Nance Klehm is a steward of the earth. She is an ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticultural consultant, and permacultural grower, as well as an in demand consultant, speaker, and teacher. Nance was honored as one of Utne Reader’s Twelve Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World in 2012. Her work has been featured in numerous news and media outlets and she has lectured at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the University of Cincinnati, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. She has taught at the University of California – Los Angeles, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and Dartington College in the United Kingdom, as well as for countless community groups worldwide. She writes a regular column for Arthur magazine, and has been included in a variety of publications and she has been profiled in numerous books.
Nance earned a B.A. in Archaeology and Spanish Literature from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., followed by graduate work in Education Philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has continued her education in a variety of ways, from intensive cheesemaking training on a sheep farm outside of Brattleboro, Vermont, to studying with David Holmgren (the co-originator, with Bill Mollison, of the concept of Permaculture). She worked with Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust of Devon, England, took herbal apprenticeships in Wisconsin, and herbal study at the East West College of Herbalism in California.
She lives in Little Village, a densely packed, diverse urban neighborhood in the heart of Chicago. Her house and land are daily practice in permaculture and urban living. Nance’s recent undertaking, The Ground Rules, is a unique community and earth-building initiative that seeks multiple communities to work with. The Ground Rules involves creating community-run Soil Centers that gather organic waste from local businesses. She is the founder of Social Ecologies, an organization that acts as an umbrella for a variety of ongoing ecological and system-regenerating projects. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and find out more at http://spontaneousvegetation.net/
Daniel Tucker (DT): One of the things that you’ve written about and talked about is how fundamental your land based upbringing has been to everything else you have done. So, I’m curious if you could talk about that as the kind of pre-history to the development of your own practice that you have today.
Nance Klehm (NK): Pretty much nobody has grown up on five hundred acres of land with a family tradition of working that land. It happens pretty rarely. You might find some industrial farm kids that make it to the city because they are trying to escape the farmland, but you don’t really meet people who actually grow up and come up fro a really long string of horticulturists and agriculturists as I am. So I think that I have to believe that really explains a lot of the reasons why I come at the things I come at and how I do it. It is because I am interested in scale and the scale of the city is very small and very divided so I always push the scaling of things.
And I’m always surprised how people are reading their environments, which is only through social and commoditized cues, it is not through other cues. And I am always really amazed by that so there are these things that I am always teaching towards or trying to…(because I write and because I teach) look at, [and I wonder] why don’t people get it? What do I have to disassemble or help them make connections with in order for them to understand some deeper ideas and explore things in a more complex way, because everyone is really just at this fundamentally disconnected starting place. And I just realize more and more profoundly as time goes on, like I just don’t even get what most people are talking about, because I come from this really deeply rooted place. I think that’s why I really like to work in immigrant communities because many immigrant communities that I work in they have a really strong connection to land and land based economy so they know how things work together. They understand their village mentality and they understand what life in their immediate surroundings gives them. And they know how to work with it creatively. So I think I do connect with land based people cross-culturally all the time, but there’s not so many people in the upper middle class and middle class and social-economic groupings (that people kind of assume that I’m in) that really understand what I’m talking about.
DT: There’s a way that your rhetoric is not easily positioned or associated with a certain kind of subculture or political tendency. You seem kind of self-conscious about that and I’m just curious how that factors in since you are kind of navigating a lot of different worlds?
NK: Because I’m not somebody that has a group of people that I always hang out with, I work with so many different people. Even today, like the two different groups of people that I worked with are so disparate in how they can see the city and how they live their lives and I need to be able to communicate with them and connect with them on a really strong level in order for a project to move forward. So, I have to code switch, as they would say, I move between lots of different ways of speaking and I am always sometimes in between that translation so a lot of it becomes a mish mash of me trying to formulate how to I crack the code in this group. So, it gets slippery to me but I like language a lot so there’s some play in that.
