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?

A Mycological Field Trip

Yesterday we drove down to southern Indiana to visit Magnificent Mushrooms, Eric Osborne’s hub for all things mycological. Located outside of Paoli, IN, this growing business offers products and information for the would-be home mushroom cultivator.

That turns out to be us: we came home with three kinds of spawn to put to work here on our wee homestead: “old faithful” shiitakes, Lion’s Mane, and King Stropharia (winecaps).

I will keep you posted on our efforts to expand our food production into the fungal kingdom! I’m a bit concerned about keeping Kitley (our outdoor cat) and his pals away from the logs and woodchips we’ll use as substrate. As I understand it, mushrooms are tolerant of many things…but they probably wouldn’t want to drink cat pee or get all clawed up, any more than I would.

Old Faithful is a strain of shiitake that is slightly furry. Here it is growing off a block of sterilized, inoculated grain.

Old Faithful is a strain of shiitake that fruits in a slightly furry mushroom. Here it is growing off a block of sterilized, inoculated grain.

I’m most excited about attempting to grow winecaps, also known as “the garden mushroom” for its friendly affinity for the vegetable garden.

Bags of King Stropharia spawn

Bags of King Stropharia (winecap) spawn

We plan to try starting it not only in our backyard beds, but also in a low-lying place in the front yard. A natural bowl beneath the sweetgum tree is often waterlogged, and Eric said this kind of spot is perfect for winecaps.

As for Lion’s Mane, I’ve never eaten it, but Eric says it tastes like “heaven on earth.” It’s a pale blobby mushroom that looks a bit like some oceanic organism. Or maybe a cartoon nose.

Eric and I petting a Lion's Mane mushroom.

Eric and I petting a Lion’s Mane mushroom.

Eric sells his harvest to area chefs, so if you’ve eaten a mushroom dish at a Bloomington restaurant, you may have sampled his wares.

He also offers cultivation workshops and consultations. In partnership with the Hoosier Mushroom Society and the state department of health, he’s developed a certification course for wild mushroom hunters, which would allow them to comply with regulations around selling their harvest.

Speaking of: Know any good morel hunting spots?

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.

Peas and the Possible

“The Possible’s slow fuse is lit

By the Imagination.”

—Emily Dickinson

Austrian winter peas planted in my garden

Austrian winter peas planted in my garden

We have already had snow and single digit wind chills here. Yet these Austrian winter peas, planted very late, still grow.

My friend Dawn gave me a couple generous handfuls of seed to play with. I’d never heard of this hardy cover crop that doubles as a tasty wintertime salad green. But Mother Earth News had the full scoop on  planting Austrian winter peas. So somewhere between transplanting herbs and cooking up harvest stews, I threw those seeds in the ground.

I’m so glad I did!

This is the time of year when nighttime slams down on us pretty hard. A time for diving deep and dreaming. Those tender sprouts remind me that sweet tendrils of possibility can thrive in this liminal space.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in a space of unknowing. Allowing guidance to emerge organically, and playing with a deeper trust than I’ve ever had before.

And I love walking out my back door and seeing my little crop. If I never get to eat the shoots, I’ll be perfectly happy just with the view.

Thanks to Yes Magazine‘s Winter 2015 issue for the stunning Dickinson quote.

Neighborliness in a Soup

An email came into my inbox a few weeks ago announcing an initiative called City Suppers. The goal of the program—co-sponsored by City Gallery, Harrison Center for the Arts, and Indiana Humanities—was simply to promote neighborliness by way of soup. On a particular night, everyone citywide was encouraged to sign up to host their neighbors for a simple dinner.

Of course, I loved this idea.

As it turned out, my spouse and I had been talking about having a casual neighborhood get-together for a while. City Suppers gave us the impetus to actually do it—not to mention a deadline to get the house clean.

In my neck of the woods, we define “neighbor” rather loosely as “anyone else who lives in Irvington or thereabouts.” So we invited an assortment of folks—some from just around the corner and some from further afield.

Around our table

A few of those who gathered around our table

Some had never met each other, and others had known each other a long time. Ages ranged from 1 year old to “I’ll never tell.”

We gathered around our table for a convivial evening. I made minestrone and bought some locally made focaccia and cheese. (Everyone seemed terrifically happy with the soup, which we call “peasant food” at our house—nothing all that fancy, but hearty, economical, and flavorful.) Guests brought wine, salad, and desserts. Truly mouthwatering desserts.

But the tasty, nourishing meal was really just an excuse for conversation and connection.

