The City of Chicago is not known for its fertile beauty, or for its receptivity to political activism. But ‘dirty activist’ and Illinois native Nance Klehm has built a life’s work there, grounded in the belief that there is no outside of the natural world, whether it’s our soil, water, or our own human nature. She is perhaps best known for two of her projects: the foraging expeditions she leads through Chicago’s alleyways and untended lots, and an attention grabbing, elegantly orchestrated experiment in the composting of human waste, titled Humble Pile.
But Nance (pronounced Nancy) has many strategies, and taken together they resemble those of the hearty native plants and creatures she admires: she finds opportunities for intervention wherever cracks show in the prevailing infrastructure, and pushes for transformation with the full force of her vitality. Over the past two decades she has landscaped professionally and installed permaculture and greywater systems; led workshops on a dizzying array of practical environmental and homesteading skills; written how-to’s, advice columns and articles; taught and lectured internationally, from art schools to universities to the 2013 Great Lakes Bioneers conference; and most recently begun working with environmental lobbyists in the Illinois State Legislature to lower barriers to home composting and cultivation.
We spoke by phone recently on a drizzly Olympia and a snowy Chicago day. Our theme was how we return to our bodies to close broken systemic loops. We approached it from a variety of practical directions: tackling taboos with humor, what happens when people get their hands dirty, different leverage points for activism, yoga as a practice of radical transformation, and Nance’s deep reverence for the ingenious generalists who make their livelihoods finding the true value of our ‘waste.’ This is a lightly edited and condensed transcript.
The Grand Arc of the Humble Pile
Grandgather: Would you give an overview of the Humble Pile project?
Nance Klehm: Sure. Humble Pile…let’s put it this way. I realized the next step for me in connecting with my body, and connecting with the earth, and [given] the fact that I’m a pretty intrepid and skilled composter, was to compost my own waste. And so I did it, kind of secretly, for about a year or so. Then I decided to bring it forward and invite others to do it with me. Part of the reason I did that is because I am a provocateur. Part of my trickster energy is like the Roadrunner: I can throw myself under a train [laughs], but still emerge on the other side. A little battered, but I can get up from it, just to make a point.
And the way most things are slung is really boring and self-righteous. I thought, I want to go at something that’s uncomfortable and funny, and quite real, and see who wants to engage in it with me. That project involved a survey that I put out of about 60 emotional words. You were supposed to circle the words that you felt right now about the state of the world. I wanted to parse out some of the emotional language. Everybody sent back the survey, and people decided they would or they wouldn’t participate. There was no judgment, but I was kind of surprised who would and wouldn’t.
Then it was just a matter of rolling out the project. I rolled it out in two phases, for the power of story that could happen in two different ways. You do something, and there’s all this hullaballoo. Then, two years later you come back with the second part, and there’s more hullaballoo. It’s like a television series strategy from season to season. Let people get riled up, wonder what’s going to happen, forget about it, and then get really excited and wound up again when they hear the second half. It was great.
GG: What was the tenor of the attention that you got with that project?
NK: It was pretty varied. I was in Time magazine for that project, I also got slammed on NBC. Fecal freakers came at me, and all these scatological-edge folks, eco-villages and back-to-the-landers, all sorts of people. I started being in conversation with these people: it gave me access. That level of attention is why I got hired to go to Haiti to work on toilets after the earthquake, and so it’s been highly varied. I was attacked and praised. I was in a lot of magazines for that project, and there’s still ripples that come off of it. In Portland I got hired to do a consultation with a large group house on how to work your piles better. I get in on this underground status. I’m seen as a tech now, and talk about myself as a tech.
DIY vs. TMI
GG: One of the things that interested me about that project is the difference between what we can identify as a problem, and what we can actually stomach changing, or fixing.
NK: [laughs] Yeah.
GG: Maybe you could tell me a bit about squeamishness and what you make of it. This is a very squeamish culture we live in.
NK: Yeah. I think it’s based in the fact that we’ve gotten away from our land base, and therefore our bodies. Our houses used to be part of our economies, so [now we are] divorced of place, our homes and our bodies. A lot of people lack really fundamental skills, and they might jump in and learn how to do something, but they don’t necessarily see it as part of a webbed skill set. They have a really hard time webbing these things together because of how we’ve structured our lives. We’ve passively been following cues, or we’ve been coerced into believing certain things, so a lot of people want to make those connections, but don’t know how to call these things up at will, even if they’re surrounding us. Opportunities and invitations to engage are everywhere.
