Living Green In a World of Color

Seen and Heard, Visual Histories of Homelessness in Sonoma County Debut Art Exhibit and Documentary June 19, 2015 and ongoing. 

I came to this project as a voluntSeen and Heard Invitationeer artist and facilitator. What unfolded has been a poignant journey of collective resilience and the healing power of art. Come join the celebration of the artists via a traveling art exhibit that extends for the next month at the central library 211 E. Street Santa Rosa. The exhibit will then move to the Sebastopol library and to each Sonoma county library in turn month by month. A documentary  of interviews of homeless and transitionally housed participants in Seen and Heard will be made available as well.

Conception of “Seen and Heard, Visual Histories of Homeless in Sonoma County”

As the brainchild of Rebecca Forth, Assistant to the Director for the Sonoma County Library,  the project was designed to create a safe, warm and dry place during the winter months for homeless and transitionally housed  people to  do art. Rebecca received a grant from the California State Library and IMLS for the project that also included a video documentary component and an art exhibit. Participants could “drop in” on Mondays from 1:30-5PM at the library and were provided the art supplies and encouragement within the context of Person-Centered Expressive Arts and primarily facilitated by Person-Centered Expressive Arts Therapist and Teacher, Shellee Davis. Richard Stilwell,  worked with those willing to be interviewed and filmed about their experiences of being homeless at the end of each art session. The library which is normally closed to the public on Mondays (since funding cuts) was available to the homeless and transitionally housed for the duration of the project. The project’s art component continued through May 18, 2015 though the initial timeline and grant funding was for December through February. The goal of the project was to create a video documentary of the homeless experience and have an exhibit of some of the art created during the weekly sessions. The purpose was  to help bring added awareness to civil leaders and the community about the personal experiences of the homeless  in Sonoma County. Bread for the Journey and Sonoma County Library Foundation also graciously supported this goal with a grant towards funding for the video and art presentation. .

Stealing, a Homeless Outcry

Normally I leave my shoes on the front porch and then slip them on to go in the garden or out for the day. Last October my shoes were gone. I was disoriented, thinking maybe I left them by another door. My search confirmed my shoes were nowhere to be found. I was creeped out. My skin was tingly with that “crawling” sensation as I realized a thief had been right outside my front door. I began thinking about who would take my shoes and slowly. I decided it must have been someone who needed them. Somehow, the thought of a homeless person with worn out or no shoes absconding with mine, took the discomfort of feeling violated down quite a few notches. Still, my two favorite pairs of shoes were gone; my well worn flip flops and Keens were on someone else’s feet. These were the same shoes I wore on my pilgrimage in Nepal and Bhutan, traipsing the mountains to sacred sites and circumambulating stupas into the night.  I can afford a new pair of shoes. I have the fortune of a place to call home and the ability to travel. So, a prayer to you fellow traveler, may you have freedom and may my “comfy old favorites” lead you home.

What began grabbing my attention more profoundly than a thief at the door was the increasing amount of homeless people walking down my street, coming up from the creek bed at the end of the block or walking in the neighborhood park and graveyard. Elderly neighbors began telling me of their fear and the recent “run ins” they had with homeless people. One woman talked of befriending a homeless man sleeping on the creek bank next to her home. “He was always respectful and greeted my dog lovingly every morning. Somehow it made me feel safe knowing he was outside my home. One day he was badly beaten up. I tried to help him.  After that day, I never saw him again . Now I hear homeless people arguing. They are drinking and loud. I am afraid. I am losing my eyesight. It is hard to protect myself. I wish I knew if the homeless man I liked was okay.”

I read on the Nextdoor platform about JC neighbors finding strangers sleeping on their porch or driveways and behind their houses in the alleys. It was easy to notice the sleepers, beside the creek(s) and on the cement under lamplight. Now I see the many more homeless who walk through the night with the bedrolls on their backs. The men and women and teens who believe they need to stay awake to keep safe. The ones who “keep walking” because there is no safe place to rest.

Frankly,  I find the escalation of homelessness in Sonoma County to be alarming. It’s shocking to learn that from 2009-2013 the Sonoma County homeless youth population grew 450%. According to SAY, this is the highest per capita rate in the nation. Statistics are not out for 2014-15 but from what I see, the word on the street and coming from social service workers, the growth in the homeless population has rapidly continued to rise. There are  elderly woman in their eighties and newborn infants homeless. It’s not simply the stereotypical “meth head” or “drunken bum.” There are diverse personal stories of homelessness, and these stories do not fit in the boundaries of stereotypes. They are stories worth listening to, people worth tending to.

Housing First, A Safe Place Essential For Healing

I’ve known for years that many homeless face mental health challenges, physical disabilities and addictions or the need to remove themselves from dysfunctional situations at all costs. Members of my family have been mentally ill and chronically homeless. As a young teen, I chose the unknowns of homelessness over life at “home.” I understand that some family systems and gaps in our care facilities and social service structure are problematic. Yet how do we support proper care for homeless individuals, especially those in life threatening situations and with mental health challenges, when housing is the first priority to begin the healing process?

