A Little Help from the Fungus Kingdom

Yesterday I went on a quest for the fabled fungus that’s been mopping up petrochemicals from a food co-op’s parking lot. Olympia Food Co-op‘s eastside store was the place. I timed my visit just right, happening upon a crew of landscapers working the butterfly and bird garden.

The grounds of this food co-op include a sweet garden meant to attract pollinators.

Outside the food co-op is a sweet garden meant to attract pollinators (and people).

Sarika, the co-op’s landscape coordinator, jumped at the chance to tell me about the project. The mycoremediation began five years ago in partnership with Olympia Mycelial Network. Oyster mushrooms are able to digest petrochemicals into harmless compounds. So the drainage ditch of the parking lot contains several burlap bags full of oyster mushroom mycelium.

Bags filled with oyster mushroom mycelium.

Bags filled with oyster mushroom mycelium.

The idea is to filter the oil before it hits the drain down by the sidewalk.

Ever wonder where the runoff disappears to when it enters a drain like this?

Ever wonder where the runoff disappears to when it enters a drain like this?

I also met Brittany and Jordan, two young Louisiana-born “WWOOFers” volunteering with Sarika. They are traveling around the country with another friend, exploring farming innovations and learning how they can be of use to our beautiful planet. (Check out their adventures at Traveling Tripod.)

Jordan, Sarika, and Brittany

Jordan, Sarika, and Brittany

Brittany waxed eloquent about the role of mushrooms—this critical work is all about ensuring “clean water for everyone.”

Signage showing the overview of the mycoremediation

Signage showing an overview of the fungi’s work

Having been in the Pacific Northwest for almost a month, I’m beginning to grasp the extreme sensitivity of Puget Sound. This project represents just one small but significant effort to right the wrongs of our polluting ways.

Hood Canal, a basin of Puget Sound, as seen from Potlatch Beach on a moody day.

Hood Canal, a basin of Puget Sound, as seen from Potlatch Beach on a moody day.

The possibilities are staggering. Peter McCoy, who last year contributed a guest post about radical mycology, first told me about this project over a year ago. Finally seeing those humble mushroom bags doing their work brought tears to my eyes.

Sarika is looking into funding to pursue farther-reaching remediation. And the Radical Mycology Collective, of which Olympia Mycelial Network is a part, is launching its fall tour today. I can’t wait till the big Radical Mycology Convergence, taking place in Orangeville, IL this October!

Building with the Mudgirls

I spent part of last week at a workshop offered by the Mudgirls, a natural building collective in British Columbia.

The Mudgirls strive to live lightly on the earth while sharing skills among themselves and the wider community. And when it comes to resilience, building shelter from earthen materials is about as serious as you can get. This is a group that embodies the reimagined world, and a powerful DIWO (do-it-with-others) spirit.

The Mudgirls do their work in child- and mother-friendly style.

The Mudgirls do their work in child- and mother-friendly style.

Collective member Rose hosted our workshop on cooperatively owned land on Denman Island. We camped in the forest by night and bartered our labor for instruction by day. About 15 others took part, bringing enthusiasm and good humor to the work.

Some of our group making cob, a mix of clay, sand, straw, and water.

Some of our group making cob, a mix of clay, sand, straw, and water.

Rose is converting an existing structure on the land into a home for herself and her family. Using temporary plywood forms, we packed the walls with insulating material called slip straw. We made this insulation from straw and a clay-and-water slurry.

Making "slip straw" to insulate the walls. (Spot the pasty writer?)

Making “slip straw” to insulate the walls. (Spot the pasty writer?)

In a few weeks the walls will be dry enough to plaster.

house

House with slip straw insulation in the walls. The plywood is temporary, just to create a form to pack the slip straw in.

A hand-laid stone foundation forms the base for a cob-walled addition. (The team that worked on setting the stone found it a lesson in patience.)

Wall taking shape on top of the stone foundation

Wall taking shape on top of the stone foundation

We all helped mix the cob, which is a blend of clay, sand, and water, with a sprinkling of straw. While clay has compressive strength, it lacks tensile strength–the role of the straw. We learned that the straw has a similar job as rebar in concrete, adding internal structure to the dense material.

Mixing a batch of cob.

Mixing a batch of cob.

Building the wall was perhaps the most exciting task.

Building the wall

Building the wall

Some people made it look easy. But I’m still not sure the section I worked on could be called plumb!

Room addition taking form, with window.

Room addition taking form, with window.

I asked Molly, one of the Mudgirls who helped with instruction, how the Mudgirls mission fits into the broader picture of ecological and societal upheaval. Beyond  her passion for natural building, she told me, what excites her is the community that’s being nurtured.