And I want people to understand that this is what I’m saying is well-founded, I want them to laugh, I want to be a little disengaged from expectations, I want them to know that it is smart and deeply connective and they should care about it. So, I’m trying to push a lot of buttons so a lot of my writing can be very jumpy or playful. It really depends on who my audience is when I write for a specific context then I have to write a certain way. I mean, I didn’t write my college papers like this. But I’m trying to write conversationally to reach a broad audience in fairly everyday language but something that is going to hit someone who is really smart and educated and someone who may be who doesn’t necessarily have access to a lot of the things that I have but still can get everything I’m talking about or close to everything.
DT: Continuing with writing practices, a consistent part of your output has been small publications and self-made publications as well as writing for other people’s things and I’m wondering if you could talk about that role of dissemination and some of the specific writing projects?
NK: I write a lot. It is actually one of my habits. But I don’t necessarily push it into a form very often. And I get overwhelmed. I was looking at some of the writings I was doing, I was trying to get back into my book which is really hard this time of year when I really am physically busy and strategically busy…. It is really hard for me to go into deep thought and really craft something mentally because I just am hitting, checking things off of a list and running pretty hard. But I was looking at all these notes and it is huge. What I’m writing is huge and it overwhelms me and sometimes I wonder if there is three books [and when] would I ever sit down to do them? Maybe not. It is kind of a tragic overwhelming thing for me. And then ever since I had a head injury a couple of years ago, It is even harder for me to sit down and want to do it because I can’t concentrate in the same way I used to be able to. It is a lot harder to follow really logical thoughts for hours and I used to be able to lock into that and never let go. And now I kind of get distracted, something else floats in, and I have a really hard time remembering a word or something like that. So, it has been a little bit more difficult. But I enjoy writing.
I enjoy reading. I’m somebody who consistently reads a lot and am really all over the place, so a really broad intake of reading. So I really want to put some things out there. I’m just bored about a lot of ecological writing and a lot of environmental writing. Some of it is really, really good but a lot of it is really preachy, humorless, basic and not seemingly relevant. There’s a lot of writing that explains how to do something well. I just want people to do it fully and do it deeply and really get in there. So a lot of the writing I do, even if I just point at how to do something, I write about it vaguely to create opportunities for people to creatively problem solve what the heck I’m talking about and add their own piece to it. So I do that purposely. I think writing is extremely important. I’m really interested in audience and I don’t really know what audience I have. Every once in while I am contacted by somebody and I have a great interaction with them because they found me through something. The Arthur Magazine audience is an amazing audience and I really enjoy that community.
DT: How did you writing for Arthur Magazine come about? What has that been like?
NK: I was teaching at UCLA, a class called “Cultivation, or which of these bugs is edible?” [and] I was talking to some students and they said, “We really think you should meet this person.” So I went to Jay’s house and he goes, “I want to walk along the river with you,” so we walked along the river and I went back to his house and it is just filled with boxes and CDs, a loaf of bread, that’s it. Nothing but magazines and music. And he says, ” I think you should write for this magazine.” And I’m like, “Huh?” and I picked it up and looked at it and was like, “Way too hip. I have no idea…I don’t know these filmmakers, I don’t know this music”. And he goes, “I don’t care. You know what you know and I want you to write about it.” So he said I want you to write this piece in two weeks and write about anything you want to write about and I said, “Ok.” And he asked me what I was going to be called and I said, “Weedeater.” And he goes, “That was a great band.” And I was like, “Really? That was a band?” But anyway, but it came through like that and it has just been really fun.
I talked to Jay about two days ago and asked him how things were going. The new version of the magazine is selling out and he is making money and I’m getting paid to write now where I wasn’t getting paid before. It was hard to get into in this new issue but I’m into it now, I know what I’m writing about. I was really happy with my second piece.
DT: You talked about the way you intentionally write vaguely, which could also mean “open to interpretation”… And there are a lot of things like that, such as art, and so I’m curious about your background in terms of art. There’s a way that art from the outside ebbs and flows from being visible and present in your public practice but I’m curious about what stuff or communities you engaged in that got you even thinking about yourself as an artist?
NK: First of all, what I will say about Arthur, is that everybody is pretty high creative and just real, you can’t pin down these people in any way. You can try when you meet them but they are just way to vast in their practice and how they live and so I like being smashed up in that.