Housing First is not a new concept. There are successful examples of this focus in Utah, Oregon and Washington as well as California.  I especially like the  story of River Haven Community in Ventura County, California. It is one great example of a homeless tent community. I like it for several reasons: the land was donated for the purpose of serving the homeless, the community supported the project and the tent community is self sustaining. River Haven Community  is located on land that had been owned by the coastal commission. It was donated a year after heavy floods killed  homeless people living along the river of a coastal state park.  Turning Point Foundation became the overseeing non profit organization for  River Haven Community and continues to support a variety of services for the homeless and addresses the critical community support needs of mentally ill adults.

To be a resident of River Haven Community a person must commit to refrain from active addiction and violence and participate in peer support and social skill building. The Clinical Director, Corliss Porter explained that reparation of parts of  the brain diminished by trauma and PTSD and often severely exacerberated by the traumas of homelessness is not only possible but essential. She said under severe stress the amygdala can shrink to the size of a pea rather than being the natural size of a walnut. This in turn leads to there being no regulator to the prefrontal cortex which effects decision making for starters. When stimuli cannot be effectively processed internally, a person needs to retract from the environment and they can become paranoid and further de-socialized out of self preservation. This in an extreme is exemplified in the Veteran who cannot imagine staying indoors or the woman in a catatonic state sitting in a park. Facilitating change without shame is required and practicing compassion is a basis for this. Studies have shown that the amygdala can regrow under these conditions. To help accomplish this there is a full time case manager  on site at the River Haven Community and peer mediation training is required for all the residents. Care in developing a program that offers participants a working knowledge of healthy, life affirming social skills has been integral in the success of Turning Point Foundations work.  Stay tuned for more on Housing First in Sonoma County.

Pivotal Homeless Service Facilities In Sonoma County

The Sonoma County Task Force publishes a homeless resource guide in both English and Spanish. This guide spells out the range of organizations that are working for solutions to the homeless epidemic and how to contact these service providers.  One of these agencies,  Catholic Charities  is viewed as the starting point, the “first point of contact” for homeless services in Sonoma County. They feed, house and clothe individuals and families and have been doing so for years. They are a separate entity from the Catholic Church and therefore are funded independently as well. Their headquarters for the homeless is  600 Morgan Street in downtown Santa Rosa with the family emergency shelter around the corner.

 COTS is known as a premiere example of multi level support for the homeless in Sonoma County. The services they provide include: housing for families and single adults, transformative programs and homeless prevention. Join in  a ribbon cutting ceremony for the COTS Family Shelter in Petaluma June 27 from 10-11:30 1500 Petaluma Blvd S., Petaluma.

An upcoming landmark accomplishment for Sonoma County homeless youth will be the SAY Dream Center  opening it’s doors. Slated to open this winter, the Dream Center “includes 63 units of housing for homeless 18-24 year olds, along with counseling and job training, both for the residents and another 1000 young people using SAY’s effective counseling and job training services”. The Ceres Project is partnering with SAY and will build a commercial kitchen facility at the Dream Center, establishing a Ceres Project site. The collaboration will include opening a cafe, providing vocational and teen leadership skills to the SAY youth and community volunteers while providing whole foods education and delicious meals. At least one acre of the Dream Center hardscape will be converted to an organic garden. The County has provided a $1 million operating grant once the facility is complete.

There are long waiting lists for all the shelters in Sonoma County. In the winter additional shelters in Guerneville and programs like the Nomadic Shelter and Safe Parking exist. Homelessness is not a seasonal concern. There are thousands without shelter each night of the year even with the existence of places like Catholic Charities and COTS . This doesn’t diminish the strides that SAY has made in developing SAY Dream Center  or other successes like re opening of the COTS Family Shelter. It simply shows the epidemic nature of homelessness in Sonoma County and the need for a more lasting remedy.

Stellar Day Services 

For the last 21 years the Living Room has been offering day services to homeless woman and children. It is currently the only program offering day services specifically for women in Sonoma County. “Sadly, due to the increase of homeless women and children in our community, we’ve seriously outgrown our space and need a new home.” They are expanding to a new location in the fall and need support in renovating their new home. Being a pioneer organization they continue to be innovative as well as practical in their approach and services offered. In fact, the Living Room was the first homeless organization to add expressive arts to their art therapy offerings and did so when they hired Shellee Davis in June of 2014. They are extremely concerned about the serious depression rampant within the homeless community today and are actively adapting and developing compassionate programs to address this concern.

SAY offers the Dr. Coffee Teen Shelter, which is open 24 hours a day, providing respite for families in crisis and family reunification services for runaway and homeless youth and their families. The program includes: short-term shelter, food, counseling, and referrals for youth and their families. You can RSVP for a tour of the facility on June 16, 2015  from 12-1PM here.

