Monthly Archives: October 2014

Friday Jam: Sounds from the Soil


“The music in this recording has actually been performed by a plant, Anthurium (anthurium andreanum), thanks to a specific electronic device. Plants emit signals in reaction to external stimuli and to communicate with everything. These signals are detectable as variations in the bio-electrical field of the plant and can be converted into a MIDI signal (Musical Instruments Digital Interface). I sent this MIDI signal into a synthesizer and programmed a soft, soothing sound tuned at 432 Hz. After some time being connected to such device and producing sounds, plants seem to become aware of the process; they seem to understand that those sounds are coming from them…
and they start playing with it.”

The Origins of Kale

kale In our discussion about the origins of foods–and their journey of migration into our communities–here’s a piece in the New York Times on the backstory of kale.

A clip from “Who Made That Kale?”

“Scientists disagree about when humans first tasted kale. But it is known that the ancient Greeks cultivated leafy greens, which they boiled and ate as a cure for drunkenness. And early Roman manuscripts include references to “brassica,” a word that encompassed wild turnips, cabbages and kalelike plants. By the Middle Ages, kale had spread through Europe and Asia. The Italians developed plants with “dinosaur” scales, while the Scots created varietals with leaves like frilly petticoats. The Russians produced kale that could survive in the snow. But by the time Tim Peters, who was then farming in Oregon, began experimenting with the plant in the 1980s, kale had become “boring.” “You only saw the green kind in the supermarket,” he says, “if you could find it at all.”

Project Shift #1/1(Maybe) and Update – Ownership of the Soil

This is my first and (hopefully) only project shift away from ethanol towards exploring concepts of ownership related to soil, land, and climate change. While ethanol contained intriguing debates and political narratives, I believe this project topic will have a stronger tie to the soil itself and how Iowan farmers view the soil.

The moment when I decided to change themes was after talking to Ferman Milster at the Office of Sustainability. We had a great conversation about biomass, miscanthus, and ethanol, but what got me to pull-over and U-turn was the following statistic he cited: 62% of Iowa farmland is owned by non-farmers ( While I knew the trends of larger farms and urbanization, I did not realize the extent to which these had contributed to Iowa land as a majority-rented landscape. So, what does it mean to own land? How can climate narratives, sustainability narratives, conservation narratives influence how current absentee landowners and their farm operators rent land? What stories can we tell about taking ownership of the damage to the soil and environment from farming? And finally, what role does the city, Iowa City, play in the larger agricultural scene? These are all questions I hope to answer, or at least tackle, with my project. As far as a specific medium, let’s just say it’s a blank canvass for now.

So far, I’ve had great conversations with people involved with the University of Iowa miscanthus project including Dan Black, Steve Schomberg, Emily Heaton, and Ferman. I hope to interview people involved with Women, Land, and Legacy to unpack how they are communicating the principles of conservation to women who inherit farmland. Mr. Schomberg was gracious enough to take me up to his farm and lead me through the corn and bean plots, the woodland and prairie restoration areas, the riparian tree buffer, his family’s home, and the miscanthus plot. I will post a more detailed post about this trip later. This weekend, I am going out to visit Mr. Black’s farm as well. Through these conversations, I want to build a project that helps improve the communication between environmentalists and farmers, between city-dwellers and country-dwellers on the subject of soil conservation and climate change.

Charismatic Soil Makers (or the problems with depicting creepy crawlies)

Sowbug - Shredder Mites love to chomp on leaves

Sowbug – Shredder Mites love to chomp on leaves

When  you think about charismatic species  central to the discussion of climate change adaptation do you think of the lone, white Polar Bear adrift on the tiniest bit of ice in a warming sea….OR…do you think of the Oh So Beautiful shredder mite turning this fall’s leaves into food for the underground?

If you’re like me, I find the Sowbug a difficult nonhuman to love. The dilemma – I want to interview the key players for soil production and thus soil carbon sequestration but they look like characters better suited to a scary Halloween movie than the poster child of progressive urban land management and ag production. What to do?  How do I make this group of important soil makers less likely to set off our “ick” response?

The idea to profile these underground soil makers was inspired by artist and scientific illustrator Cornelia Hesse-Honegger. Her work over the last three decades profiles the little known lives and mutations of bugs caused by proximity or interacting with radiation.

Cornelia Hesse-Honegger's  "Soft Bug"

Cornelia Hesse-Honegger’s “Soft Bug”

The illustrations somehow look like portraiture. The careful attention to detail invites the viewer to try to figure out, what exactly about this bug isn’t quite right? Mutation as a result of exposure to radiation was little considered when Hesse-Honegger began. Perhaps there is a way to replicate some of the beauty that Hesse-Honegger gives her bugs. Perhaps the sowbug, rendered in something other than a scientific journal could elicit some level of care or attentiveness that the viewer might not have previously had? Could you learn to love the sowbug, or any other of the creepy crawlies underground if you knew a) what they did on  a daily basis for us and all species on this earth and b) if they were rendered in a way that got you thinking about them as beings rather than as something to be creeped out by? That’s the task before me. I am now taking suggestions for how to do this.

Brainstorming: Project Update II

As we approach the month of November, I’m beginning to try to stitch all of the elements of my project together for our final presentation. Let me say, it’s no easy task. As the fellows know, I’ve discussed the idea of writing epitaphs for certain plants that have either successfully migrated to the U.S. or that have died off due to an increase in mono-cropping and our corn/soy national complex. As Jeff Biggers pointed out: think Spoon River Anthology. I still like the epitaphs idea, but I have some problems with it in this context. First, I think I’d like to focus more on the revitalization of culturally important plants because of immigrant and refugee participation in urban farming. In my interviews I’ve heard a lot about this. While more work is needed, I think emphasizing the death of these plants is doing a disservice to all of the folks that are cultivating culturally vibrant urban gardens. Secondly, if nothing else, I am a goal-oriented person so, of course, my project has a clearly defined goal: I want to inspire Iowa City to offer food growing spaces to people moving here from around the world. I just don’t think writing epitaphs sends the message of hope and change that goal requires.