Molly mixing clay slip with a giant eggbeater-type tool.

Molly mixing clay slip with a giant eggbeater-type tool.

The women of the collective have known each other for years and have a solid commitment to each other. They make decisions by consensus, taking the time to talk things out (though in recent years the talks are shorter as the big issues have been resolved). Members all know that they have each others’ best interest at heart, and each agrees to take responsibility for her own needs and desires.

Molly said that people who come to workshops often reconnect at later events, forming lasting friendships. So community extends beyond the core collective. She sees participants as pollinators, taking our inspiration beyond the islands of British Columbia.

Example of a finished cob house (actually this one's a hybrid).

Example of a finished cob exterior.

For me the experience was all about the freedom to try something new. I had to grant myself compassion for the learning curve, and work on forgiving my body its frailties. The Mudgirls’ supportive environment made that possible.

And it was thrilling to help build an actual home. These hands that spend so much time on a keyboard are part of Rose’s homestead now.

Possible

Two quotes from Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy are on my mind tonight. First the disturbing.

“Either way, change will come. It could be bloody, or it could be beautiful. It depends on us.”

I don’t even have to look to the horrifying news out of the Middle East to find us awash in blood. Here in my town, last week two men pulled out guns to shoot each other for the unpardonable crime of bumping each other on the sidewalk.

It seems that people are less and less respectful of life, while the means to do harm are more and more lethal, efficient, and accessible. Where will it end?

And yet.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Yes, I hear her too. This is why I make a point, every day, to dwell in quiet.

Walking the Labyrinth on World Labyrinth Day in May.

Walking the Labyrinth on World Labyrinth Day in May.

Today I walked the Rivoli Park Labyrinth. I said an invocation before stepping in, and as I wound my way to the center, I imagined transformation happening. The breeze rearranging molecules, my porous body, which is really made of space and light and whirling particles.

I reached the stone at the center, and just as I sat down the sun broke through the clouds. I felt it warm my back.

I listened.

I said, thank you. And: may it be so.

On the Solstice, Contemplating Home

On the longest day of the year, one week after leaving Playa, I’ve been thinking about all that “home” means to me. I loved Oregon’s pristine natural beauty. But I couldn’t wait to come home and walk the tree-lined streets of my neighborhood. Taking my dog Marley for a walk was high on my list on my first morning back.

It’s not perfect here. There’s litter, unlike in Lake County, OR, and sadly many of the neighborhood ash trees are not treated for emerald ash borer, so they are dying—a distressing sight. Poison ivy is rampant in untended corners. Plus it’s really damned humid. But I still walk along with my heart singing “home,” loving the big sycamores and tulip poplars, enjoying all those daylilies and clematis vines, sampling a mulberry here and there.

And getting the latest scoop. Down the street, my big softie neighbor still has the pit bull who wandered into his yard—the one he swore he wouldn’t keep. Farther on, the retiree who always complimented me on my dog (Lord, how that poodle can prance) tells me he and his wife are moving to a condo after 47 years here, but a young family up the street will be moving in. I learn about another neighbor’s dog’s bout with pneumonia. And so on.

Walking is one of the ways I savor my neighborhood, but it’s not the only way. About the second thing I did that day was ride my bike with Judy to the kickoff of the Irvington Folk Festival, a weeklong extravaganza that opened with an outdoor bluegrass concert. I’m no bluegrass aficionado, though I love a good Rocky Top as much as the next person. What I went for, and got, was the people.

In the crowd were Rosemary, and also Laura, two women who helped me found the Irvington Green Initiative years ago. Also our neighbor Pat, who told us of a possible grant for a native plant/foraging project we’ve been scheming.

We sat with Heidi and Mike, longtime gardening buddies who happened to bike up at the same time as we did, midconcert. Behind us were Jerome and his family. That was fortuitous, because I could update him on our sweetgum tree. (Arborist Jerome has a business called Tree-Centric, which I’ve blogged about before. A few weeks ago he assessed our ailing sweetgum, taking soil samples and cutting away girdling roots. The cost of his professional expertise? A loaf of homebaked bread.)

Jerome offered both his strawberry patch and serviceberry grove for picking. Though the strawberries were done, here's the lovely haul of serviceberries my friends and I made that morning.

Jerome offered both his strawberry patch and serviceberry grove for picking. Though the strawberries were done, here’s the lovely haul of serviceberries my friends and I made that morning.

