Mountain Girl Gone Urban! My Interview with Environmentalist Heather Haynes

The Speedboat Gallery

I met Heather Haynes just a few years ago when she started dating my friend Dan Kalal, and as I get to know her I experience an ongoing sense of déjà vu. This occurred most recently when I discovered she ran the Speedboat Gallery for several years in the 90’s, which I remember most vividly as the place to go to see Walt Mink play.  Walt Mink was such an awesomely dynamic live band; even the kid from Howler might approve.

I performed at the Speedboat once, in my first band Zipperpuss; fronted by Stephanie Winter.  That’s me drumming in the crazy striped pants.

Zipperpuss at the Speedboat Gallery: Brian Tighe, moi, Stephanie Winter, and Chris Adams

Food and the Environment

More déjà vu with Heather comes from similarities in our eating habits and household conservation practices.  Developing environmental awareness and integrating it into one’s lifestyle is an ongoing process, and this woman is advanced.  Anything I do–Heather does more.  And with the lightest touch.  She is non dogmatic.   She is upbeat and caring.  Heather’s lifestyle seems a natural extension of her interior landscape.  And after spending an afternoon in her garden I’m convinced that what the world needs now is raspberry bushes, sweet raspberry bushes.

Q & A With Heather Haynes!

Here’s Heather

WP: You work for an environmental group?

HH: I work for Friends of the Mississippi River, an organization that works to protect and conserve the Mississippi in the Twin Cities region.

WP: Was working at Friends of the Mississippi River the impetus for you starting down a path to a smaller ecological footprint?

HH: Not really.  As a child growing up in the mountains of Colorado, I developed a deep love for the natural world around me. We didn’t live solely off the land, but sometimes it felt a little bit like that. I was a pretty solitary child, and I loved simply roaming around in the mountains with my dogs. It was a fun way to grow up, and gave me a strong connection to nature and the world around me.

We raised goats for milk, cheese, yogurt and meat, and had chickens for eggs, and I helped my mom with a big garden every year.  We also heated solely via wood stoves, with wood we cut from our property.

We didn’t have much money, so we’d ride our bikes along the roads and in the local state park to pick up cans and bottles to recycle.  The whole “Give a Hoot! Don’t Pollute!” and “Reduce! Reuse! Recycle” movement resonated really strongly with me, and it’s definitely carried into adulthood.

Things like walking or biking, plotting out your driving route to make it as energy-efficient as possible, buying locally produced products, turning off lights when you aren’t in a room, not wasting ANYTHING…all that comes from my parents and the way I grew up.  Using a push mower, shears and a rake rather than a gas mower, electric hedge trimmer and leaf blower come from that lifestyle too – I like doing things quietly and not disturbing what’s around me.  Saving energy and a healthy dose of exercise are an added bonus.

WP: Mowers and blowers are like little smoke stacks; shockingly polluting for their size.  Running a mower for an hour can create as much pollution as driving a car for 650 miles.  In 2011 some new regulations came into effect to improve this, but I love the idea of using a push mower simply to preserve the quiet.   

WP: I understand you have dramatically reduced the amount of garbage and recycling you create in your household.

HH: As a legacy from how I grew up, I’ve always tried to create as little trash as possible.  I recycle or reuse as much as I can, and I’ve composted since I moved into this house 17 years ago.  I was a really busy working mom, though, and needed convenience.  I used to think that if I had more recycling than garbage, I was doing well, so it wasn’t until more recently that I realized how little that meant.

WP: Recycling beats sending stuff to a landfill, but the collection and recycling process is still energy intensive.  It is so much more effective to avoid the package in the first place.  How do you do it?

HH: It has been a gradual process, with a few dramatic moments along the way. Shopping in part based on packaging was one thing we did right from the start.  Things like cloth napkins and dish towels instead of paper napkins and paper towels was a gradual shift (and we still use both on occasion). My daughter became vegetarian when she was 8 or 9 (she’s 20 now), and I basically joined her in that.  Not eating meat reduces waste a lot more than I realized.

