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Top 10 in 10: S/Heroes in a Decade

I decided to celebrate the top 10 influencers of my life and work from the past decade. I cheated a little and went a few years further back, but it was worth it. 😉

These are all people I’ve met and studied with or worked with directly. They are ordered based on when I first met them.

10. Tyrone Hayes (2007) 

I thought it would be a good idea to learn about how hormones work in our body, so I signed up for a General Endocrinology class in my junior year at UC Berkeley. This would be a “fun” science class to fulfill some requirement. Tyrone is by far the best science teacher I have ever had. He showed up to class every day dolled up in a fresh suit, but you’d find him in torn up sweats at office hours in the lab.

We learned about how hormones work, and at the end of the class he unveiled his whole story about how he had been pressured by Novartis/Syngenta to lie about his data showing that exposure to the pesticide Atrazine caused hermaphroditism in frogs, and how his refusal to do so lead to putting his life, reputation, career, and family at risk. He shared with us a rap song about his whole experience.

I got into my first argument with another student about the interconnectedness of science and policy. It was my first up close encounter with science as activism.

9. Eric Holt-Giminez (2008)

The class I wanted to take was in overflow, so I found myself in this one, to fulfill a general ed requirement. It was about International Rural Development, and Eric Holt-Giminez was a PhD agroecologist who had spent 15 years working with peasant farmers in the Global South helping them develop low-input sustainable farming techniques.

This was the class that opened my world to all of the major issues around chemical agriculture, Monsanto, GMO’s, and poor global policies. It initiated my personal journey in self-education and exploration around these issues.

So, introductory food systems and agroecology classes are very important!

8. Elizabeth Blackburn (2010)

A Stanford lab offered me a similar job for almost twice the pay but I declined because my free spirit wanted to live in San Francisco, so I chose to work in the Blackburn Lab at UCSF. They had won the Nobel prize recently for their work on telomeres. It turns out Elizabeth Blackburn was incredibly passionate and devoted to her work as a scientist, and really nurtured the work from a love of science.

The opportunity allowed me to explore the food, permaculture and gardening world of San Francisco. I experimented with a zero waste low footprint lifestyle and blogged about it.

7. Joanna Macy (2011)

I was reading big picture stuff on sustainability policy which lead me to the works of people like Joanna Macy and David Korten, who both expressed a need for a spiritual transformation in order for true integration of sustainable design. I took a permaculture design course in 2011 where she was one of our teachers and lead us through an exercise on systems ecology.

6. Larry Korn/Masanobu Fukuoka (2011)

At this same permaculture design course, Larry Korn was our main instructor. He shared with us both his experiences on Fukuoka’s farm studying natural farming, and also the principles of permaculture as taught by Bill Mollison.

Even though composting is not actually necessary in these natural farming systems, it is still necessary in urban and industrialized areas.

5. Fabeku Fatunmise (2012)

My explorations with my green living blog created a fascination in creative entrepreneurship, and the idea of being able to create a livelihood of my own making, that works for me and excites me and allows me to contribute positive work in the world. I discovered the incredible, life-changing FF. I would call him an artist and business wizard who teaches people about how to create their own coherent structures and blueprints that serve their highest potential and create maximum impact. Much of my approach to my work is inspired by him.

4. Deb Neher (2012)

Much of what I know about soil ecology is thanks to what I learned as a master’s student in Deb Neher’s lab. Her work has focused on the development of ecological indicators, things you can observe as signs of ecosystem health, in soil health and compost quality. This idea has been really helpful because it provides ways to communicate to people why certain management practices are wanted/unwanted. If we can point to specific ecological indicators, then that gives us specific information about whether our practices are helping or hurting the well-being of the ecology. She is also a passionate and dedicated scientist and educator committed to real solutions in partnership with community institutions.

3. Karl Hammer (2013)

My life changed again when I visited Vermont Compost and met Karl Hammer, soil wizard extraordinaire, who makes some of the best compost in existence. He integrates the ecology of the landscape into his site management and process. The first time I ever spoke with him on the phone, he told me very seriously, “We are all walking phases of the soil.”