In terms of art, I mean, I’ve always been a super creative person and always making and doing stuff and I used to draw and do a lot of ceramics and sewing and all sorts of stuff. I moved to Chicago and had a long-term relationship with somebody who was a commercial artist who was really well represented, had international shows and all this kind of thing in the late eighties early nineties… And so I kind of got in with all those last-moneyed art scene people. I mean, I know a lot of those people. There is something kind of weird when you are in a relationship with somebody who is an art star and you are just the girlfriend. So, I got angry and I just started doing stuff. I think that’s what happened.
I just don’t fit any category very clearly so most people who accept me tend to be people who have broader boundaries of what life could be about and they tend to be creative people. Not necessarily all artists. I get along with a lot of teachers and educators because I’m interested in learning and teaching. And I used to be interested in going to shows and that kind of thing and I’m not now and I haven’t been for a very long time. I’m not really interested in people who just work the art world.
DT: One thing that you have done pretty consistently for a while is talk about some of the things you do in terms of “projects”…. which sometimes has to do with having a broader cultural practice, just how you present it to the world. I’m just curious… I know that there is a particular, it makes me think of something like your neighborhood orchard project or some of the foraging work where I get the impression that these are things that were part of your life for a while but then became “projects”. What’s that about for you?
NK: Well it is about legitimizing me making choices about how I want to live. I’m trying to package it in a way for people to understand and also make money from it. I needed to be legitimized socially and culturally for what I was doing and I witnessed people kind of think about something and then launch a project, and then get funding for it then and move it forward for like a month and then drop it later and I was like, “No way!” I want to use some of these artistic strategies to help bring some things forward that are part of my deeper living practice and then there are certain things where I’m like, “I think I’m going to teach this or offer it to others. Or ask myself if it is this something that I’m just going to share with myself….or in tighter communities or is this something I should be much more public about?”
And then there are certain projects where I’ve really considered them as “projects”. They are kind of like a practice but then I take a piece of that practice and use it to help create more of a dialogue with what I’m doing. So, when I do that it is framed differently but it has a public face.
One of those things is Humble Pile. So I use a dry toilet and I have for awhile, almost ten years, and the project Humble Pile was to invite other people to toilet with me. I got funding from Norton Utilities who developed that cleanup software program for the computer. Anyway, Peter Norton funded me and I went forward and did what I couldn’t do myself and it was legitimated through this contract. So that was a very successful project and people still ask me about it. People do understand that I have deeper skills than just the project so I get asked for technical help on eco sanitation projects but people still ask me, “Is that project still going on?” And I’m like, “No. Collecting other people’s shit has stopped. I’m just doing my own and my roommates’ now.” And then they are not interested anymore. So, I think it is interesting that some thing that got framed as a “project”, people only understand if there is a billboard on it. And people have a really hard time getting things with longevity and so using these little markings or signposts in a project really helped people but I don’t think I need to put another signpost in like, “Human Waste Composting.” I think that it can just keep going on. I’m a little disappointed that people’s interests drop off as soon as “The Project” ends.
DT: A lot of your work involves collaboration and sometimes it has been for a one-off or short-term engagement and sometimes it is these long drawn out things and I’m wondering if you could sketch out a little bit of what you see as your internal system of collaborative relationships. Some seem to be more framed as “consulting” and some more “collaborations”. How do you see all those together?
NK: I don’t know if I do see them together. I’m not so interested in those one-offs. I get approached for those or I might ask someone to help me with a technical side to something I’m doing but I’m not interested in those one-offs. It is like speed dating. Who cares? It comes back to the five hundred acres, I’m like, I’m in it for the long-term. I’m looking at longevity and how things evolve over time and change so these quick connections are not interesting to me. They might be points in me investigating something larger but I am not satisfied by them. I don’t seek them out and I often resist doing them. They seem kind of silly and kind of a job to get done.
Still, I have two shows coming up and they are supported minimally financially and I’m going to use them for what I can get out of them… And I’m interested in some of those ideas and those ideas have already been going on in me for awhile and then they will have this showing, like a bookmark, that’ll happen in an exhibition and then these ideas will keep going. I’m grateful for these exhibition opportunities but I don’t seek them out.
