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It’s the COMpost!: Welcome to the Black Morel

November 11th, 2013 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

During a recent celebration at the Environmental Learning Center, I noticed Saul, our Executive Director, gesturing toward the compost building from the back deck of the dining hall. Made of grey cement blocks and housing two Green Mountain Technologies Earth Tubs, a dumpster, and several recycling bins, this building is where dining hall leftovers are transformed in to nutrient-dense fertilizer as part of the North Cascades Institute’s Foodshed program. The structure is hardly architecturally or intellectually noteworthy. And it stinks. So what were the dozen or so revelers talking about, captivated by the most infamously fragrant building on campus as opposed to, say, staring west through the trees at a twilit Diablo Lake as the sun descended into the folds of the glorious Skagit Valley?

Saul explained he would like for people to start calling the structure by its rightful, well-earned moniker. “It’s named ‘The Black Morel’,” he said, with all the authority an executive director can possess when referring to his facility’s odiferous refuse.

Perhaps you, dear reader, have noticed that every building on campus has a name, all which reflect the native vegetation, save for our one fungal representative – the Black Morel. The waste management building represents an entire other biologic kingdom, one that is neither plant nor animal, deriving it’s food and energy from dead things and helping them turn back in to soil. This naming of the buildings was completely intentional. Saul said that initially, while building the campus in 2004, they were referred to by a quick and boring “Building A, B, C, etc.” But why not integrate the built environment into the living one as much as possible, and use them as teaching tools as well? Towards that end, for example, there’s Sundew, our Aquatics Lab, named after a bog-loving carnivorous plant that looks like a monster’s toothy mouth. Or consider the Wild Ginger, our cozy library, named for a plant with heart-shaped leaves that lie close to the ground, with inconspicuous, triangular maroon flowers hiding underneath, much like books, full of love and secret worlds.

The namesake fungi: the Black Morel (Morchella elata). Photo by Lee Whitford.


signWhere the loop gets closed. Photo by author.

I vaguely recalled noticing the carved wooden sign announcing the building’s given name. I still referred to it, though, as most of the staff did, as “the compost.” That was how it announced itself, olfactorily, whenever one ventured near that edge of campus.

But Saul was right. Though the office (a.k.a “Twinflower”) is where all of our programs get organized, and our trails are where about 2,500 Mountain School students every year get connected to this North Cascades ecosystem, the Black Morel may be the most important place at the Environmental Learning Center. It’s where the loop is closed, where the cycle of matter and nutrients works perfectly, rather than getting ignored and abused in the typical “trash” to landfill scenario. According to our chef, Shelby Slater, all of our food waste is composted, and 75 percent of the total waste from the kitchen ends up here (of the other quarter, 15 percent gets recycled, and only ten percent is destined for slow death in the landfill).

There’s the “foodshed” cycle, too: Blue Heron Farm in Rockport and Acme’s Osprey Hill Farm provide much of the food that gets prepared and served at our dining hall. The carrot tops and leftover scraps go to the Black Morel, where they are transformed into fertilizer to give back to local farms, the Angele Cupples Community Garden in Concrete, and private down-valley gardens.

blue heron anne (brondi)Anne Schwartz, of Blue Heron Farm, showing off a leafy and lovely bok choy in front of a field of organically-grown corn. Blue Heron provides much of the food served during programs at the Environmental Learning Center. Photo by Michael Brondi.

» Continue reading It’s the COMpost!: Welcome to the Black Morel

Fall Vignettes from the Institute

October 23rd, 2011 | Posted by in Institute News

People experience the seasonal transformations of the natural world in a myriad of ways. Each of us may recognize subtleties taking hold of a landscape in times of change that others will miss completely because they have learned to pay attention to different details. Amidst downpours of rain in the lowlands and dustings of snow in the mountains, it can be easy to settle in to quieter and more thoughtful routines. It can be easy to put our noses in books and our feet in slippers, forgetful that these changes bring new forms of burgeoning and often unnoticed life back into the world.

For some, these changes affect most the olfactory realm, delighting that sense with smells of duff and rich, turning soils. For others, it is the sight of a golden larch contrasted against crystalline snow and mountain peaks, and still others notice most the mosses of the forest floor amplified to new shades of green by the quickening rains. Perhaps for some it is the elongated light and the shadows that persist which give new meaning to the color and character of the trees. Or some may simply feel it as an urgent knowing from deep within, a connection to the undercurrents of a timeless, cyclical change.

By combining our individual morsels of detail and thought about the essential elements of fall, we are able to paint a richer understanding of this place in which we live. We are able collectively to tell a story that captures the beauty of the changing seasons in the North Cascades ecosystem. In the process, we learn to draw on other’s knowledge in order to widen our own, ultimately coming to appreciate a more communal understanding of place. Below, staff and graduate students share their own unique vignettes of fall, offering perspectives of this region that span many seasons to just a few months.

Tigerlily pods ready to sow their seeds on the fecund soils of the Methow Valley. Photo by Jess Newley.

» Continue reading Fall Vignettes from the Institute