The Marriage of Ethics and Aesthetics: Meet Kaethe Burt O’Dea

PENNY McCORMICK meets five women leading the conversation about SUSTAINABILITY IN IRELAND. They share their thoughts on the concept of an alternative luxury, ethical fashion and their personal tips for a KINDER APPROACH TO OUR PLANET

Photographed by Doreen Kilfeather. Styled by Aislinn Coffey

Urban anthropologist, artist and entrepreneur KAETHE BURT O’DEA tells me, “I am so passionate about what I do that the lines between work and pleasure are completely blurred.” Her interest in discovering and examining unfamiliar landscapes means she is prone to pop up anywhere. If she wears her new Adiff jacket, O’Dea can actually camp anywhere too; it transforms into a tent. It’s the latest arrival at Bí Urban (to be urban) in Stoneybatter, which is a social hub, educational resource, product development lab and shop – the public front of O’Dea’s not-for-profit initiative, “The jacket”, says O’Dea, “is a perfect expression of our slogan: ‘Connecting Nature, People and Place’. Adiff
provides a homeless person with a jacket for every jacket sold, meeting our social ethos. In turn, we apply any profit we make in a sale toward Lifeline, our green corridor project, creating a win-win transaction. That it happens to fit my personal style is an added bonus.”

The former nurse, organic farmer and textile designer, is officially retired yet her ongoing energy and curiosity is unabated. O’Dea prioritises inclusiveness, particularly when it comes to urban planning; the result of completing an MSc in architecture and advanced environmental and energy studies. Her study of wild bees and bee societies, which began in 2015, led her to be known locally as “the bee lady” lending her support to the “Equality for All Pollinators” campaign, championing wild bees which are often more effective pollinators than honey bees and just as endangered. O’Dea explains, “the campaign also reflects the fact that no idea comes from one person alone, but is the result of many, many exchanges between individuals and societal influences, similar to the hive’s superorganism.” In this way, human life mirrors the the superorganism of the beehive.

On a practical level, Bí Urban has an impressive ten year strategy to build the “Lifeline” – a nature corridor connecting the Botanic Gardens in Dublin with the Liffey, for which O’Dea was awarded the Arthur Guinness Projects Award in 2013. This will create what she calls “a ribbon of biodiversity” – re-wilding natural areas to support pollinators, linking inspiring buildings and connecting communities. The first public engagement phase of the project is “NatureRx” – inspired by the “green prescriptions” doctors write in Europe, recommending interaction with nature to benefit their patients’ general wellbeing. This summer, O’Dea launched a project asking residents in Dublin’s northwest inner city to use an artistic process to document their experiences in nature. “You don’t have to be an artist or expert to participate,” says O’ Dea reassuringly. “It’s easy to become disconnected and unaware of the abundance of nature on your doorstep. NatureRx’s aim is to rekindle that lost relationship and work collectively to redefine nature’s important role in health and wellbeing in urban communities.”

O’Dea set up a green corridor in microcosm 15 years ago – convincing the resident of 1 Sitric Road, Dublin 7, to allow her to transform an unused patch of his end-ofterrace garden into an urban composting project (which formed part of her masters degree studies). Since then the award-winning garden (below left) has been the setting for composting demonstrations, horticultural experiments and the focal point of bi-annual street parties (the Sitric Picnic and Sitric Soup). The house is currently for sale and comes with its own wild bee colonies, and species of Red Mason and Leaf Cutter bees.

O’Dea’s commitment to a gentler, greener life is long-standing. “A deep-seated connection to nature was nurtured by my parents who allowed me create a farm on the grounds of our one-acre suburban home in Connecticut [she moved to Ireland in 1976].” Both sets of grandparents also played their part in her ecoconsciousness, especially her maternal grandfather who she describes as a “composting wizard”.

There is not much left to compost in her own home. “I forage, grow my own vegetables and herbs or buy them unpackaged. I make soups with vegetable ends, eat leftovers for lunch and compost the very little that is left.” O’Dea doesn’t use plastic, nor does she own a car. “I also make my own personal care products. It’s an ongoing process of discovery.” At Bí Urban, O’Dea runs signature scent-making workshops and, among the wares, you’ll find soaps, beauty balms and oils made from pollen, honey and other natural ingredients.

Hers is a busy, fulfilling retirement. She has seen a change in attitude towards sustainability in the last few years. “The average person is far more aware, educated and concerned than you would imagine. We hope Bí Urban provides a space that empowers individuals to express and work on these concerns.”

Penny McCormick

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