One thing that I found easier than I anticipated was switching to a Diva Cup and washable pads instead of tampons and disposable pads.  I got into the routine really easily, and there is no longer any waste.

When the City of St. Paul ramped up their recycling program, that was great.  And we found places to recycle different things that the city recycling won’t currently take: hard plastic bottle caps at Aveda Salons, wine corks and certain plastics and plastic bags can be taken to Whole Foods or the co-ops (and we bought reusable bags for produce so we don’t use as many plastic bags).  When you need to know how to get rid of something, the city of St. Paul has a good website including info on composting, yard and hazardous waste.  The city of Minneapolis also has a website with lots of helpful info.

Eureka Recycling has a ton of info about reducing, reusing, composting, recycling, zero waste, you name it, on their web site, too.

HH: When my daughter Elena moved out and it was just Dan and I, the process sped up quite a bit.  Dan lives very simply, and in part because of that–and in part because I really just needed to–I made a conscious decision that I wanted to live more simply, too, with less baggage and ‘stuff’.  So at first we had a lot MORE trash and recycling as I began sorting through closets and a basement and a garage and cabinets full of 15 years of accumulation.  It was crazy! I shredded and recycled old bills, recycled everything else that I could, had a huge yard sale and donated what was left, and threw away what I couldn’t otherwise dispose of.  Scrappers took some of what I thought was trash – I loved that.

WP: Scrappers–AKA dumpster divers? 

HH: Yes, people who cruise alleys and take things from the trash.

When it was all over, I felt so much lighter!  Physically, emotionally, metaphysically… it was fairly startling.  And then it was just Dan and I, and we were suddenly generating a lot less trash. Maybe a small to medium bag a week.

When we started getting into eating a lot of raw food, it took another downswing.  We suddenly had almost no food packaging.  If we buy produce or bulk items in plastic bags, we either use those for cat litter or recycle them again at the co-op.  A friend at work found a place to recycle things like plastic strawberry containers, too, though that has since been discontinued.  Do you remember when you could buy strawberries, and a lot of other things, bulk?  Pick through them for the ones you liked best?  Even at the co-op, that doesn’t happen any more.  I miss those days.

WP: Me too!  I rarely buy berries because of the packaging.  At farmers markets they will dump berries into containers I bring, and then they re-use their paper trays.  Also I noticed one brand of frozen berries that has a compostable package.  But even that bugs me because I love to buy package free.

HH: Food packaging, I think, is a huge percentage of the garbage in this country.

WP: For sure. 

WP: Perhaps you are motivated in part by a sense of responsibility? Taking responsibility for the garbage we create can feel like a burden.  Were there any perks/unexpected side benefits from changing your habits?

HH: Definitely motivated by a sense of responsibility!  But so much of it happened without our really planning it that it didn’t feel like a burden – kind of the opposite. We suddenly realized that we were paying $22 a month for weekly garbage pick-up and had maybe one bag a month that needed to be picked up.  We already had the smallest bin you could have, so I called my trash service and asked if we could reduce to one garbage pick-up a month.  They didn’t go for it, so I asked a couple neighbors if we could add ours to theirs and pay them a little bit each month, but that didn’t work either.  Then a friend at work–I work with amazing, resourceful people–told me about Twin Cities Refuse and Recycling.

You simply drive in, throw your 30 gallon garbage bag into a dumpster, pay $3.50, and drive out.  And it’s five minutes from my house.  We use compostable bags.

I promptly cancelled our trash service, and instead of the $110 we would have spent on the service since February, we have taken two bags to the dump for a total of $7.00! Two bags of trash in five months isn’t bad, especially considering that we even had a few small parties during that time.  We’re going to try to get it down to even less if we can!

WP: You’ve done a lot of work on your yard in the past couple summers, and it is such an inviting space. A patch of grass for lying in, a patio for watching hummingbirds, burgeoning rose bushes, and lots of berry bushes and vegetable beds. How many beds do you have and what are you growing?

