How

“How do we apologize to the plants, the oceans, the air? The Mexicans?”

Asked by a dear friend who came to this country decades ago, wearing skin that makes her a target to some—and now more than ever.

I don’t know the answer.

I can say a mantra learned from the Hawaiian healing tradition of ho’opono pono. I take full responsibility. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

Everything that comes up to confront me is a part of me already, says this tradition. So I take responsibility for it all.

With this mantra comes a sense of settling, and sometimes a bit of clarity. Perhaps an idea arises that may or may not by Divinely inspired: I will join the local Amnesty International group and write letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience. I will volunteer with Exodus Refugee, which works to resettle displaced people in my community. I will look up what Charles Eisenstein  and Starhawk have to say.

Or sometimes it’s an idea like: I will take my dog to the park and reconnect to trees and earth and sky.

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Opal and the Wise Old Oak.

Or simply: I will sit and feel into my body. I will allow my heart to be heard.

I will take this deep breath in, and let it go, and know that no one can steal my peace from me, because I make it myself and receive it as I ask.

Yes, all of these and more. And I still don’t know the answer.

My Dad, Who Made the World Better, Take 4

Father’s Day. Let me tell you about my dad, if you didn’t know him.

My dad loved all things plant. Out on a walk, he’d look down, the better to identify the plants at his feet. During his social worker years, he spent as much of his off hours as possible outdoors, tending his raspberry beds, vegetable garden, and native plantings. As a retiree he had time to participate in all kinds of projects that fit his passion, and he was never happier.

One of the pleasures of being the daughter of such a man is introducing myself as “Donovan’s daughter” to his many friends and co-conspirators. Recently I interviewed a “FOD” (friend of Dad) for an article I was writing. I knew Dad had done some volunteer work with this organization, Central Indiana Land Trust. At the end of the phone conversation I mentioned Dad’s name.

The response in my earpiece was immediate. Cliff Chapman, the organization’s executive director, said, “Oh, Donovan! I loved Donovan!”

He started to tell me stories. How Dad was the only one who came out for the first volunteer work day at a nature preserve called Oliver’s Woods. With two feet of snow on the ground, Dad and Cliff together tackled the first bush honeysuckle (an invasive plant that kills off native plants). It was “the size of a VW beetle,” Cliff said.

Since then over 1500 volunteers have cleared a dozen acres of bush honeysuckle. They used to have to wield a hedge trimmers just to be able to drive up the lane. Now native plants are starting to flourish there. Though the site is not open to the public yet, it is on its way.

Cliff still remembers that very first cut that started everything off.

He told me another story that is just so Dad:

“One of the things he had me do—it was when he was in home hospice care and I went to see him—he said, ‘Hey there’s this plant I’ve planted, it’s got a whole bunch of seeds, and I’d love to see these seeds go to good use.’ So I got a big old bag and collected the seeds and went back in and showed him, and told him I would scatter them somewhere special.”

Chapman planted the seeds—sea oats—along the White River at Oliver’s Woods. He started another stand of sea oats from plugs under a big tree along the lane. He says he always thinks of my dad when he sees those grasses waving.

“Some people are different than other people,” he told me. “He really cared about those things, like he really wanted those seeds to be planted.”

Here is a clump of sea oats in my yard that (if memory serves) originated from Dad. Sometime soon I hope to visit Oliver’s Woods, but in the meantime I will find him near at hand, and be grateful.

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Deep Learning Continues at Avon OLC

Guest blogger Jennifer Davies updates us on her work at Central Indiana’s Avon Outdoor Learning Center. We first posted about this phenomenal program last February, in Portal to the Wider World.

Guest post by Jennifer Davies

For those of you who have been following me and my stubborn refusal to walk away from my job teaching at and coordinating the Avon Outdoor Learning Center since our funding was cut in 2011, I have some good news! I first should point out that Carol Ford and I basically made up this position when I stumbled across the place, back when I moved to Indiana in 2006…and they let us, just to see what we had in mind.

