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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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hold tight to the ones you love

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

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

Friendships and moments of aligned connection.

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

Kindness is timeless, it never gets old.

Friendship saves lives.

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

And I am here for that.

Again and again and again.

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Hmmm… What is Humus Anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Art + Science

Movement + Culture Building

There is a new level of communication that emerges when art and science come together. Art speaks to our emotional intelligence and intuitive wisdom, science to our practical reality as evidenced through our physical senses. I think about learning as the process of integrating and understanding new information in such a way that it becomes a part of who we are, it becomes embodied within our being, and we have the option to live the learning. We have access to a new level of understanding that informs and influences the way we perceive, assess, synthesize the world around us, as well as how we choose to respond or contribute.

Learning new knowledge changes who we are on some level. We can choose whether we want to shift our lifestyles or actually take action on that new knowledge, but regardless of whether our actions change, our awareness has. There is no way to “un-know” something. You can choose to ignore it, stop it from influencing the rest of your life and actions, which is an act of influence in itself. But there is no way to erase it from your awareness. You could try really hard to forget, and to a certain degree that can work.

The power of art and science together in education and communication is the potential to engage both emotional and mental awareness – to really understand new concepts in a way that are easy to integrate as one’s being. And with that, the potential for this new understanding to translate into new action.

We live in a world of commercialized art, like logos and branding and jingles, serving capitalistic motives for making more money. The potency of business and branding lies in both the art and science embedded behind it. But we can utilize this same power for education and awareness, for building movements for justice, ecology, community.

It’s exciting that many more people are interested in devoting their careers to bettering the environment and community well-being. And, my perspective is one that integrates professional and personal – where the boundaries between work and life are blurred. At this point, it becomes evident that there is a need to create new forms of culture that support this type of livelihood, that supports people devoting time (whether that’s professional or personal) to the pursuit of a more just, sustainable world. The arts have always been an integral part of creating cultural identities, and so they can be reclaimed to nurture our work in community as well.

Bridging Divides, Blurring the Lines

We have a need to utilize the best of both of our senses and skills in art and science. In this time, we are navigating political chaos and climate crisis, and we want to be prepared to re-design our world in such a way that prioritizes people and planet. We need to work together, build relationships of love and trust, and co-create a new world that is rooted in equality, justice, empowerment, and ecological harmony.

This requires us to acknowledge ourselves as complex and integrated beings with seemingly limitless potential, to bridge the divides that seem to separate us, to embrace interdisciplinary and cooperative approaches to making things happen. We are not one thing or another, we are all of the things at varying levels of maturity. We have the potential to refine those aspects of ourselves, to excel in the areas we are already naturally inclined to with innate talents and gifts, and to manage or build up those areas we are not naturally inclined to embrace.

We need to walk away from the things that limit our capacity for discovery, creativity, innovation, loving connection, and respectful collaboration. We need to nurture our differences, nurture diversity and inclusion, and bring these seemingly opposing aspects together on the same page.

Humans have a need to categorize and organize – I wonder if we are one of the more OCD species on this planet? Nature doesn’t fit well into our categories, and doesn’t seem to distinguish between these things. They are all part of the landscape, all available to be used and played with. Art and science are tools we can use to craft new worlds.

Art = Science = Magic

The intelligence of nature is rooted in both art and science. Sacred geometry permeates our biology, providing the structural blueprint for everything from molecular structures to flower petal patterns. We have researched and distilled the processes of evolution and development of living systems down to their biochemical reactions. We have correlated our emotional intelligence to their neuro-biochemical mechanisms. Our experience of love and connection is because of a molecule named oxytocin.

This is the intimacy of art and science in nature – they are two sides of the same coin. Modern day treatments of depression can include nutritional therapies – getting more fermented foods and B vitamins all help. And so do art-based therapies like art, music, dance, gardening.

These are the shaping forces of our world, and we can use them to shift and shape the world into one that we really want to and feel good about living in.

Our technology has advanced to the point of outsourcing our cognitive functioning and even ability to learn new skills to artificial intelligence. We have self-driving cars and space tools that have probed the outer reaches of our space-time continuum.

And yet, our society is still rooted in extractive violence, oppression, isolation and disconnect, and a limitless pursuit of numbers behind this $ sign. Maybe this is nature too, because nature is as much murder and rape as it is beauty and inspiration.

But we have a power of choice, of free will and sovereignty. We can choose the rules we want to play by. We don’t have to settle, but we have a lot of work to do.

There is a magic that emerges when art and science come together. The events we do that integrate art, music, ecology, and farm to table food are magical. An atmosphere is created that allows for this experience of connection to arise.

It is a time of change, transformation, evolution. We can be open to new ideas that create the kind of impact we want and need. If we can sing and dance and feast our way into a new world, that sounds much more fun than coercion or shaming and blaming.

