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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Dr. Erin Yu-Juin McMorrow. Erin holds a doctorate in policy planning and development from the University of Southern California, studied political and social thought at the University of Virginia, and served as the director of housing policy with the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness. She’s also a certified yoga teacher, a craniosacral therapist, and an entrepreneur living in Los Angeles.
With Sounds True, Erin’s the author of a new book. It’s called Grounded: A Fierce, Feminine Guide to Connecting with the Soil and Healing from the Ground Up. Erin has a brilliant and unusual way of combining intellectual study and knowledge with mystical experience and direct knowing. She seamlessly braids together an understanding of how healing the soil connects with healing our souls, and also how together we can create a shared culture that is truly regenerative. Here’s my conversation with Dr. Erin Yu-Juin McMorrow.
To begin with, Erin, and by way of introducing yourself to our listeners, if you can share with us how you went from getting your doctorate in policy planning and development, to having the kind of passionate interest you have in regenerative agriculture and specifically the health of the soil. What was that journey for you?
Erin Yu-Juin McMorrow: It was an amazing journey. When I graduated in 2013, I thought that I would probably be working for a city, and that I would be working on urban sustainability things, focusing on climate change, because that’s what I wrote my dissertation about. Really, life just took me at that moment. I had a path of, I’m going to send out these résumés. I’m going to look in these major cities. This will be my life. This is what I’ll do.
As I was starting my job search, I actually started volunteering for a group called Kiss the Ground, which at the time was just a bunch of volunteers. We weren’t even a full organization yet, and now they’re dear friends and they’re doing a lot of beautiful work in the world. They’ve been around for all this exact amount of time. As I started to get involved with them, I thought I was volunteering to help build urban gardens, which is—it was just something I thought that I would enjoy while I was doing my job search. We did do some of that, but that was the first I actually learned about the relationship between soil health and climate change, and the existence of microscopic life in the soil, which I never knew much about.
I think I maybe vaguely knew or understood, but I was never a huge gardener. I certainly didn’t know the details. Then when I came across this group of volunteers, I learned about this relationship. I had been studying, as I said, I had been studying climate change for years. It was quite a shock to realize that I didn’t know anything about this, and that it was such a big part of the climate conversation.
At that time, it was seven years ago or more by now, it wasn’t in the mainstream climate conversation. The soil carbon sequestration conversation has been built by the regenerative agriculture movement, and along with now many other organizations that have been working on different facets of this, and finding each other over time. I was shocked that I didn’t even fully understand the carbon cycle. I was like, “That’s a really important part of this.” I didn’t understand why it was such a wild blind spot in the conversation.
I went in and started to do more research. I found that there were some real limitations on how soil health was studied. Also, I started to find as a person with a PhD that the different parts of the bigger story were very, very, very siloed within academia. It was tough to even piece the story together and do the research. Even though when you boil it down—like I try to boil it down to a kindergarten level for people, because it’s kind of the way I think about it now.
Trying to piece it together through academic research was like you’re looking somewhere over in ocean acidification in one field, in marine biology, and then you’re looking in soil studies, and then you’re looking in ecology, and then you’re looking in urban planning for something. The impetus for writing the book in the first place was to help boil that down for people, because I was so shocked at what I found.
It’s been really beautiful. I’ve had this metamorphosis over these years. Because it’s taken so many years, of course, I’ve grown as a person, and my journey has been winding. At the same time, Kiss the Ground has continued on their journey. We’re all learning and growing, and they’re also partnering with a number of beautiful organizations all over the world that are doing similar work. The conversation, of course, has expanded into healing with indigenous peoples and lands, which in many ways is the beginning, not the end.
I feel like we all started in some place, and these stories all weave together, and there is a deep spiritual healing story within it, as well, finding our way back to the land. When you talk about my passion, I think I had—I would call it a minor spiritual breakdown in around 2013, when after we started we got about six months to a year in, I really never found that dream job thing that I thought that I was going to be doing.
But what I did instead was fall in love with this story, and I also needed to find self-care. After that many years of working in front of a computer in academia, and then working to get this organization off the ground, I was really burnt out. That’s when I did my “go to Bali” healing adventure, and then a whole other chapter starts for me around internal healing, and connecting with the divine feminine, and connecting with the yin. Now that the book is here, all of these pieces have woven into the story. That’s most of it.