We had just planted the garden (built with grants & volunteers), and hosted more than 7,000 students for the year, when a town referendum failed and the district had to shave $9 million from its budget. Since then I’ve relied on grants, fundraising and donations for my salary. Last year we served 9,100 children with programs designed to supplement classroom instruction with active, outdoor activities.

Planting garden at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

Planting garden at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

We’ve had fantastic community support, with students literally giving me their piggy banks and tooth fairy money. A new Superintendent is behind us. We have a rock solid belief that this patch of earth shows how public education can inspire lifelong learning—and a deep connection to one’s community. (And by “community” I mean local and global, human and otherwise!)

With the current administration turning over every rock, squeezing every penny, and encouraging this community to urge changes in recent school funding legislation, positive change is afoot: The district will be able to hire 20+ teachers to ease classroom sizes, and they are going to fund two-thirds of my position. I’ll still need to raise the remaining one-third, again looking to this community for their help in doing so.

A career path I’d recommend? Probably not. Job satisfaction? HIGH. I had a kiddo tell me two days ago that he tried three new foods (radish, green onion and spearmint) during his visit and he liked them all. Can you test that? Nope. But I’d be willing to bet the experience will be with him for a lifetime and might even help shape the way he looks at the world around him and his place in it.

Harvest time at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

Harvest time at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

For those of you who have mixed your blood, sweat and tears with mine over the past few years—couldn’t have done any of it without you. For my family, for putting up with me and my loopy path—BIG Love. And for those cheering from a distance—Thanks! Can’t wait to see what next year brings!

If you need me, or have an idea for fundraising, I’ll be in the garden…

Note: To contribute volunteer time, fundraising ideas or donations to Avon OLC, email olc@avon-schools.org

Photos courtesy of Avon Outdoor Learning Center.

The Urban Forest

Holly Jones grew up considering trees as relatives. A Native American (“though I might not look like it!”) she sees the world populated with winged people, creeping people, branching people. “A lot of different people are considered sacred in my circle.”

As director of the Indiana Urban Forest Council, she brings that sense of interconnection to her advocacy.

Holly spoke to a group of treehuggers in my neighborhood this week at the Irvington Green Hour.

Holly Jones at the Indiana Urban Tree Council

Holly Jones at the Indiana Urban Tree Council. Photo by Jeff Echols.

She asked us to consider the sounds we might take for granted, the chickadee’s call and other songs of the urban forest. “These sounds are a part of you whether you realize it or not,” she said. “And these sounds are quietly going away.”

With landscapes devoted to specimen plants that hail from a completely different part of the world, it’s no wonder that native species are struggling. Jones said a turnaround will require a different mentality than purchasing random flowering plants from the big box store. Choosing native plants is the only way to feed and shelter the insects and birds that evolved alongside them.

Basically, the foundation of life is in our hands, even we urbanites sitting here on our postage-stamp lots.

“If you want to see life happen, and magic happen, that takes time,” she said, telling the story of planting her first rain garden. As the plants matured, her sense of wonder expanded beyond expectation. “I had to go out and get new guide books! There were so many new species I’d never seen before.”

Holly told us that trees offer their biggest bloom when they’re dying. Some might point to the prolific blooms and deny that a tree’s under stress (from climate change, insect infestation, or pollution) but that’s not the case. “That tree’s giving it all she’s got. She’s saying, ‘It’s my last chance to get my seed out there.’”

In a state where 98 percent of our forests are gone, caring for the remaining trees is essential. Street trees give back 600 times what we invest, with the biggest return coming after the first 10 years.

Average lifespan of a street tree? Seven years.

There are ways to cost-calculate a tree’s service to humans. My streetside sycamore, according to the National Tree Benefit Calculator, will do all this in 2015:

  • intercept 2,015 gallons of stormwater runoff
  • raise the property value by $47
  • conserve 55 Kilowatt / hours of electricity for cooling
  • absorb pollutants through its leaves, while releasing oxygen
  • reduce atmospheric carbon by 299 pounds

According to the model, this adds up to $68 in annual benefits provided by my 11-inch diameter sycamore.

By Jakec, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Jakec, via Wikimedia Commons

Considering that the tree is 40-plus years old, according to this site, that’s a significant dollar amount over its lifespan.

