Digging in with Kristin Ohlson

Kristin Ohlson is the author of The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet. A former Clevelander, Ms. Ohlson now lives in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, from The New York Times to Salon and Ms. She was also a 2010 Creative Workforce Fellow. In July 2015, she came to Cleveland for appearances at Dunham Tavern and The City Club of Cleveland. City Club CEO Dan Moulthrop interviewed her for Edible Cleveland. In honor of Earth Day coming up, we share the interview and video of her talk with you.

Dan Moulthrop: You have done a lot of writing for hire and a lot of other projects. My sense, not knowing you well, is that this book is a lot more of a personal passion for you than other projects.

Kristin-Ohlson-400Kristin Ohlson: The book has been great. I mean that those projects were a lot of fun but I felt with this that if I never write anything again in my life I would be ok because I have written about this amazing, world-changing, hopeful stuff and I feel so lucky that I have stumbled upon this story. So yeah I think that’s true.

D: Talk about the optimism that is embedded in this book.

K: You know, soil is the last frontier. It’s this hidden kingdom that we have been unaware of. I know I have been unaware. I think that that new understanding that there is this whole other part of the ecosystem that we have been unaware of, literally under our feet that has so much to do with our quality of life and the way our planet thrives or doesn’t, to discover that there is this other avenue to work through our problems. Our environmental problems have seemed so intractable. [With this book, I] found out there is another way of working of some of these things, immediately available to every person.

D: That was the “aha” for me in your talk and in the book, is the reframing of our relationship to the earth—in that these ways that we are reframing our understanding of ourselves in this microbiome that we work with, that we collaborate with to live. We can take that same frame and apply it to the earth and the microbiome that inhabits it.

K: it is mind blowing!!!

D: As you have been travelling over the last year and talking about it. How have the people responded?

K: Oh, the response has always been great! There are times when I am reminded of my mother speaking to me as a kid and telling me not to frown. “Don’t frown; your face will stay that way. “ And there were times when I was up there talking up there about the stuff and I would look in the audience and see somebody frowning and I would think “ugh boy, that person is very dubious of this material, that person…” Anyway, invariably that person would walk up to me and say, “I’m a microbiologist, I can’t tell you how happy I am you’re making this stuff interesting to people,” or “I’m a farmer, and I am starting to do this on my land and I’m really excited about what I am doing. It was so great to hear you talking about this movement.” So it’s been really great. The two young women who were here before asked what the response has been from farmers and so I tell them that the farmers I meet are going in this direction, thinking about this direction, leading this direction or thinking about it. The best email I think I have ever gotten in my life started off: “I’m a wheat farmer in Oklahoma and your book formed the basis of my presentation to a senate subcommittee …”

D: (Gasp of realization)

K: I know! On Farming and soil. So, I hear from lots of really great people who are doing this stuff.

D: The people that read Edible Cleveland, are foodies in the equation that you reference in the title of your book. What is the message for them?

K: I think the message for foodies is “Good Job!” You have already done a lot to push some changes in the food system. I think it is really obvious that our choices and our desires as consumers have made a big difference. I think we need to carry that further and carry that into realms as voters. What are we going to be doing as city planners? What are we going to be doing as neighborhood associations? What are we going to be doing? It is a pretty big subject and I think we can have impact far beyond just our individual choices. I think we have to move from just having an impact on individuals and to see if we can have more impact on groups.

D: With what you’ve learned in writing this book, what has changed in your day-to-day life, your interaction with your own garden, your own lawn?

K: I no longer get bothered by the weeds in my lawn. I think “Oh! Biodiversity!” I have gone out of my way to increase the clover content of my lawn. I feel people sometimes will come up to me after these talks and because people have gotten this thing about lawns and how they are terrible and how lawns are a monoculture, and they will say “I’m getting rid of my lawn.” You know nothing is wrong with the lawn as long as there’s biodiversity. I grow a lot of my own food in my yard and I take tremendous pleasure in that. I get tremendous pleasure from finding out what’s happening in my soil. When I walk around the neighborhood with my dogs, I examine all the bare spots and shake my head. I think about this stuff a lot.

D: In the book, you mentioned about how you can’t go for a walk without seeing the bare spots.

K: Yeah, It’s like Little Shop of Horrors and the plant Audrey II and I’m thinking “Feed Me!” that’s how I imagine the microorganisms going “Feed Me!” Put some mulch on it at least.

Want more? Check out Kristin Ohlson’s City Club talk.