The Wellness and Advocacy Center and it’s partner organization Interlink provide “drop” in services “to support community members living with mental health challenges to develop and sustain well being through self empowerment”. Though not specifically a homeless service organization, the Wellness and Advocacy Center works with many homeless individuals offering programs in art, career and computer labs, a community garden, cooking classes and a peer counseling program.

The  Art Director for the Wellness and Advocacy Center, Naomi Murakami, supports artists wholeheartedly. An artist herself, Naomi’s approach for the Art Program is to focus on “process not on final product”. This is a foundational element of the whole person-centered approach of expressive arts therapy though Naomi is adamant she is not doing therapy but rather providing a safe place for artists, “to do their art”. Though not focused on the “product”, Naomi did present an exhibit of participants artwork at the Finley Center early this year. The exhibit included a majority of homeless artists’ pieces. She continues to promote Wellness artists  by showing their work and/or selling it. She says “our most popular items are digital archival reproductions”. For our digital print out items 50% goes to the artist. The center only keeps the rest to cover the cost of materials and production. For a homeless person faced with mental health challenges this program is proactive and a peer support oriented resource.

Affordable Housing Affects Our Whole Community

It’s  no secret that as our economy tumbled, affordable housing took a huge hit.  Many  hardworking people became laid off when companies downsized or dissolved. Others experienced life threatening illness or the death of a loved one. In multiple cases it wasn’t just that the balloon popped, it was their life savings disappeared with pension fund scandals and mortgage backed securities tanking. Negligence has rarely been the culprit when people earnestly seek loan modification or try to cure loan default through a short sale. Sometimes foreclosure is the final outcome of a  long battle for homeowners fighting to stay in their home. This isn’t in the headlines anymore but the fallout will be felt for sometime. All those homeowners who lost their homes still need a place to live. If they didn’t move out of the county  they most likely became tenants or possibly homeless.

Houses sold at auction or as a short sale often became another person’s  good fortune and possibly new business venture. Rentals are getting a premium. If you are an investor,  buying homes  for “flipping” or simply accruing rentals continues to bring excellent return on the dollar. With 1% vacancy in Sonoma County, landlords can command a premium for their properties. In some cases potential tenants have “overbid” on  a rental to obtain the lease. I heard of one situation where a renter’s lease was broken so that a landlord could accept a 500$ additional monthly payment from an assertive lessee. There just aren’t enough rentals to meet the needs of our community.

 It has become very difficult for many laborers, workers in the county, to afford rents. For many households multiple incomes are necessary to support the rent payments. I hear friends, vital members of the community who contribute in exceptional ways, speak of being hard pressed to find quality affordable housing. This makes those on HUD subsidy even less likely to find housing. Many homeless have to wait five years just to get a voucher and once they have a voucher lose it because they cannot find a rental that the voucher will cover. A recent article in the Press Democrat said according to a survey by Carolyn Epple, up to 90% of landlords advertising rentals would not take a HUD voucher. It becomes a vicious cycle for the homeless trying to get back on their feet. They experience more and more trauma while on the streets and become debilitated by the setbacks they face while they wait for affordable housing.

There is no singular solution for the homeless crisis.  Collaboration and “out of the box” solutions are called for. There are organizations and successful projects nationwide worth emulating. There are mavericks in our county making great strides and reason to celebrate these landmarks. We know homelessness is a complex social issue, devastating to the already isolated members of our community. It is my experience that listening to the heart of the homeless inspires healing. Networking and collaborating with each other can effect solutions for curtailing the homeless epidemic. Lets get creative. Everyone in our community matters. Everyone deserves a safe place to be.


Placemaking Happens


Out of the studio and into the streets, our placemaking scene parades its colors with fun for all.

Picasso's Guernica_Artstart MuralThe month started with the installation of the mural honoring Andy Lopez September 5 on  Sebastopol Road and West Street in Santa Rosa. The following Friday, on Art Alley in Santa Rosa, was the mural dedication of Picasso’s Guernica painted by Artstart youth over the summer. The event included a public showing of  Picasso painting in real-time, The Mystery Of Picasso. Kudos to Mario Uribe and his wife, Liz Uribe, who founded Artstart over a decade ago. They have been inspiring young and old artists alike, while helping to put our county on the map as a cultural hot spot. This power couple seem to be part of the very fiber of the placemaking scene burgeoning in Sonoma County and most definitely integral to these two mural installations.

10628351_1543528712531789_4229770859183646921_nSeptember 12 kicked off the Sebastopol Village Building Convergence Project’s ten day extravaganza of art, music and sustainable community building inspired by City Repair of Portland Oregon. Sebastian Collett, an architect who worked with City Repair as the Placemaking Coordinator is back living in Sebastopol, sharing his skills, building community and raising his family. Meet the founder of City Repair, Mark Lakeman this Saturday from 12-4 @ the Sebastopol Grange. He will be speaking on Re-wilding the Commons.