TS: I want to congratulate you, too, because you do a terrific job in Grounded, in your book, of introducing people who don’t necessarily understand the connection between soil health and climate change, and the carbon cycle, and making it really crystal clear. I was so grateful for that. I had a lot of understanding and insight that I didn’t coming into the book, just from my own ignorance. I wonder here at the beginning of our conversation, illuminate our listeners on the connection between soil health, climate change, and make sure they understand the carbon cycle.
EM: Sure. Thank you. It’s one of my favorite things. I actually tried this for years, to figure out how people—I tried to pitch it or just talk to people, my family, and explain it to figure out how people come to understand it. Because it was really confusing for me and everybody else in the beginning. It was a practice thing.
Now the way I see it is that, in the basic terms, we’ve got the land on the earth. We’ve got the land, we’ve got the water, and then let’s call it the air or the atmosphere. That’s kindergarten level. There are cycles within this. Just like the water cycle, there’s a carbon cycle. Carbon basically is this tiny microscopic little thing that every carbon-based thing is made out of. It moves around in this cycle.
While we’ve been thinking about climate change in terms of emissions for all this time—and, of course, it’s a huge part of the conversation—it’s a one-way, linear way of thinking about things, when if you scale back quite a bit further you realize that everything in nature moves in cycles. We’re really talking about a broken part of the cycle. What’s happening is we’ve got so much carbon in the atmosphere both from fossil fuel emissions but also from all of the carbon that’s been released from the soil, so I’ll get to that.
As we’ve been doing industrial agriculture and a number of other practices that don’t work well with the soil, we’re releasing all the soil into the, excuse me, all of this carbon into the atmosphere. Now there’s so much, that it’s spilling over into the oceans. The oceans actually have been absorbing this carbon for quite some time. We’re actually much better off as a species because the oceans have been doing us a great favor. The oceans are actually becoming oversaturated now as well.
The reason we’re having so much observable change right now is because that’s how far the cycle has gone out of whack. What I say is, to reset the cycle, you have to look at where the big broken piece is. Right now the big broken piece is really the earth part, the soil part. That piece of the story that, again, I had no idea. Gardeners know this. I realize when I talk to gardeners, they’re like, “Oh yes, the microbes in the soil,” and they populate their microbes and all of these things. I didn’t know.
The soil is alive. There is microscopic life in the soil. That microscopic life is necessary, along with the worms, and everything else that goes on in the soil. It’s a teeming ecosystem inside of the soil. If we kill that ecosystem in any way and we disrupt it with pesticides, we disrupt it with tilling, we leave the soil bare, we don’t take care of the soil the way it thrives, then we actually release—the carbon in the soil then gets released into the atmosphere.
The way that works in reverse is that plants basically bring it down in. They suck it in. We used to talk about carbon sequestration, that’s really the natural thing that plants already do. They suck it in. It goes down through the roots, and then down into the soil. Then this microscopic life likes the carbon. The soil will actually hold a tremendous amount of carbon. Carbon-rich soil actually holds more clean water. It helps aerate the soil, and it’s better for the plants, and it’s better for the nutrients. It’s how nature actually works, if you think of the forest floor.
It’s compost. That’s a huge part of the conversation. Many people along my journey didn’t know much about compost; neither did I. It’s just such an important part. Why are we throwing away organic matter? That’s just madness if you look at the carbon cycle, and what’s going on and what needs to happen. That’s the basic overview that I like to tell people.
TS: In Grounded, you put a lot of emphasis on healing the soil, that this is what we need to do. I think for the everyday person—I’ll just speak for myself. I have a compost bin. I compost food, but I’m not a gardener. I try to buy organic food, but beyond that, healing the soil feels out of reach to me. I’m not quite sure, what am I going to do to help make sure there’s healthy microbial life in the soil?
EM: Well, I think all of those things you’re doing are tremendous. I think a lot of people, even those steps are still quite far from them. I think even doing anything, composting at all. If you’re in a city and just starting to participate in an urban compost system, which you have to look it up usually. You have to do a little bit of research, but it takes an extra step. My agent actually started composting in New York City and realized that she could just drop off her food scraps when she picks up her vegetables at the same place. It was just a tiny bit of Googling to figure out how she could make a big change actually in what she does in the city.
There’s a whole scale. If you’re in a rural area, you can create an entire compost bin. You can create a worm bin. You can use your own compost and share it with other people, and grow organic food and all of this stuff. In terms of healing overall, I feel like the intention, at a spiritual level, the intention is the most important thing, and doing what you can wherever you are, because we’re all in completely different physical situations.
