Interview with Artist
and Founder of The Institute of Urban Homesteading
by Willi Paul, openmythsource.com
SEED SAVING BASICS
In this era of corporate patenting of DNA and round-up ready beets, saving open-pollinated, heirloom seeds is vital to our cultural heritage and genetic diversity. It is also an age old tradition hailing to the days before the seed catalog when farmers saved seed out of necessity, maintaining and improving their crops from year to year. As urban gardeners the boon in saving seed is in saving money and closing the seasonal loop. Seeds are timeless and never-ending, with a little bit of history and a little bit of the future packed into one tiny suitcase. Seed saving does require that you know a little bit about the plant whose seed you are saving, and a wee bit of botany. Where did the plant originate? Is it open-pollinated or hybrid? If you grew the plant from purchased seed, it will say which it is on the packet. Hybrid varieties, crossed in a lab, are sterile or will not produce offspring true to the parent. If you don’t know where the plant came from, you can take your chances or try again next year, making sure your plants come from known sources.
Next it is important to know what family the plant is in, to know what you need to do to successfully save seed. Plants in the same family will act similarly. The easiest seeds to save are plants that are self-pollinating and which do not cross easily with other plants in their same family group. A few of these are plants in the bean, sunflower and nightshade family. Other plants will need isolation or special hand pollination techniques so that they do not produce something inedible. All cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, melons), brassicas (kale, broccolo, cabbage) and corn cross easily and need special techniques to ensure seed purity. When you are ready for that step, look for a copy of Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. Once your seeds are completely dry, pack them into small paper or plastic envelopes or glass jars and label well with the variety, year, source and harvest location. Keep them in a cool dry place. Seed viability varies from plant to plant. Some delicate seeds like lettuce may keep two years if you store them very carefully, others like some beans can last a decade or more.
Here is a list of plants with seeds that anyone can easily save:
Bean family – All beans, peas, lentils, garbanzos, fava, sweet, pea, buckwheat.
How to Save: Let the pods dry on the plant. Shell and store.
Sunflower Family – Sunflower, cosmos, marigold, lettuce, endive, chicory chrysanthemum, bachelor’s buttons, calendula
How to Save: Allow plants to flower and collect dried seeds
Nightshade Family – Tomato, pepper, tomatillo, eggplant
How to Save: Allow fruits to fully ripen (peppers and eggplant will change color). For tomato & tomatillo squeeze seeds and pulp into a jar add a little water and let ferment for a day. Rinse and let dry on a towel. For pepper & eggplant, scrape seeds onto a towel and let dry.
- K.Ruby Blume
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Interview with Ruby by Willi
What is sacred to you?
Life is sacred to me. The body. Trees. Bees. The sun, the moon. Microbes. People. Salamanders. Even mosquitoes and ticks (they can be sacred over there please).
What do you think we as humans can learn from bees?
Bees are a highly evolved super-organism. They have ways of sensing into the seasons and the climate that we cannot fathom a well as an innate capacity to get things done within the balance of the seasons. Bees work when there is work to do and rest when there is not. They communicate by dancing and make decisions by consensus. One of the more amazing bee phenomenons is how they find a new home. In the spring, the existing queen flies out from the hive (leaving a new queen to be born behind her), followed by many worker bees. This is a swarm. The bees land a short distance from the mother hive and clump around the queen. There are perhaps 10,000 – 15,000 of them. They then send scouts out to look for a good site to make their new home. Once the information is gathered–with perhaps several visits to potential sites, those 15,000 decide which the best option is and fly off to their new home. I’d sure like to see 15,000 humans agree on where to build a city!
What is your take on CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder), the disappearance of bees?
I believe that bees are highly affected by the scale and practices of agricultural industry. In gigantic apiaries they are regularly administered anti-biotics, fumigated for mites, fed sugar water and shipped to California by the hundreds of thousands in the middle of winter to pollinate almonds… Imagine what it would be like if you gave your children anti-biotics 3 times a year and fed them sugar all winter-long. These practices stress the immune system, whether you are a human or a bee. The bees, like humans, are further distressed by pesticides and other chemicals in their immediate environment. As with other cases of environmental illness, no pathogen has been found in connection. Simply put, just like overworked humans these bees are exhausted, unhappy and have lost their will to live. Recently some dousers reported it thus: “We found that, in general, the enslavement of bees by humans and the consequent disruption of the honeybees’ natural state of being for the sake of human profit has taken away the joy of life for the honeybees.” While some organic beekeepers have been affected by CCD the report on the streets amongst small-scale natural beekeepers is that our bees are doing just fine, thank you very much. I believe that bees are an incredibly successful, resilient species and that they will long outlast humans. The agricultural industry, on the other hand, has something to worry about.
You seem to have traveled some unusual pathways in your life. Can you tell us a little bit about your major interests and projects?
I am an artist, activist, educator, body worker, beekeeper, and gardener. A life-long learner, devourer of information, mad scientist experimenter, deep thinker, endless tinkerer, solver of art “problems” and fussy home repairs, No one ever told me I couldn’t do it all, so I have simply submerged myself in doing all manner of things I love to do, most of which is “work” in some form or another. I have always loved the saying “Work is love in action.”