10670031_1543548815863112_5016155723291095658_nProjects chosen for this years placemaking events included a cob transit bench, a cob oven and street painting. My son and I joined in to help paint designs created by artist Dana Vallarino on McKinley Street in Sebastopol. Dana started painting murals with Artstart and graduated to  commission pieces in Santa Rosa and downtown Sebastopol. This street painting project was a first for Dana, though she seemed quite at ease encouraging the team of volunteers flocking to paint her inspirational designs. It was easy to see where her cheerful praise was born as her Mom and Dad were there to support her and guide the crowd as well.

Poppy Creek Bulletin Board InstallationPoppy Creek Park had it’s community bulletin board installed last week, another placemaking milestone.  Come celebrate with the kids and adults from Growing A Village,  who dreamed and created this fabulous bulletin board (and the hand carved sign yet to be unveiled). A ribbon cutting ceremony will be held October 30 from 4-6PM at the site on Carr St in Santa Rosa.

Bear Bite and Other Bits

Bear Bite and Other Bits

Bear Bite and Other Bits

A year ago this August, I was in the Colorado wilderness when a black bear, curiously, bit me. I still shake my head at how lucky I am to have walked away with relatively minor injuries and no permanent damage. I attribute this, in part, to decades of practicing what to do in the face of a mountain lion attack. I was taught: get as big as possible, outstretching your arms; cry out from your belly; do not run away (as this is acting like prey) and if necessary, fight back. When I felt the bear’s fangs bite into my arm, my instincts took over. What I had learned about warding off mountain lions had clearly become second nature. I got “big”, forcefully outstretched my arms and continued bellowing from a deeply primal voice within. Today, I can celebrate life.

I asked a Native American man what  his tribe’s interpretation of a bear bite is and he said, “it’s a wake up call”. I must say this was quite literal in my situation, since I was sleeping when the bear collapsed my pup tent. Admittedly, there were also many self delusions and obscurations I needed to “wake up” from. The Tibetan Buddhists believe a bite from a  fanged animal is a blessing, clearing obstacles to one’s spiritual growth. I have found comfort in this view. Being human, I continue to face the upheavals that self clinging creates, all the while motivated to be of service. As Naomi Newman says, “you fall down and get up, it’s all one movement”.

Living in an urban jungle I’ve been more mistrustful of humans then wildlife, even while hiking in nature. What I didn’t consider is that bears have distinct personalities and they vary as much as human personalities do. Like humans, some bears act out of character but generally are not vicious. Of course, bears and humans share the sweet spot in nature, at an altitude where food grows. This fact requires mindfulness to live in harmony with one another. It’s probably  best while camping not to tempt a bear and sleep with honey water on your face. It’s wise to pee far away from your tent because, in times of drought, human urination is like a salt lick for wildlife. Like us, bears habitually travel the same path to food sources so, pitch your tent away from acorns and berry patches and hang your food from trees.

In a recent meditation exercise,  I experienced bear wisdom as informed embodiment, a fearless and vital sensing of life through all pores.  The lesson for me isn’t to continue a defended approach to life but rather, to commit myself to a soft belly and straight spine and being absolutely aware of my interconnectedness with all beings. It’s important to listen to my instincts and intuition and respond accordingly. When I feel like I am being watched, I probably am. I’ve noticed that if I ask how to harmonize with my surroundings the answers come. It seems nature and wildlife are more than willing to communicate, the key is enhancing the skill of listening and being willing to act compassionately, at times, fiercely so.

Last month I spent the anniversary of my bear encounter in the Colorado wilderness with friends. Early morning several of us hiked up a mountain peak, meditated at sunrise and shared our intentions for the coming year. We finished our practice with a “call to the wild” a celebratory “ah, la, la, ho”. In perfect synchronicity our call was acknowledged by several bears whose guttural voices resounded through the valley below.  I imagine they were also letting one another know where they were located, in relation to us, on that glorious morning.


Bear Aware poster-page-001

This month LandPaths is putting on “BEAR AWARE, LIVING WITH BEARS IN WEST COUNTY” September 19, 2014 7-8:30PM at Salmon Creek Auditorium.  I look forward to hearing what the speaker, Meghan Walla-Murphy has to say.

Black bears definitely still reside in Sonoma County. I remember one real estate broker cancelled a tour to his property listing because a bear was hanging out at the poolside and alternately swinging from a tree, literally making himself at home. Of course, we agents chuckled and appreciated the heads up. Other home and ranch owners have inadvertently hosted bears who have fed on their home grown bounty,  fished in their ponds, or feasted on other food sources like compost and trash.  I was impressed with a newsletter article on Occidental Arts and Ecology Center’s  website, Living In Bear Country and their willingness to embrace the bear by “intentionally reconsidering our inhabitation practices”.

I am thankful to people who have devoted themselves to cultivating a mindful relationship to wildlife and the natural realm and recognize this in spiritual practices, discussions with friends, artists, biologists, rangers, wilderness guides, nature photographers and local organizations like LandPaths and Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (to name a few). In gratitude for your wisdom, I bow.

