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Author: Mari

Why Design Your Life?

I admit that I’ve tended to view the phrase “life design” with suspicion. Isn’t this just another by-product of our hyper-individualistic postmodern culture — this idea that we should design our lives? At its face, it seems self-absorbed and elitist. Surely, only people who have the privilege of ample leisure time and ample choices can sit around thinking about their lives as a design project? Many people on the planet today cannot, and just about everyone in the past could not.

But I’ve had a change of heart. I’ve come to believe this:

It is not only necessary, but inevitable, that we design our lives.

As someone who is gravitating to the phrase “grounded life design” to describe my work, I should probably explain.

* * *

I write this in the wake of reading Designs for the Pluriverse by Arturo Escobar — a brilliant and erudite book to which I can’t possibly do justice here; I will simply pull out one strand from the book that’s relevant to the topic at hand.

We often think about “design” as the domain of the experts — the architect, the urban planner, the engineer, the fashion designer. But as Escobar reminds his reader, design can actually be thought of more broadly as something we all do every day. Design is basically any process where we try to deliberately change existing conditions into preferred ones. We solve problems. We make decisions about certain goals and how to get there. We make plans. We tweak what we can — our physical surroundings, our budgets, our own attitudes — to reach those goals. As Escobar writes, “Modern lives are thoroughly designed lives.” (2)

Unfortunately, much of the time, somebody else is doing the designing on our behalf. Our lives are being designed for us, often in ways that we are utterly unaware of. I’m not into conspiracy theories; this is much more basic. Think about the barrage of information and stimuli that floods our brain every day from outside — messages we don’t even get to process or selectively edit. Consider the way consumers’ purchasing decisions (and the desires and wants that drive them) are created, in deliberate and calculated ways, by marketing experts. Consider how much more targeted and precise such social engineering of consumers’ choices has become in the era of the Internet.

Our world is designed, and so it designs us back. Or, as Escobar puts it, “Design is ontological in that all design-led objects, tools, and even services bring about particular ways of being, knowing, and doing.” (x) They shape our identities and what’s possible for us.

If we don’t practice awareness and deliberateness around our choices, if we just go along and conform to expectations dictated by society or market forces, we’ll end up becoming the kinds of persons that those forces benefit from: most likely bored and insecure enough to try to fill that void with mindless consumption and digital distraction. If, on the other hand, we try to remain deliberate and ask questions — “What problems and/or potential do I perceive? What actions would best align with what I want to see in my own life and in the world?” — we are making those all-important incremental design decisions, and stand a chance at creating the conditions of flourishing both for ourselves and for our world.

 

How you spend your time is a design decision.

What you think you need, or don’t need, in your daily life is a design decision.

How you sleep and eat, whom you surround yourself with, how and whether you vote, whether you hold on to anger or self-pity or let them go, are design decisions.

Every time you pick up a tool and engage with it — say, a computer or a smartphone — you are most certainly making a design decision about the kind of life you live.

 

It’s not that one choice is right or wrong. It’s that we should be aware of the cumulative power of these seemingly mundane material and habitual choices to shape us into certain kinds of being. It doesn’t mean that we always get what we want, or that life won’t throw curve balls. But it means we’re being deliberate and aware.

To become a better designer of your life, you might try integrating more habits and practices that put you in touch with your truest self — a weekly check-in, an annual Solstice reflection, a regular coffee date with our closest friend. Those moments provide opportunities to ask yourself whether your life feels aligned with who you want to be and the world you want to see.

P.S. Planting a garden is almost never a design mistake!

The regenerative urban garden II: Sheet mulching

This is the second in a series of posts about regenerative gardening techniques. Read Part I on No-till here!

If you’ve heard of permaculture, you’ve probably heard of sheet mulching. Sometimes it feels like the two are treated almost as synonyms: every Permaculture Design Course must include the initiation rite that involves laying down cardboard as earnestly as if you were trying to cover the entire planet in it. Every self-respecting permaculturist will be spreading cardboard… I mean, the gospel of sheet mulching, wherever, whenever.

I’m being just a tad sarcastic. Sheet mulching is hands down one of my favorite and most effective methods of garden establishment and soil-building. I’ve done a lot of it myself, made some mistakes in the process, and almost gotten into trouble for pulling cardboard out of the dumpsters behind Target. I think sheet mulching is an essential tool in the toolkit of regenerative gardening. But just to be clear: I don’t think it’s always the right choice, and it’s not bulletproof.

What is Sheet Mulching?

