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A Conversation with Nance Klehm

Nance Klehm, photo by Jason CrepsThe phrase “radical ecologist” may have connotations but these words, traced to their beginnings Latin and Greek, amount to a roots-based study of the relationships between living things. There couldn’t be a more accurate summary of Nance Klehm’s work, which ranges from landscape design and art experiments to writing and leading urban weed-eating tours. Connect the dots between all of these activities, and you have an outline for re-connecting city-dwellers to their habitat.

Utne Reader assistant editor Suzanne Lindgren interviewed Nance Klehm by phone in late August 2012. Here is the transcript.  Photo by Jason Creps.


Utne Reader: We’ve selected you as an Utne Visionary for 2012 mostly because of what we’ve read about your urban foraging and the tours—sharing that knowledge with other people—but I know that you do a lot of other things too. 

Nance Klehm: I never know what aspect of my work people are interested in because it is a matrix. It’s all part of the practice and also my public offering. So I was like, ‘Huh, I wonder how they found me and through what channel.’ OK, I’m ready to go.”

How did you become involved in urban foraging? 

I started doing it on my own maybe 15 years ago, mostly out of a response to the—for lack of a better word—loneliness of a city. I’m not from cities, I’m not an urban person, or maybe I’ve become one as an adult. I came to the city because it’s a world of ideas, and I realized that the world of ideas is a lonely one. So I started going for long walks along the train tracks near my house that go out about 50 miles from Chicago, west. And started identifying plants. I come from a horticultural background, so identifying plants is something that I have a facility for. I had a starting point from growing up rurally and having a horticulturalist for a father and being part of a very large nursery operation. I decided I was going to share that with others about—I’m not very good with time—but I’d say it was about 7 years ago I started doing public walks and invited people to come with me.

And why was that an important addition for you? 

Well, my motivation isn’t food supply. I mean it is, but it’s not.

And that’s fine, it’s totally fine. 

I feel like that’s a very human-centric approach to the landscape, and mine was to connect with my environment. I wanted to help urban people better appreciate their surroundings and to find their place within that through a sense of wonder and a careful engagement. That’s kind of the underpinnings of my urban forages, although I talk about edibles, medicinals, plants that we can use for fiber, building materials, etc. But the underlying, overall thing is about reengaging the city as habitat.

I’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of press about you, especially in Chicago, some in LA. Have you been able to see people wandering around with increased knowledge? Are people telling each other and is it having kind of a ripple effect? 

Yeah, it is. It’s very much the fad now. There’s a foraging restaurant opening in Chicago, very high-end. It’s all the rage. There’s a great sense of wonder around things. I recently was in Poland and Finland working on some projects and I did public forages in both places. I find that Americans are still having problems seeing their environment as something to consult. And looking at eyes and faces is dollar signs, looking at it within the market model. Americans, it will still take some time to connect them with their environment in a way that’s not so conceptive or extractive.

I know you’ve done a wealth of other projects from writing to composting to art. Do you want to talk about some of those and fill in the blanks? 

Again, to me it’s a web and if I think of myself as a spider who has eight legs, I need to put down every leg to move forward. So I have all these different pieces that I move forward slowly. They all have the same passion and belief: that I want to connect people to nature and environment in an experiential way. So I don’t use environmental terms, I don’t use political language, I don’t use spiritual language. I don’t use any of those languages because I’m trying to catch a really broad audience of socio-economic classes, different formal disciplines and aspects of literacy, age from children to elderly, and also to spiritual and political differences. I do pride myself that I can talk to people with a low level of literacy and immigrants as well as I can talk about evangelical Christians about the same things, and for them to make sense and connect to them. And so, to summarize, it’s all about re-engaging and re-envisioning our cities as habitat—for humans and every other living creature, animals, plants, etc.—to look at our biological infrastructure of air soil water. So all the work I do is within that.

What questions should we, as people, be asking ourselves as we look around—to go along with what you just said about reengaging and re-envisioning and imaging things as connected? 