So I’m puzzled when I listen to people. I have to give them permission to engage. Most of my teaching is giving people permission to engage and understand their bodies as their primary tool, and a site of agency. People are pretty awkward in their bodies: there’s not a lot of orientation about where their limbs are in space. I see it all the time when people shovel. I’m just like ‘God, have you ever touched one of these things?’ [laughs] You watch people, they’re so disoriented. I also have these experiences where I’m going to do a demo, and people say ‘what are you going to demo?’ And I’ll say ‘I’m going to demo this’, and someone says ‘you can see it on Youtube’. And I’ll say ‘or you could see it right here, right now.’
Recently I was in this panel, and people were introducing themselves with these really long affiliations with universities and specific titles, so I said ‘Ok, great, my name is Nance Klehm, and I’m an animal first, and a citizen second. For the purpose of this panel, I’m a citizen first, then an animal.’ It was about ecological systems, and activism on environmental issues, [and] I wanted to situate myself within why I do what I do.
Once I did this tamale-making workshop as part of a slideshow; I knew I was only going to show eight minutes of slides, so I said ‘I thought we’d make dinner together. I brought all this pre-made masa, it’s vegan, for those who care, and all these different fillings.’ We made tamales, and no one had ever made tamales. They were really beautiful, they steamed up and we ate them, and then I showed my slides. This one guy was just standing back filming it with his phone, and I said ‘do you want to get your hands in?’ And he goes ‘no, I can see how it happens. I’m going to record it for later.’ So it makes me laugh, and it’s also kind of horrifying to me.
There’s this weird problem people have in being present, because being present requires so much responsibility, and really calls you forth as an awkward human being, so calls forth humility, and also calls forth responsibility to be a citizen. And an animal, you know? I think the squeamishness is because we are detached from place and bodies, even how our homes function. We’re not living extensions of ourselves, we’re not necessarily situated within communities of people, or neighborhoods, etcetera. How’s that for a long-winded answer? [laughs]
GG: No, it’s totally good. There’s an aspect of our current crisis where what is sensible is also what’s taboo, you know?
NK: Yeah. I believe in the right to the real. So that fact is, you can know these things, it’s about getting involved in them. If you can know about gardening, or soil, or hydrology, or squirrels, or whatever, then it’s about just literally getting involved with it. We have the right to the real, and I do everything I can to encourage people to connect, as painful and scary as that is. I think a lot of people don’t connect because of the immense grief. The grief of coming home into their bodies, or into their communities, or into their biological world.
GG: The grief of what’s been lost? Or the grief of what you see coming?
NK: No, it’s just the constant harm. And [realizing our] lack of understanding, so to make amends with how we’ve been living our lives. And when people get it, they make these connections and they’re really excited about them, all of a sudden they have to rearrange how they operate. And it’s scary.
GG: It has a bigger resonance, also, in the climate crisis: we can describe it pretty well at this point, but the realistic steps that involve changing our behavior on an individual and cultural level really seem to escape a lot of us.
NK: Yeah, I liked the article you shared with me [Forget Shorter Showers, by Derrick Jensen, Orion Magazine, July/August 2009]. We’re willing to change out our lightbulbs and take shorter showers and shop at the farmer’s market, all this kind of stuff, but we’re really not interested in asking harder questions of ourselves. Our acts do support industry, and do support chemical poison of our environments, so I really want to hit them low. You know what I mean? Because why dilly-dally? Hit a taboo, and do it with a lot of intelligence and humor and theatrical strategies, and have all my ducks in a row when I get attacked for my science, which is sound. So I decided, just hit ’em low. [laughs] Get ’em thinking. Fast.
Intervening at Every Level
GG: How do you strike a balance? On the one hand our problems arise largely from our behaviors: you can look at how we live individually and see the microcosm of the big problem, but then changing your individual behavior is basically a drop in the ocean as far as addressing the systemic problems.
NK: Strike my balance in how I act in the larger way?
GG: Yeah, how you conceive of your activism? You take time to talk to some guy about how to till the soil better with his hands, so you’re working on the individual, educational level sometimes. But you’re also using those things as examples to show, teach other people. In some sense you are really addressing behavioral, individual stuff, the stuff that Jensen wants to set aside, but it also addresses the bigger picture. What’s the right scale? Where is it best to aim your efforts to affect change?
NK: I’m not an optimist. And I don’t think people are going to get it. There’s a lot of people turning their heads around now, but there need to be more. And there needs to be more resistance, and deep, creative work, and a lot of sharing of information and tasks. And ideas. So if I just did this on my own, and had this little project that just stayed in the ethers, that would be one thing, but I talk to a lot of people about it.
