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Reimagining Land + Soil Through Pigment + Paint

The wonder of nature is in its complexity of integration – the endless awe of exploration in art, science, culture, history, mythology, politics, and possibility – all weaving together into a thick book where no adventure is ever the same. Where our self-concepts and boundaries of who we are, what we can be good at, and what we can be capable of, are perforated, expanded, and melded into something else entirely. We become multi-dimensional beings wading through a cosmic ecology of other multi-dimensional beings.

My eternal quest is to share the story of soil, to stir up excitement and interest in caring for and conserving the land, to deepen our collective commitments to soil health, the great source of all that feeds us, clothes us, and through the ecology of growth, conjures up whatever we most need, from a home to a writing desk.

There are multiple endless ways to share the story of the soil. One of my favorites is through the practice of making pigment and paint from the crumbly clay loom of the earth itself. There, refining and re-threading the earth into an artistic expression, the spirit of the soil moves through my body, mind, soul, and fingertips onto paper and board, channeled into a symbology of human inspiration, communication, and connection.

Where I have gathered that soil from to make this paint, I connect deeply on a spiritual and energetic level with that sense of place. Its spirit makes its way through me and onto my canvas, imprinting everlasting a relationship to the land. It invites curiosity to the stories of the land, shifting the way we might see and relate to land.

The soil of the land itself, though quiet, holds the histories of ancestors and cultural practices over the ages. Generations of lives sifting bedrock through organic matter, imparting their own imprints to the weathering of soil and the making of land.

Rather than a commodity to be bought and sold, developed, paved, and tilled as a packaged good, the land can be called into relationship, mutualistic care, collaboration and friendship. Where we might feast our eyes on a work of wonder, we can look too with those eyes to the mysterious abyss of the soil.

The soil connects us all to each other, to the plants, animals, and vast networks of microbial intelligence across the planet itself. There is room for you here too, whoever you are, wherever you may be. The soil is an open book, ready for your care and wonder, ready to take you on a journey of endless learning, growth, challenge, and ultimately, a weathering away of who you think you might be, in order to reveal and showcase the enduring fortitude you truly are. Vast and diverse, there is a place for you here too, to discover your voice and share the story of soil.

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Take home a piece of the earth to adorn your walls: original soil pigment painting commissions start at $75 for a 5’x7’ piece on claybord. Contact me to request a custom soil pigment painting.

Check out other Soil Art prints here, and compost bacteria art here.

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Inner Healing as the Key to Ecological Restoration

Scientific inquiry and investigation showing the direct influence of human social, cultural, and political structures on indicators of ecological well-being and environmental decision-making

Our human lives typically boil down to the decisions we make on a day to day, moment to moment basis. When we have to make decisions about the environment, our cultural pattern is to take as much as we can with impunity. We are not so great at giving back, restoring the ecology of the environment, or taking in a way that is regenerative. We externalize our costs of production onto the environment in the name of making more profit.

Our agricultural history shows this very clearly, a pattern of taking wild lands and transforming them into cash crop monoculture agriculture in the name of making a quick buck. We don’t integrate ecological design into our industrial agricultural systems or think about regenerative processes. We take what we can get away with and give back what’s necessary to sustain that model of mining the soil for everything it’s got.

One of our greatest challenges to making better decisions about the environment as a human society is our inability to work together and collaborate peacefully and harmoniously. We were all raised in a capitalistic culture built on inequitable power dynamics of hierarchy. Being able to share power and resources terrifies us to no end, and so many times when the attempt is made to work together in a collective fashion and make decisions together cooperatively, we end up reverting back to our old ways of status quo power hierarchies. We end up in conflict and are unable to heal, we revert to disruption and dysfunction, and bridges are burned. The work suffers, and in the end it is the ecology and environment and wildlife and climate that suffer.

These are new ways of being and interacting and working together that we are envisioning and striving for. Attempts at collaboration or socialist or communist structures have been made in the past, but they do not serve as ideal models for replication. There is no true past to replicate. What we are calling forth has not been seen before, what we are living has not been seen before. At least, many of us do not know of a previous model like the crossroads we have been sent to live within. The road forward must be built anew, threading together past successes with new visions, integrating lessons of failures past with failures current, and choosing again and again and again to pick ourselves up from where we have fallen to try again to make that path forward.