I’m thinking more along the lines of diary entries now. I’d like them to be chronological. I’d maybe start with the migration of maize to Iowa, moving forward to present day. The entries would attempt to parallel what immigrants/refugees from the areas the plants are from may have experienced during the same journey, speaking metaphorically about adjusting to new soil, climate, etc.  I would like to read the entries and create an audio piece for performance. I do like this idea and would like to move forward with it. At this point I’m struggling with how to incorporate the voices of the real people I’ve interviewed. Is it necessary? Do you think it would add or detract from the piece? Can I simply draw on the things they told me of their own experience? I appreciate everyone’s feedback, and I’m looking forward to chatting more with all of you about your projects.

Worcester: Urban Farms “Serious Part of Economy”

worcester Over in cold, cloudy New England, the mayor of Worcester, MA “pushed the idea of commercial urban farming to the City Council and has since created a working group to examine how other communities have tackled zoning changes for farming,” according to a news report in the local daily.

The projections:

“We are at a moment where cities like Worcester are identifying that the agricultural sector is a serious part of the economy. It can have so many benefits, for the economy, for health and for the urban environment,” said Steve Fischer, executive director of the Regional Environmental Council of Central Massachusetts (REC), a 43-year-old nonprofit that advocates health and sustainability, and also runs community gardens. “In past years, urban agriculture and community gardening and the like weren’t necessarily considered a serious part of economic development thinking in urban areas.”

Worcester already has urban farms, which include 65 REC-run community gardens. Its Youth Grow Program is its first commercial farming effort, with 32 low-income youths handling everything from planting seeds to selling the final products at REC’s farmers market.

“Urban farming is possible in Worcester,” Fischer said. “There is real demand and I think that if there (were) more production happening in the city it could be absorbed and there are real opportunities for jobs out of it.”

Food Waste and Privilege

I had a wonderful morning chatting with Katy Meyer, the owner of Trumpet Blossom Cafe here in Iowa City. I asked her what she does to address food waste in her restaurant and I was impressed when she struggled to come up with items that are simply thrown awaytrumpetblossomfull–all food waste is composted and she recycles everything that she can. What ends up in the trash, you ask? Stirring straws at the bar and paper towels in the restrooms. I think she’s doing a fine job over there; nearing zero waste and creating dishes from scratch are two unique habits Katy has brought to her restaurant. As someone who enjoys cooking and is learning how to make things by hand, I could understand where she was coming from when she described how rewarding it is to do things the “hard” way. The same feeling I get from making my own vegetable stock is the same feeling I get when I take my recycling to City Carton every week. It’d be easier to throw everything in the trash and never give a second thought to where it goes, but we do things the “hard” way anyway. We bike instead of drive. We garden to feed ourselves, and when we can’t, we buy the more expensive locally grown, organic products. She told a story about her grandmother criticizing the activity of camping, because according to her, she was “camping” the first 20 years of her life. Again, I began to think about the privilege we have and must confront. Camping, sleeping on the ground with no electricity and running water, is a leisure activity for us, but for many is an everyday reality. Same with biking, growing food to survive, and supporting your fellow neighbors because that’s all some people have. It is immensely important these people are represented and heard, because they are the ones that are and will be the most affected by the issues we have been talking about as a group.

I commented before on how I believe framing the conversation on climate change in terms of how it will affect my grand-children’s children is a good approach. I argued that making a personal connection on the individual level is a good strategy to convey the importance and magnitude of combating climate change to those that are skeptical. However, we mustn’t forget about the people much less fortunate than us today that are being affected. How might we frame the narrative to include them without distancing ourselves from people that think it’s “not their problem”?

On a lighter note, Katy is on board to attend (and help prepare!) a dinner party involving my interviewees, local food, and facilitated discussion by yours truly. She also gave me the fantastic idea of making an artistic statement with the dinner plates the food will be served on. What if they looked like healthy, teeming-with-life soil? Are hollow, transparent plates a thing? I will be in touch with Erica on her thoughts on the matter.

Wednesday Movie Plug – Food Fight

*This movie can be ordered on Amazon:


Sarah – I thought this movie brought out a lot of perspectives that applied to your cooking recipe project. Here are the top ten Buzzfeedified reasons to watch it:

  1. Great historical context for a lot of the issues in food policy; it investigates the relationship between the rise of the industrial military complex and the current industrial agricultural complex
  2. The quotes “To grow delicious food, you got to grow soil”, “political activism never tasted so good”, and “What gives taste is the soil” appear in the film
  3. Will and Erika Allen are featured and speak about the incorporation of rights to food in the broader civil rights context
  4. Great chefs are featured on how they provide delicious and local food
  5. One of the chefs, Chez Parisse, answers some of my critique about the pursuit of pleasure by arguing it’s about the pleasure of eating first and then everything else follows.
  6. The film addresses the question of “Is eating for taste a privilege” that our group has been dealing with by pointing out the beneficial effects of eating to taste in the long-run for income (prevention of future health care expenditures) and includes the earlier argument about right to food.
  7. A guy named Earl Butz in the movie
  8. A comprehensive dissection of the Farm Bill really reveals its flaws
  9. The theme of revitalizing the drudgery of cooking is very prominent throughout and could intersect with some of the ideas you are exploring with your project
  10. You get to watch the local food movement grow – the dawn of a new era and it was delicious