For me, it’s a combination of using my urban green bin, where we put yard waste, and things like that, we can now put food in there, and then also we can have a little compost bin over here. We’ve also got chickens we can feed our food scraps. Everything we do that is intentionally giving back to Mother Earth, I feel like, is incredibly important. Then there’s also the part where there are just things we can do in general, like telling people the story.
One of the biggest things is just awareness, and light bulbs really go off for people, so just talking about your compost, or getting excited about it, or sharing the book or sharing the story. That’s been a big part of my journey is people being lit up by how I got lit up in the first place, by me sharing my excitement, and then they’re like, “This is fascinating.” Then Kiss the Ground’s documentary comes out, and the story spreads. As that goes on, I think that’s going to be one of the most important things about healing collectively.
Also, like I said, healing with indigenous peoples and lands is really important. The journey that we’ve been on just in the last year, the spiritual connection back to nature, the story of the beginning. I think when I use the word “grounded” and I’m talking about the root chakra, or I’m using that metaphor, there’s a whole-body healing thing that’s going on here.
There’s also that one piece of just putting your feet on the earth. Even if you’re in an urban center, you can find a park, hopefully, but trying to do that more like once a day if you can. Because, again, I’ve talked to people. I know my own experience; it has been incredibly healing for me. It doesn’t even have to be like a scientific reason. I’m air quoting, like a “scientific reason” why. It affects our being, and everybody I know that’s done it has agreed with me.
Taking more time, if you have the access to go camping, or something like literally lay on the earth, I find that it’s actually deeply healing to me. All of these things work together.
TS: You mentioned our root chakra, and in the very first few sentences of the book Grounded, you write, “The root of the climate crisis is an invitation to heal our individual and collective root chakra.” For people who are like, “What? The root of the climate crisis has something to do with an energy center that’s down in the lowest part of my torso?” Help me understand how you see this connection.
EM: This is actually where that yoga teacher training moment in my life, where it kicked in. I was really doing yoga for stress relief when I was in school. Then I had this most phenomenal teacher. I also got to leave the country and just be elsewhere and just try on something completely different. That’s when I really started to learn about the root chakra and learn about the chakra system.
As I describe in the book, I was in a very academic, heady place at the time. This was really unusual for me, and it stretched me. We spent a long time just finding our feet in these beginning exercises. Then when my teacher was speaking about rooting down energetically and connecting to nature, I was already obsessed with soil at this time. That connection started to weave through me, and the notion of, now, talking about the masculine and the feminine. I was just exposed to the notion of the divine feminine at that time, because of yin yoga and the idea of doing really long, slow poses to actually release.
It was not a mode that I was in, which is why I was so stressed out. It’s why I had to go do something totally different. As I relaxed into the energy of the yin, this is where I stumbled onto the tantric path. I did not know that’s what I was doing at the time. Even the chakra system was pretty “woo” for me at the time. Relaxing both into that notion of the divine feminine, I started to slowly drop into the divine feminine metaphor, which is the soil, which I did not realize probably until four years into the book.
I had written a whole book about soil, and all of these things, and hadn’t fully put it together. Because the metaphor is that you part the soil, plant the seed, place the seed inside, cover the soil. The seed gestates, so life gestates, and then life is born. It’s the mother, the divine feminine metaphor, it all goes together. This is where I land, but in the very beginning when I was first learning about the root chakra, it was just like find your feet, find the earth, connect to the breath.
As I started to do that, I just started to feel that this rootedness, this sense of what I now know is the archetype of the root chakra, is about foundation, safety, home. It’s actually a masculine energy that holds the sacral chakra. It’s the masculine and feminine in our first lower two chakras that have really been the major archetypal centers of my entire journey for this entire time. The first thing I did was find my feet.
I think it’s really beautiful that I went from this super academic, crusty, focusing on carbon, trying to read academic papers about carbon, and then having life guide me into actually settling into the metaphor of the soil and the energetic elements of what I was doing. That’s really what’s guided my entire journey.
TS: You write in Grounded, “Coming out of the woo closet has been my most challenging obstacle and my greatest opportunity.” I wanted to talk some about that, because here you have this PhD in urban planning. I think sometimes academic training can actually make it harder for us in certain ways to open and grow. Yet, at the same time, here you’ve gone on this journey, and you’ve created an integration within yourself. I want to understand more about that. What was required for you to come out of the woo closet, and how have you integrated that with your academic background?