It is a time of integration, complexity, and multi-dimensionality. We must acknowledge ourselves as whole human beings with complex constellations of needs, traumas, loves, passions, skills, and visions. To work together in a lifelong commitment towards ecological restoration and justice is to attempt to mesh together those unique constellations and form new connections of lasting strength. This can only happen with relationships cultivated in trust, restorative justice, and community healing through shared purpose, vision, and commitment.

Ecology as a field of science has typically focused on the biophysical reality of our world, in a way “othering” human beings and separating ourselves from the web of life. Ecology is exciting in its interdisciplinary nature, integrating the scientific fields of physics, chemistry, biology, and statistics in its pursuit of understanding of the metabolic transformations of the environment. The Ecological Society of America is a professional society for ecologists which has held a conference every year to discuss the latest findings in ecological research.

I was excited to see that the theme for the 2019 ESA conference was “Bridging communities and ecosystems: inclusion as an ecological imperative,” and stumbled upon a few papers on this very topic. The first LA Urban Soil Symposium was held this year in June, as a needs assessment for LA urban soils, as voiced and expressed by the community groups who work directly with the soils and communities in LA. The theme of the symposium was, “Healthy Soils for Healthy Communities.” I have given several talks on this very topic, titled, “The Power of Soil in Growing Healthy Communities,” at various locations including the Huntington Garden and several libraries in the area.

I came across a paper this past year addressing cooperative collaboration frameworks for scientists, policymakers, and community groups to pursue joint research ventures together directly benefiting both ecological and community well-being: “Connecting Diverse Knowledge Systems for Enhanced Ecosystem Governance: The Multiple Evidence Base Approach.” My personal thoughts have meandered to research questions like, “What types of social, cultural, and political structures, such as popular lifestyles and governance models most improve indicators of soil health and ecological well-being?”

As a specialist in soil and compost ecology I understand indicators of soil health and ecological well-being. My primary collaborator is a social science specialist who understands indicators of positive human developmental health and community well-being.

In my community work I continually advocate for lifestyle and cultural changes which require deep personal commitments, ideally lifelong commitments to lifestyle and cultural practices that foster care, creativity, earth healing, community building, and stewardship of community services. In my collaborative work with community members, we consider care of the community first. If we want to build a garden to grow food for the community and alleviate food insecurity and environmental injustice, how can we build relationships of trust with our community? How can we hold ourselves accountable so that we do not exploit the very community we profess to assist?

And so it is with great delight to see that the community work we have been doing and the evolution of our philosophies of transformation, care, and stewardship are being expressed, researched and quantified and published, in the realm of ecological science, and being shared in professional societies and forums. When I read the paper on “Improving Environmental Decision-Making Through Integrated Governance, Public Engagement, and Translational Approaches,” I felt affirmed as here was a research paper essentially saying to do the things we have found ourselves doing in our work on the ground. This paper identifies 5 key ingredients for inclusive community engagement:

  1. Listen
  2. Show up
  3. Follow up
  4. Connect to the issue
  5. Trust

In the evolution of our framework of community engagement, we have settled too on these ingredients for building successful and authentic relationships with the community. We are always talking about active listening and cultivating trust, and pondering the methodologies that facilitate active listening and trust. In order to engage in active listening when reaching out to a new community, one must hold aside their preconceived notions of what should take place. Space must be made for true listening, for community members to truly feel safe to share their ideas, visions, and dreams with us for what they want to see in their world.

“What are the first steps you take when starting a new inclusive, community engagement initiative?

  • Consciously step back from how you understand the problem. Observe.
  • Focus on process design. Be clear, flexible in time and resources, and transparent.
  • Build relationships.
  • Develop partnerships.”

Community engagement is a social question of human dimensions, considering, including, and integrating each of our constellations of wholeness and complexity. It is not a task for the faint of heart or those who are eager for instant gratification, for it is here that the great work of deep listening and multi-dimensional integration is done.

And when we are talking about how to listen and work together, we are talking about how to be deeply and fully human. Thus my delight in seeing a paper from the ESA about this very topic: “Extending the Vision: Highlighting the Human Dimensions of the Ecological Society of America,” where ecologists have taken the lead to integrate the human dimensions of ecological science and pursue solutions to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion within ecology and across the ESA as a professional society.

“Current ecological conditions are linked to human social systems: socioeconomic, geopolitical, cultural, and identity issues that influence how people interact with ecosystems. Our understanding of patterns in natural systems, and our ability to make predictions, is intrinsically linked to current and past human knowledge, behavior, and processes.”