I have a lot of opportunities to do public speaking, and there’ll be several hundred people. I mention the edges of where people can go in my writing, in my formal teaching, and in my talks. But what I’m trying to do now is, I just bought some land on the state line with Wisconsin last year. I go back and forth between there [and Chicago]. I’m working with this land in two different ways. One is, people are coming to it in large numbers: I’m hosting the Radical Mycological Convergence, which is Canadian and American, there’ll be hundreds of people there. [I’m] opening that place up for study and research, and then personally I’m doing a lot of planting and land management work there.
Part of [the challenge of] being a host, collaborating with larger groups, is I am an introvert, believe it or not. I’m just a loud mouth. It’s really uncomfortable for me to work with large groups of people on a continual basis. I need breaks. But I decided back in 2010 that I was going to work with people I didn’t like. And I was going to work with them every day. So I dedicate two hours a day to correspondence with people that I don’t have any affinity to, other than yes, we’re part of humanity, which I have known problems with, and then just straight-out people I don’t like. But [they] might have a skill set that helps build up a bigger framework to push things forward.
One of the ways I do that is I work on state-level policy now. There was a group of us, and we were successful in passing two bills to decriminalize composting in the state on the urban and rural level. So I’m doing a lot of things that I would rather not spend my time doing, and that’s a huge, humble compromise to myself, because I’m trying to create an insurgency, so I just keep weighing in there, and do it with humor.
I have this idea that I’m holding an egg, and it’s a fertile egg. So I go into these meetings where people don’t hear me, but I just concentrate on this fertile egg that I hold, and move forward with what I think is important. So I’m putting myself in positions that I would rather not be in. I would rather just work on my land, but I’m building out very concretely these 50 acres for other people to use, and I’m working on policy. I’m kind of stretched.
Discipline, Practice, and Returning to the Body
GG: That is some advanced spiritual discipline you’re talking about. I’ve heard of monastics doing that, making the sustained effort to keep on encountering people that give you strife. In your Bioneers talk, you made a passing remark about yoga. I wondered if you were a yogi, if that’s part of your daily practice.
NK: Yeah, I am. I’ve been doing it since I was 29, I’m 48. Meditation is a daily practice. Yoga, depending on where I’m at, is sometimes less than daily, but it’s at least a couple times a week. And I’m really interested in pranayama [yogic breathing practices]. Some huge health things have happened to me, so I’ve worked a lot with breath. If you go deep into yoga, it’s a really important tool for us to handle everything we have to navigate all day, just to be adults. Adult Americans.
GG: Yeah! I’ve been integrating yoga philosophy with climate work, and teaching Yoga for Climate Action workshops. Cornel West talks about ‘moral constipation’, which seems like a very yogic concept to me, that you can have an ethical ideas in your head, but if you don’t have the body practice to draw them down, you can’t feel the emotions of doing wrong vs. doing right. Does that resonate with you?
NK: Oh yeah. I think that’s the problem. We’ve lost that connection. You know, I look at all the yoga babes in the studio, and they’re not necessarily connected to their bodies, but they’re really good, you know, flexy flexy. They’re still not there, but they could be if they keep sticking with it, because it’s just going to sneak in.
GG: Right, it just happens anyway!
NK: It just happens. And it’s going to blow them away. I see those changes in people. Since I’ve been doing yoga so long, people [whose] bodies I’ve watched from across the room for 15 or 20 years, there is something happening. You can’t not have something shift inside. So I’m glad it’s popular, even if it’s very much a business now.
GG: Yes, it’s remarkably better than nothing. Do you find the same thing with people who work in a garden? That over time, even if they’re not starting with a political attitude, it just arises from doing stuff with the earth?
NK: I think people resist that. They just want it to be a nice thing. There’s a lot of people who don’t want to get pulled in, and they resist it consciously or unconsciously. You know: “I just want to make pickles, and sell them at the underground farmer’s market! I want to make a really nice label! my pickles are $24 a quart.” I’m really glad you brought up that point, oh my god. So they can still miss the mark in a lot of ways, but I think touching the earth is a lot of medicine, and if they’re in a quiet moment, on a non-distracted moment, they’re going to feel a change. They might not know how to talk about it, they might not know how to fit it in their lives. They might keep it completely quiet, but it goes on in them. And I think meeting a teacher or friend or stranger, or having a crisis in your life, is going to allow that to come forward more strongly.
Getting Shit Done in Chicago
GG: I want to double back around to the City of Chicago for a minute.
NK: (cackling laughter) Ok!