EM: Still to this moment, this is a huge part of my journey. Even in sharing the book, now that it’s out there, it has many different audiences. I have academic colleagues still who are still a little confused about what I’m doing. Then I have a spiritual community that is also still trying to figure out the soil part, or why it’s interesting, or the climate part. All of these different pieces are all facets of my life that I’ve been integrating for all of this time.
I joke that I’m one of these people that is like “privileged woman has breakdown.” That is the initiation that occurred in 2013. Like I said, it’s like I had this plan for my life, like so many people. I had this plan for my life. I had this degree. I thought I knew who I was based on the degree and also the training. Like you said, the training is incredibly rigorous. It’s not physical at all. It’s very much in the mind.
Also, it can be very stressful, and so we can end up at a burnout phase, which is what I did. Basically, at that point in my journey the biggest thing—the breakdown mostly was about shedding that identity of who I thought I was and really facing a lot of kickback, socially and from every direction. Because everyone around me thought they knew who I was as well, and that’s a huge part, I think, of most people’s spiritual journeys is shedding identities and just allowing evolution and allowing change.
Also, I would say, academia isn’t the most friendly place for a spiritual conversation. Maybe in some fields, yes, some fields more than others and some institutions more than others. My experience was that this conversation was pretty frowned upon, especially back in 2013 when I started. I think for me it’s really required me to claim my power. One of the places I started also, in Bali, to learn about was my boundaries and owning my power. That’s when I realized that I was externalizing my value and my worth in almost every way in my life.
This is where a lot of people start on a spiritual journey as well, where we’ve checked all the boxes. We’re doing all the things, and it’s empty. Something is not lining up. Also, then at the same time being guided by the hand of spirit, which I would say by now is very clearly what was going on in my life. At the time it was totally bewildering. Now when I look back, I’m like, “What a gift.” I landed exactly where I needed to do the healing I needed to do within myself, and then share that healing journey. I do healing work now with clients and friends, and sharing that gift, and then being able to wrap that all together with this very heady topic.
Even the process of putting a book together and trying to explain it to people, even the whole process of pitching a book, or putting a proposal together, so many people were like, “These things don’t go together. I don’t understand what you’re trying to do here.” Then I found some people who got it, and that journey of helping to unfurl that for so many people in my life who’ve been walking with me and watching me and growing with me. Then, now, for other people that I haven’t met yet, people that are now receiving the book. So far the feedback that I’ve gotten is this is really helpful and healing for people who are facing the same kind of woo closet challenge, where maybe we feel like we can’t go on that journey because what will people think, or we can’t talk about it out loud.
There are a lot of in-the-woo-closet people, I think, at the beginning of my journey, where it was like, “Yes. We know this. We have our tarot cards and stuff in secret, but what happens when we actually step forward and share the healing journey?” It takes a lot of courage. It took me on all kinds of adventures, and now I feel it’s still part of my journey, and I feel very, very confident and powerful in it as well.
TS: Well, I want to thank you, Erin, for speaking from that place of your own inner knowing, the hand of spirit tapping you on the shoulder. I think part of the reason I love to host these conversations is I want to give listeners permission to lead with their brave hearts, and their own inner knowing, and not hold back. I think examples like you are really important, so thank you.
Now in terms of putting these two conversations together, writing the book, the destruction of the soil and the destruction of the feminine go hand-in-hand. For someone who says, “What? I was with you in terms of the relationship between having unhealthy soil and the climate crisis. I was with you in terms of us not honoring the divine feminine in the world.” But how do you put these two into one woven-together relationship?
EM: Again, it’s macro and micro, like everything. That’s been a major theme in my journey. It’s how we are interacting with the feminine within ourselves. So back to my breakdown, Bali moment, and my first time finding my feet, and my first time finding the feminine. It was the feminine, the healing the feminine in myself, coming out of a very hypermasculine or even toxic masculine part of academia. That yin yoga, for example, was what helped me feel good in my body. There was this weaving connection right there.