“The study of human dimensions includes the application of theories and practices from diverse fields such as economics, psychology, sociology, policy, geography, environmental science, and the humanities. Such research is generally focused on the reciprocal interactions between humans and their environments, and it is informed by the perspective that humans are integral to and inseparable from the biophysical world. The richness of the interdisciplinary collaborations born from this work helps us better understand the complex web of human processes as they relate to natural resources. Such work strengthens the science of ecology and deepens impact of our discoveries.”

If we want to make better decisions about the environment, raise our collective ecological literacy, collaborate across fields and disciplines, then we must acknowledge our constellations and how they interact in our sociopolitical fabric to directly impact the environment.

How does our individual psychology contribute to indicators of soil health and ecological well-being?

There can be no divide between the personal and professional in this work, for it is all influence and impact on the environment. There is no insular professionalism; no work happens in isolation. No lifestyle happens in isolation. All is interconnected; all is interdependent.

How serious are we about making better decisions about the environment in which we are stewards?

How much do we want to survive the climate crisis? Do we want to survive in a way that is healing and joyful and restorative? Or do we want to perpetuate an apocalyptic nightmare of barely surviving a wasteland of our own making?

These are the options before us.

In my mind, there can be no true restoration of the ecology without deep inner healing of our personal psychology. I believe conflict resolution, true collaboration, and intentional community cannot be achieved without a deep commitment to inner healing. Without each individual committing to their own inner healing, community efforts will continue to fail in dysfunction and status quo hierarchies.

The science of ecology is all hands on deck. It is all inclusive. Whatever influences the indicators of ecological well-being is what needs to be addressed.

It is art, psychology, healing, communication, facilitation, collaboration, community frameworks, and restorative justice.

As human beings are not separate from our biophysical environment, our inner personal and spiritual lives have direct impact on our biophysical environment.

If we do not address our inner personal and spiritual lives, we will never achieve the goal and vision of true earth healing and restorative justice.

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Teamwork Makes the Dreamwork

My dream since grad school has been to start my own compost making enterprise. There are easier ways to do this, such as living in a rural area and working for the compost industry. However I am notorious for taking the difficult route, even with one of the most difficult industries to work in. I decided I wanted to live in the Los Angeles area, and as much as I wanted to pursue an enterprise, environmental justice was a much greater issue I could not ignore. In my pursuit of enterprise, I found justice work. Community composting is a much smaller scale pursuit, and most would scoff at its ability to generate any kind of livelihood for someone. But it is meant to be a decentralized network of small sites. This is obviously a difficult pursuit once again, as there are multitudes more people to convince that this is a good idea to try.

There are many barriers to community composting, such as policy limitations, hauling limitations, as well as stubborn perceptions of compost as a nuisance. So while I know how to make high quality compost, I am not a specialist in changing policy or wrangling waste management industries, which in my mind is much like the mafia in terms of its control over our waste stream as well as our policymakers.

So I have my knowledge and my practice, and it proves difficult to apply and expand that across a large enough base to effectively have a real business enterprise in making and selling compost. Add to that the fact that I have a debilitating autoimmune illness, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and I am required to dedicate a significant portion of my life to addressing the painful inflammatory throes of RA. So I am not able to do the labor myself, nor am I able to change policy myself.

The truth is that teamwork makes the dreamwork. What I am good at is love, connection, compassion, and friendship. So I made friends with people who were good at policy work and potentially wrangling the mafia-esque policymakers and waste management controllers. I made friends with people who could convince large multitudes of people to start small scale community composting sites.

My role then became the tech specialist. I focused my efforts on teaching and soil science. Truly I am best at being a teacher. This may be my truest calling of all. Here to teach people about the *ecology* of soil and compost, not just how to make it, but how to make it healthy and well, so that it can provide for us again and again and again with abundances of fresh, clean food, clean water, and healthy bodies. This is the key to building healthy communities.

What I have learned on this journey is that environmental justice is the real work of urban communities, and community composting is one solution to the multitude of complex issues surrounding justice work. Within that realm of environmental justice, one learns about systemic perpetration of intersectional inequality, including economic and environmental inequality.

People in oppressed communities will never have the chance to uplift themselves in a system designed to exploit them and dump their toxic waste streams into their bodies. They need help from those with privilege to undo the political ties that keep them in bondage, and even then it happens very slowly, practically one person at a time.

The more I reflect on the barriers to my dream, the more I see our structures of society and culture as the real culprits of limiting the manifestation of my dream. For one thing, we are currently living in a difficult and terrible time of a viral pandemic with a fascist oriented leader chaotically guiding us somewhere, which is not quite mitigating the pandemic at all. And so, oppressed people continue to suffer under this system.

