We’re Walking Ecosystems: Notes on Collaboration

Lately I’ve been thinking about collaboration. I envision a world where nations, geographic regions, cities, neighborhoods, and affinity groups find an ease and flow in working together.

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Photo credit Michael Mayer, via Flickr Creative Commons

Maybe it seems pie-in-the-sky, but we have a model for that kind of collaboration. It’s right here, as close as our own skin. Modern science now confirms that the human body is a collaboration in itself.

Some 90 percent of our cells are—get this—not human. They’re bacterial, or fungal, or even viral. Don’t be afraid! They mean us no harm. We’re their habitat. A walking community. A microbiome.

If we keep balance within the community of our cells—I’m talking happy bacteria and fungi here—we generally enjoy good health, and recover from illness more quickly.

This Brainscape article explains it all so well—the ecosystems within us, each with their own unique microorganisms. These wee “microbiota” do all kinds of things for us in exchange for giving them a suitable environment to thrive. They help with digestion, brain activity, and immune function, just for starters.

Most curiously, our mitochondria—an organelle within cells that is responsible for converting digested food into energy—contains DNA that is…not human. “These organelles came from outside of us, down a separate evolutionary path.”

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Mitochondria (red) are organelles found in most cells. They generate a cell’s chemical energy. Credit: NICHD/U. Manor, via Flickr Creative Commons

At the microscopic level, human life depends on a symbiotic relationship.

From the article:

“When Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, the dominant theory soon came to be survival of the fittest: a rat race for domination and survival. But both of these examples — mitochondria and our internal biota — point toward another means by which life thrives and evolves: symbiosis.”

I find that fascinating, and also telling.

Of course, zoom in tighter on the cells of our body—and what are they? Whirling clouds of particles. There’s nothing solid to us.

We’re made of space, basically. Our lives reliant on organisms we have always vilified or at the very least, ignored.

Knowing that, is it possible to see the human community in a different way?

Walking As One

Walking is a time-honored way to meditate, ruminate, and otherwise seek clarity. Walking a labyrinth gives each footstep even more meaning. And walking in community brings added sweetness to the experience.

On World Labyrinth Day, May 7, people all over the world gathered to “walk as one at 1” in the afternoon. The idea behind this annual event, according to the Labyrinth Society, is to “create a wave of peaceful energy washing across the time zones.”

The Rivoli Park Labyrinth hosted a potluck and group walk, representing the local community on a day when some 200 public events took place across the globe. An intermittent drizzle didn’t keep us from sharing soup and salad while we made new connections and renewed old acquaintanceships. At 1 it was time to drift into the circle of the labyrinth as we each felt ready.

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Walking the labyrinth as one

I had never participated in a communal labyrinth walk before, and I found it quite lovely to share the labyrinth with others. Each in our own space and yet connected, some chatting, some silent. Sometimes meeting on the path and clasping a hand as we passed each other with a smile. At one point I found myself walking next to an acquaintance who gave off motherly vibes, and I impulsively decided to take her hand until our paths diverged.

When I enter the sacred space of a labyrinth, I like to set an intention or ask a question. My intention for this particular labyrinth walk: To take nourishment from all quarters. I was feeling depleted after a busy week and several short nights. The meal we shared was one source of sustenance, and I wanted to see if I could also be nourished by the air, the rain, the soil, the plants, and the beings around me, both human and nonhuman—and the movement of walking itself.

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The boulder in the center is a perfect resting spot.

Afterwards, I did feel restored.

What makes this labyrinth unique is the fact that it is a pocket park situated on a vacant lot in the heart of the city, a public space developed and managed by volunteers. Lisa Boyles, Rivoli Park’s founder, strives to bring people together through art, so the park has numerous community-made art pieces displayed. (Note the paintings on the fence in the photo above.)

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Walkers can record their thoughts in a log book at the start/end point of the labyrinth. Lisa sees the logbook as a way to encourage reflection and sharing, and to build community among solitary walkers as well.

In fact, creative expression is built into the design of the labyrinth itself.

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The “pole of possibility”

According to Lisa, the pole at the entrance to the labyrinth marks one of three “focus points” in the labyrinth. Volunteers from 2015’s Indy Do Day (citywide service day) decorated the bricks. “The poles at the three focus points,” she says, “were handmade expressly for the purpose they are serving now as delineators of the focus points. This tall one at the entrance of the labyrinth I like to call the ‘pole of possibility.’”