Somehow, over the years, my roots have grown deep in this place. I grieve with friends who lost their 13-year-old German Shepherd, one of a gang of Marley met in the park as a pup. I pick mulberries and serviceberries (some from Jerome’s yard) while chatting with good friends. My yoga buddies welcome me back vociferously. I barter for Thai massage from a neighbor.

All that, plus (last night) hearing local musicians rock out, after eating at the new deli that sources everything it can locally.

How did I get so lucky? I don’t know, but I’ll contemplate the answer while biking to the park for the folk festival’s finale (and, bonus: alternative gift fair).

All I Cannot Save

Monarch sipping on liatris, by Gene Wilburn, via Flickr Commons.

Monarch sipping on liatris, by Gene Wilburn, via Flickr Commons.

My heart is moved by all I cannot save

So much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age,

Perversely, with no extraordinary

Power, reconstitute the world.

—Feminist poet Adrienne Rich

Evidence of the Shift

Final in a series

I’ve often written here about feeling overwhelmed, feeling helpless, feeling despairing. At times it seemed the news was all bad.

The Maldives, one of the island nations imperiled by rising seas. Photo by Nevit Dilman, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Maldives, one of the island nations imperiled by rising seas. Photo by Nevit Dilman, via Wikimedia Commons.

At times I feel besieged by evidence that we as a species are beyond hope. Sometimes all I hear is the lowest common denominator outshouting all reason. Sometimes all I see is fear feeding on fear, a downward spiral with no bottom.

Then along comes a hopeful story of human connection, small but significant.

Bethann was at the zoo with her daughter when she heard a man say, “You heard the one about the two Mexicans?” As it happens, Bethann has adopted two children who are not Caucasian. The man had his own young son with him. Bethann stepped up, with nervous heart, determined to make a difference.

Here’s the story in her own words:

“While at the zoo with Bo this morning, a guy with a toddler (loudly) told a joke that started with ‘How many Mexicans does it take…’ I found a moment when he was separated from his group and pointed to Bo and said ‘See that kid? She’s mine and she’s incredible. I can see you love your kid a lot. But, every time you tell one of those jokes, you teach your kid that it’s OK to treat my kid like crap. And, I am sure you don’t mean to teach your child to hurt others, but that is exactly what you just did there.’ He actually quietly said ‘I understand.’ God willing, there will be one more person on this earth who thinks before he teaches his kid to hate.”

Photo by Debbie L., via Flickr Commons

Photo by Debbie L., via Flickr Commons

How stunning that this man, instead of lashing out or being defensive, very quietly said, “I understand.”

To me this is evidence of the shift that Julia Bystrova of Transition US described, the widespread awakening that is already happening. I see it in the way Bethann stood in her center and spoke quietly but strongly to hold this man accountable. I see it in the way she allowed him room to hear her. I see it in his respectful and surprising response.

What evidence have you encountered of this kind of transformation? I’d love to hear your stories.

Celebrating International Permaculture Day

Today is International Permaculture Day. Guest blogger Thomas Tlusty wrote the following piece exploring his connection to Permaculture, and its power.

Guest Post by Thomas Tlusty, founding partner of The Garden Tower Project

Two years ago, I saw sketches of a device that I felt certain had the potential to revolutionize urban agriculture. I had long been interested in the economics and environmental impact of our food system. So the design piqued my curiosity and unleashed my desire to have a positive impact in my own lifetime.

The Garden Tower is a water-saving, worm-friendly, uber-productive vertical gardening aid.

The Garden Tower is a water-saving, worm-friendly, uber-productive vertical gardening aid.

Since that fateful reveal, my life has been transformed. The Garden Tower Project reignited my passion, and I began rethinking current food production/distribution models. My eyes were opened to the plethora of pioneers, visionaries and everyday folks who are practicing, teaching, and studying Permaculture and sustainable farming/lifestyles.

I am inspired by those who inspire others. I’m thinking of luminaries like Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, and Will Allen. I’m also thinking of many less well-known but still pivotal figures, such as:

  • Community Slow Food Educators
  • Permaculture Design Educators
  • Elementary School Science Educators
  • Organic Gardening Instructors

I am a relative newcomer to this work. Yet I feel a kinship with those who aspire to build community and develop our inherent natural resources in a straightforward manner.

I’m troubled by the unbinding of our culture from its roots. Western civilization is “circling the drain” as we surpass our fragile planet’s carrying capacity (in our current mode of operation).

Permaculture (to me) represents an entirely sane alternative to the path on which we find ourselves today. Permaculture principles contain not only the seeds of hope but a catalyst for change. In practice, these concepts could improve the lives of untold millions and positively influence the course of our future on this planet.