A few years ago, one could not even speak of Capitalism as a wrong thing. It was a highly charged topic, people were very offended at criticisms of this economic system we live under. Perhaps it is the difficulty of looking at oneself and seeing the ways in which we have been wrong about Capitalism, deluded into a dream of rags to riches and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

I have been wearing bootstraps my whole life and I have pulled myself towards some kind of livelihood in which I am still gravely dependent on external support to function properly, partially due to my chronic illness and disability.

I have found this external support through the cultivation of an interdependent, resource-sharing, generosity-centered community that is interested in mutual support and mitigating environmental destruction in our collective lifestyles. Not to mention, I am lucky to have a family that is willing and capable of helping me out. There is privilege there too.

I am lucky too that I have only had one direct moment of coming face to face with intersectional inequality as a young Chinese-American woman working in this field. At an event where someone was expecting to meet a soil science expert, they were surprised to encounter a colorful young me, black hair, pearl faced, youth ridden as is the curse of Asian peoples. They said to me, “I was expecting an old white man,” as though old white men are the only ones worth trusting as experts in soil science. This was a real fear I expressed directly to my graduate school coordinator when I was graduating and about to leave to embark on this new adventure in my life. I said to him, “I hope it’s okay I’m not an old white man.”

I experienced this when I applied for a job at the compost industry, they told me I was at the top of the list, perhaps the 2nd in consideration. In the end, they went with the old white guy.

My dream still lives, as I am lucky to work with incredible people who are able to build out networks of community compost sites with my support. One day, we will carve out the niche, seize a slice of the pie, in the world of policy and waste management and grant making, in which we have the funds to have the sites we need to build our collective enterprise.

Teamwork makes the Dreamwork.

To escape the Capitalistic nightmare of intersectional inequality and perpetual oppression is to discover, learn, try, and embrace the shared power of collective collaboration and cooperative governance. This requires you to give up your potential for dominant power over others, to make space for true collective power that comes from a number of people committed to a shared purpose and shared vision in their lifetimes.

Choosing a life commitment is not easy, but if you are open to the idea that we are not just human beings, but souls that could potentially compost upon our earthly death and reincarnate as other organisms, and have a chance at another life, then it is like a video game. Death = Game Over. But the system can be reset, and you can try again.

The nice thing about these days is that you can criticize Capitalism, and many people are doing it with a vengeance. They have every right to, for Capitalism is a system built on violence, defined by oppression and inequality. Colonization, genocide, slavery. Say it like it is.

There is no escaping societal structures, or at least, it is extremely difficult to drop out of society. We are all victims of Capitalism, and so we are all at fault, we are all perpetrators, and we are all oppressed.

So while I am still on the journey to achieve my dream, I have found a way to stick with it by cultivating a livelihood that allows me to traverse both worlds of Capitalism and something better. That something better is still elusive to me, it may be socialism or communism. In practice it has meant I devote part of my time to non-profit and volunteer work, and the other part of my time to building a business centered around education, consulting, and other skill sets I have such as art, gardening, and crafting handmade goods.

As many of you know, the non-profit world is ridden with many of the same issues perpetuating the status quo of inequality and oppression. It is by no means a solution to the issue, though it offers much help to many people, it is still much more like a band-aid on an endlessly bleeding wound.

Why is the wound still bleeding?

Can we stop the bleeding?

This is the real question. Can we stop creating wounds? Can we start creating healing and wholeness instead?

I chose a hybrid model for my own self, sort of like social enterprise for creative entrepreneurship. It was a way to maintain some level of pleasurable livelihood while working on discovering that elusive something better.

I have come across cooperative leadership structures as one of the better tools to fall into that category of something better. These are not perfect either, but we continue to learn, grow, and evolve. My team and I want to create a better version of cooperative governance, we want to walk away entirely from any kind of perpetration of status quo nonsense.

Our world is in flux, and so too are our financial systems. For so long we have valued money above all else, to the point of our cosmic demise. We could destroy our whole universe if we wanted to continue following the lure of the dollar sign. We are nothing but molds, feasting infinitely, not knowing how to stop until we’ve reached our limits and have no choice but to die and be feasted on by some other organism. That is how ecology works. If we want to evolve beyond a mold, then we must do the difficult work of self-reflection, learning, growing, research, education, and experimentation. We must evolve or die. That is how life works.