Life can be a full plate most of the time. So full that it seems hard to find the time for this kind of thing. In our neighborhood we have often socialized around shared projects. It was a novel change of pace to connect over a meal instead of at a meeting or work party.

We enjoyed it so much that we’re making more peasant food tonight and having different neighbors over. We’ll go to Russia instead of Italy, with borscht, rye bread, and beer. (Incidentally I traded with another neighbor—my chili peppers for her beets—for the starring veggie of the borscht. Our version of the “cup of sugar.”)

And bonus: the house is still pretty clean. Not that that matters—I figure if we waited till the perfect time to have people over, it would never happen. So why not just do it?

How about you—what’s your favorite way to connect with your neighbors? Is there something you’d like to initiate with the people living near you, but have been putting off? Why not get it going? It could be just the thing to warm a chilly winter night.

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

DIY Food, Medicine, Soil: There’s a Shroom for That

I am still thinking about the Radical Mycology Convergence, an incredibly enriching experience. My last post covered mainly big picture inspiration. Here’s some more hands-on stuff.

For someone who likes to pick wild berries and weeds, I’m terribly ignorant of wild mushrooms. I had no idea that I could eat the puffball mushrooms that occasionally pop up right here in urban yards (my own included).

By Nowa (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

By Nowa (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

In a workshop called “Foraging for Five Foolproof Fungi” we learned about morels, maitake, chicken of the woods, puffballs, and oyster mushrooms. I now desperately want to go mushroom hunting.

But fungi offer us way more than food. As anti-tumor agents and immune boosters, certain mushrooms are powerful medicine. I was excited to hear Peter McCoy speak about home cultivation techniques as a way to make these therapies more affordable.

He said that capsulated versions of medicinal mushrooms are simply mycelium grown on brown rice and dehydrated, with an expensive price tag slapped on them. He passed around a bag of myceliated grains—I think it was cooked rye that had been inoculated with a type of medicinal mushroom mycelium—that kind of looked like white popcorn all mashed together. This is home-cultivated medicine that you can eat (although it probably doesn’t taste like popcorn!)

Then there’s the way fungi can turn waste products into food. I blogged about an example of this last year—how coffee plantation waste, normally burned, can be fed to mushrooms.

Coffee_pulp_mushroom

A mushroom growing on coffee pulp in south-west Rwanda, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s mind-boggling that a nutrient-dense superfood has so few demands; oyster mushrooms, for example, are 30 percent protein and can grow on cardboard! Even citydwellers with limited time and space can grow myceliated grains as a healthy, immune-boosting food.

And as soil helpers, fungi are critical. Below the soil surface many species of fungi are working their magic. But one species in particular, known as wine caps, has double benefit: They fruit with a deliciously edible mushroom, and they build soil tilth. They’re known as the garden mushroom for the way they can be cultivated right alongside garden vegetables.

"Stropharia aurantiaca". via Wikimedia Commons

“Stropharia aurantiaca,” via Wikimedia Commons

The upshot: My spouse and I have moved from this feeling of “it’s too overwhelming to take on a new project” to “let’s grow some mushrooms!”

We came home with plug spawn for chicken of the woods, and I’ve talked to my arborist friend about sending some logs my way this winter. (He said he’d love a few bits of spawn in exchange, and I’m happy to share!) We also want to try growing some winecaps in our garden beds. And since these are both spring projects—and who wants to wait?—we’ll probably grow oysters indoors from a kit this winter.

Stay tuned for reports on our experiments!

Can’t get enough radical mycology? Check out this interview with Peter at Permaculture Voices—the link has several videos showing hands-on home cultivation steps as well.

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.

Reconnecting

Today I enjoyed time with two friends in two separate food-related endeavors. One of them crazy enough to get up early and go questing for a supposedly killer purslane haul. The other tenacious enough to spend several hours shredding produce in my kitchen to make two varieties of sauerkraut.

Two crocks of veggies are fermenting on my table right now.

A batch we made together another time.

A batch we made together another time.

The purslane was a little “gone by,” but we are salvaging it as chicken feed.

And in both cases, we had a great time together, reconnecting.

It made me think of something I just read in an e-newsletter from an eco-village called Dancing Rabbit.

Relearning harmony with the earth at this time in existence is a great undertaking, in a world where bug spray, Big Macs, smartphones, and petroleum are readily available.

Young Thoughtful

It is a great undertaking, I agree. Everything in our culture pulls in the opposite direction. But friends can ease the way. They make swimming upstream companionable.

What about you? In what ways do your friends join you in living a bit more lightly on the planet?