Placemaking In Sonoma County



I recently received a “Call to Artists” for a placemaking event and my curiosity has ignited a sense of purpose. Admittedly, I wasn’t hip to the decade old term for art that brings a sense of place for the gathering of community. I instantly began researching the field of placemaking and I am frankly impassioned by this natural expression of sharing art and building community which has been going on for generations as in the creation of murals and naive art installations around the globe. Grassroots organizations like the Village of Arts and Humanities and Barefoot Artists, both of which Lili Lei was involved in founding (the former of which in 1984) show the concept of placemaking before the term was coined.  City Repair of Portland Oregon seems to have heralded the contemporary movement of placemaking and has a guidebook available to purchase. While I am waiting for my copy of City Repair’s handbook I have been talking with Julie Rachanan Chasen and Mario Uribe to understand placemaking in Sonoma County from a historical perspective. Not wanting to reinvent the wheel in my endeavors, I believe the collective wisdom gleaned from Julie and Mario’s experiences will infuse upcoming placemaking activities and widen the web of interconnectedness for those of us just entering the placemaking scene and wanting to do art with community to beautify our neighborhoods, heal broken places and grow community.

Mario Uribe  is a local artist and founder of  Artstart, a non profit which inspires young artists and helps to foster “a sense of ownership and pride in our community”, by installing murals, mosaics, and benches around the downtown Santa Rosa environs, and throughout greater Sonoma County.  Mario is a gentle and humble leader in the Sonoma County art scene, impacting the community through supporting the flourishing of the arts and placemaking. He has been the lead artist on many of the Artstart installations. He loves mentoring and building community through mindful creative acts (portfolio) and is currently working with the Sonoma County Museum on a project involving immigrants in Sonoma County. He is also the artist responsible for a project to honor the life of Andy Lopez and bring healing to the  community fractured by his death. This three panel piece will be installed September 5, 2014.


Anjelina Duckett

After my conversation with Mario today, I decided to take another stroll around the Prince Memorial Greenway and the Santa Rosa Bike Path to again appreciate the artwork contributed by Artstart artists. I came upon several women working on a mosaic, the lead artist being Anjelina Duckett. It turns out she had worked with Artstart as a teenager and was now the lead mosaic artist for this particular approved project. If everything works out, I’ll be able to volunteer and help her in the near future. Lucky me.


Cob bench in JC neighborhood created as placemaking event.

Cob bench in JC neighborhood created as placemaking event.

When talking to  Julie Chasen I learned she was inspired by City Repair several years ago and then  started  a non profit organization in Santa Rosa’s JC neighborhood, Growing A Village, Cultivando Un Pueblo. From the organization’s website for Growing A Village Cultivando Un Pueblo  her mission statement reads:”Creating a replicable model for sustainable community building. Empowering youth to reclaim their neighborhood through participation in multicultural, creative action projects.” How fortuitous to have a significant connector for growing community in my own neighborhood.

Julie and I met with other neighbors this week and she gave us  an overview of past placemaking sites and activities in the JC area. As a budding neighborhood group we decided to tour these sites, help to restore and/or maintain them if needed,  create new placemaking activities and,  stay connected with like minded neighbors in the JC area. The next placemaking event in the JC neighborhood will be on October 30 4-6PM @ Poppy Creek Park. Stay tuned for more details.

Those interested in refurbishing previous placemeaking sites in the JC area are encouraged to connect. Stay tuned for first restoration project details.



As far as I can tell the soonest placemaking event in Sonoma County is slated for September 13 and 14th 2014 in downtown Sebastopol (see flier below). As part of the Village Building Convergence project and in conjunction with organizations like Cittaslow Sebastopol and the Ceres Project (to name a few) this street painting event welcomes volunteers from the community to help with the painting. Register here and bring your enthusiasm. Designed by local artists, the images will be outlined on the street and the community will help paint them. All the supplies will be provided, the community is all that is needed! I consider Sebastopol my hometown and look forward to being part of this fabulous placemaking event. Pictures coming soon.


Check out the designs to be painted on McKinley St. this weekend; a cob bench that needs to be restored by volunteers, several placemaking sites from the JC neighborhood as well as Artstart installations (from right to left).

Grey Water Urban Overhaul

Grey Water Harvesting

Urban water reuse opens the floodgates for creative harvesting techniques, savings and re-establishing an interconnected relationship with life cycles. When fruit bearing trees, medicine plants, and other flora are the beneficiaries of grey water installations; a bath is more than a luxury, and certainly not wasting water. Relax, restore, rejuvenate in healing waters and then let those fruit trees drink up as your stress goes down the drain. Then, sip on herbal tea or homegrown brew and  nibble on those fresh picked cherries knowing you are in the flow of mindful living.