I think just asking yourself, where are you right now? How do you feel about yourself? How do you feel about the world around you? Go outside. Listen. Look, feel. A bigger question is, what systems are you feeding? Not what systems do you feed on, which always seems to be the concern, particularly around food policy and food debate. Like, “what are you eating?” Who cares? What are you giving back to? What are feeding your energy into? What economic systems, social systems, natural systems, political systems are you contributing your life force to? So what systems do you feed? That’s the deepest, most digging question I ask people, but I try to start with, ask yourself where you are now.

I was blasting through European space and I was in so many different places. I had to engage these things so fast. I kept having to tell myself, “I am here right now. I am in the woods of … Finland, you know, for three days.” And I have to engage that environment, the people who live there. And it’s a huge translation, but always asking where are you now? Who are you now?

It sounds like people all around the world are interested in this knowledge. You just go to Finland and do a public forage? That’s pretty amazing. 

I did that in Tampere, that’s the second largest city in Finland. I also did a forage in Warsaw, Poland. I was doing other stuff there, but that was on the side.

It’s interesting that people around the world are interested in similar things. I don’t know why I’m surprised. 

Well, I think it’s localized knowledge. There’s been a couple times where I’ve had really large groupings of people—like 50 people—for one of my forages. I ask them, “If you’ve come here for a culinary experience, stand over here. If you’ve come here for a personal health experience, stand over here. And if you’ve come to connect to your environment, stand over here.” You could stand between those points too, so there’s three points in a triangle and there’s kind of a physical scale. You could measure yourself and I could visually see where people are coming from so I could swing the walk, with how I talk about things.

And almost every place, it doesn’t matter what country I’m in, or city, suburb, wherever, almost everybody is in the camp of connecting with their own environment. I feel like that is a fundamental shift, and those are the people, I think, that maybe I attract, because that’s the language I use. It’s really heartening, you know? It just feels so great. They want to care. They want to know about their environment and they want to care.

Well, you’re kind of touching on it right now, but what keeps you inspired day to day, and over time? 

Every morning I wake up, I’m really excited. [Laughing] I’m always in a good mood in the morning and I just can’t wait to go outside and see what’s happening with the day, with the plants, with my animals. I’m just really excited.

Alright … That’s great. OK, so what’s important that I write about? 

Well, I’m going to talk about two things. One is why a lot of my work is based on soil. When I look at urban landscape, anywhere in the world, I see evidence of disturbed ground, from all the things we like to do as humans: build and rebuild and move around, etc., etc. Because some of this disturbed ground is just disturbed and some of it’s contaminated, I’m really interested in how plants will tell you the story. I can look at a landscape and in general I can give you an estimate of when it was last disturbed—pretty close—and I can also tell you the mineral composition of the soil, what plants are in there. So many of the plants in the United States in urban areas are Asian and European, what I call the Eurasian meadow. And they really tell that story of migration.

I’m interested in soil and water as a starting ground to grow health. The weeds that we see that are from Europe and Asia that make up most of our landscape are not invasive, but they’re still non-natives, right? And they’re healing the soil. They’re the first ones to have been able to deal with these compromised, pretty poor conditions of these urban areas. They are kind of the most important medicines, basic medicines that we have in our area, but they’re also healing the soil. When I think about food systems—which I’ve been involved with for 20-some years as an adult but also because I grew up on a farm—that people talk a lot about annual food production and they don’t talk so much about water and soil. Those are the only things that we have to make our food healthy. I decided to redesign what I did as a landscape designer and as a food producer in this city. I redesigned it to get people to a more rooted base of water and soil. My forages—and I talk about habitat in my forages also—connect people to deeper trends of health and unhealth in a city. And I try to do that in a really open ended way, so people don’t feel like their world is crashing down, but I want them to be aware of why the plants that they see in their environment are there. What they’re doing underground for the soil.