In keeping with the art theme, Lisa invited the “Seeds of Common Sound” music bus to take part. On board the bus, we could add to communal art pieces, play instruments, and get inspired.

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Communal art on board the music bus

Care for creatures is another role of this labyrinth, as it was just designated a certified wildlife habitat. Here is our little group with the plaque.

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I plan to visit Rivoli Park often over the growing season to watch the plant, animal, and insect life flourish there. And to seek nourishment for my soul in this place of quiet reflection.

What’s Already Here

This week in yoga class we opened our arms wide and bowed in surrender.

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How I feel in yoga class at Irvington Wellness Center. Photo by Mitchell Joyce, via flickr Commons

Our teacher, Gaynell Collier-Magar, invited us to open in gratitude for the extraordinary privilege of experiencing what’s already here. We stood as trees with arms outstretched and my fingertips brushed the hand of Joyce at my left. Then later, lying back in a spinal twist, my fingers contacted Scott’s on my right. Each student deep in our space but connecting with the other.

The goodwill and warmth created in that space fed me, like it does every week.

And not just because they sang Happy Birthday to me before class. (“It’s not just a yoga class, it’s a community,” Gaynell said, and she’s right.)

She led us in half sun salutations, invoking joy as we raised our arms high, surrender as we opened our arms and bowed, equanimity as we rose halfway with hands on shins, surrender again as we folded to the floor, joy again as we rose to circle-sweep our arms high, and finally connection with the sacred as we rested our hands in prayer position at our hearts.

Yeah, it’s that kind of class. The kind where you know you’re just really lucky to be able to sit and breathe in awareness—even though the same breath walks in with you, and you could easily(?) contact it any old time.

In this studio I often tremble in release while holding postures, and even if I don’t understand it on a conscious level, I know that things are moving through me. Sometimes I cry. I cried this time while crimped into a half pigeon posture, leg folded under my torso, forehead on the floor, listening to Donna De Lory sing of being a sanctuary.

The tears came again in a forward bend while the song Mercy poured over us.

“One by one, could we turn it around,” etc. It slayed me. The longing, the heartfelt wish for healing of the world. For everyone to feel joy, surrender, equanimity, surrender, joy, connection.

What more is there than that?

A Wetland Ally

This is a season of transformation. Many of us are feeling it, experiencing rapid shedding of what we no longer need. It isn’t always a comfortable process, but sometimes we receive a little trans-kingdom support to ease the way. This week I had occasion to meet a new plant ally in a wetland across town.

The plant is called calamus, or sweet flag. I was with my merry mates in foraging, Greg Monzel‘s bicycle/forage group that I blogged about here. This time we parked our bikes to walk the paths of the EcoLab, a 55-acre native plant paradise tucked away on the city’s north side.
Nina Mason Pulliam EcoLab. Extra special to me because Dad volunteered here.

Nina Mason Pulliam EcoLab. Extra special to me because Dad volunteered here.

The plan, as usual, was to look for persimmons and other edible/medicinal forageables as the sun went down. But Greg also had a surprise for us–a meditation in the company of sweet flag.

He invited us to remove our shoes and make contact with the rhizome network of a colony of dormant sweet flag. To sit or lie among their spicy-sweet fragrance in silence and keep an open heart. What did we experience?

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Sweet Flag photo by Maria Renner. Learn about her work at http://healingwombs.com/ .

Various images and impressions came to me, and because the experience was sacred, I don’t want to go into detail here–other than to say that I felt a gladness, and a reciprocity in the gladness. My body loosened and my thoughts slowed. At the end of our meditation I felt clarified.

Greg told us afterward that the plant was used traditionally to hold soil and filter water. Beloved by cultures all over the world and called by many names, sweet flag has been used to treat human ailments as well as environmental. It’s supportive to the nervous system, with antioxidant and antimicrobial properties (among other things). Greg gave us a beautiful image of how this rhizome grows with feet in the muck, rising up in beauty and fragrance.

Sweet flag would have been a solid friend to our ancestors in their wanderings–carried along to new places, or found along the way.

I went home and slept hard, and in the morning when I woke up early early, I still felt held and supported. My nervous system has been on overdrive processing all the changes, but for once I did not wake up in a state of alarm.

I find that when I stay open, unexpected friends appear at just the right time. I’m grateful to Greg for introducing me to sweet flag.