Early in my art career I did a year long stint with a theatre company that performed exclusively in prisons. During that year I played to men, women and juveniles in medium, maximum and federal penitentiaries. Part of what lead me to this was the idea that theatre could be a pathway to healing and change, a powerful mirror that could be held up to engage people in dynamic processes that could transform them. I continued along this path when I went on went on to co-found Wise Fool Puppet Intervention. We know the Wise Fool as the king’s jester, speaking truth to power through poking fun. We called what we did, “visual metaphors for change” offering amongst other things” visual support for long-term struggles for social and environmental justice.” Our tools in the struggle were giant puppets, processional theatre, stillwalking, fire, music and song. Over the course of 15 years we created 15 full length street theatre pieces, hosted a free street theatre festival in the poorest neighborhood of San Francisco, hosted dozens of free puppet building workshops and attended hundreds of demonstrations. Our culminating work was a bus journey to perform for the war-torn campesinos in Chiapas,
Round about 1999 the company split up. I was seriously burnt out and needed some time to recoup and take stock (other members went on to create Wise Fool New Mexico, still going strong) At that time part of my recovery process was “following my bliss” doing whatever I wanted without the constraints and obligations running a non-profit full-time. It turned out what I was most interested in was plants and gardening. I deepened my relationship with this green world by studying botany, herbal medicine, pollination ecology and more…then someone dropped a beehive off at my house and I started learning to tend bees…this lead me to want to make honey wine ( mead) and it grew from there. Soon my friends started asking me to teach them what I had learned. And it felt like time. So in 2008 I opened a bank account, made a fancy postcard and launched The Institute of Urban Homesteading. The school took Oakland by storm. I was featured in a half a dozen articles in all the major local papers. Excitement for the project was tenable. In year four (2011) we produced 75 classes on all aspects of urban sustainability–from beekeeping to canning, cheese making to solar cooking.
What are some of the major influences that informed these choices?
My parents, both school teachers and union activists encouraged me to think critically, track down answers to obscure questions way before the internet and to make art. There was never a sense in my family that being an artist was an impossible dream…as a matter of fact when I finally got over college and started my life as an artist, my mom uttered a big sigh of relief. My parents were tireless union activists through the 70s 80s and 90s and before that as a child growing up in Berkeley I helped protest the Viet Nam war and occupy People’s Park.. So I grew up with a political consciousness that in spite of rejecting for a time, still makes me who I am. Whether I am making art or teaching or doing bodywork or gardening ultimately my value lies is in making things better. My mother in particular also started me down the path of earth-based spirituality. I have an image of her, arms wide open to the ocean, telling me that “God is not a man in the sky–god is in everything, every rock and every drop of water.” This made total sense to the kid that was me. If everything is God, then you must treat the world and everything in it as precious.
In college I did a year abroad and living in another culture truly changed me. Americans take so much for granted. It was both intense and refreshing to live in a place that had endured two world wars (Germany). These people had a depth and seriousness that resonated strongly with me. When you said someone was your friend–that meant for real or you didn’t say it at all. While I was there I was a photography teacher who busted my world open by showing me how art could be used as a means of communication rather than just something pretty to hang on the wall…and thus began my journey making art towards social change and ultimately giving my life to that.
In the 1980s, finished with college I happened upon a vibrant and exceptional art scene in San Francisco. This community of politically, spiritually and artistically engaged people continues to be home base 25 year later. With these people I made art in the streets, protested war, made ritual, got naked, prayed to the earth, and learned to be human in all the ways it counts.
How does your PDC (permaculture design certificate) influence your work today?
I loved my design course at Occidental Arts and Ecology–it was inspiring to be with people who have a vast understanding of the inter-connectedness of life and systems like water and energy. Yet in many ways I consider myself a bad permaculturist or none at all. Of course I live the ethics and principles, but not from any particular intellectual understanding, .I couldn’t recite them to you if you asked. But the PDC planted a seed, and a question. I knew I wanted to find my own path, but at the time had no idea what form my permaculture work would take. And I discovered it is not in teaching or applying the traditional permaculture techniques such as food forests or plant guilds, but in teaching people to think and do for themselves and to give themselves the opportunity to work with nature rather than against it.
Do you see homesteading tasks such as canning or gardening as integral to leading a healthy life? Can everyone do these things?
There are as many ways to health as there are people. For some a healthy life might be defined as eating well, for others exercise or participation in a church or civic group. Many homesteading activities connect people to life in their home-space, to community and to nature and seasonal cycles. I don’t think we were meant to live disconnected from these things–that is why the corporate consumerist lifestyle is so deeply unsatisfying and ultimately unhealthy. I am not sure that everyone needs to take up canning (though they certainly can, it is one of the easier homesteading skills!), but everyone can find their own way to regenerate and reconnect to meaning and pleasure.
Through your Magic Mulch Recipe, you claim to Turn Dirt into Gold! What is the role of alchemy in your permaculture and art?
