As Above So Below: An Interview with Nance Klehm


Nance Klehm

Martha Bayne

Figure 1. Illustration by Alana Bailey

Figure 1. Illustration by Alana Bailey

Martha: Last year you wrote an ode to the weed on your website, and cheered their adaptability and resilience as models for humans trying to survive in hostile environments. And I know Thoreau, among others of his era and inclinations, identified weeds with wildness — these essential forces of nature which shouldn’t be tamed by human intervention. But agriculture is all about harnessing the powers of nature to provide for human needs, and weeds tend to get in the way of that. How — as a gardener/farmer — do you reconcile these seemingly incompatible views of weeds in a way that both honors their wildness and allows you to cultivate the land?

Nance: I am not a farmer, I grow for fertility. In other words, I grow to eat as well as I grow to build soil and habitat for pollinators. My growing areas are a bit of a tumble visually – based on the forest garden model.

Farmers grow for production. Fertility necessitates biodiversity and a certain “get out of the wayness” low energy expenditure. I eat for vitality — my diet is pretty mixed with foods that I or someone else I know grows as well as plants I forage from gardens, open areas, streamsides, and woodlands. Both this focus on vitality and fertility allows for so called weeds to have their place in the field, the garden and my stomach. Annual and biennial reseeding wild plants as well as perennial wild plants are distant relatives of many of our current cultivated vegetables. They thrive in disturbed ground, poor soils and endure environmental and insect stress better than their young cousins and still contain more minerals and vitamins than them. In addition, most of them have added medicinal qualities to them. By the way, I love Thoreau’s wild apple essay!

M: I need to get a copy of that essay and read it again! In the meantime (going back to the original essay), I liked this, but am a little confused by the idea of weeds as the reward for “not going native.” Maybe it’s just hard to get a handle on the tone — but are you saying that “civilization” (meaning, I guess, the intentional cultivation of fruits, vegetables, grains, etc.) can be seen as a double-edged sword? It creates this violence against the soil but it also creates the space for weeds to thrive — and whose behavior we should model?

N: My point is that once you strip the soil of the prairie or woodlands that were growing there, you are exposing soil to other plants blowing in and setting up that dynamic of soil loss, fertility needs, and the on-going battle with certain plants called weeds. We have changed the way we eat — largely we only eat cultivated, domesticated plants and are not eating from what the land can easily support without inputs of energy – human labor, gas-powered equipment and transport, fertilizer and compost, insecticides and herbicides, water, etc. We used to incorporate other plants into our diets, used to relate to land providing our food outside of the plow.

M: The title, “As above, so below” hits a couple of other different ideas for me. For one, I went back to Wild Apples and was struck by this passage re: a thicket of thorny, wild apple scrubs:
“No wonder they are prompted to grow thorns at last, to defend themselves against such foes. In their thorniness, however, there is no malice. Only malic acid.”
I feel like he, and you, circling this idea of the qualities we ascribe to “wildness” and how over and over it seems like there are easy metaphors for human behavior to be found there … and yet those metaphors only go so far because the point of wildness in nature is that it is nature and not directed by human forces.

N: Yes, “wildness” is not created, it underlies everything. It is within us already and not something we need to work towards. All nature is influenced by humans as it and us are different forms of the same organism. Even without farming and eating and shitting we are in constant “interactivity” with it through our 16 square feet or more of skin and the 1/2 liter of air we breathe in every 4-5 seconds.

M: OK then … in another direction, I was thinking about the relation of soil fertility and health to human fertility and health. Not in the makin’ babies way, but in the sense of nurturing a healthy system that can thrive and create beauty and process waste. There’s sort of a head/guts analogy to be made between human life and soil life. Can you extend that analogy to the function of weeds? Like, is there a way to support and cultivate human life without excessive “inputs of energy”?

N: Sure, we are all leaning into that question right now and many are on the ground working on this question. Pardon me if we go back to the human habit of metaphor/analogy drawing, but I think the strategy of weeds makes some inroads to how to answer that question.

Thinking like a weed:
Thrive no matter where you are.
Make your own food and oxygen.
Make soils better for the next inhabitants.
Send out a gazillion seeds.
Reincarnate frequently in unexpected places.

M: I love this … but it makes me thing that maybe the reason talking about this is so hard is that people (or, me….) are hardwired to interpret the natural world in terms of human experience. We are (I am) always unconsciously looking for metaphors and analogies. … but nature is just nature. The soil isn’t there to articulate life lessons! It’s just THERE….
N: Metabolising like the rest of us …


Nance Klehm is a radical ecologist, designer, writer and forager who currently is spending her extra time pressing and fermenting cider and healing her injured chicken.


Martha Bayne is a writer and editor whose work orbits (very) loosely around food, drink, urban agriculture, sustainable food systems, and creative approaches to community building and social justice concerns. As a bartender at Chicago’s Hideout she runs Soup and Bread, a free weekly soup dinner and fundraiser for local food banks. |