Then opening that way in my body and healing my own inner self is what helped me understand the bigger picture of what I was writing about. It helped me put things together that I wasn’t going to put together in my mind only. Even within my own little story, there’s that. Then, of course, there’s the divine feminine metaphor and the great mother metaphor. If you’re looking at the soil as the great mother from which all life springs, and there’s a lot of beautiful conversation around the great creatrix, the great void, the chaos from where all possibility springs. I have a lot of conversation about that in the book as well, and the dark goddess. The womb, the darkness, the healing power of the darkness. The healing power of the yin that I feel has been deeply damaged in our Western narratives, pretty much. I go pretty deeply into that as well, where we’re healing the divine feminine, and we’re also healing the divine masculine at the same time, and that’s a whole other conversation.
Focusing on the feminine first, and really dropping into the soil metaphor, then it’s like, “OK, wait a second.” In 2017 we had the Me Too movement, while I was writing the book. And obviously it was a profound societal change but also a profound change within me, and I was writing the book at the same time. I started to bump in—at that moment I started to bump into this patriarchy/witch wound conversation, where it’s like, “Where was my feminine? What happened? How did I end up here? Why were parts of academia so toxic? Why was I so burnt out? Why do I feel like I need to externalize all my power? What is happening here?”
At the same time, I’m watching, there’s—we do fracking and mountaintop mining and things like this, where the metaphor is almost exact. It’s like we’re harming—there’s rape metaphors at the base of Western civilization. Talk about Zeus and that whole rewriting of the goddess mythology, and then we essentially, effectively, we were raping the land in so many ways.
Then we also have this incredible violence against women and girls around the world. Also, if you look at the climate conversation specifically, it’s like empowering women and girls in terms of education, and reproductive access, and access to education is incredibly helpful just in the scientific sense of climate change, and just how well women fare when they have education, and how they take care of their families, their bodies, their communities, and how they take care of the land, and how they take care of small lot farms, and then how they grow food. It just goes on and on and on. It’s all one big thing now in my mind. It’s lots of little pieces.
Once again, the experience that I had in academia was everything’s siloed out. It’s like there are all these pieces and they all obviously go together in the end, but you got to untangle that tendency to silo everything out, and be like, “No. This belongs here. This belongs here. This is a different conversation. This is where this goes.” Because we can’t solve the problem that way. That’s what we’ve been doing.
I have actually also a lot of friend feedback where they finally read the book, and they’re like, “Oh my God, it’s so obvious. It all goes together. I can’t believe I’ve been reading about all of this goddess stuff over here, and the soil health/climate stuff over here, and I never put the two things together.” The number of people who have never heard of the great mother metaphor, of life gestating, and then the cycles of nature and the way it connects really then obviously to the seed cycle metaphor of the moon and the cycles of menstruation.
This has been around forever, and we just mostly have forgotten in Western culture. It’s not shocking, I think, that we’re in a climate crisis, or we’re in an environmental crisis. Because we’re really off-kilter with the way we think about these things.
TS: Now, Erin, you talked and suggested this very simple practice of putting your feet, I presumed you were talking about bare feet, your bare feet on the earth. Stepping out onto the earth. Let’s just imagine this together. As our listeners do that, they go, “I can do that. That’s not that big a deal. I can do that where I live.” What are they doing now that their bare feet are on the earth, and they’re standing there? Are they imagining something, thinking about something, feeling something?
EM: They can really do anything, but I would suggest as much as possible as in like a meditation dropping in, dropping into the body, dropping into the present moment. Maybe inviting oneself into the present moment? I like to practice inviting whatever else was going on before that moment to be outside of the space, and to just be where I am. Then also just feeling, like literally feeling the sensations in the bottom of the feet with the bare feet, with the soil, just feeling what that feels like.
Often, again, in our heady world, we don’t realize that we’re not in our bodies at all. We’re off somewhere or thinking about the future or the past or some other thing. When we stop and put our feet on the earth, it’s a moment to reconnect to ourselves, and then reconnect to the moment, and also just pull into the body and actually be where we are by feeling into our sensations.
Then if you want to go further, I love doing a meditation where I drop roots into the ground. You could do this from your feet, or from your tailbone if you’re lying down. Do it however you want. Just dropping, imagining dropping roots, even if I’m indoors, into deep, rich, fertile, healthy soil. Then I can scan my body for anything that doesn’t serve and allow it to fall away out through my roots. I can draw up any kind of nourishment that I feel like I need, like energetic nourishment, through these imaginary roots into my body.