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Non-hierarchical Microbial Ecologies; or Everything is Everything

I’m fascinated by the story of Lynn Margulis, an evolutionary biologist whose theory on endosymbiosis is considered one of the great achievements of 20th century evolutionary biology. Originally met with great skepticism, it has since been validated through experimentation thanks to advancements in molecular methods. She opposed the idea that competition was the primary driving force of evolution, as was the currently accepted Darwinian standard, and asserted that symbiosis and cooperation were actually the main mechanisms of evolution.

Symbiosis is when different organisms come and live together. It is any sort of close biological interaction between 2 different biological organisms, with any sort of benefit/cost relationship. These include mutualism (mutually beneficial), commensalism (one benefits, the other is neutral), and parasitism (one benefits at the expense of the other). Cooperation is when organisms work together for a collective benefit, and this can be mutually beneficial or altruistic in nature.

The theory of endosymbiosis says that the mitochondria in our human cells were originally free living bacterium that were swallowed up by another organism. It decided to crash on the couch in exchange for respiring oxygen and producing energy, and made itself at home for good. Same thing with plants – the chloroplasts in plant cells were originally free living photosynthetic bacteria that were swallowed up by another bacteria. A place to crash in exchange for a solar power plant, essentially, transforming sunlight into energy. And, the creation of a new species through the collectivization and integration of individuals coming together. Evidence that the mechanisms of symbiosis and cooperation contribute to the evolution of new species.

Bottom cell with mitochondrion = the basis of our human cells; Top cell with green chloroplast (photosynthesis) = the basis of plant cells

Along those lines, she also asserts that multi-cellular organisms evolved out of cooperatives of bacteria. Our brain cells and blood cells were once specialized bacteria of their own kind, that came together and found better collective fitness living and working together. In another “few million years, for example, the microorganisms producing vitamin B12 in our intestines may become parts of our own cells. An aggregate of specialized cells may become an organ.” (Microcosmos, p. 33)

She has a reputation as being a rebel scientist, as her theories later in life were increasingly controversial. She was married to Carl Sagan for a few years, and had two children with him. She said it was impossible to have a relationship, children, and a successful career in science all at once.

She applied her understanding of evolutionary ecology to human politics as well:

“As symbolized by the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, it is folly not to extend the lessons of evolution and ecology to the human and political realm. Life is not merely a murderous game in which cheating and killing insure the injection of the rogue’s genes into the next generation, but it is also a symbiotic, cooperative venture in which partners triumph. Indeed, despite the belittling of humanity that naturally occurs when one looks at “Homo sapiens sapiens” from a planetary perspective of billions of years of cell evolution, we can rescue for ourselves some of our old evolutionary grandeur when we recognize our species not as lords but as partners: we are in mute, incontrovertible partnership with the photosynthetic organisms that feed us, the gas producers that provide oxygen, and the heterotrophic bacteria and fungi that remove and convert our waste. No political will or technological advance call dissolve that partnership.” (Microcosmos, p. 16)

While her predecessors had spoken of the evolutionary advancement and importance of humankind, in her view humanity was “simply one among other microbial phenomena” (p. 19), and she believed there were no solid boundaries or distinctions between humans and microbes.

“In Microcosmos we take a stance against the division of human beings from the rest of “Nature.” People are neither fundamentally in conflict with nor essential to the global ecosystem. Even if we accomplish the extraterrestrial expansion of life, it will not be to the credit of humanity as humanity. Rather it will be to the credit of humanity as a symbiotically evolving, globally interconnected, technologically enhanced, microbially based system.” (p. 19)

She asserts that there is no hierarchy between humans and microbes – we often think of humans as being on the top of the evolutionary pyramid, and microbes at the bottom. But if we are simply mass vehicles of microbial communities, then we are not really on the top of the evolutionary pyramid. And, it is not about inverting the pyramid either.

“The problem with the reversal that places microbes on top and people underneath is that dichotomization – important versus unimportant, essential versus unessential – remains. […] Confronting our ecological arrogance does not solve the problem of the pedestal: it is still assumed that one organism is better, higher, or “more evolved” than the other. Once we recognize our energetic and chemical intercourse with other species, however, and the nonnegotiability of our connections with them, we must remove the pedestal altogether.” (p. 21)

I imagine overlapping circles of shifting landscapes of microbial communities. This challenges ideas about our identities as being solid, unique, and independent. It pokes holes in our boundaries between ourselves and the world around us, our relationship to other living beings. It would seem as though we are simply a shaping point in a sea of microbes. Everything is everything, there is no such thing as not being affected by things happening outside of ourselves, or in other parts of the world.

I find it interesting that in her research on microbial ecology and evolution, she stumbled upon ideas around political structures and hierarchy. For those who think science and policy should be separate, distinct fields of study and education, perhaps our microbial ecologies already have their own political structures in place, upon which they rely for their cooperation, organization, and collective evolution. Perhaps if we are thinking of evolving more collectivist and cooperative models of decision-making and living and working together, we could stand to learn a few tips from our microbial comrades.

