An Interview by Alix Anne Shaw and Megan Issacs
AS: The Rooting Symposium brings together artists, chefs, and farmers. Your practice is very diverse: you do urban foraging, have an urban homestead, have done art exhibits to showcase soil-building, and have helped establish a seed archive, to name only a few. So your work seems to span all of these realms—artist, farmer, and chef. Can you talk about that?
NK: My academic training is in anthropology, not art. I use artistic strategies to reinvigorate the issues that are important to me. That’s because I work with very broad audiences—conservative evangelicals, immigrants, architects, academics—so my language, visual strategies, and performances need to bridge a lot of worlds. For example, if I want to demonstrate how our bodies are a microcosm of the landscape, that how we treat our bodies is how we treat landscape—these are ideas that people can’t or don’t want to hear. As a result I have to use creative ways of getting involved and gauging reactions. Often these involve humor. I consider humor to be an artistic strategy that opens people to things they might not otherwise consider.
I’m a rural person. I grew up on a farm and it took me a long time to realize that when I went outside in the city, I was in public. Any action in the city is a public performance. I use that idea as a way of reaching people.
AS: You call yourself an ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticulturalist, and permaculturalist. What got you interested in this work?
NK: I grew up in northern Illinois on what used to be hundreds and hundreds of acres of farmland and wild land. It has now become the sprawl between Chicago and Rockford. I’m a fifth-generation horticulturalist. What I’m doing is my nature, is really deeply rooted since birth and possibly biological. It’s not theoretically-driven.
AS: Can you describe in more detail the way you see the work that you do?
NK: So much of what I do is deep practice. They are lifetime practices, things that I do naturally every day. I make some of these practices into short-term projects—for example, Humble Pile. In that project, I collected 22 people’s shit in buckets for three months. Then I transported it on my bicycle, composted it, and gave the soil back a year later. It was a way of demonstrating our capacity as soil-makers. I tell people that I’m not doing that project at present, but I still shit in a bucket. Some of the people from the project still shit in a bucket! But people aren’t interested in that; they are interested in a project rather than a way of living. That’s a very urban problem—urban people conceptual, not necessarily interested in practice. They are moving from one idea to the next, from one consumptive moment to the next.
AS: So, are you also an artist? What are your thoughts on art?
NK: The art world draws lines to me but I don’t call myself an artist. I think things being framed as art is impoverishing to the dialogue. The best thing artists can do is get involved as citizens and as neighbors in their cities and townships. The labeling and institutionalization of creativity is not productive in the long run. I’m more interested in the creative, grubby-monkey spirit!
AS: I’m very interested in the work that you do as an urban forager. For you, what is the driving force behind this work?
NK: I’m trying to help people understand that their bodies are connected to landscape, and to help them feel that connection. When I do a public forage, I want people to be able to be outside in a subtle way, an intuitive and sensory way, instead of a recreational way. It’s about observation and small changes, and connecting people to a larger dynamic.
On a forage, the first question is always, “How is it safe for me to eat anything in my environment?” I ask, “If it’s not safe for that plant, why do you think it’s safe for you? You’re breathing the same air, you’re exposed to the same environmental pollution.” We are no safer than the plants around us. We are in communication with all our orifices—nostrils, mouth, pores. Every breath is a liter exchange with our environment, so we are filtering our environment through our bodies. Because it’s all the same, we need to work more carefully with our environment.
I tell people that we’re going to make a pact to eat and nibble and enjoy. If you’re queasy, you don’t have to partake of anything—you can just watch. I tell them, we’ve all ingested dog urine. Don’t worry about it. Anytime you eat a plant in your environment, you’re increasing the probiotics in your body. You can engage homeopathically with both the joy and the contamination that’s out there.
AS: When I tell people that I urban forage for apples that I make into applesauce, they always ask two questions: “Where did you find apples around here?” and “But HOW do you make it?” Do you find this same set of responses? What do they say to you?
NK: I usually don’t answer the questions. To me, they are consumptive, not indicative of true curiosity. I say, “You’ll have to look for the trees. There are five within a two-block radius.” If people are truly curious, they look at you and get wide-eyed and go look for the apple tree. But people lack true curiosity. I’ve also had people who’ve stripped trees and bushes to take more than they need.
I underline that my walks are about spirit and connection and relationship. We drink from a communal cup, and people get over their heebie-jeebies. On my walks, I get chef types, concerned healthy mothers, burning man hippies, people who want to know how to have an abortion, people who want to find psychotropics in their environment. There are people who bring an intention and those who don’t. I’m about protecting the environment and teaching people deeper care and attention to themselves. There are things I won’t point out, that I let people find themselves. By the end of a two-hour forage, people get very close and start sharing with each other. It becomes intimate, deep learning. People get to know each other because they’ve been walking slowly and noticing things. People are changed.