Sheet mulching means laying down layers of organic material, including a weed block layer of some kind (usually cardboard or old newspaper), to smother existing plants and create a blank canvas, if you will, on which to establish a new garden area. Some people call it “lasagna gardening” — the same idea.

Here are the main benefits of sheet mulching: It

  • acts as a great weed block (if done right), giving you and the plants you choose to plant a competitive edge over weeds
  • takes materials out of the waste stream (such as newspaper or cardboard) and converts it into garden soil
  • is a great soil builder! The layers of organic materials gradually break down and get incorporated into the soil. Earthworms and other critters crawl up to munch on them, aerating the soil. The whole process builds the humus layer.
  • …and that is why sheet mulching is a regenerative and carbon-sequestering gardening practice, especially when combined with cover crops. It provides soil cover; it feeds the diversity of biology in the soil; and it has the potential of turning carbon-rich organic materials like straw or cardboard into the kind of carbon that feeds the living soil.

Since Toby Hemenway has written a killer how-to for sheet mulching, I don’t need to go over all the steps here. Instead, I’m going to share the sheet mulching process we’ve done as part of establishing our urban homestead in the past year, and some lessons learned.

Here’s our front yard a few weeks after we moved in in Spring 2018:

Our goal was simply to build soil in this area for a year before planting anything (in contrast to the vegetable beds that you see me double-digging in the background in this photo). Having the blank canvas of the sheet mulch also allowed some design ideas to come forth.

Once the last layer was on, I seeded the entire area with a cover crop mix. And here’s what the area looked like about three months later:

In other words, the cover crops took off. They pushed their roots through whatever layers of cardboard remained, pumped lots of nitrogen into the soil, and grew flowers that attracted pollinators. The Nitro radish in Sow True Seed’s cover crop mix busted through the compacted soil with its thick tubers and such vigor that it drew many remarks from neighbors and passers-by.

The one challenge, I’d say, with using a cover crop mix with multiple plant species in it is that it became challenging to monitor for the weeds that inevitably did push their way through the cracks of the cardboard layer. By the fall, I was happy with how the cover crop was working the soil, but also finding a lot of pernicious vines and weeds.

For that reason, we scythed it all down in the fall, and in the spring, we did it all over again.

This time, we used thinner rolls of brown paper instead of cardboard, laid out pathways with woodchips to create the teardrop shape for this future mini forest garden, and started planting perennials. I’m really happy we did two rounds of sheet mulching, even though it was a lot of work. Now when I put my hand into that soil, I see a new dark brown layer over the lighter, clayey original soil, and the soil’s got great texture and fluff to it. That’s what we’re going for.

 

Top recommendations and lessons learned:

  • Do smaller areas at a time. It’s a lot of work, wheelbarrowing all that organic material, and you’ll tire yourself out if you try to do too much at once.
  • If using cardboard, find the biggest pieces of cardboard you possibly can. Bike shops, kayak and canoe shops, furniture and home appliance stores usually have huge boxes in their dumpsters they don’t mind you hauling away.
  • An alternative to cardboard are rolls of brown paper (sold in the painting section at Lowe’s or Home Depot, for example). You’ll want to do at least two layers, but don’t need to spend time pulling out tape and staples from cardboard.
  • Make it a work party! Sheet mulching is overwhelming if done with too few pairs of hands, but a riot if you invite your friends.
  • Water the soil well before starting, and keep watering the weed block layer as you go. The soil-building organisms that will be munching on your sheet mulch cake need moisture to do their thing.
  • If cover-cropping, a single species cover crop seed might be a good idea, for reasons explained above
  • Plant any large perennials first and sheet mulch around them, rather than trying to cut into the cardboard and then dig a planting hole. Again, I speak from experience.

 

 

The regenerative urban garden I: No-till gardening

I am an advocate of regenerative farming. But I am not a farmer myself. The piece of land I steward is 1/3 acre — still sizable for an urban lot, but laughably minuscule compared to what Real Farmers are working with.

Yet, when I landed here last year and set out to establish our gardens, I decided I’d try my best to apply the same principles that regenerative farmers use when working the land. The benefits of regenerative farming practices add up to something pretty phenomenal: improved soil health, improved ecosystem health, better water retention, less erosion, more carbon sequestered in the soil… and more nutrient-dense food as a result.

Why would I not want all those benefits in my own garden, too? What would regenerative gardening, or carbon gardening, look like?

This post series is my attempt to answer that question. (Mind you, this is only our second year of gardening on this land, so no doubt I have a lot yet to learn and some steep learning curves to climb.)