HH: This is going to sound like we have a huge lot, but we don’t – we have a pretty standard city lot.  In this space, edible landscaping-wise, we currently have eight vegetable beds (four on the south side and four in the back yard), a small area where I’m trying to grow quinoa, an herb patch, and a lot of fruit (rhubarb, strawberries, and raspberry, blueberry and serviceberry bushes).  We’re also planning to plant an apple tree.

Last fall, I planted one bed entirely in garlic, so I have scapes now and will have tons of fresh garlic soon.  Asian greens that I planted last year reseeded themselves and came back up in another bed, so I’ve let them go and have been using them in smoothies and salads.  I planted a third bed with spinach and radishes, and as I harvested those, tomatillos started coming up from a plant I had there last year (this is despite turning over the soil and adding new compost), so I’m letting those go, too.  I love tomatillos.  The fourth side bed is spinach and lettuce.

I grew tomatoes, eggplant and peppers/chiles from seed this year, so those are filling one bed in the back yard.  Another is a Three Sisters Garden of sorts:  corn, beans, and squash, with sunchokes and sunflowers for good measure.  A third is melon, nasturtiums, snow peas, cucumber, cabbage and beets.  The fourth is kale, chard, and arugula.

Because my yard really is pretty small (four beds are 10 x 3 feet, three are 8 x 4, one is 4 x 4, and the herb patch is roughly 2 1/2 x 10), I tend to lean toward an adaptation of French Intensive style gardening, and cram a lot of things into small spaces.  Usually, it works fairly well.

WP: How much work/expense has this been and do you have any advice for starting small with a backyard garden?

HH: I used to have two Huskies, and I worked a lot.  With two active, frequently bored dogs at home, things were pretty trashed and we basically used to have what looked like an abandoned lot for a back yard.  But when my last Husky died (at 16 years old) in 2010, I looked at my back yard and saw potential.  There was already the huge rose bush and a couple dogwoods that the dogs had never managed to kill.  That winter I plotted out some ideas, because I was really interested in making my yard as edible a landscape as possible.  I also wanted a sort of refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city.

I was helped in the spring because the one raspberry bush I’d planted years ago, that had turned into hundreds on my neighbor’s side of the fence because my dogs kept eating whatever came upon my side, threw some runners back under the fence and bushes started coming up on my side again.  So I had the start of a raspberry patch. And for years I had had the four raised beds and a compost bin on the south side of the house, outside the fenced area where the dogs had been.

Heather estimates they pick $100 worth of raspberries every week

So I had something to start with.  For which I’m incredibly grateful, because that first year of gardening in my back yard was a nightmare!  Squirrels, earwigs, cats, who knows what other pests….  Dan and I scraped up the top layer of weeds and poor dirt to put four beds in back, and while I did mange to get a small harvest from them it wasn’t easy.  I don’t know if the soil was really bad from dogs living there so many years, if the ‘bed builder’ I’d been persuaded to buy at the local garden store was bad, if the squirrels were getting their revenge after years of dog predation, or what.  Dan contributed a ton of labor and support, stepped in whenever I took on too much at once, and let me cry on his shoulder a few times, but it was a rough summer.  One effective trick I learned was that earwigs will willingly jump into and drown in a mix of cooking oil and soy sauce – I save cat food cans now to set in the garden as earwig traps.  I also put beer in some to lure slugs away from my strawberries.

In the fall, I bought sod to lay the patch of grass, and transplanted strawberries, mint, oregano, thyme and some natives from my front yard.  I also planted three blueberry bushes, rhubarb, a few bulbs, and some prairie seeds.  I planted everything with lots of hope, and I saw my first hummingbird ever in St. Paul that fall, too, on the one stalk of corn that had survived the squirrels.  I took that as a good sign.

