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.

Many Hands

Lisa Boyles, who turned a vacant lot into a beautiful meditation space and labyrinth, is coordinating a new project in her neighborhood. Her energy and drive are truly inspiring. In fact, when I read that she spent part of her birthday volunteering, it moved me to spend part of my birthday helping with her latest project. Check out what she’s up to in today’s guest post.

Guest post by Lisa Boyles

Imagine people of all ages working together to improve their neighborhood. Think of a city unified through installations of art painted by community members. By designing a series of geometric projects, Andrew Severns has a vision for public art in the city of Indianapolis that can accomplish these things.

Artist Andrew Severns outlines the design for the mural at E 10th and N Sherman Dr.

Artist Andrew Severns outlines the design for the mural at E 10th and N Sherman Dr.

He says that the geometric uniformity among murals and other pieces of art will ensure its strength and timelessness while giving a well-defined look to the city at large. And through the outlines of shapes that Severns provides, those who help paint have a guide for creating a beautiful piece of art.

The project at the corner of East 10th  Street and North Sherman Drive is part of a larger series along the railroad underpasses in the Rivoli Park Neighborhood. The areas where these projects are planned need care and attention. By creating art that is participatory, people in the community can feel a sense of ownership of these previously neglected corridors.

# 3 Many hands came together to beautify this street corner, all coordinated by Lisa Boyles (foreground).

Many hands came together to beautify this street corner, all coordinated by Lisa Boyles (foreground).

The geometric style that Andrew uses reminds me of the colored pieces in a kaleidoscope. These shapes interconnect to make a pattern representative of the many different people in our neighborhood living together. It has been terrific to see so many people coming together to paint the mural at this busy intersection—and to hear the honks of approval and positive comments of people driving by.

The community's handprints are all over this site!

The community’s handprints are all over this site!

Students, teachers and parents from the Paramount School of Excellence participated in this mural project. The students seem especially excited to be a part of something positive that will have a lasting impact in their neighborhood.

Students from Paramount School of Excellence helped paint this mural.

Students from Paramount School of Excellence helped paint this mural.

Everyone who has donated or volunteered will have his or her name (or a dedication) alongside the edge of a section of the mural. When people think of their dedication, they are encouraged to also think of a meditation or intention to be a part of creating a better community. We will all share our thoughts about the project at a celebration party at the culmination of the first phase of the project on November 22nd.

#2 Community members of all ages have come together to paint the shapes in the mural.

Community members of all ages have come together to paint the shapes in the mural.

The online fundraiser for the Rivoli Park Mural Project continues through Friday, November 7th.  An investment in this project is an investment in community.  Check out the incentives and details here.

Expanding the Medicine Chest with Herbs

Last week I spent a sunny afternoon working an herb garden while learning more about the uses of medicinal herbs. My friend Greg Monzel is a community herbalist who’s helped many (including me) with natural medicines that he grows, gathers, and prepares. Another friend, Dawn Ryan, also helped with Greg’s culinary herb garden in exchange for several transplants.

We started with homemade herbal tea in the kitchen, where Greg’s son charmed the socks off us.

Ready for action

Ready for action

Since moving to this property, Greg’s had all his herbs in the “back 40.” Our goal was to help transplant culinary herbs to a kitchen garden right outside the back door.

To the back 40, with Greg's dog Timber eager to show us the way.

To the back 40, with Greg’s dog Timber eager to show us the way.

His ingenious plan: to keep a slight trench running the length of the bed, starting near the hose and slanting slightly toward the opposite end. With cornstalks laid in as slowly-decomposing organic matter, the trench will allow for ease of watering. Prepping the bed was our first task.

Planting cilantro in front of the trench

Planting cilantro in front of the trench

Then, over lunch of butternut squash soup and salad straight out of the garden, we talked about medicinal herbs. Greg produced a book called The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook, which included a list of the most useful herbs. I realized I already have several of these in my garden, though I only actively use one. (We have a passionflower growing up our fence. I cut the vines in fall to dry into a calming tea. That’s after we—and the bumblebees—enjoy the blooms all summer.)

A maypop planted along our fence, one of many plantings inspired by permaculture

Passionflower in summer. We thought we were growing it  for its fruit, but for me, it’s all about the tea!

And did you know that many culinary herbs also have medicinal function? Greg gave the example of sage: It dries up things like colds and post-nasal drip. This makes me happy to host three large sage “bushes,” which we periodically snip for seasoning and smudging.

Later, after we’d dug up and moved sage, lavender, thyme, parsley, and the like, it was time to make our selections from Greg’s herbs. I chose creeping thyme, feverfew, valerian, motherwort, pennyroyal, spearmint, yarrow, and a lovely wild mint that has been going strong for a couple generations now. Greg’s Dad first brought it into his garden, and Greg took starts of it, and now is giving starts away.