At first blush, the idea of installing a grey water system seemed intimidating. I didn’t have a formula for calculating our household water usage, and I had no frame of reference for the plumbing adaptations and system installations necessary  to transport household grey water to the landscape. What I did have, is a nagging sense of irresponsibility because I wasn’t reusing grey water to grow food, when other people had to hike miles to quench their thirst, and some fish have no upstream to swim in. With the added motivation of taking the Resiliency Challenge, my son and I focused on grey water system installation as the primary change we would make, knowing other sustainable activities would naturally fall into place as a result. With fore thought, grey water harvesting and creating a food forest could, then, grow hand in hand. Throughout the process of installing our grey water system we have found some great, local resources, and have strengthened our connection to our community.

Though our county is experiencing dry conditions, we are juicy with innovation and grass roots change. With impeccable  timing for our project needs, Daily Acts put on the Rain and Grey Water Fed Urban Oases Garden Tour in Petaluma. Attending this workshop, along with their Grey Water 101 and a hands on installation workshop, gave us invaluable information and the where-with-all to take next steps. With an open mind and willingness to learn, we soaked in the collective wisdom present at these workshops, researched possibilities on line, talked with neighbors, refined our design ideas and installed our first grey water system. We are still part of the” bucket brigade” for the dish washing water but happily have designed and installed our first bathroom to landscape system with plans to create a laundry to landscape system next.



Q. What is grey water?

A. Grey water is essentially used household water other than water from toilets (which is considered black water).

Q. Is installing a grey water system(s)  feasible?

A. This is site specific and determined by the layout and construction of a home, as well as your budget.

Q. How do I learn about installing grey water myself?

A. There are many do-it-yourself sites on line as well as agencies offering free or low cost instruction,

Q. Should I hire a professional instead of doing it myself?

A. For laundry to landscape a permit is not required, and the installation is relatively straightforward (a hands on workshop was helpful).A bathroom to landscape grey water system        requires a permit from city/county over site agencies. It is important to learn about building code requirements and uphold public safety concerns. Plumbing can be complicated and I found hiring a plumber preferable.

Q.What do I want to grow?

A. With water conservation in mind, food and /or native drought tolerant plants are best suited.

Q. How do I know if the plants/trees will thrive in the  site location, and also be OK receiving  grey water?

A.This takes observation of site conditions, knowing which plants thrive in your climate zone, and researching the needs of the plants you want to grow.

Q. How much water does the household use over the course of a week that can be repurposed as grey water?

A. There are formulas laid out in Brad Lancaster’s books and other websites; I will link to these at the bottom of this page.

Q.What are the watering needs of the plants I want to grow and will I need to augment the grey water system with a drip irrigation system to satisfy?

A. The WUCOLS guide shows water needs for specific plants. It’s important to keep in mind this changes with the seasons, over the life span of the plants, and that the amount of grey water a household produces can fluctuate. It’s best to have a system of over-site and make adaptations as needed. It is often suggested to reevaluate how you use your grey water seasonally.

Q.What products are safe to use in grey water to landscape?

A. Organic products that do not contain sodium, boron, borax, chlorine and phosphates. (stay tuned for recipes for environmentally friendly soaps and  cleaning supplies)



Sarah HyltonLand stewardship as a path to abundance is Brad Lancaster’s slogan for his grey water and rain water harvesting methods. Based on being in a sustainable relationship to the resources of nature, this engineer inspired my pursuit of a landscape design overhaul. If he could take Tucson out of water scarcity and into abundant harvest consciousness, we could transform our urban lot to a food forest. With a determination to install grey water systems and utilize natural rain catchment my son and I proceeded to reinvent our relationship to our humble city lot and plant more food, hopefully harvesting an abundance to share. I had no idea how interconnected to my neighbors I would become or how our garden would grow beyond our yard.

Two pivotal links were made at the onset of our project, we learned of Daily Acts, and became a member of the Nextdoor platform, both free and user friendly. Daily Acts helped sponsor Brad Lancaster’s lecture and through their vivacious representation, my son and I committed to the Resiliency Challenge. This included vowing to plant fruit trees, expand an edible garden, install grey water systems, retain water with mulch, set up a worm bin and bee hives, work from home, become a locavore, and more. Nextdoor became the community link to help accomplish our intentions and Daily Acts helped expand our vision and offered hands on education for grey water installation and other possibilities. Being an avid organic gardener for decades, I had yards of soil to share and years of  perennial plants, bulbs and rhizomes to divide and offer. I posted this fact on the Free category of Nextdoor and voila, the work force converged. Soil was hauled away and plants taken for community gardens, residential treatment gardens, personal gardens and wonders yet to be seen. Not only did I clear my landscape in preparation for installing grey water, fruit trees, and mulch basins; we were able to experience the delight of neighbors I had never met, as they lovingly took plants and soil I had nurtured for over twenty years. Now this is truly a growing community on a budding project.

Sarah Hylton

Flower offerings that will bless new gardens.