Karl Hammer talked about composting as a means of industrial mitigation, minimizing the harms of industrial society, but that in an idealized agroecological system it is actually not necessary. He is an endless fountain of knowledge and cunning. The vision of Vermont Compost has been a consistent source of inspiration for my work and approach to composting and farming. 

2. Elinor Crescenzi (2015)

My friend, roommate, and soil sibling Elinor is a next level superhero who has helped get a number of grassroots projects off the ground. I have watched them speak truth to power and stand up to entrenched power figures in every situation, including local and state levels of government. They are a real community devotee, capable of organizing support for all types of community projects. We love to tell people about how you know you’re friends when they drop 300 lbs of moldy oranges at your door and you still want to hang out with them.

1. Leigh Adams (2015)

My forever hero I got to meet because I wanted to try my luck at teaching and speaking in the community about soil and compost at the LA Arboretum. She is an incredible artist, ecological gardener, water harvester, community builder, and now hügel queen. Someone who has never stopped believing in me and has helped me grow and embrace my inner science artist.

Wild and colorful and empathetic as an artist, she is also deeply grounded in scientific knowledge and indigenous wisdom. She is ever reverent to the sacred processes of nature, and always in support of empowering women.

Now you know my top 10 influencers. Who has shaped your world in the last decade?

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Bacillus

Bacillus is everywhere, the party never stops in the Bacillus house. Salt, heat, cold, drought. Bacillus don’t care, they can hang. They’ve got a survival structure called an endospore, making them virtually indestructible. They mostly like to breathe oxygen, but they can also ferment without it. Bacillus are part of the phylum Firmicutes (makes me think of those vegan ice cream sandwiches, Tofutti Cuties).

Bacillus dominate the entire composting process, being one of the most abundant organisms during all three phases. During the thermophilic phase, mesophilic organisms die back, and it is Bacillus and Actinobacteria that co-dominate this phase, degrading most of the lignocellulose material (plant cell walls, woody and carbonaceous) that goes into humus formation.

Bacillus subtilis is a species that is not pathogenic but can contaminate and spoil food. They are naturally found in mesophilic environments in the upper soil layer, where they support plant nutrient cycling and disease suppression through the production of antibiotics and anti-fungal compounds. They’re also becoming part of probiotic blends as they include more soil-based organisms.

There are some other more notorious species of Bacillus: B. anthracis causes anthrax, and B. cereus causes food poisoning.

B. thuringensis produces a toxin that can kill insects and is used as an insecticide. A portion of the Bt genome has been incorporated into into some food crops like corn, making it more resistant to pests. Bt is approved for organic certification as a biological pesticide. During sporulation they produce crystal proteins (cry proteins) called gamma-endotoxins which are insecticidal, with specific action against moths and butterflies, flies and mosquitoes, beetles, wasps, ants, sawflies, and nematodes. 

Multiple insects have developed resistance to Bt and it can have effects on non-target organisms like monarch butterflies. Bt foods are linked to leaky gut and autoimmune disorders, as well as allergies and developmental disabilities.

So there’s few outliers from the rest of the pack, 3 species pose dangers to human health. The rest of them have been hanging out with us all along. Everywhere in the soil, compost, and in our bodies. Harness some of that ubiquitous, indestructible protection with some artifacts of micro-cosmic wonder.

Check out the rest of the bacteria in the Cosmic Compost series

Cosmic Compost: A design collection celebrating the microscopic universe in the dust beneath our feet, acknowledging some of the most significant microbial players in the ecology of decomposition through the aesthetic of cosmic wonder.

Greeting Cards + Postcards:

Art Prints + Collectibles:

Soilify! A complete course series on Soil + Compost Ecology for creative activists, community composters, and small-scale farmers.

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Leuconostoc

Love on your local soil steward with some microbial art!

Leuconostoc is another friendly fermenter that generally hangs out with Lactobacillus. It is quietly known in fermentation industries like the production of sourdough, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, and sausage, for their contribution to flavor. They transform glucose into CO2, alcohol, and lactic acid. They also hang out on spoiling food, growing and fresh vegetables, and manure. It’s fascinating how the same material transforms in our perception from good to bad in a matter of time.

Strains of Leuconostoc have been found to inhibit growth of Listeria, which causes serious infectious outbreaks from people eating contaminated food. There have been Listeria outbreaks on food products documented by the CDC every year for the last 8 years.

