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.

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.

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.