It’s just a reminder that we don’t have to carry anything around, and also that this great mother energy doesn’t want us to. She composts. She would love for us to release anything that we’re carrying and to draw up nourishment from her, because that’s what she does. That’s her thing. I do that quite often, anytime I feel like I’m a little spun out or a little bit stressed. I stay pretty unstressed overall now, because I have these practices. I’m unwilling to stay in the space where I’m out in my head all the time. I’m just like, “No. Feet on the earth. Take some breaths.” It’s really powerful.
TS: I quite like that image of our own roots growing down below us. That’s very helpful. Thank you. You also offer in the book a centering type of practice, working with the central axis of the body. I wonder if you can describe that for our listeners?
EM: Thank you. I learned this very early, the very beginning in Bali again, thanks to my teacher out there, was putting our feet on the ground, and then is grounding and centering. Feet on the ground, and then just breathing into that central axis. So imagining there’s a bright line moving through your body, out through the top of your head to the universe, and down to the center of the earth, grounding you.
I use this in yoga all the time, because it’s actually how I learned how to teach yoga. Rather than alignment being like, “Put your left hand here, stick your leg over here,” being like, “Breathe into, like find your feet first, and then breathe into that central axis.” It’s there in every pose. You can be doing any kind. You could be standing on your foot or whatever, and you will always have a central axis.
It shows up also in martial arts. It shows up in dance, in the tango. There’s a central axis to everything, which is actually really beautiful when you’re talking about the divine feminine and the masculine as well, that they can dance around the central axis, and we always have this center. I also find it really powerful if I’m going to go into something, like give a talk or something like that, to find that center before I walk into a room.
Also, it’s really helpful, because I can feel when I’m off-center. At any point if I’m like, “Whoa, my energy is way over here,” I can call myself back in and it helps me. I have this practice that’s strong enough that I can actually tell if I’m off-center. That’s, I think, really powerful. If you do it just a little bit every day, you’ll get to the point where you’ll always be in your center.
TS: Now, a couple of times you’ve mentioned the divine feminine and the divine masculine, and how we can heal both the divine feminine and—you said at some point we might get to talk about healing the divine masculine, and that point’s now. My question is, when I hear those words, “divine feminine,” “divine masculine,” there’s a part of me that goes, “I don’t know if I know exactly what Erin’s talking about.” What is she really talking about? Are these just like mythic ideas of our highest feminine and masculine powers? What is she actually referring to here?
EM: I learned them in the most simple way. Actually, a wonderful tarot teacher called Lindsay Mack and the way she describes it is the divine masculine is like the mountain energy. It’s strong, it’s huge, it stays there. It’s got its own power. Then the divine feminine energy is like the ocean, so it’s oceanic power. It’s fluid. It’s the womb. It’s creativity. It’s emotion. Those two energies are equally powerful, and they dance together. They play together throughout all of nature.
TS: Erin, I’m going to circle back for a moment about the aliveness of the soil. Because when I started reflecting on that as I was reading Grounded, and I was thinking about the microbes that live in the soil, at least they live in healthy soil, part of what you point out is the role that fungi, the role that a mushroom-type creature plays in healthy soil. I thought this was so interesting. I wonder if you can explain that to our listeners, the role of fungi in healthy soil.
EM: Sure. The mushrooms are my favorite in the world, my favorite creatures, whatever they are. This was mind blowing when I learned this as well. It’s trying to comprehend the way that the plant breathes and the way that carbon moves in the plant cycle. Then I found out that basically the roots, what we think of as a root system, we can actually be thinking of what is mycorrhizal fungi. It’s a bigger kind of web.
I realized the roots can actually be smaller and you imagine them going down under the soil surface. I’m actually doing this with my hands right now. You can’t see them, but you have the little roots going down under the soil’s surface, and then I found out that the mycorrhizal fungi attaches to the roots and interacts with all of this incredible life in the soil. It’s like a middleman, and plants need this. Their roots don’t do it themselves. There’s this symbiotic relationship that has evolved in nature for all of time.
They’re these partners. They are everywhere, and they’re huge. These are one of the major things that we’re doing when we are destroying life in the soil, it’s killing the mycorrhizal fungi. When they’re healthy and they’re alive, they’re helping barter this incredible ecosystem with nematodes and the worms and all the things. They also help space out the air, so you have a little bit more air in the soil.
If you are familiar with healthy soil, if you think about holding what seems like healthy soil, it’s going to be dark and rich, because it’s going to have carbon in it. It’s going to have life in it. It’s going to be a little bit wet, and it’s going to have these string-like things, this mycorrhizal fungi. If you really look at it, it’s like there’s a whole party going on down there. If you think about the forest floor in a place that’s really healthy—I think of Oregon, the deep, deep composting, ever-composting, ever-turning-over forest floor.