That’s the idea behind encouraging friendly microbes like probiotics and compost. The more diverse and abundant micro-organisms there are, the more competition there is for food and resources in general. This helps keep levels of pathogenic micro-organisms low, so they won’t cause an outbreak. Diversity helps create the opportunity to generate new compounds that can fight pathogens, and boost overall resilience against changing environmental conditions. Encouraging diversity in all ways is a general principle of ecological design.

Lactobacillus and Leuconostoc are great because they are adaptable to anaerobic and aerobic conditions. The initial compost pile consists of pockets of anaerobic activity, such as within the food waste or fresh manure inputs. They contribute to the initial dip in pH from the production of organic acids, which you can see in graph C below. It’s not long before all of the initial metabolic activity generates so much heat that these organisms make themselves obsolete, and thermotolerant or thermophilic organisms take over.

Ryckeboer et al, 2003

Check out the rest of the bacteria in the Cosmic Compost series

Cosmic Compost: A design collection celebrating the microscopic universe in the dust beneath our feet, acknowledging some of the most significant microbial players in the ecology of decomposition through the aesthetic of cosmic wonder.

Greeting Cards + Postcards:

Art Prints + Collectibles:

Soilify! A complete course series on Soil + Compost Ecology for creative activists, community composters, and small-scale farmers.

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Not all Microbes are Evil, Friendship for Everyone

Not all microbes are voracious plague eaters ready to inoculate, destroy, and compost all of us. In fact, most of them are our friends. But, we tend not to hear about our friends because they don’t make waves like E. Coli outbreaks on lettuce and broccoli. Lactobacillus is a friendly fermenting bacteria that has been gaining notoriety because of its innocuous ubiquity in fermented foods, our bodies and digestive systems, as well as soil and compost.

Our fear of pathogenic microbes has made us fearful of all of them, the friendly ones included. That’s a shame, because the the friendly ones are actually very powerful allies that protect us by boosting nutrition and immunity, and by reducing stress.

It helps to get to know who your friends are. Just like in any landscape where you are trying to establish your livelihood and presence, you want to identify your friends – your supporters and allies who will look out for you. That helps to distinguish who is helpful and who is not.

Advances in high-throughput sequencing over the last decade have made it more accessible and affordable than ever, vastly expanding our knowledge and understanding of microbial ecologies, biodiversity, and population dynamics. We now know how there are great similarities and overlap in microbial community composition between soil, plant, and human systems. There can be 10 times more microbial cells in our bodies than human cells. Research suggest bacteria maintain a majority of the evolutionary origin of our own genetic material, and some believe we as multi-cellular organisms evolved as collectives of bacteria that cooperated so well they formed a whole new reproducing organism.

Microbiomes function similarly for soil, plants, and humans. They increase metabolic efficiency and nutrient availability and uptake, improve immune function and protection against pathogenic outbreaks, modulate stress and anxiety (climatic and environmental for soil and plants, mental and emotional for humans), and provide a source of novel genetic and epigenetic material for increased resilience and adaptability to changing environmental conditions.

In the words of Charlie’s musical song, “The Nightman Cometh,” from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, why not have “friendship for everyone”.

Cosmic Compost is a celebration of our microbial allies that help maintain a healthy ecology for us to have clean air, water, soil, and food. It utilizes watercolor art to raise our collective awareness and literacy around soil, compost, human health, and microbes. Share your love of our microbial friends with your favorite humans by writing them a love letter or pouring them a cup of tea in a microbial mug.

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Lactobacillus

Friendly fermenter, the microbe of greatest notoriety, Lactobacillus transcends the soil, plant, human continuum. It is best known for its ubiquitous and simple initiatory ferment: sauerkraut. The most mundane of food preservation techniques, gifted to us by a time-honored evolutionary mutualism between cabbage, Brassica oleracea, and Lactobacillus. The original inoculum for fermenting vegetables. All that is needed is cabbage, chopped and shredded, a tablespoon of salt, massaged in well and marinated for a few minutes, before being submersed in water and kept quiet for a few days. The Lactobacillus naturally occurring on the cabbage surface proliferates in the salty brine, returning to us a tangy, extra nutritious food.

