We’re Walking Ecosystems: Notes on Collaboration

Lately I’ve been thinking about collaboration. I envision a world where nations, geographic regions, cities, neighborhoods, and affinity groups find an ease and flow in working together.

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Photo credit Michael Mayer, via Flickr Creative Commons

Maybe it seems pie-in-the-sky, but we have a model for that kind of collaboration. It’s right here, as close as our own skin. Modern science now confirms that the human body is a collaboration in itself.

Some 90 percent of our cells are—get this—not human. They’re bacterial, or fungal, or even viral. Don’t be afraid! They mean us no harm. We’re their habitat. A walking community. A microbiome.

If we keep balance within the community of our cells—I’m talking happy bacteria and fungi here—we generally enjoy good health, and recover from illness more quickly.

This Brainscape article explains it all so well—the ecosystems within us, each with their own unique microorganisms. These wee “microbiota” do all kinds of things for us in exchange for giving them a suitable environment to thrive. They help with digestion, brain activity, and immune function, just for starters.

Most curiously, our mitochondria—an organelle within cells that is responsible for converting digested food into energy—contains DNA that is…not human. “These organelles came from outside of us, down a separate evolutionary path.”

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Mitochondria (red) are organelles found in most cells. They generate a cell’s chemical energy. Credit: NICHD/U. Manor, via Flickr Creative Commons

At the microscopic level, human life depends on a symbiotic relationship.

From the article:

“When Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, the dominant theory soon came to be survival of the fittest: a rat race for domination and survival. But both of these examples — mitochondria and our internal biota — point toward another means by which life thrives and evolves: symbiosis.”

I find that fascinating, and also telling.

Of course, zoom in tighter on the cells of our body—and what are they? Whirling clouds of particles. There’s nothing solid to us.

We’re made of space, basically. Our lives reliant on organisms we have always vilified or at the very least, ignored.

Knowing that, is it possible to see the human community in a different way?

Hiatus!

Time to make official what’s been in the works for a few weeks months now. I’m putting the blog on hiatus for at least the first quarter of 2016. It’s time to retool everything on my to-do list to align better with my current focus (or foci?).

In a nutshell: My work is moving more into the healing arts arena, while I continue to write nonfiction. In both of these areas, I’m part of an ever-growing “Team,” as author Martha Beck calls it—working to bring about a new Story of Connection.

Photo by Michael Lokner, via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Michael Lokner, via Flickr Creative Commons

I see energy work as a way to raise our collective vibration, which we need to do—at least if we’re going to birth a  new and resilient future. So I’m getting certified in ThetaHealing, one of the energy techniques I practice.

Here is a workshop series I’m bringing to Indy in February. If you’re interested in joining me, which would be lovely, you can sign up at instructor Jean Shinners’ website.ThetaHealing Flier

I have a series of smaller workshops planned for the coming months in Indianapolis. The first one, Empath 101, will cover how manage being “so dang empathic,” as one of my empath friends puts it.

If you’d like to have a heads-up on these opportunities, or to learn more about my work, please sign up for my (revamped) e-newsletter.

Adventures in Worm Composting

A reader asked whether any of my multiple worm bins have overwintered outdoors. The answer is yes. Well, kind of.

Let me give you an overview of the worm farming situation here. I’m not great at raising worms, although it’s supposed to be foolproof. (I refer all questions to Castaway Compost, my go-to for all things vermicompost. Check out my Farm Indiana piece on Keith O’Dell, pirate worm composter.)

1. My first experience was with my Garden Tower. I discovered too late that I stuffed the center tube too full, too fast. This tube is where the worms are supposed to eat their jolly way through my food scraps all summer long, and theoretically survive the winter. In the compacted medium, let’s just say they did not thrive one iota. (This year I’m being more more judicious with my feedings.)

2. Then I started a store-bought dealie with four layers. I am still only on the second layer almost a year later. I can’t figure out how to get my wigglers to eat and reproduce very fast. And I’m not sure when to harvest the castings. But I haven’t completely killed anyone off yet—that I know of.

Here’s a top view of my Sunleaves bin. I used coconut coir as the bedding. This was before I added the second layer, using shredded office paper as the bedding.

My storebought worm bin, which stays in the basement year-round.

My store-bought worm bin, which stays in the basement year-round.

3. My third foray is indeed a year-round outdoor “bin”—more of a pit, really. We used a book called The Complete Compost Gardening Guide as our inspiration for this project. The idea is to have a covered hole in which to compost food and yard waste, convenient to your kitchen door. So, last fall we dug a rectangular pit about 18 inches deep. (I use the word “we” loosely on this digging bit.)

I forgot to document the digging and building phases.

Unfortunately I forgot to document the digging and building phases.

We started off by putting shredded leaves from our yard (and the neighbors’) into the pit, without adding any worms. We cover all our garden beds with the same stuff.

Affixing hardware to the lid, which I believe was cobbled together from old pallets.

Judy affixing hardware to the lid, which I believe was cobbled together from old pallets.

At the time I did not have a paper shredder that worked, so I geeked out on hand shredding things for a while. I just really like the idea of worms eating stuff like phone books and toilet paper rolls!

A very patient friend spent an evening helping me create paper bedding to add to the shredded leaves. Worm farming = big fun for all!

A very patient friend spent an October evening helping me tear up paper to add to the shredded leaves. Worm farming = big fun for all!

We added the shreds to the leaves along with some vegetable scraps for worms to munch on.

Creating a nice buffet and bed for the wigglers.

Creating a nice buffet and bed for the wigglers.

The next step was to moisten everything well. Worms do not like dry places.

Mixing and moistening

Mixing and moistening. I must not have had any rainwater.

