Written by Cheri-Lynn McCabe and Sandra Bartram.
I arrived early for my interview with Vivian Kaloxilos, and as I waited at a small student-run co-op café called “The Hive” at Concordia University in Montreal, I reflected on the first time I heard her perform at the Northeastern Permaculture Convergence almost two and half years before. As I closed my eyes, I could still see her in the twilight performing her song, “Radical” and laying bare her soul upon the grassy stage. I heard her perform this song again a year later at the Quebec Permaculture Convergence, and her performance was as powerful and moving as it was the first time. Her music is one of her creative outlets. Her passion makes a powerful statement as she appeals to the audience’s sense of reason and justice, encouraging, supporting and further arousing a commitment to change. She says she doesn’t write love songs. Instead, she writes thought-provoking pieces, symbolic and poetic music that is a reflection of the greater social and environmental consciousness sweeping the globe today. She is following her excitement towards a more sustainable and equitable future.
But her talents don’t stop there. Vivian’s very life is an example of permaculture design. Her roles range from musician, photographer, environmentalist and permaculturalist to her future aspirations as a Soil Food Web Consultant. Throughout the interview, she did not hesitate to mention and to give credit to the important work going on all around her, including The Valhalla Movement, Valhalla Montreal, Compost Montreal, P3 Permaculture, Mycéluim Montreal, Jardins sans frontières, Transition NDG and the Soil Food Web. Mycéluim is a French non-profit organization in Montreal with a goal of bringing humanity closer to nature. They host many diverse workshops and are responsible for the organization of the permaculture convergences in Quebec. Valhalla Movement is a tribe of storytellers who use a variety of media to spread the messages of sustainable self-reliant living. In the spirit of living their vision, they have created Valhalla Montreal, a 65-acre demonstration site 20 minutes from downtown Montreal. Vivian is involved in a wide range of projects, her diverse set of interests and beliefs all interconnecting with a network of friends, role models and a support system including her wonderful family. Her enthusiasm and hope for the future are contagious for anyone who is fortunate enough to spend any amount of time with this creative and dynamic woman.
Q: What does permaculture mean to you?
A: For me, permaculture represents more than a way of farming and designing your homestead. It represents more of a philosophy of how to live. When you look at a permaculture farm next to a monoculture farm, for me, you are looking at two different worldviews that have two completely different understandings of how things function on planet Earth. For me, permaculture signifies that paradigm difference and understanding of how the world works and how you relate to other things and people, plants and whatever is around you. Permaculture encourages diversity. It is how you interact with others. All this can be applied as a guidance of how to live, how to design your life, and a big part of that life is food. So, for me, that is why permaculture is more of a philosophy than a gardening tool, although it does make a very good gardening tool. So, permaculture design principles become a pair of glasses that you can wear, a tool that you can use to see the world in a much more beautiful way.
Q: What is the purpose of Valhalla? How did you get involved, and what is your role?
A: Valhalla is a tribe of storytellers out to proliferate freedom culture through high quality digital media. And what is freedom culture? It is a term that we coined. Freedom culture is a collective state of being that empowers all individuals to realize and to harness their unique gifts and to contribute them to the world. So, Valhalla Movement aims to document the community of change. It is the social media zone for this kind of scene. For ecological construction, for permaculture, for economic alternatives, for the gift economy, for conscious living and eating, thinking, breathing. Our role is to really be a megaphone to help share the experiences and stories of other people. We are no experts, we just are good with media. Our mission is to provide that service to the community. Very much like Compost Montreal. It is a social enterprising movement. There is no boss. It is a group of people that have a collective vision. They each have their own roles, and it is very much a permaculture system. We have multiple roles, and all the functions can be covered by more than one person. Valhalla Movement is separate from Valhalla Montreal. Valhalla Montreal is a piece of land in the South Shore, 20 minutes from downtown Montreal. We have around 65 acres of what used to be genetically modified farmland, and we have about 25 acres of wood that is zoned for residential… for me, as the soil person, it is perfect because I want to document it. I have a microscope, a digital camera, and I am going to video document the microbial changes in the soil life. I want to publish. I want to show that you can take dead land and make it extremely productive again. Right now, 42% of arable farmland on the planet is going toward, or has already been abandoned or desertified because it is no longer fertile and no longer useful for anything but bio-fuels and industry… NO! The fact is, we are healers of this planet, and we can’t abandon these lands, and we are a part of our Mother Earth, too. So, Valhalla Montreal is where we get to apply all these wonderful things that we are learning as we go. Our long-term goal is to be an eco-village… not to be isolated from the external community… we think we are bridging a gap between rural and urban worlds. The short-term goal is to make Valhalla an educational site. It is a place for prototypes as well… one of the first places to have a greenhouse of the future, which is an earthship-inspired solar passive greenhouse. Hopefully, (we can) build a community of people who want to build their own eco-house there on the land.