GG: Because it seems like in Chicago people who would in some other city be more politically motivated, or politically active get really stymied by how corrupt and ridiculous it is, and end up just doing more….People go into these alternative economies under the umbrella of the ReBuilding Exchange, or Theaster Gates’s work, or the Plant, or farmer’s markets, Co-ops, pickles, that people find an expression for their countercultural spirit that way, instead of making political changes, because it’s so fucking hard in Chicago. So you’re actually doing the policy work, do you see that trend, or do you have a different perspective on it?
NK: I’m sorry, do I see the trend in what?
GG: The trend I’m describing where people don’t go and do very much policy work from Chicago, because it seems so pointless and frustrating.
NK: It is. I mean, I’m doing both.
GG: Right, exactly.
NK: I’m subverting things, and proceeding, illegally, and working on policy. Im not going to wait for policy people to catch up to what the scientists are saying, or what the grassroots activists are saying, because I don’t think it’s going to happen. But I also don’t mind spending a little bit of time being a flea in the bonnet because they might not hear it, but the public is hearing it. So the public is hearing that there’s resistance going on, and there is a form of resistance in working in policy. And you find people: all of a sudden people come out of the woodwork that you would never know are there, because you stand up to talk about something. And they see that you can not only practice it, you’re not just theoretically going at it, you’re actually practicing it. Like I’m building data. It’s content that backs up what we’re talking about on these bills, but I don’t write the bills, I feed the content to the policy person, the lobbyist. The environmental lobbyist knows that room, and the players in the room, and knows how to word things, but needs the content, the evidence to back up what she’s talking about when she carries it down there, so I give her the tools she needs, and then she takes what she’s able to do, and moves it forward, and then gives me feedback of what happens.
So I understand why people don’t interact, I don’t work with a lot of groups doing things in the city, because I feel like they’re really ineffective, and I’m not going to spend time with those people. But at the same time, I think there’s more of a need for a broader coalition, so that when those lines are drawn, I usually end up going and doing something. I don’t know, I think people are going down really conventional lines.
Wealth, not Waste: Closing the Broken Loops
GG: I’ve heard you say that you’ve pretty much stopped talking about cultivation, about urban gardening, because there’s plenty of people who have risen up to carry that theme to the rest of the world, and that you’re focusing on soil. Soil also means human waste, composting, and greywater, or stormwater. There’s a theme of what we are trying to get rid of, or pretend doesn’t exist. Can you draw the missing waste chunk into the big picture of the climate crisis, or systems collapse?
NK: Oh, I just think it is our true wealth. People say it’s a resource, but I would say it’s a wealth. I really champion the scavenger economy: the scrappers, the micro-organisms, the rodents. These generalists who see something cast aside and reanimate it not just as useful, but as richness. It’s practical ingenuity.
You see people who are deep immigrants, and they’re so disenfranchised from our pervasive yuppie society, that they do what they do. And it’s seen as eccentric. It’s highly innovative, and inherently practical in terms of economy and material use. I love low-tech, I love innovations coming out of slums. I love that stuff. I just go crazy, because it’s just the smartest fucking stuff I’ve ever seen. And I love living in [Little Village] because my neighborhood is pretty cash-poor, and the informal economy thrives in my neighborhood, and adjacent neighborhoods; not so much Pilsen, but definitely Lawndale and McKinley Park.
The level of exchange is not extracted, it’s really direct. When I think about microorganisms and how they make use of almost anything food, and you can train microorganisms to eat toxins, which people are doing; when I think about generalists– human beings are generalists, but so are rats– and I watch how smart and resourceful any animal is in the animal world, but particularly there’s certain ones that live in the city that are really good at scrapping it out here; I just have so much admiration. That scavenger economy, from microbes to humans, is a teacher to me.
GG: In your Bioneers talk, you made an aside that odor and rats are nuisances, and likely to draw attention to your composting. On a technical level, are those signs that things are not going well?
GG: So if you have rats, your composting is going awry.
NK: Yeah. Definitely. I’m trying to work with a garden right now, Monarch Garden, which I think you probably know about, because it started last year, to help them with their rat problem. And they just wanted to learn square-foot gardening, and I was like ‘well, that’s what books are for. You’re right on California and Division, connected to Norweigan Hospital, let’s work on your rat issue, because it’s 35 degrees and they’re running around in the daytime in the garden, looking for something to eat, you know? So I’m kind of advocating that, and there are some people on the board of that garden who are interested, and other people are just like ‘we just want to grow a tomato!’ And I’m like, ‘Go ahead!’ Meanwhile, there’s a growing problem, and people are going to start getting upset. So as much as I admire rats, the last thing I want to do is feed them in my chicken coop, or in my garden, you know, in my compost piles.
This interview originally appeared, in a slightly condensed form, at Occupy.com.
Pictures courtesy of Nance Klehm.