“I think of myself as a spider who has eight legs,” Nance Klehm tells me. “I need to put down every leg to move forward.” She’s explaining the variety of methods she uses to get the rest of us to start looking around, seeing our surroundings as a habitat—for humans and every living creature. A sampling of Klehm’s activities includes designing landscapes, writing, and leading urban foraging tours. She has conducted art experiments involving urban composting toilets, a weed identification guide, and a roaming taco cart at which stories served as currency. “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.”
Klehm has been called a radical ecologist. These words have connotations, of course, but traced from Latin and Greek, they translate to a roots-based study of the relationships between living things. There couldn’t be a more accurate summary of her work, and at the root of what connects all living things Klehm has found soil and water. In these elements she sees “a starting ground to grow health.” Because the mineral makeup of soil can be observed through the plant life growing in it, Klehm’s foraging tours serve as a basic primer in soil health. Yes, she introduces audiences to edible and medicinal plants growing wild in urban areas, “but the underlying, overall thing,” she asserts, “is about re-engaging the city as habitat. 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.”
The tours came about somewhat accidentally. “I’m not an urban person,” explains Klehm. “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.” Her background, growing up rurally with a horticulturalist father, enabled her to identify plants. She estimates that the foraging tours began seven years ago.
While most of us look at rogue urban flora and see weeds, Nance Klehm sees transformation. “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, et cetera.” Because soil and water “are the only things that we have to make our food healthy,” Klehm shifted her approach to landscape design and food production in Chicago, “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.”
Klehm’s foraging tours might get people interested in the weeds around them, but it’s not a trend she promotes. “I 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.”
So what’s the point? “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 you 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.”