Q: Can you talk about the soil food web and your involvement with this exciting area of research?
A: Soil Food Web Incorporated was founded, in part, by Elaine (Ingham) and Carole Ann (Rollins).
What they do is provide soil remediation courses and workshops and teach about what a healthy soil food web looks like, how a healthy soil food web should perform. How a person can destroy a healthy soil food web and how one can help restore a healthy soil food web. They have labs around the world that provide soil analysis and remediation services and consultations.
Q: So, this is just one more step in the permaculture process, having a diverse ecosystem above ground and a diverse ecosystem in the soil?
A: Elaine often asks this question to her students: “Picture your favourite tree. Do you see the roots?” No. That is something we forget. In permaculture, and in the soil food web there is great diversity. (This) must also apply to this wonderful ecosystem below our feet. We need to have a diverse set of organisms and the appropriate set of organisms to support our plant life. Mother Nature has ecosystem succession in which you go from bare soil to conifer soil, and you have the weeds and grasses and low shrubs and then forest edge and then old growth conifer. In the bare soil you would see a bacterial dominance, and as you worked your way along the succession, you would get to the fungal stage at the conifer forest… it is the microbes that determine the pH, and it is the microbes that determine the presence of minerals, and it is the microbes that determine the correct ratio of calcium and all the other nutrients that help protect against pests and diseases… we cannot forget about the soil. Everything that we are designing above ground is just the tip of the iceberg. We have gained a very good understanding about what is happening in the soil.
Q: Can this be easily replicated (Elaine’s method)?
A: It can be easily replicated. Anyone can learn it. You just have to know how to make a good pile of compost, and it is not very difficult for a permaculturist to figure this out. This is the International Year of the Soil, and it is time we start knowing and understanding the soil. I can’t remember who said this, but as life gets more complex, the solutions become embarrassingly more simple. Just go look in your soil and find out what’s going on… Can you enhance the soil with the right biology? You bet. Can you make a desert into a tropical, lush paradise? You bet. Can you clean up oil spills? Yes. Can you fight blight? Yes. Can you fight weeds? Yes. Can you have a perfectly green lawn without Roundup? Yes, yes you can, but it all lies in the soil… Why do we have all the major bodies of the world freaking out because they are worried and wondering where we are going to grow the food to feed nine billion people in 2050 when we have desertified land, water issues and a food crisis? It is because what they are talking about is not soil. It is dirt. We need to bring the life back into the dirt and make it soil again by making correct compost and compost tea. Not just throwing in brown waste and green waste and turning it around. It is just a little more complicated than that. I really encourage anyone reading this article to take a year and learn. Get to know the Earth. It’s as easy as knowing how to make good compost and knowing what your plants require.
Q: We have soil testing labs right now all over the world. How does the soil food web approach differ from other soil labs?
A: The difference between the Soil Food Web Incorporated approach to soil remediation and the chemistry soil testing approach is that the soil food web is concerned with the biology in the soil. You will see a lot of soil testing that is just concerned with the minerals, pH, porosity and so on. And how much nitrates, potassium, phosphorous and sulphur you must add. It is just a lot of work and very expensive, and the soil food web approach is simply looking into the soil and determining what life is there, because it is the biology that makes the soil physics and soil chemistry make sense… it is actually the biology that determines all these things. So, the soil food web approach is to look at the biology and see what you have and then to correct the biological ratios based on the results.
Q: In our WASP document we state that “Permaculture principles will be at the foundation of change. All women have the potential to contribute to solutions for transitioning to a sustainable society. This will require a paradigm shift in which change is managed by design and celebrated. Can you give us your opinion as to some ways this shift might be brought to fruition?
A: There absolutely needs to be a paradigm shift. We are trying to get a world that is clean, where people are taken care of, where plants and animals are taken care of, where everyone is getting a fair share. Those are the three basic ethics in permaculture.
Q: How can women contribute to this?
A: I think all individuals have a unique perspective and can contribute. But, definitely, we live in a man’s world. We need balance, and permaculture is all about finding an equilibrium in systems and in a world where women are allowed… feel that they can express themselves and contribute freely. I think letting the feminine energy, not just female, I mean feminine back into the garden, back into the way we think about gardening, back into the way we think about designing relationships and back into our hearts. We have to recognize women because together we can all contribute to this paradigm shift.