Herbalist and son showing us medicinal herbs

Herbalist and son showing us medicinal herbs

That’s the way of gardeners, isn’t it? In fact, the day reminded me an awful lot of hanging out with my Dad in his garden on a fall day. He’d divide plants and offer them to me and any of my friends who expressed the slightest interest.

Dawn and I worked together the next day, figuring out where to tuck in our new babies, giving them a good start. It felt great to expand the resilience of my home medicine chest, especially in such good company. And maybe someday soon I will have starts to give away myself.

diggin

Fungi Offer a Model and a Hope

Last weekend’s Radical Mycology Convergence was an eye-opener to the mystery and power of the fungus kingdom.

signDid you know that fungi called endophytes live within plants, lending structure and resilience to the plant? “If we took away the fungal cells, we would see these scrawny, floppy little trees,” said Maia, one of the organizers.

Or that mycorrhizal fungi help plant roots take in nutrients in exchange for sugars? Trees in a forest benefit from this “silent stewardship role,” said Peter, an organizer and earlier contributor to this blog. He explained that the mycelium channels sugars to baby trees deep under the forest canopy to ensure their survival. Perhaps thinking of the “next seven spore generations.”

Or that only 10 percent of our cells is actually human—the rest bacterial and fungal? “We need to stop thinking of ourselves as singular organisms,” said Willoughby, another organizer. “We are walking ecosystems. We need to appreciate and nurture all these cells within us.”

From microscopic fungi, whose ecological role is often overlooked, to the 2500-acre honey mushroom in Oregon (largest living organism in the world), the message is clear: Fungi offer the human race a model and a hope.

Mycelium colonizing a log that's been inoculated with shiitake mushroom spore.

Mycelium colonizing a log that’s been inoculated with shiitake mushroom spore.

What struck me about the Radical Mycology Convergence was the deep respect for nature in general and fungi in particular. Here is a movement that is not about exploitive, extractive approaches to a “natural resource,” but rather: working with fungi as allies for the betterment of all life. That includes cultivating mushrooms for food sovereignty, medicine, and remediation.

The promise of mycoremediation is great, and Radical Mycology is all about spreading the tools for home cultivation. But as Peter emphasized, we need to be humble in our explorations. We don’t want to just burst onto a contaminated scene and “throw oyster mushrooms at it” without first observing the healing already taking place, organically, through the wisdom of the fungi naturally present.

“Who are we to say we know more than nature does?” he said. The time for presumptive action is over. We must first watch, learn, observe.

I learned so much more, but here’s one last thing: When a mushroom gets ready to reproduce, it sends out spores. A spore germinates into a hypha, a filament. It’s one strand of what eventually, with luck, becomes a mycelial network.

But that hypha is only one cell thick, and needs a partner, a genetic match. It works invisibly, underground. You can’t see it. If it comes together with another hypha, that’s when mycelium begins to branch in all directions through its environment. And finally, when conditions are right, it makes a beautiful fruiting body, a mushroom.

Cultivation workshop at the Radical Mycology Convergence (an event that one organizer likened to "the fruiting body of a mycelial network.")

Cultivation workshop at the Radical Mycology Convergence (an event that one organizer likened to “the fruiting body of a mycelial network.”)

A fitting metaphor for social change work, which is not always visible to the mainstream.

We may feel like we’re laboring in the dark, but when we connect with others—even starting with just one!—the network that results can produce something nourishing and healthy, a powerful gift that seems to show up “overnight.”

Putting the “Radical” in Mycology

Soon I’ll be on my way to this weekend’s Radical Mycology Convergence, an annual gathering of citizen scientists, mushroom enthusiasts, and other earth-loving types. It’s all about learning how to heal the earth by partnering with fungi.

Radical Mycology Collective founder Peter McCoy’s guest post explained how mushrooms become our allies, teachers, and partners.

“The Radical Mycology project revolves around just this philosophy: that by studying, working with, and learning from the fungal kingdom, humans can best find solutions to problems of personal, societal, and ecological health.”

—Peter McCoy

I mentioned before that I had a chance to help Peter and other radical mycologists with an installation of bioluminescent mushroom mycelium this summer in Olympia, WA. Here’s a bit more about that experience to whet your appetite for the convergence.

We used both “plug spawn” and “chip spawn” of a mushroom called panellus stipticus.

Peter holds a jar of "plug spawn"--bits of furniture dowel that he inoculated with mycelium.

Peter holds a jar of “plug spawn”–bits of furniture dowel that he inoculated with mycelium.

Panellus is not known for remediative properties, but for its ability to—seriously—glow in the dark.

I saw this bioluminescence for myself when I took a section of inoculated burlap home. Tiny mushrooms had emerged on the outside of the “chip spawn” bag, and they did indeed glow in the dark. One of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time.

Checking out the "fruiting bodies" (tiny mushrooms) on the outside of the burlap bag full of inoculated wood chips.

Checking out the “fruiting bodies” (tiny mushrooms) on the outside of the burlap bag full of inoculated wood chips.

We used inoculated wood chips to make a path around an herb garden.