I’m actually really surprised that foraging would be what Utne would focus on for me. It’s a practice of mine. I feel like it’s lighter work, particularly with this trendy-ism around it. So that’s how it connects with my larger question around food supply: that all these weeds we’re looking at or foraging, so many things in our landscape are actually healing our soils. They come there because we’ve disturbed the landscape through agriculture, through developing cities, etc.

My concern around foraging is that, as Americans, people need to be told not to grab everything. I’m going to be in the Bioneers, and I’m going to be talking about soil the whole time, urban soil. When people just think about the next cool thing that they can eat, or charge $15 in a salad—like all these restaurants that charge $15 for a salad that I can pick out of the sidewalk cracks in 2 minutes—bothers me. I also am bothered by the idea that people see things as extractive still, the idea that they’ll pick something too hard. I’m very cautious in how I approach foraging. I don’t want it to be a new food economy like some other foragers in the nation are talking about. I don’t think that’s right.

I can absolutely include that.  

Yeah, especially about relationships, especially about giving back. I’m not trying to promote new tastes. I’m not doing this because it’s … People come up to me and they’re like, “yeah but it’s free,” and I’m like, “that’s not the point.” I’m really cautious of that. It’s certainly not a primary way that I make money, maybe between 30 and 60% of what I eat is foraged. It’s not something I necessarily want to promote, because I don’t feel like people have the right consciousness to approach their environment. I see it again and again in all my walks, that I have to slow people down and help unravel their thought tendencies, eagerness. That’s the only thing I’m a little concerned about. For awhile in Finland they were talking about doing a foraging network. They have the woodlands, they have lingonberries, wild blueberries, and chanterelles that I was able to forage. There’s all these things in the woods, but it’s a very delicate place, right? I mean, you’re in Topeka, you’re in Kansas, you understand you’re in a farmed area and I am too. But they were talking about how great it would be to map everything. I said, “Mapping? I actually don’t think it’s great to map because that just means who knows how people are going to take it.” I’ve been on mushroom walks and everybody just kind of tramples through the woods and grabs the chanterelle or the morel or the puffball or whatever they see. It’s really disturbing, like they’re in this kind of elephant mode. So I said, what stops people from doing that? What are the ethics involved in that? We had a long, hard discussion about ethics and of course the Fins have a better ethic toward environment than Americans do in general, but I still brought up those questions and they were considered.

In terms of my other projects, Social Ecologies is my business site and Spontaneous Vegetation is more my activist/artist/provocateur/public educator site. You’ll see with a lot of my projects—especially the one around human waste, which I have worked professionally on this too, working in Haiti, etc.—when I’m working on it in that provocateur place, my whole point is not to be scatological for people in an urban area to poop along with me, and I collect all the waste and compost and bring it back to me. But I got a huge amount of press for that—national press, Time magazine, etc., etc. Or my big worm project. These things are not to be icky, but I’m trying to go with the most base level of, what is our relationship to our own bodies. If we care about our own bodies, how do we care about other beings and our immediate habitat? It’s not just an environment, it’s a habitat. How do we treat the land that’s around us? That’s still an underpinning of that project. People just thought I was being funny or scatological or something, and I’m like, “No, this is empowering and this is about reconnecting with our bodies and see the landscape as well as our body is the same. I was trying to get that across, but I kind of fell short for a lot of people. I did it with a lot of humor, because you can’t avoid it, right? And I did it with a lot of artistic strategies to get people to look at these things.

You could just pick out any other project and look at those sites and if anything else pops out you can use it because I still feel like it’s the same through line.

People think I do a lot of different things. I’m like, “Yeah, but it’s all the same spider.”



Learn about Nance Klehm’s current and past projects on her websites, Social Ecologies and Spontaneous Vegetation.

Read her archived musings and recipes for Arthur Magazine, “Weedeater.”

Read about Mythological Quarter’s visit with Nance Klehm, an account of a forage at LA Weekly, or Chicago Reader’s report on Humble Pile, Klehm’s human waste composting project.


Video: Urbanforaging with Weedeater Nance Klehm