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Make Friends With Brown

Nance Klehm wants humans to reconnect with the soil—in part by composting their own bodily waste.

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When Nance Klehm sent letters to several dozen friends and acquaintances last year asking if they'd like to help compost their own excrement, she didn't expect an enthusiastic reaction. And at first, she didn't get one. "People are truly freaked out about this potty stuff," she says.

Still, 22 people agreed to participate in the project, which Klehm has dubbed Humble Pile. For three months last summer they peed and pooped in five-gallon buckets with snap-on toilet lids, then emptied the contents into 32-gallon bins for Klehm to collect periodically. Not all of them were the people she had expected to sign on: "Some people who are super eco would not do it. But then I dropped a bin off at the house of this one person I didn't know, and she was microwaving a Lean Cuisine. I'm like, 'You're microwaving a Lean Cuisine and you're going to poop in a bucket?'"

In the end, she was surprised by how much many of the participants got into it. Some took the experiment a step farther and came up with ways to avoid using toilet paper, including substituting newspaper or washing with water. One woman excitedly reported an unexpected benefit: "I can be on a conference call and on the toilet at the same time, and no one hears me, because everything's just hitting sawdust!"

Humble Pile is one of several efforts that the 43-year-old urban ecologist has launched in the past few years in an effort to help city dwellers reconnect with the natural world. Many have an explicit conservationist thrust: "Yeah, we can actually save fuel, eradicate certain forms of pollution, save hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and create rich fertile soil rather than parched earth," Klehm writes of Humble Pile at her Web site, spontaneousvegetation.net. "Billions of humans suck nutrients and don't give back to the dirt. Change that now. Stop wasting live water. Stop sewage spills by composting your crap."

But don't call her green. "Those terms are marketing terms," Klehm says. "They are not helping us connect to a more abundant and self-renewing way of being." The question she wants people to ask isn't "Which 'green' products should I buy?" It's "What's the nature of my connection to the soil, and can I deepen it?"

Klehm grew up with her hands in the dirt, on her family's 400-acre tree nursery near Dundee, where she helped take care of the vegetable garden, fruit trees, and assorted livestock. But after graduating from college with an archaeology degree, she ended up in the city, working as a researcher in the Field Museum's anthropology department—where she came to the unpleasant realization that "most of archaeology is reading texts and going over your data and attacking other colleagues." When she left work each afternoon, she found herself puzzled, thinking, "I was inside? On a beautiful day?"

She quit. After a brief flirtation with graduate school, she says, "I just worked crazy odd jobs all over the place." At the time she was living with her boyfriend in Wicker Park, and whenever they argued she'd escape to the neighborhood's eponymous park. "I'd have a jelly jar full of wine, and I'd go out there with a cigarette and smoke and cry and drink. I kept doing that, and someone noticed me and asked me to a garden club meeting and then realized that I knew a fair amount about plants."

That was the beginning of her career as an independent landscaper (and, incidentally, the end of her relationship). For the last 15 years she's made her living designing, installing, and maintaining ecological and ornamental gardens, moonlighting from time to time as a conservation educator at the Lincoln Park Zoo and a consultant to the Chicago Park District. But that had its frustrations too. "People don't want much in their yards," she says. "They want a nice backdrop for when they come home and look out the window." About five years ago she began whittling down her client list to make time for other projects.

These include a public seed archive, from which anyone can obtain seeds to grow his own plants; in return, the growers send her some seeds from those plants to keep the archive going. She's instigated a project she calls the neighborhood orchard—a sort of alternative economy in which she plants fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs for her Little Village neighbors in exchange for services such as furnace repair—and also a series of kitchen workshops on making everything from raw-milk cheese to solar ovens. And then, of course, there's Humble Pile.

Though there are plenty of environmental reasons to avoid or minimize the use of flush toilets—and though she enumerates some of them in her pitch—Klehm says they're not the main impetus behind Humble Pile. "I do it because I think it's important to be friends with my own body," she says. She likes "the idea that you can take something you're not friends with and you relax around it and it'll be transformed into something that can grow flowers."

Klehm had been using her own waste as compost for years. "I stopped peeing in the toilet years ago," she says. "Solid waste collecting was a touch-and-go thing for a few years." But about a year and a half ago, Klehm abandoned her flush toilet altogether in favor of a bucket housed in a wooden box with a hole cut in the top. After every use, she covers the waste with a mixture of ash, straw, and sawdust that acts as a bulking and antiodor agent. Once it composts—a lengthy process in which she monitors the material's temperature to make sure any pathogens are killed off—she uses it in her home garden and rooftop greenhouse, where she grows everything from Asian pears and apricots to horseradish and wild rice.

Meanwhile, the thousand pounds or so of waste contributed by Humble Pile participants are still composting—in a location Klehm won't disclose, since that amount of compost is larger than the city composting ordinance allows. "I wouldn't even tell you where I store it if you held me at gunpoint," she says. "Soil fertility is that holy to me." Once it's finished, she'll return the compost to the participants for use in their own gardens.

Another of Klehm's favorite projects is urban foraging. She leads city dwellers on two-hour walks, collecting the edible plants that spring up in sidewalk cracks, vacant lots, and other places. On a recent walk near the Congress Theater, she found more than enough to make a salad: chickweed, plantain, dandelion, burdock, yellow dock. Elsewhere in Chicago, she's even found morel mushrooms ("I literally screamed, 'Don't tell anybody!'" she says). The schedule is posted at spontaneousvegetation.net, as are upcoming classes that cover subjects like drying and storing herbs and making your own skin care products and medicinal tinctures.

Like Humble Pile, the walks and workshops are meant to help people reconnect to the world around them. After each walk, Klehm says, "I get these e-mails, and people say, 'I was on the el, and I was seeing wild spinach out the windows!' Although some people are like, 'I can't believe you eat things from the city.' And I'm like, 'Well, I can't believe you eat things from sprayed fields.'"

Klehm also continues to work for Greenhouses of Hope, a program of the Pacific Garden Mission faith-based homeless shelter at Canal and 14th Street where she's been a consultant for the past five years. Residents there use worm composting to transform food waste from the shelter's cafeteria into soil that they then use to grow food for the shelter. "No one in there has ever grown anything in their lives, and now they're recycling 500 to 600 pounds of food waste and newspaper waste a week and creating more than 9,000 pounds of worm castings," Klehm says proudly.

Still, even worm compost is a hard sell for some people. "They're like, 'Eww! Worm poo!'" Klehm says. "Well, what do you think soil is? It's bacteria poo, fungus poo, animal poo. It's come out of the backside of something." v

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