Q: Who were your role models?
A: My mother was definitely a role model. She has always been a superstar looking out for our health. Later in her life she quit her job working in the magazine industry… took a whole life turn and went back to school, became a naturopath herbalist, reiki master, and that was just so inspiring. I look in her eyes and the glitter that I see, so inspiring to see and to have in my life. Doesn’t care what people think about that… she is most happy and living in her highest excitement. I just need to think of my mom and what she did, and I now see it manifesting in my life.
My other big inspiration is Dr. Elaine Ingham. She is president of Soil Food Web Incorporated. She is such a great teacher, and she has been such a great help to me. When I look in her eyes, and she is teaching, she is following her excitement. She is following her dream. Graham Calder… my first permaculture teacher. He was fantastic and humble and amazing, and he is still doing it. He opened my eyes to a lot of things. My biggest role model ever, he saved my mentality and introduced me to music. I would never have picked up a guitar if it wasn’t for Bob Marley. He spoke to me so much. His social critique of the world, the state of hypocrisy and the need for love and to stand up and don’t be afraid to have courage and to laugh and to take it easy, all of that. He is always with me inside my heart.
Q: Tell us about your support systems.
A: My father is a huge supporter. My dad fully supports everything I do. It is just great having a set of parents and a brother and a sister who really think you are awesome and let you know it. My other support systems are Valhalla and everyone there, very supportive of my work and everything in my life. My photography, my permaculture, my teaching, my studying (and) applying my business that I am starting. Both Compost Montreal and Valhalla are a group of people all working together to achieve common goals. Another support group I want to mention real quick is I live in a co-op with around fifteen people. (We are part of the) You know the edge effect in permaculture? The edge of ecosystems is where there is a lot of diversity and where there is a lot of connectivity, where there are a lot of interesting things going on. Always at the edges of societies, you know the fringes of societies is where the greatest, newest, most precious radical ideas come from. (It is) where new philosophies are coming from.
Q: We have noticed that you are a very driven and passionate person. You are a musician and a photographer; you have a whole bunch of diverse talents. Do you see yourself as a role model, and have you ever experienced other people seeing you as a role model?
A: The moment where I feel I have affected people the most in terms of maybe impacting their lives is definitely after I have played some songs. I have some creative mediums with which to put out energy. One of them which I hold sacred is music. For me, it is just my way of getting rid of negative energy. So I can do my soil science at Valhalla and at Compost Montreal. I need a way to keep myself composed. Exercise is really good too, especially walking and swimming, but music is my alchemy, and I think that maybe the words to some of my songs that I have written have really inspired some people.
Q: Sandra lives in British Columbia and was unaware of Quebec society’s matriarchal nature. She originally wanted to ask you if you have run into any roadblocks or have been hindered in any way because you are a woman. I explained to her that women in Quebec, generally, are not hindered by virtue of their gender, in fact, they are empowered by it. Can you comment?
A: I am living in Montreal right now, where the scene is very radicalized and there is a lot more edges… and more people on the edge… when I stand up and speak I still feel like people treat me differently because I am a woman but not in an oppressive way… it is still, like, look at this woman who is giving a talk at this conference, oh, she is pretty and I am going to be really nice to her… this summer I worked for an edible landscaping company and drove the pick-up truck and lugged the mulch bags around…there were as many girls as there were guys, but one thing I did notice is that the traditional companies using the pesticides and all the lawn care products were male-dominated. No women in that scene. Eco and alternative landscaping… tons of women involved, and the women are in the higher positions, and the men are doing the odd jobs. I had a man (from the traditional company) come up to me and try to shake my hand for doing a “man’s job”. Yeah, so I can’t compare to the rest of Canada. There are a lot of really empowered women here now that I think about it. I don’t know why. Maybe it is the culture difference here. Maybe women feel that they can speak up more. I have also had people not take me seriously for what I am doing because I am a pretty girl, but the majority of my experiences I have had people believe in me and who I am. I am sure I could get more of my way by using my looks because it is still a man’s world, and they will cater to a pretty girl, but I won’t do that because I think it makes me shiver.
Q: We noticed right away that you don’t buy into that (using your looks), that you are marching to your own drum and not buying into the fashion industry.
A: That is confidence because I love being me, I love who I am, I love that I don’t wear make-up. That is all that it is… love, value, and acceptance (of self) that just shine off.
Q: We see you as a role model. We see you and your work as inspiring. Thank you for a great interview and putting all your energy into it. We really appreciate it.