 

Regenerative growing practices on the urban backyard scale

Here’s my back-of-the-napkin, off-the-cuff summary of key regenerative land management principles:

  • Disturb the soil as little as possible.
  • Always keep the soil covered.
  • Always keep a living root in the soil.
  • Plant more perennial crops.
  • Diversity, diversity, diversity!
  • Incorporate animals into the system, and have a system in place for rotating them through landscape.

Now, all of these can absolutely be applied even on the urban or suburban garden scale. Soil is soil is soil. There’s nothing inherent about them that says you can only do them if you have 200 acres to manage.

Let’s start with the first one. The way to disturb the soil as little as possible translates to:

 

no-till (or no-dig) gardening

No-till is exactly what it sounds like: you farm, or garden without ever tilling the soil. Tilling and plowing are almost synonymous with land cultivation, aren’t they? Yet they actually destroy soil structure, create compaction, and kill the very soil biology that’s the basis of fertility, like fungal networks and all those earthworms that make the soil nice and squishy.

But if you don’t till, how, then, do you break up and loosen the soil? How else do you kill all the weeds? How else do you build fertility?

In a no-till garden, these goals are achieved in a couple of simple ways:

1. Aerate using a broadfork. This is a fun annual spring ritual. The broadfork allows you to gently fluff up the soil and improve its structure without turning it over completely. It’s a garden chore my daughter loves doing with me — we rock back and forth, she can’t stop laughing, I get good exercise.

 

 

 

2. After broadforking, layer on a “lasagna mulch” to suppress weeds and build fertility. In other words, you layer on different types of organic material, one of which is a weed block layer like cardboard or newspaper. On garden beds, I like using a few layers of wetted newspaper because it breaks down faster.

There are many variations to lasagna or sheet mulching. Mine usually ends up looking something like this, from bottom layer to top layer:

  • bottom: slashed vegetation (any weeds or cover crops on soil surface)
  • any soil amendments
  • thin layer of composted manure
  • newspaper or cardboard
  • 2 inches of compost
  • top layer: seedless mulch, like straw, leaves, lawn clippings, or cut-down cover crops

All these layers gradually break down, and the compost or manure invites lots of juicy earthworms that aerate the beds and gradually pull the organic materials deep into the soil.

The mulch shades the soil, blocks weeds, and creates fantastic habitat for soil micro-organisms, which are your partners in building good soil.

You can literally see yesterday’s news turning into good garden soil! Now there’s something to meditate on while gardening.

Once all the beds are established in this way, you can simply plant seeds into the newly formed, weed-free bed. Or, in case of transplants, break a little opening into the wetted newspaper layer and transplant directly into that hole. You now have an effective advantage over the weeds: by the time they break through the mulch, the plants you want are already well-established.

 

My favorite video resources for No-till gardening:

How to make a No-Dig Garden with Morag Gamble

Anything by Charles Dowding, but especially this and this

 

Wild greens in the spring kitchen

Long before those first, tentative leaves of lettuce in the garden are ready for harvesting, nature’s spring greens have already gotten a head start. No need to wait to start eating from the land!

Here are some of my favorite wild-foraged spring greens and what I like to do with them in the kitchen.

Wild greens pesto

Don’t get me wrong: I do think basil is the food of the gods. But honestly, what really makes pesto pesto is the blend of garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan; any green with a little bit of a kick to it goes beautifully with these ingredients. If it’s too early even for arugula, I’ll go for the wild greens growing abundantly everywhere: chickweed, wild onion, and deadnettle. This version I made had locally foraged black walnuts in place of pine nuts, making it a truly place-based food.

To make: Collect at least a colander-full of edible wild greens: chickweed, wild onion, deadnettle is a good combo. Process 2 plump garlic cloves with 1/2 tsp salt and 3 tbsp of pine nuts or walnuts with a food processor or by hand into a fine paste, then start adding the greens by the handful and process until smooth. Add 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Finish with 1/2 cup of finely grated Parmesan cheese and serve.

Sochan and dandelion in smoothies

My 4-year-old is a picky eater. To up her intake of greens, I regularly trick her by adding them to smoothies and juices. Thankfully, some of the most potent greens, nutritionally speaking, grow in our backyard; and in the spring, the tender, young leaves of dandelions and sochan make it into our smoothies.

Not so sure about dandelion? Then try sochan! This mild green, also known as cutleaf coneflower, is a traditional food plant of the Cherokee and one of the easiest and most satisfying to add to any dish that calls for greens. Sochan grows wild along riverbanks and wet woodlands, but is also easy to grow in the garden. Sochan has many health benefits, but it’s in the mineral department that it excels over better-known superstar vegetables such as kale: it has more manganese, zinc, phosphorous and copper than kale (in case of manganese, it has five times the amount!)