For more on our path for grey water, rain catchment, sheet mulching and food forest installation stay tuned.

Urban Overhaul House

Being responsible as stewards of the land and, in my case, “urban lot” makes us inherently environmental activists; it can also be seen as a  spiritual act to bring consciousness to the very way in which we use our resources. I for one, could use an overhauling in this arena. If it wasn’t for my love of organic gardening, hiking and selling rural property,  I’d be completely divorced from the mouth of a spring,  the rivers meeting the ocean or the geology best suited to drill a producing well. Like so many other urban folks, I  turn my water on by a twist of the wrist and utilize electricity day and night .  I still burn firewood to keep warm and regulate the air in my house,the old fashioned way, with doors, windows and ceiling fans. Being a recipient of city services has its advantages and how I use these resources is a personal choice that can further align me with mindful living principals. In the vein of adapting my home systems for optimum sustainability, I am going “green” with definable creative acts in community with  others. Acts that allow me to live green in a world of color.

I was sure there was some kind of checklist for homeowners  going green however much to my dismay after an hour of online research I have come to believe there is no such downloadable next actions list, until now:


  1. Identify systems of home
  2. Schedule initial inspections of pertinent systems.
  3. Prepare for inspections.
  4. Inspect and evaluate systems with appropriate professional support.
  5. Determine budget
  6. Decide on priority of systems to be addressed based on practicality and budget.
  7. Brainstorm potential system upgrades for living green concepts and determine what is most viable.
  8. Begin design and installation of chosen systems improvements in order of necessity, affordability and creative inspiration.

This checklist is a work in progress. As I go through the process of greening myself and my life, I am expanding upon each subject with a complete blog for your education, information, and perusal.


The six basic systems of a home are electrical; plumbing; sewer/septic (waste); air quality which include heating and air conditioning; landscaping and the actual structure itself, the bones. Many of these systems are often identified and evaluated in a basic way in a home inspection generated during the buying/selling of homes. Generally, home and pest inspections are two excellent  evaluations that will help advise as to  whether or not more specialized inspections are warranted. The overview a home inspection provides is invaluable for determining next steps. Often outstanding dysfunctions or noticeably  deteriorating elements of a home get clarified and can be considered a punch list to work off of once the issues are prioritized. I like to think of health and safety factors first and then move into addressing system upgrades for sustainability and function.  Since I plan on using a contractor for some of the improvements I’ll  also consult a few green certified building professionals for more in depth evaluations where needed, as a home inspector often is not a licensed contractor.

 It has occurred to me that the carpenter bees and the occasional termite I see in the wood pile could warrant a pest inspection. I have avoided calling any professional pest treatment company because of the chemicals often used to eradicate problems, not to mention my vow not to kill. It’s been such a dilemma to address the termites thought to be gnawing on my house and the  carpenter bees setting up shop in my pergola (and possibly the siding to my bungalow) that I have procrastinated for years.  Since I am on a fact finding and facing mission I may as well bite the bullet and resolve these nagging concerns and add a pest inspection to my next actions list.

After some research I made an appointment with Northwest Termite-Pest Inspection as they are in the Northcoast Builders Directory and are a company who does their best to minimizes the toxic use of chemicals. It turns out they have a division that does attic clean up as well, so both tasks are on the calendar.  I also scheduled a home inspection and a visit with a landscape contractor . Collaborating with other professionals to gather facts and make informed decisions is truly an inspiring and enlightening process.


Generally the home  and pest inspections will jumpstart home owner awareness, and in my case, proved to be great myth busters. For the sake of visibility and ease of the inspections I was under the impression thorough clean up is invaluable (first myth).  However, I was surprised and relieved to learn that  too much clean up is counterproductive for a pest inspector as the hardcore evidence of existing pests can be removed.

It’s a good rule of thumb to make sure all plants and stored items don’t interfere with accessibility. Move, recycle, repurpose as much clutter way from exterior and interior walls to give access to the inspectors to see the structure from top to bottom but leave those spider webs that have bugs in them and the scat of creatures not a house pet. The bugs and scat tell a story that the pest inspector appreciates. I wouldn’t have known this if Northwest Termite-Pest Control hadn’t called at the last minute to see if they could come a day early. I was apologizing for not having cleaned the bathroom or having vacuumed the house until the principal of the company, Bill Mashek clued me in on the benefits of how my home presented.


At the completion of the site visit the inspectors verbally go over their findings. It’s a great time to ask questions, be visually directed to areas of concern and to come to understand what the potential solutions are. Hard copy and/or a digital file of the inspection are provided for reference as well. Inspection results can be surprising as otherwise hidden conditions can come to light. There are all kinds of possible discoveries, some costly and others liberating, all of which help determine the most mindful approach to living green.