Lining the path with burlap

Lining the path with burlap

The hope is that on dark nights, visitors to the Commons at Fertile Ground will see a faintly glowing path. (And check the size of that rosemary plant in the photo above. That’s the Pacific Northwest for you.)

Spreading inoculated wood chips

Spreading inoculated wood chips

The dowel bits went into a freshly cut red alder log. Eventually the log itself should glow, or it may even pop out with little glowing mushrooms.

Drilling holes (at right) to be filled with plug spawn (left)

Drilling holes (at right) to be filled with plug spawn (left)

Peter emphasized that the same techniques could be used in a mycoremediation project, or to grow mushrooms as food or medicine.

Radical mycologists!

Radical mycologists (with finished alder log)

I’m so looking forward to learning more this weekend—it promises to be a deep immersion in all things mycological. A sampling of workshops:

  • Liquid Culture will Change the World
  • Direct Action for Myco-Activists
  • Permaculture for Radicals

The leaders will be guiding us through several onsite remediation projects. Other attractions: a Passion Show, culture/spore swap, and “forays.” Wahoo!

So to get in the spirit, for the first time ever I tried a mushroom called chicken of the woods. Its beautiful orange folds just called to me from the food co-op bin.

By Kbh3rd (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

By Kbh3rd (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been sauteeing bits of it up with my eggs every day for lunch. I’m finding it a pretty complement to bright orange egg yolks, and it does taste like chicken. So here’s to trying new things.

Note: Registration is still open for the Radical Mycology Convergence, happening Oct. 9-13 in Orangeville, IL.

Lessons from the Ecovillage

Guest blogger Jami Gaither reports on her recent stay at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, located in Rutledge, MO.

Guest post by Jami Gaither

I expected my three-week Visitor Session at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage to expose me to natural building, cisterns and alternative power. What I didn’t expect were the surprises I encountered.

Photo by Jami Gaither

Photo by Jami Gaither

The first surprise was the amazingly good vegan/vegetarian food. Who knew it could be so tasty, filling and energizing? We had meat for only three meals in three weeks. While I rarely eat fish, at my first dinner back in “concrete world” I ordered Mahi Mahi. This was the most attractive item on the menu and a healthy alternative to my usual chicken or pork. My time at Dancing Rabbit influenced how I see and consume food.

The limited and well-planned use of vehicles was another revelation. Each week, residents review the needed vehicle plans. Seventy people manage to share four vehicles: a Jetta, a Passat, a Leaf, and a large work truck with optional trailer. They do this by planning trips and combining them when possible. The cost for each trip is paid by the member taking it. The $0.65/mile covers the cost of the car, gas, insurance, and maintenance.

For example, a 125-mile round-trip from Dancing Rabbit to the Possibility Alliance, an educational homestead in La Plata, MO, cost me just over $20 ($81.25 divided by 4 riders). This initially seemed pricey to me. But I realized that minimizing the need for travel and sharing rides makes the cost of having a vehicle very reasonable.

The full schedules of members was a third recognition. “Rabbits,” as residents are known, are busy building homes (largely by hand) while raising food (via small-scale organic gardening) and children (some are home-schooled). They do all this in keeping with a commitment to the Dancing Rabbit mission:

To create a society, the size of a small town or village, made up of individuals and communities of various sizes and social structures, which allows and encourages its members to live sustainably. To encourage this sustainable society to grow to have the size and recognition necessary to have an influence on the global community by example, education, and research.

Members and residents spend a few to several hours per week on tasks that keep the community and co-ops functioning. Tasks range from clearing paths and dumping humey (humanure) buckets to cooking a meal for a food co-op. Many also pledge hours to committee work. Since discussions are consensus-based with open/clear/respectful communication by all, this important work can be some of the hardest to do.

Photo by Jami Gaither

Photo by Jami Gaither

This brings me to the biggest surprise of all: the commitment to interact using non-violent communication (NVC) and mediation. My NVC training was eye-opening; it takes much energy, commitment, honesty, and trust.

Some say that living in an intentional community is the most expensive, longest lasting personal development program you’ll ever experience. The community becomes a house of mirrors. Even in my short visit, I learned how my perspective and experience govern my words and deeds. Several interactions indicated I’d hit a nerve or spoken callously…unaware or inconsiderate of the perspective of the other. Working on self-improvement can be a long process.

Some argue that we do not have environmental problems, only communication problems that prevent us from using resources wisely and for the greatest good of the whole. The more we communicate, the closer we feel to others. That sense of connectedness encourages us to take care of others and be less self-focused.

Photo by Jami Gaither

Photo by Jami Gaither

I believe that with some effort, we can each make strides to be more self-aware and considerate. In time, we can interact more effectively and humanely with our fellow beings on Mother Earth.

Ohio native Jami Gaither is a recently retired metallurgical engineer now pursuing a lifestyle based on sustainability, simplicity and fun. While not yet certain of her life path to come, the process of exploring is keeping her enthralled. She lives in Minnesota with her husband Danny.