To make: blend bananas, frozen blueberries, almond milk, and sochan in a blender or with an immersion blender. I sometimes add almond butter, collagen powder, or ground maca root for an extra energy boost.

Spruce Tip Fizz

You know those light green, tender new shoots at the end of spruce tree branches in the spring?

Yes, those.

I collect them in the spring to make a most decadent spruce tip syrup. We mix it with sparkling water for a favorite springtime drink, but it could also be used to glaze a roast chicken etc. The flavor and aroma is just like stepping into a fresh, lush evergreen forest.

To make:

Collect just the light green new tips (only pick from a large, established tree). To make the syrup, use equal amounts spruce tips, water, and sugar (I used 2 cups of each). First bring the water and sugar to boil, mixing so that the sugar dissolves. Then add the chopped spruce tips, turn off heat, cover the pot, and let cool, ideally until the next day. Strain through a fine strainer or cheese cloth. The finished syrup will keep in the fridge for 3 months.

 

How to deepen your sense of place

We all live somewhere. We’re all from someplace. What does it mean, then, for some of us to have a more awakened sense of place than others? Is a sense of place something that can be deepened, or nurtured, with practice?

Sense of place is hard to describe; it’s often that intangible, indescribable quality that seems to linger in the air but is hard to pinpoint.

So let’s start with its opposite: we’ve all been to a place that lacked a sense of place. How many times have you driven through a strip mall that looks so identical to every other strip mall you’ve ever driven through that you feel disoriented, unsure of where you are? The same chain stores, the same chain restaurants, the same gas stations, the same anonymous, nondescript look that we’ve come to associate with an office building, a bank, a shopping center — or with a suburban neighborhood, for that matter. You could be anywhere.

A special or unique place, then, is the opposite: a place that communicates to you — unapologetically and through all your senses — that you couldn’t be anywhere else but here.

It’s a place that embraces its specialness, that which sets it apart. Maybe it’s its natural features, maybe it’s the pulse of the street life, maybe it’s the smell of salty sea air or spicy traditional foods cooking or the legacy of who and what was here before you. Maybe it’s the energy of the people who call it home. It may be gritty industrial or sophisticated elegance or the mossy moisture in the air in a mountain holler. But it’s someplace special.

If you live in one of these places with character, with its own vibe, consider yourself lucky. But wherever you are, you can absolutely deepen your relationship to your place. It doesn’t have to be your forever home. (And I say this as someone who has moved 26 times in her lifetime. I’ve often been transitional, nomadic, yet found that these ways helped me get a fuller taste of where I was.)

16 Ways to Deepen Your Sense of Place (and Have a Great Time While You’re At It)

Get rooted where you are

  • Look at all different kinds of maps of the place… not just street maps! Visit the library or Google Images for old maps of your place. Look up your watershed map. Many counties have a free GIS database for maps that show the topography, water bodies, main natural landmarks and natural resources.
  • Learn about the history of your place. Who was here before you? Who was here before them? How did they live, what did they eat? Plan a trip to your nearest museum or heritage center that celebrates the stories and lifeways of people who used to inhabit the landscape.
  • Take the Bioregional quiz.
  • Find ways to enhance your connection to nature and the seasons. Keep a local seasonal produce calendar taped to your fridge and plan meals around what’s in season when. “Bring the outdoors in and indoors out”: bring natural greenery into your house in all seasons — winter greens during the winter holidays, wild flowers in the summer — and take more of your daily activities, like coffee and lunch, outside during the warm seasons.
  • Get a bird feeder, place it close to your window and notice how you simply start to develop a relationship with local bird life.
  • Get to know one local wild plant a month. No, you don’t need to memorize the Latin names, and you don’t need to feel embarrassed if you don’t have your plant ID’ing game on yet: there are now tons of free plant ID apps to choose from that identify the plant for you. Tip: I find it much easier to remember a plant if I learn what it can be used for — for example, if it used to be a medicine for headaches, or if it’s an edible that can be thrown into a salad.
  • Explore the natural world. Move in whatever way moves you: hiking, biking, canoeing, swimming, rock climbing. Find a hiking buddy and make a monthly date. At least a couple of times a year, plan a longer, ideally overnight or multi-day, trip to a special place like a national forest or state park.
  • Find your own special place. You don’t need to explain it to anybody. It’s any place that makes you breathe in a little deeper, feel a little more grounded, the place from which you return invigorated and feeling more like yourself.