DT: So then some of these longer term engagements, either as a sort of consultant or as a longer term collaborator, what are some of those experiences?
NK: Well, with Social Ecologies… When I get hired I am a consultant or I’m a tech or I am helping a community build something out.
DT: What’s the difference when you do something like at the Pacific Garden Mission and then when you do a Clean Livin project in Utah with Simparch and Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI)?
NK: There is actually a big difference there.
DT: But some of it is how you determine your collaborations and then the scope of them. Those are two maybe good examples which are different kinds of engagements.
NK: Yeah, Pacific Garden Mission, it is like, the commitment was for a very long time on a weekly basis and I had “deliverables”. At CLUI there was no deliverables. People are constantly distracted. It is just really hard to get people to focus and work on things when they’d rather just hang out. And so to me that has been a really good collaboration but also frustrating because it is not something I can check up with except on my own dreamtime because it is so far away and I like ones that are just unfolding more.
It is a lot more complicated collaboration to work where you are asked to show up every week again and again. It is a tighter relationship, you get more buttons pushed because it goes on for so long and things change. You are constantly shifting expectations.
My expectations with Clean Livin are pretty loose and I’ve had them become looser and I’ve loosened my expectations with Pacific Garden Mission because I was working with homeless people and evangelicals… I actually feel like I should be applauded for that. It was really intense but it was also easier in some ways because I knew what I was up against because it was always pressing in on me. Homeless people and evangelicals. And then millions of worms doing their thing. Really clear things to respond to where Clean Livin is so open, kind of wide open, where things need to work, but actually they really don’t. It doesn’t need to have a functionality because it is “art”, when I work as a tech or a consultant functionality is expected.
DT: So one of the things you are describing are these examples where a project ends or doesn’t quite add up, there’s not the full commitment. I guess that happens for a variety of reasons. I’m wondering, for someone who has crafted a very immersive practice and way of living, what you see as being some of the inhibitions to people fully delving into projects are.
NK: For me or others?
DANIEL:: For you and others. I imagine you run up against your own limitations as well but there is also this way in which you are a part of this social world and you are collaborating with people and you run up against their limitations as well.
NK: What are the inhibitions for myself? It is messy; it is really challenging.I need to be conscience or working towards consciousness; I need to be compassionate and I need to keep my focus and most people don’t want to be fully conscious or compassionate or focused that much. It is a lot about being on and present and participating fully. When people want my full presence I’m like, “I’m not going to give it to you. I’m not interested.” Or I’m too tired, or something. But I think that’s what is blocking people and the only way people can get through to that is due to an emotional tie in. So if there’s an emotional tie in, through grief or through anger or through or some deep love of something, which is usually all three wrapped together, shades of all those wrapped together. I and others will push further and will look at things longer.
“Why am I interested in land?” It is not because it is the next new thing or I want to discover all about it; It is because I was raised to believe land was really important and that it was pretty much everything. We extract everything from land so those relationships were always really clear to me and I am surprised that people aren’t clear in those relationships and so… And there are things that have happened to me, you know, realizations or things that I’ve seen that got me really motivated to connect even deeper to recommit to my own practice but I think a lot of people are just trying to keep away from all that.
I was talking to a lawyer this morning, I was interviewing her and I was just amazed [at how] she went from being a business-as-usual lawyer to someone who is activated as a human being, as a citizen of this world and as an activist. So I asked her “How did you get there [to this point]?” [And she replied that] “I just can’t stand it anymore.” And I loved that response and my secret wish is that everybody gets to that point where they crack and have to start caring about things. Whatever that is, you know.
DT: There’s a way that ecology is a way of looking and understanding, in and of itself, but also to be an ecologist it requires you to be involved in politics and culture and these other systems that are also related in nature but that are also these human social systems… What do you think being an ecologist requires in terms of culture and politics in addition to natural systems?
