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?

sweet flag

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.

Greg showing ??

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.

Seven Steeples Farm

Last month I got to meet Justin Berg and Mike Higbee, who are doing something I admire: turning unused urban land into an agricultural oasis. As with many such endeavors, they glean local materials to build soil—leaves from curbside refuse, manure from the police department’s Mounted Patrol stables.

What’s unique about this urban farm, though, is that it’s being built atop the pulverized remains of an old mental institution.

Seven Steeples Farm

Seven Steeples Farm

To anyone growing up in Indy, as I did, “Central State” was synonymous with the loonybin. We all knew that it was an insane asylum, back in the day, and as late as 1994 it was still operating as a psychiatric facility.

The enormous campus fell into disuse after Central State Hospital closed, but recently the site has been redeveloped into Central Greens urban village. Part of the project includes Seven Steeples Farm, so-called because the 5-acre parcel being farmed is on the footprint of a building called Seven Steeples, where women were institutionalized.

The building was demolished midcentury, and apparently is now buried under the vast lawn area where Justin and Mike have begun growing produce for the past year. Sheltering old trees that must have borne witness to all kinds of pain still stand, shading the chicken run and outdoor classroom area.

I have to say, this thing has lit my imagination in surprising ways. I’ve read The Yellow Wallpaper and other stories of “madwomen in the attic.” How easy it was to cart women away for any infraction back when this asylum was established (1850s.) I can think of several reasons why I myself, in an earlier era, could have gotten myself tossed in there.

And what sort of “treatment” did the women undergo, inside the walls of Seven Steeples?

It feels to me like a major healing of an old wound to have an urban farm there. Community volunteers (and patrons) enjoy a peaceful setting smack in the middle of a somewhat sketchy part of town. The food is accessibly priced so that people living in the middle of a food desert can have a decent choice of nourishment.

Justin Berg, farm manager, and Mike Higbee, project coordinator, with lady friend

Justin Berg, farm manager, and Mike Higbee, project coordinator, with lady friend

Visitors love to sit on the stumps next to the chicken run and just get on “chicken time.”

The farm has announced 2015 CSA (community supported agriculture) plans, and will also have a weekly farm stand to sell eggs and produce. (More info: info@sevensteeplesfarm.com or 317-713-9263.)

Justin says, “Call to set up a tour, and everyone’s more than welcome to come by the farm stand if they’re in the area. They can grab up some produce and come check out what a rural setting could look like in the city.”

See my Farm Indiana piece for more on this project.

Step Up to the Fire

One of my favorite year-end practices comes at Solstice time, when we gather with friends to mark the longest night. While we welcome the return of the light, we let go of what no longer serves us.

My spouse and I have been doing this with various groupings of women friends for a couple decades now. We build a fire and each burn something to symbolize what we’re ready to release.

IMG_4453Over the years I’ve noticed a shift in the types of things people throw on the fire. If I remember right, in our 20s and 30s we often burned things like business cards, to symbolize an important job transition. I recall burning “toxic” letters, wanting to shift a problematic relationship.

Looking back, the focus felt external to some degree: We needed to declare that something was over and done, and move on.

(I do recall that one creative soul burned a photocopy of a sponge, to indicate she no longer needed to absorb everyone else’s “stuff.”)

In general, nowadays, it feels like we all are more apt to turn our focus inward. What is it within me that is ready to slough off? Is it my need to be right? my habit of pushing? my fears? my dismissive self-talk?

One by one, we step up to the fire and burn the pattern that’s holding us back.

At our 2013 Solstice celebration, this is what I committed to the fire: my need to distract myself. What would happen, I wondered, if every time I thoughtlessly drifted to Facebook, email, or some other addiction, I first checked in on my inner world?

The result, over the course of the year, was a deepening of quiet, and an opening of possibility. I began to turn toward whatever plagued me instead of overriding it. I began to listen more carefully to guidance, to seek it, to act on it.

I had been moving in this direction since my dear friend, energy healer Merry Henn, introduced me to energy work several years back. In a 15-year quest to heal from fibromyalgia, the “invisible arts” (as I sometimes call them) proved indispensable. In combination with other healthy practices, energy healing and emotional clearing have brought me back to resilience. I no longer get sick at the drop of a hat, and I no longer need the maintenance regimen that sustained me for so long.

Now I find myself offering intuitive sessions and hands-on healing work to others, integrating everything I’ve learned. I never imagined myself in this role. But it turns out to be one of the most meaningful contributions I could ever make to a new Story of Reunion.

It was the Solstice ritual that helped me receive this unexpected gift.

I won’t say yet what I burned at the 2014 Solstice gathering, but who knows what magic is afoot after that releasing?