This is all great information for people who need numbers to support a pro-tree position. And it’s not even counting some of the benefits Holly spoke of at the Green Hour. Higher percentage tree canopies correlate to greater health, better school grades, improved sense of community, and more.

To my mind, though, the unquantifiable might be the most powerful thing of all. Trees are wise, restful, gracious spirits. They root deep and stretch high, giving them access to information we humans are not privy to. This sycamore’s presence in my life is a gift.

And that’s just one tree among the urban forest that I love so much.

Want to take action? For locals, here are some ideas:

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.

The Reimagining

Scott Russell Sanders, one of Indiana’s sagest voices for social and ecological justice, led a workshop Sunday called Writing While the World Burns.* His books, from Writing from the Center to A Conservationist Manifesto, have inspired me and countless other readers.

Before I even read the workshop description, I knew I needed to be there.

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I wasn’t disappointed. Scott has a generosity, thoughtfulness, and grace about him that may be a product of his years, or perhaps he’s just built that way. He brought together a disparate group of deeply passionate people and got us talking about where our work and lives fit into the bigger picture.

I know I’ve been on a bit of a Wendell Berry kick of late, but Scott’s the one who gave a Berry quote as context for that exercise:

“The significance—and ultimately the quality—of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.”

Where do we fit? What is our important piece of the puzzle?

In my case, my larger story has to do with lighting the Lights—spreading the word about the tremendous work being done on so many fronts. And not only that, but being a Light, in my own small way.

Earth Hour moment at home - Córdoba Argentina

In fact, “story” is an apt word, because I see all of these efforts as a grand transition to the Story of Reunion (in Charles Eisenstein’s words)—leaving the defunct Story of Separation behind.

As writers, Scott told us, (and as teachers, artists, visionaries, and the like) we enlarge people’s vision of what’s possible. We write a new language that can supplant that tired old ethic of economic gain at any cost. We expand people’s understanding of humanity by sharing our knowledge of those they might consider “other.”

In short, we reimagine the world, and invite others to join us.

*Many thanks to the Indiana Writers Center for offering this tremendous workshop.

Love Where You Live

I asked for a magnifying glass in my Christmas stocking this year. I’d just read Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s excellent book Crow Planet, in which she advocates becoming a “citizen naturalist.” I aspire to that: to take the time to look closely at nature, right here in the urban habitat. (She takes up a similar theme in The Urban Bestiary, which I enjoyed just as much.)

I wish I’d had the magnifying glass with me the other day when I was walking my dog and spotted the first yellow crocuses popping up. I could have fallen on my knees in front of them. I love the beauty of winter, but after days on end of white/gray/black/brown, that splooch of color just about knocks me out.

Photo by Vincent de Groot, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Vincent de Groot, via Wikimedia Commons

Wendell Berry has written of the importance of “backing out of the future into the present, where we are alive, where we belong.” As we make this shift, he says, we also move our focus from an abstraction called “the environment” into the places where we actually live.

This makes sense. When I co-founded the Irvington Green Initiative some years back, we settled on the tagline “Love Where You Live.”

The notion was echoed by my friend Maggie Goeglein Hanna, executive director of Fall Creek Gardens Urban Growers Resource Center. In a recent conversation, she said:

“I feel like you can’t really expect people to care about the natural world if they have no investment in their own place … In my mind, environmental solutions aren’t going to come if we’re only concerned about the pandas in China or the rainforest in the Amazon. Those are important things, but so is our own place, and it won’t ever get better if we all don’t take care of our own place.”

She went on to say that organic gardening in a community setting, as at Fall Creek Gardens, is a way of “opening up the conversation.” Finding earthworms in ground that used to be compacted dirt, watching a family of mockingbirds, planting seeds—all of these root us in the soil that nurtures us.

So with spring officially just hours away (wahoo!) (at least in the northern hemisphere), I’m doing more than planning this year’s garden. I’m renewing my commitment to enjoying the place where I live, and to observing the creatures and plants that share it with me.

What about you: What does it mean to love where you live?