NK: It is the part that is actually so hard for me…Like, another silly day with people, another great day with everything that is not people. That’s what everyday is like with me. Like, God, I can’t believe I have to communicate this, agitate this, make these calls, do these emails, send this document out, It requires a lot and I’ve had a couple of people say, “what is social ecology? What is ecology all about without the social?” And I’m like, “Well, nothing.” We are just too big of players now on this earth, so we have to get involved in a bigger way.
But it is probably the most challenging part of what I do because people just don’t want to see themselves as complex, except intellectually they hope they are… I mean, I don’t even think they even want to be seen as emotionally complex. I mean, some people might want to be but… complexity is always something people are always trying to stay away from but I’m interested in engaging with it. I’m trying to get people to notice things, how things are being engaged, how they are being commoditized for us, I mean… I really, Social Ecology is really about regaining our own agency in our environment but in an emotionally healing and intellectually fascinating and hopefully physically supportive way. I’m really trying to monkeywrench people to get to that point because people have just literally given away their own agency because they don’t see themselves as organisms, part of another organism, they see themselves as separate. And as separatists they have lost their agency, they don’t know how to affect things outside for themselves. Assume porosity, everything is porous. We are cycling energy and there’s all this flow of information and energy going through us as a natural system and as a social system, political system, it is an ecology. I’m just hoping I get people thinking about that so they are not so oddly isolated and self-involved. Maybe to try to get them involved in something political or ecological… in order to understand themselves.
I was in a panel discussion and everybody was introducing themselves as who they were and what their position was at an institution and I said, “My name is Nance Klehm and I’m not affiliated with any institution as an employee. And I define myself as a citizen and a human animal. And sometimes human animal and then citizen, but in this context, citizen and then human animal”. And then the next professors introduce themselves and it was really a funny moment but I just wanted to level this. If we are talking about social change and divestment of an university’s assets with something, we have to be citizens. I don’t care if you are a professor; we have to be citizens in this. And it is affecting our animal ecology so in this context I’m a citizen and a human animal. And I don’t know how many people got it… They just thought it was funny or they really got it… Who knows.
DT: I think it is a great thing to do. Bringing up what you were saying earlier about complexity and how to convey complexity – there is a way to convey complexity that is creating a map with a hundred nodes on it as a way to convey the complexity that those hundred nodes actually exist within. But some of these simpler strategies of how you frame yourself publically seems like a subtler or more straight-forward way of conveying complexity.
NK: To be a citizen it is challenging to sit down and think of what that could mean, what that does mean in terms of our agency and participation and our desire is complex. I’m looking to trigger that thinking like a poet does, just trigger it. Plant it and see if I can pluck that string.
Some people just dismiss me as a fool and I’m just like, “Great, I don’t want to talk to you anyway if you think that.” Or it is a smokescreen, great, then I can get my other shit done. So, I don’t really… I get put to task on a lot of things where people just think I’m doing an easy out, but no, I’m ducking out of this so I can work on it this other way. So, I don’t know how it is interpreted all the time but I try to talk about how complex something is and people just fall asleep at the table or they got lost thirty minutes ago… So I know that and continue. So I just try both strategies actually.
Recently I told someone that she needed to make Dandelion Wine and I’ve been getting these drawings on the intricate structure of dandelions, like, “Oh my god! I looked at the flower and it is crazy!” The world that is within a flower. So, she got into that and I don’t know if she is making the wine but it almost doesn’t matter because she is doing all this other crazy stuff and she has asked me botanical questions and that’s just an invitation, you are going to make dandelion wine and then what she gets out of it is the complexity of how a flower replicates itself, especially a composite flower…. So, one dandelion is actually hundreds of flowers. So, I mean, sometimes my plan, trickery, is just seemingly answering the question when I’m actually pointing at another question that could be asked. And that maybe just starts working on someone’s head right away or maybe it doesn’t. I’m trying to create that wormhole.
I think the hardest thing about this is not caring. Not caring if what I did was successful or not…. ultimately learning or communication, hopefully something happened. In all my work, you hope something happens but you don’t know necessarily how successful it is. And I just let that go now because I talk so often and I teach so often. I do a quick read of the situation and to connect but also try to monkeywrench some thinking that could be happening.