I find hope in people working together in communities, sharing education and experience. And teaching our children well is our first and best hope.

A child at  Learning Gate Community School prepares soil despite the cast on her leg. Thomas captions this photo “Our Hope For Mending a Broken Future.”

Our Hope For Mending a Broken Future: A child at Learning Gate Community School in Lutz, Florida, prepares soil despite the cast on her leg. Instructor: Cissy Brady Stanko

Permaculture engenders ideas and conversations around topics like environmental science, vermiculture, organic gardening, eco-art, and eco-psychology. And connections grounded in Permaculture positively transcend any political, socio-economic, racial, or gender barriers that have been erected in the past or could possibly be constructed in the future.

In my endeavors, I have developed friendships through online Permaculture forums and related Facebook pages. The connections range from the casual and conversational to the inspirational and uplifting. Together they raise me from the deep morass that had grown like a thick moss over my heart’s desire.

I’m now acting on a long-felt wish to accomplish something meaningful and utterly critical: addressing our outdated and increasingly toxic food production/distribution system. Without action and intent, habits will remain the same. Permaculture shows us the way to a very different future.

Thomas Tlusty was raised in Lombard, IL. Thomas was active in social justice and interested in food issues from a young age. In his late teens to early twenties, he worked at the Chicago Board of Trade (in Agricultural Commodities) for a leading grain exporter. The Ellettsville, IN resident has been a practicing Certified Natural Health Professional and is currently an Active Isolated Stretching Therapist in private practice. Thomas is a founding partner in the Garden Tower Project.

No More “Long Hard Slog”

Several readers told me that Tearing up an Ancestral Contract resonated with them. Here’s another inheritance I’m reevaluating: the much-vaunted Protestant work ethic.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad I have a strong work ethic. I’m grateful that the folks in my lineage weren’t afraid of hard work, and that I inherited a bit of that spirit. I like to buckle down and get things done.

Saturday my neighbors and I participated in the Great Indy Cleanup. Photo by Heidi Unger.

Saturday my neighbors and I participated in the Great Indy Cleanup. Photo by Heidi Unger.

But sometimes, work isn’t the thing that is needed. Maybe it’s play. Maybe it’s stillness. Maybe it’s receiving. Maybe it’s rest.

I have known this, of course, in my head. But to really bring that knowledge into the body and energy field? That’s a different thing than intellectual understanding.

I completed two big projects a few weeks ago. I’d spent several weeks extremely focused, with most days quite regimented in order to fit everything in. And it felt good to work hard and get to the finish line.

With the deadlines past, I enjoyed a few leisurely days. It was hard not to feel like I was shirking. I worried that I was not getting important work done. I’d grown accustomed to pushing. So if I allowed myself to enjoy a slower pace, a few long walks in the sunshine, something felt “off.”

Redbud blossom photo by Heidi Unger.

Redbud blossom photo by Heidi Unger.

But I knew I didn’t want to live the rest of my life constantly driving myself beyond my capacity, as has been my habit lo these many years. I remembered the energetic principles I’ve been learning from energy healer friends like Merry Henn and Dawn Ryan. And I took a look at some core beliefs.

I’ve practiced self-testing my energy field (also known as muscle testing) for several years. At this point the skill is reliable enough to serve me in all kinds of capacities. For example, I can test my resonance with various beliefs.

The residual effect of my inherited work ethic manifests like this:

  • “It is impossible for me to be happy and rested and still meet my commitments.”
  • “I must work to the point of exhaustion in order to get my work done.”
  • “I must push my body to the point of illness to prove my worth.”

All of these statements “tested strong,” meaning my energy body resonated a big YES to each of these unhealthy beliefs. But these beliefs no longer serve me. I wanted to change them at an energetic level.

I used Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to quickly shift them, then rechecked: They tested weak. I worked with variations of the statements and did more rounds of EFT. Eventually I came upon:

  • “It is impossible to live in tune with my life purpose and feel happy and rested.”
  • “Aligning with my life purpose is a long, hard slog.”
  • “I must disregard my body’s need for rest if I intend to fulfill my life purpose.”

Well! I shifted these too, until I resonated something completely different. I now equate fulfilling my life purpose with deep joy and ease, a healthy body, connection, flow, and other such deliciousness.

Clowning with invasive garlic mustard. My job at the cleanup was to pull it.

Clowning with invasive garlic mustard. My job at the cleanup was to pull it.

What about you—what contracts and core beliefs are you holding or releasing?

(Interested in learning a simple way to self-test? Check out this video.)