I opened up my 2nd class in Soilify on the Role of Soil in Climate, Human, and Community Well-being with a look at this work by Lynn Margulis. You can learn more about it there, as well as modern microbiome research, and other principles in microbial ecologies that relate to our health and well-being.

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What is an ECOFARM?

ECOFARM is an acronym for Ecological and Community Oriented Farming and Resource Management, which is essentially an integrated community compost farm that is deeply rooted in ecological design and increasing community access (to healthy food, healthy soil, and other resources) and connection. It is a model some friends and I have worked on developing in recent years, and we have officially launched 2 pilot projects so far.

There are many important aspects of this model, making it multi-dimensional in nature. I would not say one aspect is emphasized over the other, though it depends on the community members involved in executing the model. In which case, that depends on the skills, resources, and inherent biases of that community.

In this model, community input is integrated into the design so that it serves the immediate needs of the neighboring community. The whole site is designed under ecological principles, which can include any number of garden elements, such as vegetable beds, food forest, composting, medicinal and herb gardens, native and pollinator gardens, community gathering areas, beehives, a seed library, water infiltration basins and swales, ponds, flowers, etc. Generally when we ask the community, they are interested in having all of these things.

The composting aspect is intended to be a fully fledged organic waste processing program, which receives food waste from the community, and composts it with farm trimmings, manure, and wood chips. Thus, there should be some kind of food waste collection program, whether that’s a drop-off program, or a hauling collections program.

My personal mission is to manage these compost piles very well, so there are no odors or pests, and the composting part is pleasant, inspiring, and welcoming. I do this by ensuring the compost reaches hot temperatures, meeting EPA standards for killing off human pathogens like Salmonella and E. Coli. This is done by ensuring a good initial compost recipe, so our site managers are trained to build piles in this way. In this way, our collections programs can accept meat, dairy, bones, and other plate waste.

One of the reasons I am interested in the ecological design of a compost project is that the increased biodiversity and ecological health and function of the space all help to minimize pests and pathogens around the compost. The compost can be used immediately on site to improve the land right there.

Principles of ecological garden design look to wild systems for inspiration on how best to facilitate ecological health under human-managed vegetable cultivation. Increasing biodiversity, increasing wildlife and native pollinator habitat, native pollinator habitat, integrating trees, and developing erosion mitigation and soil building strategies. So we are not just growing food or growing soil, but we are growing whole ecologies.

And that extends to human ecologies too. Low-income neighborhoods lack access to fresh healthy food, so it’s important for this food and medicine that is grown on these sites to contribute to the livelihoods of disadvantaged folks. Accessibility is about distance, affordability, and cultural appropriateness of the food.

The farm is managed collectively. There are some paid staff in charge of running the farm and coordinating volunteers. The paid farmer organizes the tasks for the day, and works with volunteers to accomplish all of these tasks. Community volunteers get to take a share of the harvest home with them. This is different from the conventional community garden where each individual manages their own plot as well (or not) as they want to.

The idea is that everyone has a voice, and as a community we can integrate as much of everyone’s individual desires as much as possible. So if there is something you want to grow, we can grow it. The benefit of collective management is that you can be there tending to your favorite spots, and it’s okay for you to be busy too, the community is still caring for your favorite parts of the garden. There will still be food and medicine waiting for you when you return.

Ecologically, the site has a better chance to develop as a whole ecosystem, which increases its efficiency and function and overall health. Issues around pests and pathogens can be troubleshooted as a whole ecosystem issue, rather than an isolated issue that relates to your personal skill and ability as a gardener.

One of the great shifts in perspective that this type of collective management brings is the idea of stewarding common resources – acknowledging our commonality, and choosing to collaborate and work together to manage those resources responsibly and equitably.

Beyond that, I personally just want to have fun. So creating spaces for educational events, creative opportunities, and community gatherings are an integral part of these projects. It is magical to bring people together over a farm to table dinner, with fresh flowers, juices, fruits, and just harvested garden salads.

It takes a lot of work, labor, and resources to install a fully featured ECOFARM like this, especially when it is taking a new spin on community gardening. Because it integrates community decision making processes, things often happen on a slower time scale. More people feel included in the process, which improves the relationships within the community, and people are less likely to feel undervalued. However, it does mean that one person can’t just blaze on and create the whole thing, which might give you a beautiful overnight garden, but doesn’t have the community trust built in behind it.

There is more education and communication that is necessary for this model to work. Some perspectives on community gardens are that they are better served as an organizing tool for community members to come together and empower themselves to advocate for better services and resources. The ECOFARM model can also work in this way.

I am working with some friends to formalize this model and house it under a 501c3 non-profit organization that is utilizing cooperative leadership structures. So yes, if you want to fund us, we’ll be happy to take your money. We have leads for more opportunities to implement this model, so your money will always go towards expanding ECOFARM. You can donate to ECOFARM using the Donate button on the right, or Click Here to Donate.