I feel fortunate and unburdened by the results of the home and pest inspections for my bungalow. I had unnecessarily stressed myself by worrying about issues that had simple solutions or didn’t even exist. For example, the termites I thought were digesting my house instead,  live on decaying wood debris and don’t pose a threat. The carpenter bees I feared were tunneling into my redwood siding are merely an aesthetic nuisance to the older wood pergola and do not do any structural damage to the house. Best of all, there is a harmless,non toxic remedy to discourage the carpenter bees from returning year after year. Funny, I dreaded knowing the facts and yet the facts were actually a huge relief. I shake my head at the anxiety my ignorance generated. Needless to say, I highly recommend reaching out to conscientious green professionals in lieu of wasting precious peace of mind.


I consider my budget modest. Like many people I base my prosperity on the quality of relationships I cultivate, and as a single parent my mothering is my priority not necessarily the income I produce. Providing for my son is of course an inherent necessity. It’s been a challenge for me as a real estate agent in a tumultuous market to understand how to have a budget. I don’t receive a set paycheck and sometimes it feels like feast or famine. I have come to understand that it is living within a budget that will give me some of the freedoms I strive for. The people I respect the most are not just sustainably minded, they are prosperous as well. In fact, one of the definitions for sustainability is “people, prosperity and the planet in balance with one another”.  

At face value it’s quite shocking to note the expense of organic or green products versus commercial. It’s only when I calculate the ramifications of commercial products on sentient beings and future generations that supporting organic sustainable products and enterprises  seems the least expensive route to take. I am going to have to take a hard look at how I can craft a budget and stick to it while still being able to buy organically. Monitoring my  project decisions and next actions through budgeting is going to be key in my own sustainability practices. There is no way I can thrive if I deplete my resources whether they are financial, physical, emotional or spiritual. I Practicing prudence is part of my fiduciary care to myself and my family. It’s to stressful to live  beyond our means by overextending with credit. Our culture as a whole is still reeling in an overbearing lesson in this fact.

 It is helpful to know the current fair market value of my home, the equity (if any) I have and what value the upgrades I choose will add to the over all value of my home.  Making decisions with this information in mind will help define a budget. Most of us do not have disposable income available for renovation projects. This urban overhaul is a nuts and bolts attempt to align my values with my actions towards a sustainable future. I can’t afford to expend more money than is warranted for a glorified “going green” project, I must be discerning in my choices, keep my actions simple, mindful, and authentic. In other words, don’t spend what I don’t have or more than fair market value will uphold; repurpose and reuse where possible; plan with future generations in mind and enjoy interactions with family and community in the process. For all my baulking, it’s a no brainer to commit to a budget when I view abundance as right relationship to people, planet and prosperity, collectively.


It’s a drought and unbeknownst to me I had a plumbing leak from the bathtub drain. Both the pest and the home inspections called my attention to the need for this repair along with other more minor  moisture intrusion concerns. Fortunately the plumbing repair was straightforward and I could even query about grey water system installations in the process. The preciousness of water is what I am most inspired to address and consider first in my urban overhaul. Clearly the care of how we use and reuse water is fundamental in overall sustainability practices.


At a recent Go Local meeting I met Jesse Froelich the inventor of the Bluebarrel rain catchment system. She in turn fortuitously told me of a lecture with Brad Lancaster put on by Daily ActsOccidental Arts and Ecology Center and the City Of Petaluma. By attending this lecture my son and I were catapulted into revamping our landscape to incorporate the mindful use, reuse and harvesting of water. We have taken the Daily Acts Resiliency Challenge and attended several more events put on by Daily Acts. We are brainstorming with Daily Acts, professionals from Community Soil, Equinox Landscape, Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (to name a few) and other local organic gardeners as well as friends new and old.With the wealth of information available and the mobilized efforts of community to address the symptoms of drought there is a lot of support for installing a grey water system(s). Creating a Food Forest while repurposing water is the ultimate win/win and a fabulous family “first” project.


Initially I intended to hire a landscape design team to help in creating a grey water system and calculating the rain harvest opportunities from my rooftop as well as co creating and installing the flora. Suddenly my project took a severe budget cut, and in rolling with the punches I needed to honestly re-evaluate my budget for hired help. I’ve suited up in my Sunday best (my overalls) and dug trenches with my son. Yards of mulch and fir bark have been delivered and patiently wait attention in the driveway. To a fifteen year old boy the piles are a cushion for attempts at front flips, I on the other hand am trying to isolate next steps in a methodic simplified manner so I don’t become the ogre of overwhelm. We are picking out our fruit trees as we peruse the Rare Fruit Society website and other sources for information on the best choices for fruit bearing trees in our zone. There is nothing like going to a nursery where the owner has grown the trees from 4 inch starts and in a humble fashion imparts his/her wisdom of decades. As the plumbing gets laid and the soil and mulch gets sculpted into beds in our yard, the canvas becomes vivid in it’s three dimensional splendor. I am grateful for the budget cuts and the growing community that has enfolded as we cultivate our urban landscape overhaul. Instead of flipping out, we are catapulting forward.

Click for more on the grey water, sheet mulch and urban food forest unfoldment.