Tearing Up an Ancestral Contract

I woke up thinking about that beloved quote we see so many different places: “Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.” Attributed falsely to Nelson Mandela, the words are part of a beautiful passage by Marianne Williamson.

I realize now that I took that quote to heart, but not really into my being. I thought I understood it. I aspired to it. But recently I’ve been reviewing my ancestral contracts and commitments. I see more clearly now the ways I’ve limited myself.

I was raised Mennonite. Few would think it to look at me (and no one would guess it from my Sunday morning routine). But Mennonite-ness is a key part of my identity.

In many ways I don’t feel very far removed from that heritage—nor from my Amish forebears. Recently my spouse and I watched a PBS show about the Amish. We kept nudging each other: Yep. That’s us! (She descends from the same “plain people.”)

By Gadjoboy, via Wikimedia Commons

By Gadjoboy, via Wikimedia Commons

But what about these contracts I’m reviewing? Well, we Anabaptists are a humble people; that’s one of our main things. (Sometimes I think we’re pretty darn proud of our humility!)

And there is something to be said for taking a self-effacing approach to life. The world is full of braggadocio. Who needs it? Why not modestly go about our work? Actions speak louder than words, and all that.

I embrace many agreements stemming from my heritage. I value simplicity, stewardship, and nonconformity: carving a path that’s different from the mainstream.

But in our purported humility’s case, it seems that something unhelpful hitched a ride on that value. It’s a habit of self-effacement so extreme that it abnegates many of our gifts.

What do we have to offer, who are we to say, why would anyone care what we think?

Quick story: On more than one occasion, I heard my dad refer to himself as a “dumb Amishman.” (He said this jokingly—he was never really Amish, though his father had been.)

Related story: Sometimes I assist my spouse in whapping something together—perhaps reusing some wire and twine to make a garden trellis or the like. And one of us will quip, while surveying our finished product: “Not bad for a couple of Amish girls.”

Raised beds Judy and Dad made from reclaimed materials.

Raised beds Judy and Dad made from reclaimed materials.

It’s funny, and it speaks to the beautiful ingenuity that our forebears cultivated. But it also smacks of a self-doubt passed down for generations.

Our gifts have been buried under an avalanche of inherited beliefs about who we are and who we can never be. We run from the limelight. We say yes to too many tasks, making it impossible to complete our real assignment on earth. We keep our dreams under wraps.

At some point this unspoken agreement with our ancestors simply no longer serves.

I’m sure most people face ancestral contracts rooted in our ethnicity, religion, or nationality. Perhaps it’s time to bring these agreements to light. We can decide for ourselves whether to sign on the dotted line—or whether to tear the contracts up.

Unfurling

Happy belated Earth Day. Today I’m in a bit of a spring swoon. I fall in love with the world this time of year. I find myself looking more closely than usual, feeling wonder and deep gratitude.

For lunch I had a salad of farmers market greens, augmented by a few trout lily leaves. Several large colonies appear every April across the street from our house for a short time before fading back into the earth.

We’d dug our Jerusalem artichokes last week, so I cleaned one up and cut it into crispy little rounds for my salad. While I was scrubbing the dirt off, it occurred to me that something about Jerusalem artichokes is just flat amazing. All that sweetness growing deep underground.

Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes, from our garden

Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes, from our garden

The tops of the plants are dead; we left the ‘chokes in the ground all winter. Yet here they are on my plate, ready to complement the sharp tang of mustard and dandelion and arugula.

I feel especially tender toward trees this spring. Probably because winter was longer and harsher than usual. Snow and ice buried us for several months. Many branches cracked under the burden; some trees split in half.

So it seems more miraculous than ever to see trees pushing new leaves and buds and blooms. Every day on my walks, there’s beauty surrounding me.  The tulip trees are especially dear, with these new baby leaves, furry like does’ ears, unfurling.

New tulip tree leaves, via Wikimedia Commons

New tulip tree leaves, via Wikimedia Commons

It just hit me, watching this happen—slowly, slowly, but still the growth is there—how really astounding it is that a tree can make leaves and blooms and seeds. Think of it: the tree, a hard wood thing, somehow pushes out softness and color.

I suppose I could review the science behind it: phloem and xylem, was it? In any case it’s miraculous. There are channels within that rough brown case—it’s alive!

Did I ever tell the story of my cousin who was raised in the Caribbean? When she came to visit Indiana relatives in the winter, she was appalled to see all the “dead trees” standing around. “Why don’t you cut all those dead trees down?” she asked my dad, to his great amusement.

Sometimes what seems to be dead is only in a state of deep rest. Waiting for the right time to stretch up and out, touch the sunlight again.

What is unfurling in your spring?