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Towards a microbiome approach to culture and economy (or, Re-dreaming a gender-distributed science) with Gemma Smithson


Hello dear Subscribers and other curious visitors,

Over the past week we’ve hosted three new volunteers at the School of Applied Neopeasantry, who have been learning-helping with the harvesting and storing of this warm season’s abundance. We’ve been harvesting and preserving summer crops and also prepping soils to plant winter crops while there’s still heat in the giving earth, here in Djaara Mother Country.

While we’ve been working hard – doing-saying, lifemaking, neopeasanting, demonstrating the possibilities of living a low-impact ecological-economy – Tully, Anisa, Gemma, and we mob have also engaged in many conversations.

On Gemma’s last day, she asked whether she could record Patrick for a university assignment. Gemma is studying environmental science and has, true to her openness and curiosity, organised two radically different placements for her summer work experience – with Artist as Family and with Parks Victoria. Go Gemma!

We have edited this little interview, recorded on Gemma’s phone in the garden at Tree Elbow, into a twelve minute excerpt, and we’re sharing it as a way of giving an insight into some of the subjects/conversations we have with volunteer-students at the school, this time occurring at the end of a neopeasant lunch, just before we all headed off for siesta.

We hope you enjoy this little moment (12min listen) with Gemma, pictured here with Meg and Patrick.

As always, your input, questions and comments are valuable to our readers and to us, so please feel free to offer up what’s living in you after listening in. Also, we have a place available next month if you’re interested in volunteering and learning with us. Head here for more details and please get in touch if you’re keen to join us.

The Forest Floor

Patrick is in Sydney and visited the Food Forest with family friend Josh Bowes, who generously helped with the initial planting back in July. They found fungi, edible weeds, an abundance of leaf vegetables, thriving fruit and nut trees, and evidence of dynamic social engagement.

A mushroom (perhaps don’t eat) and some onion weeds (use as chives in a salad) spontaneously inhabit the forest floor, while rhubarb has been harvested to be used as an organic spray.
All these things show that humans and nonhumans are participating in this garden autonomously, and as a result this little food forest system (based upon permaculture principals) really appears to be working. Residents are bringing in their compost, harvesting plants and herbs to eat, while some are using plants to make organic sprays to allay pests. The woody mulch has, with spring warmth and rain, created humidity in the soil that fungi adores. Fungi in a forest floor is a great sign of soil health and, as gardeners will know, if the soil is healthy plants are less prone to pests. Growing plants in a polyculture using companion planting methods also assists the garden’s health and allays pests and disease.

That Ancient Ceremony

Gardening is not a rational act. What matters is the immersion of the hands in the earth, that ancient ceremony of which the Pope kissing the tarmac is merely a pallid vestigial remnant.
– Margaret Atwood

Today we lived our homage to Ms Atwood. We lived it in the rain. With two pairs of socks beneath our gum boots. We lived it in the rain as we intimately weeded the Food Forest floor, alongside magpies foraging for worms.

We lived it in the rain with our garden forks as we removed rocks and broken bricks and small tiles. And then we lived it with our shovels in hand as we mixed into the earth topsoil, compost and dynamic lifter, readying it for the trees that arrive tomorrow.

Tools Up

We got up early today. The bobcat was due at 7am and we wanted to edge the Forest before it arrived.

Our OH&S officer was standing by.

And then it arrived!

And got to work right away.

So we found other things to inspect.

Such as our first shipment of trees to arrive. Want to know what they are? Come back next week and we’ll show you, when we make them feel at home in the soil.

But we can show you what arrived next: 4 cubic meters of steaming fresh compost mulch and 10 cubic meters of top soil. Now that was a satisfying dump..

Before adding these arrivals to the mix, we still need to weed and remove all the debris we find, such as the buried treasure we uncovered this afternoon.

But by far, the best arrivals of the day, are the passers by who stop to ask what we’re doing, and the friends who drop by to say g’day.
And the most satisfying aspect of the day? Seeing the shape of things to come.

Our Proposal (excerpted)

The whole idea of detention in a closed space as a form of human punitive corrective action seems to have come in very much in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries – at the time perspective and pictorial space was developing in our Western world. Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, 1967

Waste and Time – an Artist-as-Family adventure
Newcastle Lock-up Artist-in-Residence Sept-Oct 2009.

The Artist-as-family includes Meg Ulman, Patrick Jones and Zephyr Ogden Jones. We propose a multi-tiered residency that includes gleaned waste collection, filmmaking, blogging and an exhibition about what we find while in Newcastle.

Things that may help you understand our working holiday.

3 types of waste.

1. Compostable waste – is not really waste at all as it is returned to the earth to feed new life as part of a closed-cycle system.

2. Non-compostable waste – is material that breaks down slowly, does not feed the natural world, and harms the environment as part of a broken-cycle system – aggregate-growth capitalism.

3. Social waste – wage slavery, anti-ecological schooling, punitive punishment.
3 types of time.
1. Cyclical and airy time – traditional cultures are very good at this type of time. Time decompression, as contiguous with biomimicry and permacultural practices, will be a main focus of our residency.
2. Linear time – birth, school, work, death as specific to industrialised culture. Time compression enabling wage-slavery and other forms of social bondage. Linear time is anti-ecological, it helps create a disposable and wasteful society.
3. Doing time – serving a prison sentence and being trapped in the cycle of offending. Much has been written over time of the interrelationship between privatising things and prisons. Prisons, it could be said, are a middle-class phenomenon, and part-and-parcel of class war.
The exhibition.

Patrick will build an installation with the waste that the AaF find in the streets. The exhibition’s theme will be based upon these lines: a reliance upon the importation of resources is our society’s zeitgeist. A centre large enough to rely upon importing resources will never be sustainable. Therefore the food has to be walking distance, and composting is the key to this future society.

Social warming.
Meg will build an offline-online community around the residency based upon chance encounters and by strengthening relationships already formed. She will keep this blog updated to record the AaF’s encounters as we glean materials and meet people in Newcastle. These entries will be based on chance encounters and shared stories. Through this social warming aspect of the work we hope to meet people who will offer their time here and there to collect materials with us, expanding the shared labour of this AaF activity.


As seven year-old Zephyr’s attention will come in and out of focus and be mainly concerned with play opportunities. While in Newcastle, we aim to structure the day with a good balance of work and play. We three will start the day with a two-hour drift, scouring for material, talking to people, exercising and generally being a part of the social space of the city. Then the rest of the day will be broken up with one parent concentrating on the requirements of the residency, while one parent concentrating on the requirements of Zephyr.

Zephyr is an outgoing child. He may like to speak to primary school kids who come to the Lock-Up about his experiences. Meg and Patrick will also speak to visitors to The Lock-Up, TINA festival goers and other interested parties about the work we are doing as a family in Newcastle.

The Lock-Up.

Interrelations with Lock-Up staff will be essential for the success of the residency. Whereas we will aim to carry out the majority of the work to ensure a successful residency and exhibition, we will need assistance and local knowledge to make sure the wider community access and enjoy the work and skills we bring to Newcastle. And while in Newcastle ensuring we also glean skills, ideas and social warming from staff and fellow Novocastrians.