Sarah R. Filley
7 min readDec 7, 2022

The Soil Keepers: A Community Making a Difference

Can you fight climate change in your backyard? Yes, and it starts with the ground beneath your feet.

The ambitious goal to transform my wooded acre plot into a regenerative paradise called Prosperity Forest started in 2020. The combination of the lockdown combined with a midwest winter, which felt even colder and darker after living in Los Angeles for the last four years, was a new level of isolation, I felt as inert and frozen as the bare trees around me, and thought where does one start? The first permaculture principle offered a framework forward: Observe and interact. With Spring I focused on meeting my new neighbors, joining climate action groups, and sharing in the care of my neighbor’s chickens. A friend introduced me to Nance Klehm, the Founder of Social Ecologies, someone who has grounded her life in the practice of digging in the dirt demonstrating her lifelong commitment to redefining the way human populations coexist with plant and animal systems on this planet. I reached out and drove to Chicago to camp on her land for a couple days to learn what regenerative systems on 50 acres looks like. It was a tender and moving experience that grew into a friendship, I invited her to be an advisor, she hired me for growth and strategy. There have been many more people whose work and friendship have influenced me deeply. Two years navigating through a tectonic shift had transformed my relationship with this place, expanding my role as a steward of the land beyond the boundaries of my neighborhood to a larger regional ecosystem including the White River watershed and Lake Michigan. The real work of climate action began with this slow internal shift, unseen, beneath the radar, in the dark.

“All that unseen within its trunk and beneath the soil, that the measure of its life emerges. Should we remain still long enough, the beginning of our true movement will come from within.” — Nance Klehm

Permaculture and regenerative approaches are tactics of engineering ecological systems. For me, this seemingly straightforward statement has been a dizzying exploration of fractal-like reflections of mirroring systems. The health of soil, plants, myself, my neighborhood, 20% of earth’s fresh water, the health of the planet — all revealed themselves to be inter-dependent systems. In the two decades as a creative placemaker contributing to economic development and planning efforts in cities, I admit I didn’t think much about soil. Now, on the shores of Lake Michigan, I understand that I am only as healthy and resilient as the soil beneath my feet and the ground I stand on. If I take care of it, it will take care of me, and the community I call home. I now find myself joining a growing movement of people who are dedicated to restoring the health of the soil and the ecosystems it supports. We can learn so much about ourselves and communities through the legacies of soil.

Illustration by Gwyneth Zeleny Anderson for The Soil Keepers Book

“What if we endeavor to build a network of soil advocates who are equipped with the knowledge and skills to create social ecologies that are resilient to the challenges of the 21st century?” — Nance Klehm

It might look like a combination of community engagement, advocacy, and soil science. It might look exactly like The Soil Keepers Community Training Program developed by Social Ecologies. Based in Chicago, they offer services, training, and certification courses to help individuals, organizations, and communities with soil restoration, remediation, and community-focused regenerative soil and water systems around the world.

This 12-week certification program is designed to train soil advocates at any scale whether it be to amend soil in their yard, neighborhood, or community-led remediation project. Starting with an introduction the participants learn the physical, biological, and chemical aspects of soil while discussing the role of microorganisms, macroinvertebrates, fungi, mycorrhizae, and composting. The course culminates in a bioremediation and design capstone project.

Community Spotlight

A recent partnership shows just how successful this program can be. St. Sabina Stein Learning Garden delivers high quality garden education and community programs that creates positive learning experiences, encourages healthy lifestyle choices, and increases community members’ access to fresh and affordable healthy produce. With a clear vision for the future, St. Sabina Stein Learning Garden is partnering with Social Ecologies to host two intro classes taught by Nance Klehm which leads educators, community leaders, and teachers to develop a deeper sense of place through the lens of soil.

The questions the students tackle go beyond the definition of soil or its ingredients, and touch on the industrial and extractive methods that are represented by soil available in stores. One of the goals of the Auburn Gresham program is food sovereignty, meaning the residents and community members no longer experience food insecurity. The Soil Keepers Program guides participants through the process to understand how to remediate the soil by restoring its functions. Healthy growing starts with healthy soil.

Bring The Soil Keepers to your community

There are a number of ways in which we can help make a difference with climate solutions in our communities. Individuals can start in their backyards by understanding the soil around their homes and signing up for a local (Chicago) The Soil Keepers course as they are offered. Social Ecologies partners with organizations in communities around the country enabling groups or coalitions to commit to being soil keepers by restoring a community garden, and rippling further outward, a more formal cohort can form around a local brownfield remediation site, which is a process of cleaning up and redeveloping vacant or underutilized properties that have been contaminated by hazardous materials. The Soil Keepers Science Certification Program can have a number of benefits including improving the quality of the soil, like providing educational, outreach and engagement opportunities, cultivating green space, and restoring the local habitat. If you are an institution or organization, consider bringing The Soil Keepers to your community.

Buy the Book

We are part of the ecosystems we inhabit and ignoring or pretending to not understand this is costing us our health, food systems, and ultimately our planet. One way to start taking action is to read The Soil Keepers: Interviews With Practitioners on the Ground Beneath Our Feet. Named one of the “21 New and Noteworthy Food and Farming Books to Read this Summer” by CivilEats it includes original black and white illustrations by Gwyneth Zeleny Anderson.

Consider The Soil Keepers a primer to understanding the compelling complexities of soil full of nuanced and poetic explanations and perspectives from artists to scientists: “In this collection of essays, insights, and interviews with the global community’s leading academics and guerilla gardeners, the condition of our soils is laid bare for all to see.” (Klehm, Nance. “Earth Sprites”Forward by Ben Nicholson. The Soil Keepers, Terra Fluxus Publishing, 2019, p. 3.)

“When we stand on land, we stand on the ones who have come before. We stand on our ancestors. We realize we have inherited their legacy, the way they perceived land, the way they lived with the ground, the way their hands worked the soil, or didn’t.” — Nance Klehm

Early praise for The Soil Keepers from Timothy Morton, a Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University and author of Being Ecological (Penguin, 2018): “Nance Klehm has written a beautiful, moving, and profound series of meditations, practical advice, interviews, poetry . . . all part o f her brilliantly intelligent invitation to care for the earth in the most basic and complex of ways. Read this book — it will change your life.”

Now available as an ebook for purchase so you can immerse yourself in the urgent science and poetry of soil.

Interested in hosting The Soil Keepers Certification Program as an org? Book a call with Social Ecologies to discuss your remediation project, and find out more about Compost and Biochar workshops and training based on The Soil Keepers for community-led initiatives and engagement.

Dig deeper

Listen: Apple podcast Spontaneous Vegetation & Radio show on Chicago’s WLPN

Read: Writings and other media here

For more info email Nance Klehm directly

Follow Social Ecologies on Linkedin and Instagram

Follow Sarah R Filley on LinkedIn and Prosperity Forest on Instagram.

Sarah R. Filley

Regenerative Futurist catalyzing inclusive, equitable, & strategic climate solutions for the future of regenerative cities. https://www.sarahrfilley