Greg with young persimmon tree.

Greg with young persimmon tree.

Have you ever had trans-species or trans-kingdom contact that bolstered you? I invite you to tell us about it in the comment section.

Foraging on Two Wheels

Yesterday evening I joined Greg Monzel and friends in an activity combining two of my fave things to do: riding my bike and foraging for wild edibles.

It had been rainy all day and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. Especially since—even though I love cycling—I had never mounted my bike on a car carrier to drive it somewhere. (The foray started at White Pine Wilderness Academy, which is not in my neighborhood.) I also had to go to my local bike shop and get lights mounted (another first: cycling after dark!)

It all turned out to be worth the effort: I got to hang with some excellent folks, experience the woods after dark, and taste some interesting things. I was not brave enough to munch on a pillbug, however. Save that for another day.

Below are some photos from the evening. Sadly I didn’t get any of us on two wheels. You’ll just have to take the dorky bike helmets as evidence that we really did cycle to our destination, before dismounting and exploring.

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Greg showing us polymnia canadensis, or white flower leafcup, which has some medicinal uses

Greg is an herbalist with a passion for learning, which makes him incredibly knowledgeable about plant lore, uses, history, and science. Also, the muck boots were a really good idea. I may have to practice cycling while wearing mine.

Maria inspecting winged euonymus

Maria inspecting winged euonymus

The berries are not edible, but I believe there are some medicinal qualities to certain parts of this plant.

Mighty burr oak

Mighty burr oak

This was the first of several oaks we assessed for acorn availability and tastiness. I ate part of an acorn before realizing that it’s best to leach the tannins out first. Oops! Nice texture, though!

Greg with promising fungal find

Greg with promising fungal find: Could it be the medicinal turkey tail?

While we were standing here, Maria found a step-by-step turkey tail identifier on her smartphone. How’s that for appropriate use of technology? Unfortunately we still could not definitively ID this fungus.

A closer look: might be turkey tail, a mushroom known for its immunomodulating effect

A closer look: possibly turkey tail, a mushroom known for its immunomodulating effect

No one was brave enough to take a bunch home to make into a decoction. But I did learn that ALL mushrooms have beta-glucans in their cell walls, and this is one of the things that gives them immune-boosting properties. (Tip: Cook shrooms for a long time over low heat, with water—that’s the key to accessing the beta-glucans.)

Shaking the pawpaw tree

Shaking the pawpaw tree

We struck out on pawpaws, but I’m told the week before, there was quite a haul.

Wood nettle. Watch out: It bites!

Wood nettle. Watch out: It bites!

We may be gathering seeds of this plant in a week or two. Yum!

Did I mention that “Fall Foraging Forays—Bicycle Edition” is a whole series, and you can drop in on the rest of the sessions? Check out Greg’s website for details.

Fomenting the Ferment

Fermentation on Wheels rolled into town over the weekend. Tara Whitsitt has been driving her mobile fermentation lab cross country since October 2013. As soon as I heard she was coming to Indy, I knew I had to make it to one of her events.

Fermentation on Wheels, a 1986 International Harvester school bus converted to a mobile fermentation lab

Fermentation on Wheels, a 1986 International Harvester school bus converted to a mobile fermentation lab

Tara’s mission is to initiate more people into the wonderful world of fermented foods (like sourdough breads, kefir, sauerkraut, wine, and kombucha). So far her tricked-out bus has traveled over 12,000 miles to share the love.

Tara with pawpaw vinegar

Tara with pawpaw vinegar

Saturday she did a fermentation workshop, which I hear was fabulous. Sunday evening, Seven Steeples Urban Farm (see my earlier blog post about them here) hosted a potluck and culture exchange. That’s where we met Tara and her beautiful kitty.

Tara's cat Franklin is her traveling companion.

Tara’s cat Franklin is her traveling companion.

We had a terrific meal together that included loads of fermented drinks and veggies, some from the pros: Joshua Henson of Fermenti Artisan brought cultured ramps and daikon radishes, along with water kefir lemonade and a bunch of other delicious stuff. There was also a popular fermented drink called beer.

After we ate, it was time to check out the bus.

Inside the bus, where all kinds of groovy stuff ferments!

Inside the bus, where all kinds of groovy stuff ferments!

