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.

“What the World Needs”

I can always tell when I’m overloaded with the news; that’s when I start to despair. So much mess to clean up. It seems ridiculously tangled-up and tiresome, painful to look at.

In my own state we are attempting to disentangle from newly passed legislation designed to show my GLBT brothers and sisters that we are not welcome. Elsewhere, of course, there’s worse news. In Kenya suicide bombers caused untold anguish. In California the drought is now so severe that the governor mandated water restrictions. Then there’s the German pilot who decided to fly a planeful of people into the side of a mountain. For what?

Time to turn off NPR. When I get overwhelmed, this timeless advice from theologian Howard Thurman is a comfort:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

By psyberartist (amaryllis  Uploaded by russavia) via Wikimedia Commons

By psyberartist (amaryllis Uploaded by russavia) via Wikimedia Commons

Definitely the needs of the world are bottomless, and the conflicts seem never-ending. So this question is a good barometer, an antidote to paralysis: What renews my heart? For me it is things like making meaning, being of service in small ways, reflecting, putting some hard-won learnings to use for others.

Sometimes, though, all that seems ever so small, and the question becomes: How do we renew ourselves, in this season of renewal, to continue with our chosen work?

Then a member of my extended family gives me a tremendous gift. She tells me that she regularly shares my reflections with her four teenagers. Some years back when I coauthored a book called Sudden Spirit: A Book of Holy Moments, she started the tradition of reading aloud from this work and discussing it with her children. Now that the kids are older, she’ll print thought-provoking blog posts and passages (mine among them) and ask them to initial when they’ve read them.

You can bet I was touched when I heard that! (And maybe she had told me before but I forgot; sometimes it’s hard for me to receive stuff like this.)

Knowing this totally refuels me. Because so much of what I do is basically invisible, it’s hard to know what kind of impact I’m having. But apparently, my little musings are helping the next generation of leaders.

Note to self: Remember to tell people I appreciate their work! (I think I’ll start with Roy Ballard and Michael Morrow, the men behind Hoosier Harvest Market. This online virtual farmers market brings me lovely salad greens, eggs, quail eggs, apples and so on—all locally grown and delivered to order to a business near my home.)

Because maybe it’s less a matter of renewing ourselves than renewing each other. Maybe then we can remember what exactly it is that makes us come alive, and have the courage to pursue it. Who in your life could use some of that fuel?

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.

Untitled

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.

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?

The Steps We Take Now

“We can indeed transform the world, and we are each called to take part in this sacred work.”

—Desmond Tutu, from the Foreword of Random Kindness

It seems that every day brings news of another horrific act of violence. The level of cruelty reaches appalling levels. Where are we going and why are we in a handbasket, as my mother would say?

But recently I got my hands on the reissue of this beautiful book, and it is like an inoculation against hopelessness.

Are we moving “closer and closer to a world where everyone is dead for no reason,” as the book describes one possible scenario? Or are we waking up to the fact that “we’re all making the soup we’re all eating?”

I first learned of this fabulously illustrated work from my sister Mesa Refuge resident Paloma Pavel, who is a total powerhouse. Years ago she started working in the anti-nuclear movement with Joanna Macy (my idol!), and she hasn’t stopped advocating since.*

Paloma coauthored the lovely little book expanding on the saying Practice Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty. Her coauthor, Anne Herbert, originated this statement, and the two originally collaborated on Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty in response to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.

An artist named Mayumi Oda (the “Matisse of Japan”) illustrated the book in a traditional folk art style based on 12th century Japanese picture scrolls. Frogs, cats, monkeys, birds, and rabbits play the part of humans on a dual path—will they (we) choose destruction, or delight?

Historically in Japan, this type of folk art used animal representations to spread subversive messages. It seems an apt medium for a book that proclaims, “We are all leaders now.”

The 20th anniversary edition has just been published. I had the thrill of hearing Paloma read its lyrical text on our last night at Mesa Refuge, a full year before the book was reissued.

Myself, Sierra Murdoch,  Jerry and Gail Needleman, and Paloma Pavel at Mesa Refuge

Myself, Sierra Murdoch, Jerry and Gail Needleman, and Paloma Pavel at Mesa Refuge

So beautiful:

“The steps we take now
Make new earth grow beneath our feet.”

“In every moment we live
We have the choice
To find the fight
Or make delight
We have power.

To hear Paloma read the full text aloud was just magic.

I borrowed the book from the library for now, but I plan to purchase my own copy. All royalties will be donated to antinuclear advocacy and community resilience across boundaries.

*Check out more of Paloma’s work at Earth House Center and Breakthrough Communities.