DT: Some of that is the unique position that you’ve crafted for yourself or been put in… situations, where you are an itinerant person and dip into a class. That is a unique kind of role, so how to take advantage of a dip-in or visiting differently than some of your long term engagements that could never be characterized as dip in?
NK: I want say something about emergent practice… It is interesting being in Chicago for twenty-three years and having traveled a lot, that Chicago is way behind in most things, especially in things I’m interested in, and people aren’t asking “the questions”…So the past five years or so, I see all these people suddenly interested in planting something and I’m like, “Great.” So now that is happening I don’t have to carry that flag anymore. Let everybody else run around and carry that flag. I want to push deeper questions because now that we have that taken care of I can do something else.
But it is really hard for me, sometimes, to feel, not like a salmon all the time moving up stream. It is really hard to meet other salmons. And so I had an opportunity to invite a couple of people to Chicago to present who are pretty well known and I asked this guy to present and he goes, “People want me to present and they don’t realize that I will be as hard hitting as I am in my books.” And I’m like, “Yes, and that is why I want you here.” Like, I really want to shake things up. I want to support someone like that coming to town because I feel like Chicagoans need to hear that and I think he has a pretty big draw, it is pretty broad. So, he is coming because he wants to see what is going on here because he’s never been here. So, I’m like, “I don’t know if there’s that much but hopefully you’ll have at least a sense of…” He hasn’t spent a lot of time in Midwestern cities and how the Midwest is functioning right now in these questions and in this kind of thinking. And I said, “We need more salmon!” Please, come, because I’m tired. I have internet connections with people who are working as hard as I am on the same kinds of things and it is just unbelievable to spend time with them because I can finally exhale and just relax and we have a shared language and we can just… We can share notes.
DT: Sometimes the immersive life practice is a person’s job, in a way that is just as immersive as what you are describing in your life, but their immersion in work is maybe working against them in a way, or working against potential. I’m curious about what you think about that.. it is about organizing, it is about what forces organize your priorities and sometimes that becomes an economic question.
NK: I know because I’ve been in the position of looking at those things very deeply. To do this or do that you need money… maybe at your job you are only there ten percent of the time. If I were in their position, I’ll be up in the middle of the night on those things, drinking tea and racking my brain just tortured because I don’t know. I don’t know if I can find a place of integrity within certain contexts and I won’t trade it out and some people will trade it out and I won’t.
And I think of [a scenario where] someone has [been] presented a handful of seeds, or a hundred dollars, What are they going to take? A hundred dollars. Now, what are they going to do with the hundred dollars? Well, I’d take a hundred dollars and buy more seeds. But, most people would just take a hundred dollars and ask “what is the question? What are you asking me?” It is because we’ve given it up. We’ve given up our own ability to problem solve and we’ve given up our agency and freedom and creativity and we don’t trust it anymore. I’m trying to get people to trust their creativity. The fact that people can make decisions. I’ll ask, “What’s your desire?” They all say, “I don’t know.” And I’m like, “Check in with that and get back to me in a couple of days because that is the place you need to function from.” If your desire is, “I want a fancy meal from X restaurant and it is going to cost me three hundred and thirty dollars,” and that’s really your desire then I believe you. And that is why you are functioning the way that you are functioning but you are going to have to convince me that’s your true desire.
So I think that is part of the thing that is so difficult, to be in an immersive practice that is working against people because they don’t really know what they are risking, they don’t really know. And I don’t know why they don’t know but they don’t. I think there’s that mild grinding dissatisfaction in a lot of people. So, I’m broke now and it bothers me but then I kind of don’t care. I get shown what a compromise can be and I’m not willing to do it so I guess I’ll opt for this lesser paid but ultimately freer place. And there’s an edge to that and it bites me and I have been really taking a task on that a bunch of times, you know, criticized by friends and family and lovers… What can I let go of and what can’t I?
I’m almost fifty, and as I get older I have an insanely interesting life. I really have a huge quality of life. Just staying at home is better than most people’s staying at home – for me. It is pretty rich.