“I really want to spur the movement of getting back in the kitchen and doing things with our own hands instead of relying on other people to do it for us,” Tara told us.

All across the country, she’s been partnering with farmers and homesteaders to turn local harvests into something out-of-this-world delicious. People give her their home-canned peaches, for example, and bushels of chili peppers. She dried the chilis and used them in kim chee, and they are also a key ingredient in her peach-habanero mead.

Peach habanero wine-in-the-making

Peach habanero mead-in-the-making, with blackberry mead at left

We sampled kombucha, miso, and a mysterious drink of Tibetan origin called “jun.” (Instead of the black tea and sugar that make up kombucha, jun favors green tea and honey.)

We sniffed three types of sourdough starter, each with a different backstory. For example, the Alaskan sourdough came from a person in Portland whose great-grandmother had made it in the 1900s in Alaska. White flour and milk were the original ingredients, and that’s what Tara feeds it to this day. The starter is a key ingredient in creamy sourdough hotcakes favored by Alaskans.

No wonder she calls her starter cultures “heirloom” cultures: They’re completely different from something purchased online, typically made in laboratories.

Eating food from a starter passed down for generations is like wrapping your grandmother’s Afghan around you. Versus a Kmart coverlet. One is imbued with love and history. The other with factory threads and who-know-what labor injustice.

IMG_4728I wish I could say I had something terribly cool to swap with Tara, but she wasn’t all that keen on my dairy kefir grains (of unknown origin: a friend of a friend gave them to me). So, I purchased a rye starter that hails from Brooklyn. As we speak, I’ve got sourdough rye bread dough fermenting on the counter. I’m using Tara’s instructions and recipe: Fingers crossed!

The Ground Rules

Meet “renegade researcher” Nance Klehm. She’s on a mission to transform our thinking about waste—and to transform our waste into healthy soil.

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Nance Klehm

I first met Nance at last October’s Radical Mycology Convergence, which she hosted on her rural land in Illinois. She divides her time between rural and urban—growing native trees, plants, and mushrooms on her land, and nurturing innovative community projects in Chicago.

As a fifth generation horticulturist, she has a passion for working in partnership with nature and enjoying the abundance that results. She has worked on graywater systems, humanure, and soil fertility for years, both in the U.S. and abroad. She was even invited to Haiti to assist with composting toilets after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

She works on composting policy at the state and local level, and teaches “Composting 401” to people who really want to get down and dirty.

“When people say, ‘what’s possible?’ I’ve done it,” she told me. “I have photographs and data and anecdotal experience from living in Chicago for 25 years.” She envisions a widespread scale-up of composting efforts that would shift how cities handle sanitation.

Nancy removing husks from walnuts grown in her food forest.

Nance removing husks from walnuts grown in her food forest.

Recently she was the featured guest on the Root Simple Podcast, talking about her work with community bioremediation in Chicago.

The project, called The Ground Rules, has multiple community-run soil centers working on bioremediation. Urban soils are often contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins. Klehm and her volunteers are addressing this problem by diverting waste into compost.

By bicycle and truck, they pick up discards from restaurants and businesses: uneaten food, vegetable trimmings, and paper towels, for example. Nearby soil centers are where they convert this “slop” into a high-powered soil amendment.

"It's crazy fun to work with food slop," says Nancy.

“It’s crazy fun to work with food slop,” Nance says.

The waste is kept local, put to work in service of the longterm goal of remediating the soil. Bacteria in the compost help to break down inorganic chemicals. The teams also use plants and fungi to help with this goal. So, four biological kingdoms—animal, bacterial, fungal, and plant—partner in this vision.

Here’s a great video about the project:

The Ground Rules from nance klehm on Vimeo.

Nance has a book due out this fall, based on her conversations with others invested in the life of the soil. (Note: It isn’t only farmers who care about the ground under our feet!)

Currently she’s writing a manual for others interested in community bioremediation. She blends practical, technical information with anecdotes from the soil centers, because they are all different. Each site has its own issues and challenges. Nance says the social component of this work is the trickiest part, so it’s important to address that along with the how-to aspect.

She’s running a crowdfunding campaign to support this important work. Any small amount helps.

And of course, if you’re in Chicago, consider volunteering. If you want to hang with fun and funky folks while learning a whole bucketload about advanced composting, she would welcome you, I’m sure!

Update: For more on The Ground Rules project, check out my Acres USA profile of Nance Klehm.