Kinship

An ancient hackberry tree holds my heart this winter. I visit it on many of my walks.

beautiful hackberryA tree that has lived a long time has something to say about holding and releasing. I try to listen. (Maybe there’s a wise tree in your neighborhood who calls to you. I hope I’m not the only one out here hugging trees. I feel that they want us to give in to the impulse!)

I love to lean against the hackberry and feel its life force thrumming under my touch. Sometimes I rest my cheek against the bark and stretch my arms wide. Other times I wedge my feet between its tall roots and press my spine to the trunk.

IMG_4461I could probably explore this tree for weeks and never know it fully. The roots have made a mysterious bowl here.

IMG_4464Here’s a front view of the same formation. Now it is an open mouth under two eyes.

IMG_4463Here the roots meander, a tangle of ropes.

IMG_4462Every time I touch this wise tree-being, I say: Thank you, and I love you. Standing in its presence, I feel I can send my care deep into the heart of the earth.

Perhaps tree-beings are speaking to you too? Or am I alone in thinking the borders between us and our kin are thinner than we once imagined?

Note: For another view of the tree that shows myself and my (somewhat indifferent) dog, check out the Spacious Light Intuitive Arts page.

Every Day

I’m not one to do Christmas in a big way. In fact I can get quite tired of the holiday, which seems by turns tawdry, labor-intensive, and loaded. Since we don’t have children, there’s no pressure to create a memorable and magic Christmas, or to buy a lot of guilt-inducing gadgetry. I mostly stick to the humble and homespun kind of gift, like these lumpen loaves.

Mesquite bread, made with chili peppers and cilantro.

Mesquite bread, made with chili peppers and cilantro.

Still, I can get into the (self-created) pressures of the season as much as anybody. Something about the holidays hits all my “not enough” buttons.

So when someone said to me recently, “I think every day should be Christmas,” my immediate thought was something along the lines of “heck, no,” only saltier. But she was talking generosity, of course, not pressure and parties.

And this morning, when I woke up with a sense of excitement (even after all these years, like a kid!), I thought about that. What if every morning, we all woke up suffused with joy, anticipation, and love? What if every day was devoted to family and friends, and feeling so abundant that we share our gifts all around?

What if we kept the wonderment, the generosity, the magic—and lost the commercialism?

Then every day would be like Christmas.

The More Beautiful World

I’ve been savoring Charles Eisenstein’s book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible. It’s affirming, challenging, stimulating, surprising—and filled with wisdom for this age of crisis. Nature in my hands Shared cultural myths make up the “Story of the People,” the beliefs we all hold about the way the world works. Eisenstein notes that the old story is beginning to crumble as we see institution after institution unveiled as unworkable, untenable. He shows how this old Story of Separation—based on control, force, domination, competition, and scarcity—informs everything we see: the prison system, food system, educational system, money system—not to mention religious institutions, childrearing practices, and even activist organizations.

Even the medical establishment’s treatment of illness is based on this model, where bacteria is the enemy we need to conquer to save our own skin. (Never mind that 90 percent of the cells that make up a human are actually bacteria and fungi!)

This overarching cultural myth—that we are separate from each other and the rest of nature, inhabiting a hostile universe built on random accident and competition—is the source of much pain, violence, despair, and exploitation.

But the old story is beginning to fall away as a new Story of Connection takes its place. This transition is far from complete, Eisenstein says. And the time between stories is fraught. Many of the institutions are revealing their true natures in horrifying ways, and our usual tactics seem useless in the face of the horror. That’s because the tactics are also made of that old story. Compelling people to change by force or ridicule, demonizing institutions and leaders as evil, even rushing to action or response before the best path is clear—these are all born from a model that won’t work anymore.

Meditation

“The situation on Earth today is too dire for us to act from habit—to reenact again and again the same kinds of solutions that brought us to our present extremity. Where does the wisdom to act in entirely new ways come from? It comes from nowhere, from the void; it comes from inaction.”

That passage is one of many that resonate with me, especially since I’ve been spending so much time in that void he mentions. Sometimes I worry that by the time I emerge from this cocoon the world will have been fracked to death. That urgency to stop such horrors is real, but we need to reach deeper than action. Our task is to create something new that leaves these old systems and tactics in the dust. We need to make a whole new world, based on the vision of connectedness. NJ - Montclair: Montclair Art Museum - Earth Mother Eisenstein brings up the ebb and flow of the birth process. Much of the time the mother is not pushing, but resting. When the time to push comes, the urge is unstoppable. But the push comes in its time, and not before.

“Can you imagine saying to her, ‘Don’t stop now! You have to make an effort. What happens if the urge doesn’t arise again? You can’t just push when you feel like it!'”

The question is, what are we gestating? What kind of world wants to be born?

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.