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Rewilding Soil and Self

“It is estimated that skin has almost the same bacterial content as soil.” William Syrotuck from Scent and the Scenting Dog

The impetus behind Wild Food Camps is to get people out into nature more so they fall in love and become stewards of it. As we become more familiar with natural systems, we then have a blueprint for how to shift our societal systems toward a more regenerative future. Foraging delicious food is the lure, and eating it is the intimate connection to it.

At Morel and Porcini Camp at Camp Earnest this past month, a local permaculture farmer, Jordan Lowry, stole the show once again. No small thing against finding morels in a burn zone under volcanic peaks. Jordan runs Dambacher farms and has turned it into a permaculture laboratory that includes growing culinary and medicinal mushrooms. He initially used spent grain stalks to feed cultures of mushrooms like lion’s mane, shiitake, reishi, and oyster. The operation has grown into an underground lab in Sonora, California. The spent mushroom mycelium blocks go back into the farm’s compost, as part of the closed-loop system.

While he regaled us on ways that mushrooms can repair our bodies and restore the environment at the first mushroom camp, at this one he talked about restoring soil to health by introducing rich, biodiverse wild soil to depleted farm dirt. He was inspired to do this with a method known as Korean natural farming. This was started by Cho Han-kyu in Korea. He was a farmer who to his soil amending, and in the 1960s had the brilliant idea of using nature’s best soil engineers – fungi, bacteria, and nematodes, or small worms, to improve the soil. As part of the process, he applied food fermentation methods to blend and nourish the soils.

This is increasingly known as culturing indigenous micro-organisms, or IMO. When out hiking in the Sierra foothills, if Jordan comes across a spot with rich diversity, he takes home soil from there and feeds it with bran and brown sugar to start a fermentation process. The IMO or bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and other rich soil dwellers cultivate the grain. He then begins introducing or mixing farm soil with it. The bacteria and fungi from the soil brought from the wilderness expand into the farm soil and starts to heal and enrich this soil, which is then added to crops on the farm. (And this is an abbreviated and general version of how Jordan explained it.) Jordan does not till his soil – he lets nature do the work.

Another Sonoran resident, naturalist Dan Webster, gave a talk on forest ecology and the role of fire at Porcini and Morel Camp. Dan recently completed his certification to lead Forest Bathing rituals, which is an integrated part of health systems in Japan and Korea. They are even covered by insurance. Studies have been finding that spending more time in nature reduces the stress hormone cortisol, can lower your heart rate, and reduce heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, premature birth, sleep duration, and more.

There are varying theories behind this. One is that trees emit phytochemicals or phytoncides. These chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. According to an article by the NY Department of Environmental Conservation, “Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies.”

Another explanation of the health benefits of forest bathing includes the “old friends” ( ) hypothesis. This supposes that being in nature exposes us to mycobacteria in soil. These “old friends” have co-evolved with our immune system to strengthen and protect them.

Along with soil, wilderness also brings our bodies back in line with nature and makes them healthy and resilient. That’s a good reason for attending a Wild food camp. And then there’s fun, laughter, great food, and lots of awe. There are a few spots left for the Alaska Wild Food Camps this August– there’s a 2 day and a 4 day camp with berries, mushrooms, seaweed, salmon, oysters and exploring sea by kayak and glaciers and fjords by hiking. And we have another wild mushroom camp in the books for next November at Camp Earnest.

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