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08.06.08

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Greywater Guerrillas

Neither sand nor salami nor landlords deter urban-sustainability experts

By Gianna De Persiis Vona


On July 26, the morning of the "Greenhouses and Greywater" tour hosted by Daily Acts, I stop to buy food to contribute to the potluck lunch. I'm running late, a fact made worse by my inability to decide whether or not it would be tacky to bring salami. Eventually, I decide to go for the salami (it's nitrate-free, for goodness sake), a loaf of French bread, some dolmas, mixed olives and a hunk of raw cheddar cheese. Thirty-five dollars later, I'm making my way south, cursing myself for not having the foresight to whip up a pasta salad the night before. Economics aside, there is still the chance that my salami might be offensive. Do permaculturalists eat salami? I don't really know, but I have my doubts.

By the time I arrive in San Francisco, a group of 30 participants are beginning to gather at the home of gardener and permaculturalist Deverie Gehlen. Gehlen is the mother of a 14-year-old and works full-time as a gardener at the San Francisco airport. She understands, as I do, what it means to have limitations. As Gehlen says, "We can change the world, but I don't want to kill myself doing it," words so consoling that almost immediately I stop worrying about the appropriateness of my salami and the bad check I wrote to Whole Foods.

Gehlen shows us her graywater system. It's an ingeniously simple plan that involves tapping into the washing-machine water and running it down a gravity-fed path through three bathtubs filled with lava rock and an array of towering reeds and trees. The end result is purportedly drinkable. Gehlen doesn't drink hers, but she does use it to water her garden, which is peppered with native plants that thrive in the salty air of the Sunset district. As she introduces her garden, Gehlen tells us that she is a renter, a fact that I am awed to note does not seem to deter her from working the ground.

The group is friendly, intelligent and engaged. Some take notes, others ask questions, some snap pictures. Trathen Heckman and Kevin Bayuck, permaculturalists and tour coordinators, act as seamless facilitators. They combine their knowledge with a distinct lack of pretension that only serves to deepen the feeling of community.

Our next stop is hosted by Ben Jordan, farmer and yet another permaculturalist. The backyard of his home—which he rents and shares with three others—has over the last year and a half been transformed from a dusty sandlot covered in ice plant into a thriving garden, replete with green house, graywater system, active compost pile and a composting toilet.

Jordan talks about eco-literacy. You can tell a lot, he says, by watching people in their backyards. As a group, we glance left, we glance right. The majority of the other rectangular yards stand empty, thick with dry weedy grass, and not much else. Jordan tells us that urban sustainability is about understanding our sense of place. We are left to ponder what it means, exactly, when our sense of place appears to be deserving of so little care.

Partway through Jordan's talk, people arrive bearing a newly welded "rocket stove." In this household, one of the goals is to live, as much as possible, without imported resources. This means more than just growing food. The rocket stove will allow the housemates to cook outdoors, using a minimal amount of wood, thereby slowing down reliance on the electric company's imported gas.

Next, I learn about urine diversion, and briefly examine a book called Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants by Carol Steinfeld. I have never heard of such a thing, and yet here I am, being mentored by a man whose garden appears to thrive on diluted urine. If high school had been this interesting, I might not have dropped out.

Too soon, our tour is up. I have seen many things that have defied my vision of what is possible in an environment where, were it left up to me, there might not even be a single potted plant. The weather is unforgiving, the ground is made of sand and the presenters are renters.

How many times have I said, "What's the point? I'm a renter." More times than I would care to remember. The Sustainability Tour was enjoyable on many levels, but for me, personally, the gift that really came home was the realization that my environment is precious, and that it doesn't matter who "owns" the soil where I live—because it's both my responsibility and in my best interest to do everything I can to transform my space into one of abundance.

 

  For more information on the Sustainability Tours go to www.daily-acts.org, or call 707.789.9664. For more information on putting in your own graywater system go to [ http://www.greywaterguerrillas.com/ ]www.greywaterguerrillas.com.

Here I am, being mentored by a man whose garden appears to thrive on diluted urine.


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