 

Get to know your foodshed

  • Farmers’ markets are great places to soak up the local vibe. You’ll be find local delicacies and special food varieties to sample, enjoy the sense of community, get to know who here grows what.
  • Get to know your farmer in other ways. Join a CSA, visit farm stands, go apple-picking and pumpkin-hugging in the fall, join in on farm volunteer days.
  • Get to know and celebrate your region’s specialties, heirloom foods, foods with terroir (“taste of the land”). If you need ideas, check out Slow Food’s Ark of Taste or the place-based foods lists from RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) Initiative.
  • Join the local chapter of Slow Food International.

Harvest your own local edibles

  • Plant a garden if you haven’t already. There is no better way to connect with the land! If you don’t have access to land, join a community garden, trade with someone who does have land, or plant a windowsill/balcony garden.
  • Join a local guided edible wild plants walk or a mushroom foraging club.
  • Check out Falling Fruit to see what other edibles might be growing in your neighborhood, yours for the pickin’.
  • Find other local initiatives to tap into the abundance of locally grown food that might otherwise go to waste, like fruit gleaning clubs.

Why the material life matters

Why am I writing about material life, the pleasures of rediscovering a connection to land through the things we eat and use and consume? After all, I was trained as a historian of the spiritual life, and specialized in the study of the kinds of people who specifically shunned all material possessions, pleasures, and rootedness. The Buddhist monastics and Jain ascetics I spent years researching viewed the material world with suspicion and sought to be free from its fetters.

But I’ve come to believe that the unique challenges of our time require a different way of engaging the material world.

Perhaps, in the twenty-first century, a conscious awakened life — in terms of caring for the well-being of the entire world — is a mindful material life, crafting a material life that gives a damn.

Being conscious about the way we meet our needs. Being conscious about what we waste, discard, or reuse. Caring for the things we own so that they last longer, fix them when they break. Participating in one’s own material life, not merely as a consumer but as a producer, a maker, a grower.

First of all, our material lives shape who we are inwardly, as persons — what is possible for us.

The foods that you ingest literally become a part of you. They shape your body and your mind. We now know that diets high in fast foods and processed foods compromise our physical health, but also affect our moods and our brain health in negative ways. Nutrient and mineral deficiencies in food may be reflected in depression, attentional disorders, and so on. Your nourishment changes what’s possible for you mentally and emotionally.

But actually, the same is true — although to a lesser extent — of virtually all the material goods that we touch, use, interact with, ingest, apply to our bodies, and so on.

If you accept this idea that your material life changes you — that your physical environment, diet, physical habits, and the objects around you shape you in complex ways — the question then becomes: Who do you want to be? In what direction do you want your material life to nudge you?

There’s certainly the direction that the forces of global market capitalism have pre-programmed for you: the mode of passive consumption, in which we interact with the world primarily by pressing buttons, fill our stomachs with substances wrapped in plastic, and rush on to the next thing? There are diversions on offer there, for sure, but primarily to fill the void created by the absence of real connection, real firsthand experience: virtual realities, staring at rectangular screens, entertainment that involves watching other people talk, dance, have adventures in nature, and even cook.

The alternative is claiming a more grounded way of participating in the world around you. You step boldly onto the ground beneath your feet, into actual landscapes around you, become awake to what grows and moves and lives around you. You move your body and make it create things — build, bake, craft, garden, harvest, gather. You source the things you need from actual people with names and faces. Little by little, you gain a sense of where things come from by participating in the processes of how things come to you. And because you are sourcing things more consciously, from within your foodshed or from artisans and producers in your region, you get to experience a range and depth of flavors unattainable in the world of mass-manufactured, computer-programmed, chemically enhanced and intercontinentally transported food. You’re in for sensory surprises, foods that taste like the earth in which they grew — a life re-infused with sensory experience, unique flavors and smells and textures and sights and sounds. You’re in for real connection with other people, an interdependence with them. And you’re in for a feeling that you’re a little bit more human again.

What kind of a person will these kinds of habit shifts, a grounded material life, make you? I can’t wait for you to find out. But I will venture to make some guesses: You will feel physically healthier. You will spend more time in the natural world, feel at ease there and connected to what is around you. You will move your body more. You will develop a rootedness, a sense of place, that supports you in whatever adventures you embark on. You will spend more time preparing and enjoying food. You will connect with more people in your community. You will feel more resourceful and confident. You will have new skills.

These habit shifts at a physical level make you inwardly grounded, too: down-to-earth, balanced, secure. A person with grit in your spirit and a bit of dirt under your fingernails, perhaps. This kind of inward groundedness is what we need in the twenty-first century, facing as we do an unpredictable future.