This year, I have a series of seasonal foraging workshops. They are four hours each, one walk in the spring, one in summer, and one in fall. It’ll be in Garfield Park Conservatory. I’m really excited about it!
AS: Is dumpster diving a form of urban foraging? Why or why not?
NK: Sure, loosely. But there is a different set of ethics at work than there is when you are looking for plants in the environment. I’m not a freegan. I support them but I don’t work like that. I don’t forage because it’s free—I do it because I’m connecting with my environment. I dumpster dive for compost because I compost about four truckloads a week. Food waste, landscape waste—I dumpster those for balancing my piles.
AS: What do you see as most lacking or necessary today in our relationship to food?
NK: Curiosity. I do see a big difference now as compared to ten years ago. But still, no one is asking deeper questions. Many people are satisfied with their vegan smoothie from Whole Foods. They don’t ask deeper questions. I’ve found that most people don’t like to live with questions because it feels risky and too open-ended. There’s a lot of responsibility and personal discomfort. That’s what I’m pushing for.
AS: What are your thoughts on urban farming?
NK: I think there’s no such thing as urban farming. A lot of it is boutique. Half an acre is production gardening. No one knows the land, and no one really has to produce. It’s conceptual, not real. And it’s righteous. When you talk to farmers who actually pay for the land, maintain it, you find that they never earn as much as someone working for a nonprofit. Urban farming grant-funded so there’s no responsibility for land. It’s all kind of a false economy and a false relationship to land. It’s already built on an unsustainable economic base.
AS: I’m curious about your own decision to live in the city.
NK: After college I was in South America working as an anthropologist. When I came back, I got job at the Field Museum and got into a long-term relationship. That grounded me here. I’m pretty uncomfortable in the city—I talk to everybody and am fluent in Spanish—but I see people as consumptive, sad, faddish, and righteous. I like working with people who are interested in the health of the land, land-based people. But I’ve made a career of translating issues to urban people, to trying to get people to act and ask questions. I want to push the eject button every day. I’m currently looking at some property. It’s in a sea of GMO corn and soybeans. I don’t know how I’ll make it unless I have a connection to the city, but I want a deeper connection to the land.
MI: Can you say a bit about your urban homesteading project? Who do you host?
NK: Sure. Lots of different people come to stay with me. You have to be involved in chores and some kind of project. I host activists who want to have a garden, bicycle, use greywater, to form that kind of relationship. I also host sociologists, architects, and artists. It’ have a wide range of people. Right now I have a graphic designer and sculptor. I have a mushroom person coming through who works on remediation projects. You have to be actually engaged and you have to have a project—something you want to learn.
AS: What’s your ideal vision of the way a community would grow, consume, and relate to food?
NK: We need to work with diet and eating things that protect the soil better. There’s a difference between annual and perennial agriculture. We need to be eating more perennial-based vegetables and fruit—and wild foods that are perennial or are self-sowing annuals. Not something you put in and pull out, like lettuce. Lettuce is one of the most ridiculous things that we eat. I will always grow kale and collards but I work with wild plants—dandelion and burdock, cress, ground ivy, chickweed, plantain, early spring stuff.
All our “superfoods” are tropical plants—that’s my problem with the raw food movement. It’s based on tropical agriculture. Also, it’s cold as opposed to warming on the body, and a lot of people I’ve met who do raw food seem to need deeper, more warming foods in their bodies.
I do believe in eating animals. I understand the politics of being vegan, but as human beings we need to see how we can co-exist with animals. I’m a vegetarian and have been for 36 years but I believe in living with animals and eating them and their products, even if I only eat eggs from my birds. So we need to be eating things that help build soil and habitat. Growing eggplants, tomatoes, spinach—that can be done less.
AS: What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do to change their relationships in the way you’ve been talking about?
NK: Go outside and try to connect deeply to what’s happening around you right now. Listen to the questions that float up from that connection for yourself. Drop the theoretical conceptual bullshit and just ask those questions. Connect your body to the landscape. Grow food and cook at home—stop going to restaurant. Look at the bugs, watch the birds, be curious about how a dandelion grows from a seed. Watch sparrows mate and the tree buds grow fatter and fatter.
AS: What else would you like to say about these issues?
NK: There’s a real lack of bodily engagement in our culture today. I think everybody wants to jump in the mud. They want to be given permission. That’s what I do.
AS: How can folks get more involved?
NK: Find me on Facebook. I’m Nance Klehm. Or go to my websites:
I’m also speaking at the School of the Art Institute on April 24th at 4:30. It will be held in the Sharp Building, Neimann Center, 36 S. Wabash.
MI: Thanks so much for talking with us today!