Freedom and pleasure are the true motivators of my life. I am not well motivated by money, other than knowing it can bring me more freedom and more pleasure. Money for the sake of money, though, is too abstract for this earthly Taurus.

I am a water buffalo, and my greatest pleasure is soil and water.

There is not much money in that.

And so to survive, I too must learn to evolve within a Capitalistic framework and learn business skills. I am lucky too to have grown up in a time where self-employment has become all the rage.

Again, though, I am a stubborn water buffalo and I refuse to do anything I don’t like. And so I carve out a complex path for myself. I commit to certain types of work, but I burn out easily on any one thing for too long. I need complexity and multiplicity, many different types of projects to intrigue my creative senses.

What is the purpose of life if not to experience the earthly delights this reality has to offer?

I am a soil scientist, and I am an artist. I am a composter, and I am a community builder. I am an ecologist, and I am a social and cultural systems analyst. Right now I am making candles and balms because the hands-on work feeds my soul in this time of isolation and quarantine. They give hope and healing to those who receive them, they support the post office, and candle magic is a prayer for something better to come along.

I am a writer too, and an oracular diviner, I am a healer and a seeker.

But above all, I believe my greatest gift is that I can be a friend to just about anyone. Friendship has been my greatest empowerment and my greatest salvation.

And so I advocate for that in anything you want to do, whether it’s building a business, making compost, changing the world, or creating community. Find out how to make friends. The kinds you can keep in true trust for all of eternity.

Because no matter what is going on, Teamwork makes the Dreamwork.

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Homestead Resiliency

In crisis, we rise. We greet the monster in its full guise, and discover what we need to defeat, defend, protect, survive, and thrive well.

If Death has come knocking on our door, then it doesn’t matter if we open the door or not. Our fate is sealed.

Whatever the situation may be, the truth is our societal infrastructure was already crumbling, masked in a gilded smile of whitened teeth.

We have some idea of what we’re looking at, we have different ideas about it. At the very least, most of us can see and agree that our infrastructure, especially in the United States, is weak. With our healthcare and food supply system being stretched, it will not be long before they exceed capacity.

As a farmer, I did what I do best. I invested my efforts in building soil, planting seeds, preparing new cultivation spaces for food and medicine, beefing up the garden in preparation for it to serve as our primary food supply.

Your garden is cute, but can it provide a continuous supply of food and medicine for your household and community? Can you rely on your garden as your grocery store?

That’s where it comes down to soil health. Maintaining soil health ensures continuous productivity and abundant harvests. I’ve been working on bringing goat manure, compost, gathering seeds, seedlings to our home garden to prepare for a nutritionally complete and pandemic resilient food and medicine garden.

It is at this time that I am bringing together everything that I have learned personally and professionally over the last decade in service to maximizing and optimizing self-reliance and living well at home.

Toilet paper shortage? No problem. Install a bidet, get some family cloth.

No cough medicine at the store? No worries, mallow is an abundant weed that soothes throats and suppresses cough.

A great storm has arrived, and I plan to weather it well. The greatest gift I can offer to all of you is to share with you all of the resources, skills, knowledge, wisdom that I have to empower you with the same level of resiliency in your own home. I created the Homestead Resiliency offering for this purpose.

We can work together to develop a customized vision and plan of homestead resiliency for you and your family. Grow your favorite plants, foods, herbs, flowers, and also make sure your garden design can provide a nutritionally complete meal for your family. I understand food sensitivities, elimination, and autoimmune diets intimately, so we can customize your garden plan to serve those specialized needs.

We can also talk about basic herbal medicine and growing medicinal plants, fruit trees, integrating wildlife and pollinator habitat, water harvesting and conservation techniques, and other ideas for enhancing local self-reliance.

We’ll start with where you are – what you have right now, what you’re interested in and comfortable embracing, and develop a vision and plan from there.

Homestead Resiliency is available for hourly consulting at $125/hr or as a Monthly Mentorship Deep Visioning + Planning program for 5 hours a month, $625/month for 3 months. These will be done through video conference calls.

In the Monthly Mentorship program, we can take the time to dive deep into illuminating the details of your vision for your space, that is integrative, comprehensive, and holistic to meet the needs of your family. We can develop a design and plan to successfully and pragmatically implement your vision.

I am opening up all of my work to flexible payment plans, so please contact me to request a flexible payment plan.

Soilify! Scholarship

A generous donor sponsored 1 full scholarship to the whole Soilify! series.

Submit your Scholarship Application here.

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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: