The 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
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
And that’s fine, it’s
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
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
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
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
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
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
waste composting project.
Video: Urbanforaging with Weedeater Nance Klehm