Nance Klehm

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #2 in February 2006]

Nance Klehm is a grower, forager and artist with experience making cheese, brews, miso and other ferments. Her ‘neighborhood orchard‘ involves neighbors growing on various urban sites (“vacant” lots, back yards, transportation corridors…) and bartering between one another for services and food. She actively collects food waste and community composting. On occasion she barters produce and fruit with local restaurants for meals.


You have maintained an active art practice that intersects very closely with your growing work, where you have exhibited foraged and indigenous Illinois food collections, guerrilla gardened and cooked food, in public space. Can you say why it is you are drawn to this informal way of working that incorporates bartering/trade, art, foraging, and networked backyard gardens over a more formal (like a 501c-3 nonprofit) organizational structure? How does it relate to your business?

My business is an ecological gardening company—I design, build and take care of gardens. I’ve had it for ten years and that’s enough responsibility and participation in consensus reality for me.
I want to work informally because it al-lows room for being more receptive, to work intuitively, to share more and ultimately to learn the most I can. What I’m doing goes be-yond my need to “own” or author the process.
There are so many ways to “slice the pie”. I’m interested in new models and the non-profit model feels really tired, not fruitful and essentially not any different from other broadly accepted models. They are based on an economy of diminishing resources and are competitive in nature. Systematizing or incorporating a process or idea often results in a more narrow, less flexible, less receptive way of being and working that may become dogmatically self-satisfied.
I’m interested in putting myself in a more receptive place—listening to plants and soil, listening to animals and people in order to notice and respond to emerging patterns that are inherent to a place and a situation. Nature is more abundant than we can grasp and I am actively engaging with that.

If you could imagine an alternative food system (for Chicago or for your community), how would it operate and how would it be different from the current food system?

Shifting our thoughts and deeds from doing agriculture to creating HABITAT: decentralized, non-administrated, widespread, small scale growing and wild foraging. Guerilla sowing, composting and mulching.
I can’t think about food without thinking about our highly disturbed and sometimes toxic urban soil. Extensive soil care is key, therefore I encourage everyone to let our soils rest and heal themselves. To remediate our soils there has to be an intentional accep-tance of toxin-concentrating plants and fungi (phytoremediation). Planting cover crops, mulch with leaf litter, start home and community composting (garden, food and body “wastes”) and vermicomposting are also part of this process. I advocate for the stopping of excessive winter salting of our streets and in the meanwhile planting salt-tolerant trees and shrubs in our parkways. I ask people to consider the need for and encouraging beneficial insects, soil decomposers, birds and animals as part of our urban lives.


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