Lactobacillus is found in many parts of our bodies, including our digestive system, oral cavity, and urinary and reproductive systems. We have a mutualistic relationship with them, as their presence helps provide protection against pathogenic organisms, and they assist us with digestion of food and increased nutrient uptake, as well as generating precursors to neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, supporting modulation of stress and anxiety.

They are found in the initial phase of composting, as they enter the compost pile through fresh food waste and other feedstock materials like manure and brewery waste. While fermentation is mostly an anaerobic process, Lactobacillus is a facultative anaerobe. They are aerotolerant and can engage in fermentation even when oxygen is present. They are rod-shaped, Gram-positive bacteria, usually straight, often found in pairs or chains of differing lengths.

During the initial phase of composting, the most easy to digest materials, such as simple sugars and carbohydrates, lipids, and amino acids, are the first to be metabolized through fermentation and oxidation reactions. Decomposer communities begin to colonize the pile. Their increased metabolic activity increases the heat generated from the pile.

Because it is critical to food production and the growing probiotics supplement industry, Lactobacillus has become one of the most well known microbes in our culture. The increasing advances in technologies for microbial ecology research have also nurtured a plethora of papers, books, courses, and other publications on the significance of gut microbiota in human health, further supporting our understanding of Lactobacillus.

Don’t let the simplicity of water, salt, and cabbage fool you. There’s the essence of so much that connects us to the ecology of plants and soil. From compost to ferment to human resilience and back again, Lactobacillus brings it all together. 

Show off your love and adoration for this potent probiotic through greeting cards, posters, art prints, stickers, notebooks, throw pillows, and mugs from RedBubble.

Check out the rest of the bacteria in the Cosmic Compost series

Greeting Cards + Postcards:

Art Prints + Collectibles:

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Cosmic Compost: Official Launch

Just in time for Jupiter in Capricorn

Cosmic Compost is a celebration of the microscopic universe in the dust beneath our feet, acknowledging some of the most significant microbial players in the ecology of decomposition through the aesthetic of cosmic wonder.

This initial collection consists of 6 bacteria that have been chosen for their significance in the composting process and soil health, but also their relevance to human health and cultural interest. They have been organized based on the phase of the hot composting process where they are most prominent.

The designs are available as greeting cardspostersart printsnotebooksstickersthrow pillows, and mugs through RedBubble. Show your favorite earth loving, fermenting, microbe appreciating friend how much you appreciate them. Write them a love letter of micro-cosmic delight. Collect all 6 bacteria for a complete compost ecological successional experience!

Stage 1. Mesophilic Initiation: Lactobacillus + Leuconostoc

The initial mesophilic phase consists of a mix of decomposers and fermenters, as much of the fresh feedstock material is fermenting when it enters the pile. Bacteria like Lactobacillus and Leuconostoc are best known for their role in fermentation communities, and the production of foods like yogurt, kefir, and kombucha. Even though fermentation is an anaerobic process, these guys are aerotolerant, and can still do their thing in the presence of oxygen.

Stage 2. Thermophilic Activation: Bacillus + Actinobacteria (Streptosporangium)

The appropriate pile conditions increases microbial activity, raising the internal temperature of the pile until it shifts into the 2nd phase where it reaches peak thermophilic temperature and stays there for a few weeks. Bacillus species and Actinobacteria (phylum) are the dominant bacteria at this time. I chose Streptosporangium as the sample species for Actinobacteria, which is the name of a phylum.

Stage 3. Cooldown + Maturation: Pseudomonas + Enterobacter

As the original organic waste material breaks down and humus begins to form, the microbial activity slows down and the temperature begins to cool, entering the 3rd phase. At this time, the microbial ecology shifts its focus to lignin breakdown and humus formation. Ultimately, the compost is finished when the temperature has reached ambient and the microbial activity has calmed down and stabilized to regular rates. Pseudomonas and Enterobacter are often detected in mature compost.

Learn more about the collection here.

I’ll be sharing an article about each bacteria over the next 6 weeks. Stay tuned for the first article on Lactobacillus!

Greeting Cards:

Art Prints + Collectibles:

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