Alchemy is an old word that seems to call forth images of magical transformations…. In the mulch recipe, well those are living micro-organisms that are breaking things down and making them accessible for the next cycle. It is certain kind of magic, for sure, but it is also practical, pragmatic and very, very real. And that is life–constantly transforming itself. In my work as an artist and farmer I see alchemy as interplay between my imagination or vision, the physical work of my body and the serendipity of tolerances of the materials to be worked. This is also interplay of faith, will and surrender. The internal faith that this tricky collaboration will succeed the will of my mind and body shaping my world and the ultimate surrender to what the dirt or the clay or the fabric will allow. I am reminded to the Starhawk song “She changes everything she touches and everything she touches changes.” Every small action ripples outwards, so we much act with great intent.
You have worked in a variety of art media, including ceramics and puppetry. How are you celebrating and sharing your spirit these days?
I am still making art, digging dirt, washing dishes, cooking food, teaching classes, reading books, answering interview questions, making cheese, caring for animals, doing more dishes, weeding, moving stuff around, fixing my house, fixing my partners house, pruning the fruit trees, answering emails, hosting a potluck for friends, holding space for tears or anger, touching, being touched. My spirit is present in every moment. I am awake and deeply satisfied with what is. Even in moments of sadness or anger. This seems to work better for me than celebration.
You want to support the “art of living in an urban environment” at the Institute for Urban Homesteading. Tell us more. What do you see as the challenges and benefits of living in a city like Oakland?
In a city you have access to resources of all sorts, but specifically the kind that have to do with humans. Cities are great places for sharing tools, gardens, ideas, art, zucchinis and other overflows of goodness, which in turn leads to building relationships and community. In a city you can (depending on the city of course) walk, bike or take a bus to most of your needs. There is a great diversity of people with all their art, theatre, music, shops, markets, chocolate, movie theatres, food swaps and art murmurs. Oakland, Berkeley, the whole west coast is special because we are a Mecca for holistic living, sustainability and social justice. Occupy Oakland made national news because we are so rad! The downside of a city is perhaps the mirror image of this: Cities do have all sorts of people and probably some you’d rather not have to interface with. Cities can be dirty, you can live in fear that your house will be broken into or your person harmed. And sometimes there are just too many people and cars.
Are you an Occupy supporter? What is their economic agenda in your opinion?
The occupy movement has been a glimmer of hope for many these past months and I am looking forward to seeing how it evolves and transforms. To ask what the occupy agenda is (economic or otherwise) is a misunderstanding of the intentions of the movement. The participants have expressly stated “No agenda, no demands.” The strength of the Occupy movement lies in the general assemblies; in the attempt, by disparate humans, to reach a consensus and create a true and direct democracy. If each person is heard and none is left behind then there can be no poverty and no obscene wealth. If each person in the circle is valued equally, the great disparity of rich and poor cannot exist. I don’t know if the Occupy movement will survive to become a mass movement in which hundreds of thousands of people are truly represented, but that would be my hope. I see the attempt as truly American in the face of the false democracy that we live under today.
Are you creating new myths through your teaching or art work? Do the classic mythologies resonate in you?
As a child I loved the Greek myths in particular as well as fairy tales and all manner of old stories I see myths as an encoding of our human values and the ancient genetic ascent of language and consciousness. Myths are appealing because they speak to the human experience and teach us how to live through the non-linear device of story. But myths are old and entrenched in collective consciousness of our culture–saying I am creating new myths is akin to someone making a new movie and calling it a “classic.” In other words, only time will tell. I do like to think the work I do is part of a shifting paradigm–a new/old story. This is a story about care, presence and intent; a way of living that puts us directly within the cycles of nature and not outside it. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution so much value has been placed on productivity and extracting endless profit. To me, gross national product is truly a myth. It happens only at a severe cost to the planet. This is a pyramid scheme of the worst kind. The loser at the end of the run is the people and the environment. We need new stories that tell of the richness that comes through putting energy and care back into a system and how that ultimately creates the kind of profit that comes from giving rather than taking.
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K.Ruby Blume Bio –
Ms. Blume is an educator, gardener, beekeeper, artist, performer and activist, with 20+ years experience gardening in an urban setting. As a life-long learner, she has studied everything from permaculture to organ massage and has taught herself cooking, canning and fermentation techniques, as well as how to set tile, install a sink, do electrical wiring, tend a beehive and repair a motorcycle. Ruby holds certificates in permaculture design, massage somatic sexology and life coaching and has studied botany, pollination ecology and native plant ecology at the Tilden botanic garden, the Jepson herbarium and the Sierra Nevada field campus. She has extensive experience in the arts including work with ceramic, mosaic, glass, textile, printmaking, puppetry, collage, assemblage, costume design and photography.
She is known for her work as founder and artistic director of the art for justice project, Wise Fool Puppet Intervention, and has performed and exhibited her work throughout the Bay Area and beyond since the mid-80s. The product of three generations of teachers, Ruby’s experience as an educator extends back thirty years. She has taught music, art, puppetry, design, theatre, gardening, beekeeping, canning and more to people ages five to ninety-five. She founded The Institute of Urban Homesteading in 2008 and co-authored the book Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living release date April 2011.
Interview art by Ruby