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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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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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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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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.