The grass came back lush and lovely, and everything I transplanted or planted survived.  It has been amazing.  Dan and I decided to invest in Gardeners’ Supply Company Aqua-Corners and soaker hoses and bought cedar boards at Menard’s to turn the back beds into raised beds.  We bought shredded hardwood mulch for all the paths to keep the weeds down, and a great 50/50 blend of black dirt and composted manure (from cows not treated with antibiotics or hormones!) from Kern’s Landscaping in St. Paul.  So this year the investment has been significant – we are thinking long-term.  You could definitely go with cheaper lumber and brackets if you are on a tighter budget.

My problem, if you want to call it that, is that I dream big, and sometimes take on more than I can realistically accomplish in the time I have for it.  Dan is kind of my superhero in this realm, and has saved the day more times than I can count.  But I’m learning to take things in smaller bites – gardening can be time consuming, and it is never done.  There will always be weeds to weed, pest issues to address, watering to do….  Unless you have a lot of time, I highly recommend starting small and building your operation gradually.  There are always the farmers’ markets and CSAs to fill in until you’re producing more of your own food.

WP:  How do you keep the food you grow from going to waste? Is it a lot of work to manage all that food production, or is it just a lot of fun and deliciousness?

HH: Because last year was such a bad year, I’d love to have the problem of too much produce this year!  Dan and I eat A LOT of vegetables, and I have a mostly vegetarian daughter in college on a tight budget who loves a steady supply of whatever we can’t eat, so we don’t really have any waste.  Once the plants start producing, it really IS mostly fun and deliciousness!  Dan and I love to walk the gardens and eat raspberries and cherry tomatoes right from the plants.  I have also invited my neighbors to visit the raspberry bushes along the alley, which they love.

WP: You are an adventurous chef and like to experiment with raw food, to delicious effect! You are also a practical cook–you use vegetarian cooking as a way to feed a lot of people cheaply. Do you have a certain philosophy toward cooking, eating and how food functions in our lives? Any discoveries or favorite recipes you want to share?

HH: I have really enjoyed the process of incorporating more sprouted and fermented/cultured foods into our diet.  The little jars of sprouting seeds in the dish strainer, and the jars of cabbage and other great stuff fermenting on top of the fridge, bring me a lot of pleasure.  Combined with the gardening, it makes me feel more self-sufficient.

fermenting cabbage

A couple favorite recipes!  Sprouted quinoa with fermented cabbage on a bed of greens is pretty tasty.  Pretty soon I can make this sourced right from my garden, which will be awesome.  I usually add a little dulse, hemp oil, raw apple cider vinegar, and maybe some raw pumpkin seeds.

Soaked and drained seaweed combined with grated carrot and radish, raw sesame seeds, a little sesame oil, cayenne pepper and lime juice is delicious.

For parties, I make a dip for veggies with raw cashew butter or tahini mixed with black pepper, fresh lemon juice, Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, fresh garlic or garlic scapes, and fresh dill (and some water to get it to ‘dip consistency’).  People love it!  Apple slices with a dip of raw cashew butter or tahini, raw honey and curry powder are a big hit, too.

Part of the fun is the exploration – coming up with crazy combinations of things that taste delicious.  I love having raw food out at parties and not telling people that everything they are eating is raw.  I think they enjoy it more not knowing!

As for my philosophy about food, I love everything about it – growing it, harvesting it, shopping for it at the farmer’s market or the co-op or a nice cheese shop, cooking or preparing it, pairing it with appropriate beverages, and eating it.  It is something we need to survive, but it should also be pleasing and beautiful and good for us physically, emotionally and maybe even spiritually.  That sounds grandiose, but when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.

At first I didn’t think I could do the grow-your-own-food/raw food lifestyle – that it was too much of a time commitment. But I’m finding with all of this that if you take pleasure in what you are doing, time sort of expands and you fit in what you want and need to fit in.  I’m very intrigued by the Slow Movement of which Slow Food is a part, because once I started slowing down my relationship with food, it started happening for me in other realms of my life, too.  This probably sounds like I’m making it up, but in my recent experience it’s been true.

Thanks for the interview Heather!  And thanks for reading the Wednesday Post.


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