The book said something about worms appreciating the channels in corrugated cardboard, so I added some wet strips of cardboard. It also said they go crazy for cornmeal or wheat flour. We had a bag of flour that a mouse had chewed through, so I sprinkled some of that on top. Then it was Wiggler Time.

The dark stuff is a handful of bedding and worms from the indoor bin.

The dark stuff is a handful of bedding and worms from the indoor bin.

After that, we just tossed our kitchen scraps on top, crushing egg shells as best we could with a hoe. We did it all winter long, except when the lid was frozen shut or buried under snow.

Then this spring, someone suggested spreading some soil on top and giving the worms a break from new food. I did that, and later added a layer of shredded paper. (Our Christmas gift to ourselves was a whiz-bang shredder. Total Geekdom.)

Shredded paper as mentioned in my previous post!

Shredded paper, as detailed in my previous post

Now you can see, a few months later, that the stuff is well on its way to becoming a sweet soil amendment. Worms are still in there. (Whether they’re the original worms or their offspring or some random opportunists, I can’t say. But I think I can claim this as an overwintering victory.)

Lots of brown eggshells still showing. What can I say, I eat a lot of eggs.

Lots of brown eggshells still showing. What can I say, I eat a lot of eggs.

I recently pulled the bulk of the material to one side to begin adding another round of food scraps. The experiment continues…

There’s still a fourth bin to talk about, also outside, which is new this summer. But that might be for another day. Let me see how it works out first!

Thar be worms in that thar bin (unless they've perished in the heat).

Thar be worms in that thar bin (unless they’ve perished in the heat).

Transition and Transformation

Every writer should have a worm colony to eat her spent words. Especially if she’s grieving the loss of her beloved dog.

His name was Marley. We named him after the great Bob Marley. This was before "Marley and Me."

His name was Marley. We named him after the great Bob Marley. (This was before “Marley and Me.”)

I feed my drafts to the shredder when they’ve served their purpose. The shredder cross-cuts everything into bits the width of a highlighter’s stroke, the length of the tiniest paperclip. When the receptacle is full, I shower this ticker tape parade over one of four worm farms I’ve got going right now.

Worm pit after ticker tape parade

Worm pit after ticker tape parade, with rainwater.

Are they actually eating my words or are they just nesting there, my happy, scrappy red wigglers, snug in moist paper and a bit of soil and leaves? With rotting vegetable parings for their buffet.

I wrote once long ago, or stole the idea, of everything in a writer’s life becoming compost. “It’s all material,” an early writing teacher told me. Now even my stilted phrases and test drafts and failed pieces have become compost.

I’m feeding the worms that in turn offer their pooped-out product to nourish my soil—soil in which we grow the food that feeds the writer who makes the words that shelter the worms. A closed loop.

Also in the worm bins? Junk mail, that clutters my desk until I go on a shredding rampage. Cardboard toilet paper rolls chopped into bits. Tea leaves from my tea ball. Shed leaves from houseplants. Newspapers. Anything else I can think of: Q tips, napkins, toothpicks, and other rarely used ephemera.

Also: Mats cut from the cat’s britches, tangled there over weeks of neglect while I worried over her brother, the dog. Tissues loaded with my snot and tears, from meltdowns over that same dog’s decline.

Moistened with rainwater, it all melts together into the special kind of slop that worms (I’m told) adore—sweetened with handfuls of veggie scraps and stale crackers and the like.

Worms at work

Worms at work

The dog died; the worms and time work together to turn something lost into something gained.

Sweet dreams, friend.

Sweet dreams, friend.

An Unexpected Gift

Yesterday, Father’s Day, brought me an unexpected gift. A neighbor messaged me late in the evening offering just-picked raspberries. Would we like some? Of course! “Check on your porch by the mailbox,” she messaged a few minutes later.

My dessert: raspberries, kefir, vanilla, toasted sunflower seeds.

How was she to know that red raspberries would bring me a direct connection with my Dad, who grew them up until the year he died? His overabundance was always my gain. Even the container they came in, a repurposed plastic food tub, evoked his (and Mom’s) habit of reusing everything.

They're half gone already, because I had some for breakfast too!

They’re half gone already, because I had some for breakfast too.

A friend tells me this morning, Surely that was a gift straight from your father.

I miss him. On Friday I received a quilt specially made from a few of the T shirts he used to wear. Yesterday morning I put my cheek against that “Seize the Carp” square and imagined his heart beating under the fabric.

Many thanks to Helen Ryan-King for making this for me.

Many thanks to Helen Ryan-King for making this for me.

No one else will ever love me the way he loved me, a friend wrote, on losing her own dad.

A statement true and sad.

So many of us walk around with broken hearts. I think of the Buddhist story of the woman mad with grief after the death of her only child. The Buddha offers to bring the child back, but only if she can find a mustard seed from a house untouched by death.

She searches house to house. Here someone has lost a parent, there a child, there a beloved brother, there a cherished friend. She comes back and tells the Buddha, I couldn’t find anyone untouched by loss.

She lets the child go.

Knowing we all share this human experience, I want to open to the love that is available all around me, in so many forms.

A couple I know slightly from down the street, seeing me standing on my bike in the bike lane, slow their car to check on me: “You OK?” (Just waiting for a break in traffic to make a dicey turn—but it touches me to hear their concern.)

A cat named Morty, leery of everyone but his deceased owner, finds me on my front step. Rubs against my knee, beaks my nose with his. Hello, new friend.

A concert of singing bowls, vibrating with tabla, flute, and didgeridoo, offers me a place to rest in All That Is.

What I want to say is this: May my broken heart be of service. May I remember that this brokenness is something we all share. May our connection help to heal a broken world.

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.

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!