting on this project. I now realize the urgency of the topic. I am connecting a dedicated, international community of like-minded people, who are all doing everything in their means to change the way we perceive sustainability, environmentalism and social responsibility.

This book is turning into a life’s mission. I have come to the realisation that this is the only way I can truly communicate my own concerns. My goal is to find many like-minded people who can work together to answer the big questions that need to be solved to conserve our planet. I have already received an incredible amount of support and help from many people worldwide. Some by participating in crowdfunding by pre-ordering the hemp book. However, my true wish is far greater; to inspire others by showing some of the achievable changes that we can all make in our backyard and portraying people who have stepped up and showed us how to live this change.

On Tuesday 20th November, Maren will be taking over the The Outdoor Journal’s Instagram account. Maren will speak with hemp pioneer Werner Schönthaler about why he dedicated six years of his life to inventing the hemp stone. We will also hear from Ding Hongliang, China’s main producer for hemp-textiles. Stay tuned and be part of the change!

If you want to support Maren’s Crowdfunding Project please visit the site here or for the newsletter on hemp, please sign up directly by sending an email to info@marenkrings.com with the subject line“newsletter-hemp“.

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Op-Ed

Sep 05, 2019

Everest, The Earthquake, my Husband Norbu Sherpa and Me.

Between waiting her turn for the rescue chopper and summiting in silence one year later, Andrea Sherpa-Zimmermann relies on her husband, a native Sherpa, as her guide on Everest.

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It is 3:45 in the morning, May 21, 2016: a date that will remain in my mind forever.

I am standing on the “top of the world” at 8,848 meters (29,028 ft) with my husband, Norbu Sherpa. We are alone in the full moon: Norbu, me and the Goddess Chomolungma. The stars are lighting up a pure sky. The atmosphere is simply magical. One-and-a-half hours in the silence of the mountain on the top of Mount Everest.

Read next: Exclusive Interview with Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa, of The Ultimate Descent

A stunning sunrise brings us back to reality. Some climbers have started to arrive. We begin our descent with calm and serenity. Each step is controlled and assured. We are in full command of our emotions and abilities. A single step off the path would mean a no-return plummet down a vertical of several thousand meters. Twenty-three hours after our start at 8,300 meters (the last Camp) via the summit, we are back at the Advance Base Camp on the Northside with our heavy loads. A dream had come true.

This personal project – summiting Everest – was supposed to have happened one year earlier. But in 2015, on our way to Everest Base Camp in Tibet, we found ourselves suddenly in a disastrous shadow. Like in a movie, people were screaming, crying, running in all directions. Huge rocks were falling from everywhere and the earth was shaking. Once, twice and then more frequently. We were trapped in a narrow valley with the rocks threatening above our heads. We were lucky to secure ourselves. Many other people are no longer here today to testify to that horrific moment. In the end, we were trapped for four days in the valley: four days of waiting, hoping and agonizing with several hundred other people. Standing, sitting and sleeping in the middle of terraced fields. Hour after hour after hour. Disconnected from the rest of the world. With no material and no food except for the items that people had on them when running for their lives from their house or car.

Like in a nightmare, we were unable to provide any help other than what was possible to do with basically nothing. The dream that I had seriously prepared and trained for during so many months was still in the back of my mind. The days were passing with no updates. We had no idea what was going on. All we knew was that all of the roads were blocked by heavy landslides. Repeat aftershocks compelled us not to take any risks. We were, in fact, supposed to be at Base Camp, above 5,000 meters. But every aftershock reminded us that, in reality, we were just two kilometers away from the epicenter of the tragic earthquake, registering 7.8 on the Richter scale, that dramatically affected Nepal on that day, 25 April 2015…

“A terrible spectacle.”

After four days, we heard the sound of the first helicopter. People jumped up from every side and ran in the direction of the small helipad that was prepared with the help of all of us during those last days. But the pilot could not land. The helipad was too small for his helicopter. The disappointment was legible on our faces. We were worried not only about all the injured people who were just waiting to get rescued but also for one woman who gave birth in the middle of the night in terrible hygiene conditions. A few hours later, a smaller helicopter arrived. The pilot managed to land but had to turn off his machine. Some people were so willing to get out of this trap that they tried, by all means, to get a place inside the helicopter… a terrible spectacle. In the end, the injured people could luckily be rescued back to Kathmandu. Then it was our turn, tourists as we were.

A unique picture that you need to be ready for. Descending from Everest, you can see the shadow of Everest reflecting on the mountains of Nepal. This only lasts a few minutes. So it’s thanks to my husband, who knew about this and told me to just wait.

Finally, we were rescued by helicopter from this disastrous valley. At that moment, our initial expectation of reaching the summit was merely a slight memory. Flying back to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, we could see what it would mean to be in a war-torn country. Everything was destroyed. In the meantime, the image of a couple sitting in the ruins of their kitchen in what used to be their home, making fire out of their house’s destroyed wooden beams, and feeding us two small bowls of rice per day that they cooked on their stove, was stuck in our minds. We could not simply go back home to Switzerland. We decided to stay in Kathmandu and help support earthquake victims however we could. Forty-five days later, thanks to the numerous donations on account of our small charity organisation The Butterfly Help Project, we had distributed more than 31 tons of food supplies, rebuilt three provisional school buildings for more than 500 children and brought clothing to several remote villages. Everest was not a topic anymore. The Mountain was still there, of course, but going to these remote villages where the villagers had lost everything was another new and difficult challenge.

