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Sneak Peek: Cosmic Compost

Stage 1. Mesophilic Initiation:
Lactobacillus + Leuconostoc

I’m launching Cosmic Compost, a design collection acknowledging the significant microbiota of decomposition ecology. I’m starting with a small series of 6 bacteria significant to compost microbial ecology, organized based on their roles during the 3 main phases of hot composting.

The designs are available as greeting cards, posters, art prints, notebooks, stickers, throw pillows, and mugs through RedBubble. Something fun for your favorite science or microbe loving friend.

This initial phase is a fermentation phase, with organisms like Lactobacillus and Leuconostoc leading the charge. Both Lactobacillus and Leuconostoc are found in fermentation communities, such as in the production of sauerkraut, cheese, kefir, kombucha, and even the anaerobic composting method bokashi.

During this initial phase of decomposition, it is the compounds that are easily degraded that are the first to be metabolized, such as simple sugars, starches, and lipids. After a few days, the frenzy of microbial metabolic activity releases heat and the temperature begins to increase.

I’ll be revealing the rest of the collection later next week, and will be sharing a weekly exploration of each organism. Consider this a sneak peek.

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Reflections on Larry Korn’s Passing, the Preciousness of Elders, Friendship, Love, Kindness, Care

I’m struck and shaken up very deeply by Larry Korn’s passing. It brought back to life my whole permaculture experience, and my whole journey on my path of life and work.

It feels like a long time ago now, it was around 2011 or so that I took my first permaculture design course. The main permaculture portion was taught by Larry Korn, with guest speakers on other topics. We had some really special guests too, like Joanna Macy (eco-spirituality, Buddhism, systems theory) and Samantha Sweetwater (dance as embodied leadership). There was some drama, but mostly it was a magical experience of connection and learning.

I, wide eyed, young, fresh with excitement, newly embarking on this journey and seeking to make a space for myself. I already knew I would likely be going to grad school for compost biology. I was already sharing this reality with the other students in my class.

I soaked up every micron of the experience – I absorbed all of Larry’s teachings as well as his spirit. I knew it was precious and I indulged in every moment of it. I had gotten to know him as a deeply kind, dedicated, loving, caring person who was prickly at his age, if only in his devotion to the work.

I knew it was special that he had studied under Masanobu Fukuoka, a practitioner and developer of natural farming methods that are more like indigenous agriculture than permaculture, but aligns well nonetheless. There’s definitely an aspect of the movement that can get caught up in the attention and star power, but Larry was none of that. He was like dust and bone, nothing but salt of the earth. He was made of kindness and love.

I held great reverence for Larry, as an apprentice of Fukuoka, and a courageous individual who shared with us about how he had dodged the Vietnam War draft. Fukuoka’s philosophy and approach to natural farming have always remained a beacon for me, the ultimate source of ecological thinking in agricultural systems. Larry translated and edited Fukuoka’s book, One Straw Revolution, which has now become essential reading and education for anyone interested in ecological farming.

Not long after the permaculture course, I embarked on my grad school journey, taking the deep dive into soil and compost ecology, which would shape the next decade of my life and work. Still I struggled to find my place, and a few years into grad school I reached out to Larry for perspective on what I should be doing with my life.

We talked on the phone, and he was very supportive and encouraging to me. One of the things that has stuck with me is how, in that conversation, he told me, “Soil humbles you.” He offered me his friendship, and that made my world. We talked and connected several times after that, and he was always happy to help me and give me advice. I always thought I might see him again some day.

His passing brings to mind the obvious fragility of life, and how our quality time with each other is precious and valuable. To not take things for granted, to make the most of every moment. It brings to mind my whole sustainable farming journey, and all of the incredible, magical, loving, kind, amazing, otherworldly people I have encountered on my path, who inspire me and keep me going – they make it worth the struggle.

To all of those who continue to show up week after week, challenge after challenge, who continue to believe in and hold the vision, to utilize the best of their creative and intellectual gifts in service to the creation of a more sustainable, just, and kind world. You are amazing. I am inspired by you. You keep me going. Thank you for being who you are.

Teachers and elders passing on is such a tremendous loss to me. I feel, in their wake, we are forced to grow and fill in the spaces they have left for us. I feel like a tantrum-ous child. Why did you leave us so? How are we going to make it? Why do we have grow?

Hold tight to the ones you love

A friend posted about a severe health challenge his newborn child was facing, and ended with, “Hold tight to the ones you love, and love everyone you see.”

These are the things that keep me going, that make my world.

Friendships and moments of aligned connection.

The intimidating journey of grad school was ameliorated by the kindness of my graduate coordinator, who offered me his friendship first and foremost.

Kindness is timeless, it never gets old.

Friendship saves lives.

To care is to give a shit, to risk breaking your heart into pieces and move forward anyway.

And I am here for that.

Again and again and again.

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Hmmm… What is Humus Anyway?

Just a tasty chocolate superpower or some strange concoction of randomized order generated from chaos breakdown fractalizing in its tumbling freefall?

I feel like when I try to look for research articles relating to the biochemistry of humus formation, I find many studies from earlier last century, less from recent years, though they do exist. It feels like there’s a bit of a drop off after the 1970’s on this type of work, I had read somewhere once that this happened because agriculturalists chose to focus more on soil chemistry and let go of their interests in soil organic matter, so there’s a bit of a drought on humus ecology.

A paper by Manlay and Swift (2007) characterizes humus / soil organic matter (SOM) as a cultural concept with three phases of perception, shifting from a more tradition humus-oriented practice to a mineral perspective heavily influenced by Josef Liebig, and in more recent decades emerging as a key indicator for soil health and quality, including agroecological health and fertility.

Humus is a complex substance that is not well understood. It still remains a bit of a mystery. The composition is generally described as consisting of “humins”, which are solid complexes, along with humic and fulvic acids which may be soluble, and other water-soluble compounds.

It’s the dark chocolate cake left behind after all the fresh leaves and apple stems have fully decomposed. Organic matter is feasted upon by primary decomposers, bacteria and fungi, including actinobacteria, and secondary and tertiary decomposers in the soil food web, like protozoa and nematodes, facilitate the transformation of organic matter into plant available nutrients and beneficial enzymes, which is described as the process of “mineralization”.

While much organic matter goes into the mineralization process of nutrient cycling, some of it goes into humus formation (humification), a means of long-term carbon storage. It is thought that the breakdown of lignin is the primary source of humification, which is often facilitated by fungi, such as white-rot and brown-rot fungi, as well as actinobacteria. Ultimately these lignin breakdown products undergo a self-condensation, or sugar-amine condensation. As FJ Stevenson describes it, there are an “astronomical” number of potential combinations that the compounds could come together, so every humus complex is different.

Those fungi keep showing off their carbon sequestration skills. They may be more efficient than bacteria at sequestering carbon into their bodies (Six et al, 2006), and are also important to the lignin degradation process of humus formation.

In terms of practices, this means that greater abundances of soil fungi are going to support enhanced carbon sequestration and the build up of long-term storage pools of carbon in soil. So, less disturbances, more quality fungal foods like woody materials. Less tillage, more mulch. More trees. Integrated cultivation systems. Trees, shrubs, herbs, animals, berries, vegetables, compost.

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