Find out more about The Butterfly Help Project

“I have to be here. This is my job”

However, when something is in your heart, it is impossible to forget so easily. Everest. Simply to hear the word illuminates my eyes. Everest is known as the Goddess of Giving to the Sherpa climbing community. My husband is always so thankful for all that she has given them. Every year, the climbing Sherpas, who are part of the ethnic Sherpa people, put their lives in danger to bring us other climbers to the top of the World just to fulfill a personal and selfish dream. And every year, they go back to work, to risk it all again, because they have to support their families. Once one knows that the income from a two-month Everest expedition can support a family for almost one year, compared to the average Nepalese salary, there is no doubt. They have to go. Again and again. In 2015, shortly before our Tibetan expedition, we went to Everest Base Camp on the Nepali side for an acclimatization trip. It was one year after seracs on the western spur of Mount Everest had collapsed, resulting in an ice avalanche that killed sixteen climbing Sherpas on the Khumbu Icefall. They were carrying loads to Camp I & II. At Base Camp, we encountered one of our good Sherpa friends, Mingma Sherpa. He is married and has four children, the youngest of whom had just been born at that time. I asked him why he was there, after surviving what happened last year, when he had children and a wife waiting for him at home. Was he not scared? With a generous smile on his face, he simply answered “I have to be here. This is my job.”

Andrea and her husband following their successful ascent of Everest.

And that is how it is. The Sherpa families at home are consumed with worry. The Sherpa community sticks strongly together, encouraging one another. They know that it is one of the hardest jobs on earth. They are handling heavy loads in the scientifically speaking, famous “death zone” (above 7,500 meters (24,606 ft)) in order to survive the rest of the year. They cannot complain, otherwise they might not be hired for the job the next year. They have to be strong even if it hurts. The clients have paid, and so the Sherpas have to bring them to the top and back to Base Camp. At least, this is what has happened since the first expedition in history. But we have to keep in mind: it is thanks to them that we can experience such an amazing and great adventure! They are simply “the true heroes of Mount Everest!” As an Everest Summiteer, Sherpas cannot be thanked enough for their hard work, dedication, and humility.

In 2016, when I had decided to listen to my heart again, my motivation had increased tenfold. I was already training the whole year, not only participating in ski mountaineering competitions but also ultra-trail races. For many years, I have competed at a high level and I would consider my fitness level to be good. But I knew from my previous expeditions at 8,000 meters (26,246 ft) that going for these kinds of altitudes is another story. You have to be in perfect shape, not only for yourself but because you depend mainly on others – the Sherpas. For several weeks, you must live in a zone where no human being can survive for long.

To climb Mount Everest, you must thus not only be completely fit, but you must have experience about how your metabolism reacts at such heights. You must be technically independent so that you can react quickly and without a doubt at some tricky passages. You must have good knowledge of how oxygen and mask regulators work. You should also be able to calculate your oxygen according to the hours it might take you for the climb. You cannot just say “I want to fulfil a dream to put on my resume, and anyway I am paying enough money for this challenge.” No! Indeed, we are speaking about a challenge. A Challenge with a capital “C”. A Challenge in the death zone, where every decision is either yes or no, live or die. There can be no hesitation. And the Sherpas are not employees. We talk about a team. A team that must work together in the highest zone of our planet.

When you are sitting at 7,000 meters (22,965 ft) in the dining tent of the climbing Sherpa Team, sharing a tea with them, getting inspired by their positive energy, it is just a fantastic feeling. For some, it was the first time on Everest, as it was for myself. For others, it is like attending the same race, year after year. There is a mixture of respect and excitement around being upon this mountain again. It is the home of the Goddess Chomolungma, no climbing Sherpa will start such an expedition without the traditional Puja – a Buddhist ceremony in which the Sherpa will thank the mountain for letting them pass and come back safely. However, it is also a way in which to apologise for the tracks made on her. To observe them, preparing the tea, setting up the tents, discussing the next days, was as if I was sitting in a tea-room somewhere in a mountain resort, they almost seem to be in communion with the mountain. Some are young, some are older. Whilst they all share the same aim, they also share the same pain. But no one shows it. Their movements are fluid and natural – You might almost forget that you are so high in the altitude… But what is the hard truth?

“The chance to fulfill my dream”

Without discussing the numerous Sherpas who have lost their lives, dedicated to some unprepared and inexperienced clients, how many Sherpas have lost their jobs because of frostbite? Because of not having the financial resources to pay their medical care? Lost the use of or the entirety of their fingers, toes, etc.? Once back home, no one is taking care of them anymore.

I had the chance to fulfill my dream, with my husband by my side. I trained especially hard in order to ensure that we could achieve this goal. Not only to make it to the top, but to make it safely back to Base Camp, and to also recover properly after such an achievement. But one of my main thoughts, my top priorities while preparing for this adventure was not to endanger my husband, who has been on Everest expeditions more than 9 times, due to my lack of physical or technical preparation.

On May 21, 2016, we reached the summit with no overcrowded route (the infamous “traffic jams”), and we took no uncontrolled risks. It was simply a perfect combination of appropriate preparation and years of experience. How does this get achieved? My husband has been for more than a decade the “Sirdar” (i.e. the Head of the climbing Sherpas), leading large-scale expeditions on the highest summits on Earth. He himself has stood seven times on Mount Everest and more than 14 times on other 8,000 meter peaks. Based on his long-term knowledge and skill, he knew exactly which decision to make at which time. Along with his expertise, my fitness level, training, and mental preparation allowed me to experience the highest of the Himalaya summits with him, to see for myself the glorious sunrise on the Goddess Chomolungma, to achieve the holiest of Challenges.

Andrea at Everest Base Camp

Andrea Sherpa-Zimmermann is a co-founder of the trekking and expedition agency Wild Yak Expeditions, and President of the non-governmental charity organization The Butterfly Help Project”.

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