You also think about mushrooms, these edge runners. Paul Stamets talks a lot about them being sentient edge runners. They’re aware of our footprints. As we walk by, they’re aware of us. There’s also this magic to it. I think mushrooms are spectacularly magical, and they have these funny personalities too, the ones that pop up and we think of as classic mushrooms with the toadstool head and whatever. They’re such a part of the compost story, the decomposition story, the life under the soil. I think nerding out about this is really fun.
The mushroom people—now I’ve learned there are just communities full of absolute avid mushroom enthusiasts of all kinds, of edible mushrooms, all the mushrooms. You can get more into that if that sounds exciting.
TS: Now, you write in the book that tragically we’ve unwittingly managed to kill more than half of the mycorrhizal fungi in the world. I had a moment when I read that, I was like, “Really? We’ve managed to kill more than half of this special fungi?” How have we done that?
EM: This is from the studies that I’ve looked at, and actually the regenerative agriculture movement has done a great job of talking about this and explaining it. The way I understand it is that these delicate little tendrils, they like life in a certain way. If you do things like cut through them, you’ll kill them, you’ll harm them. If you look at the way we’re doing industrial agriculture, for example, we do a tremendous amount of tilling the soil, so there’s a lot of cutting up the soil and killing that really delicate nature, that really delicate balance if you think of the forest floor.
Then we replace it with synthetic replacements, or we replace nutrients and things with synthetic replacements. If you touch that soil, you can feel that it doesn’t have that life running through it. It’s becoming more and more like dust. Then also pesticides, it’s poison. You don’t want to poison the bottom of the food chain is the way that I learned about it in the beginning. It’s like that doesn’t actually make a lot of sense.
If we can work with the soil in the way that it likes to be worked with, and there are more and more and more examples of this now, of successful ways of permaculture and different ways of farming, and just regenerative agriculture itself, tending to the soil first, rather than the more extractive method that we have now that’s doing increasing amounts of harm to the soil, and that’s where all of our fungi friends are going, sadly.
TS: Now, you mentioned tilling the soil as being quite destructive. If we’re trying to grow a massive amount, industrial agriculture, is there really a way to create the amount of food people need without doing something like tilling the soil?
EM: There’s actually something that’s come through in the regenerative agriculture movement that not all tilling is necessarily bad. There are ways to do alternative types of things, and there are ways to till less, and there are ways to rotate crops. There are all kinds of ways to approach these things that are not fully going from, say, full-on industrial agriculture straight to everyone has a permaculture lot. There’s a whole spectrum of things that go on here to support the food system.
We do, we have a modern food system now. We can’t just completely pick that up and throw it out the window, and expect to feed everybody. There’s a lot going on there. At the same time, small lot farms and small lot food production is way more productive than we think. The Rodale study is a really beautiful example of a long-term study of looking at health in the soil and production of food over time. Actually, over the longer term, if we take care of the soil, it gives us better returns financially. It’s just a longer runway.
That’s why some of these much longer studies are more useful, because some of the soil science studies that we were looking at back seven years ago were much shorter timelines. Food production, you’re trying to do math about food production, and basically what I understand that the regenerative agriculture movement has come to put together is there are many, many, many alternatives and ways to feed people. There are way more, let’s say there are way healthier ways to heal with the soil and still create a lot of food.
On top of that, the healing aspect of actually just having our own small lots and not transporting as much food is also really important for climate change. It’s a whole combination of things. I hope, is that clear? Does that make sense?
TS: It is. One of the suggestions you offer in Grounded is that people could also explore the power of growing some of their own food. You go so far as to say, “Growing our own food is an act of revolution.” A strong statement. How do you see it as an act of revolution?
EM: Well, there’s a beautiful piece about autonomy and freedom around growing our own food. If we imagine, we’ve all been through a pretty wild year and then some, so far, and it’s still going, where our systems are changing rapidly. Things are happening, and the way that we’ve been doing things for a long time is clearly not working. We’ve got a lot of problems, and a lot of things to adjust to.
What a lot of people have been doing is either moving out of the city, or within the city where they are just starting to have a little plot just to actually feel, one, to feel better and to have something to do that’s really enjoyable and good for you, but also to feel this sense of autonomy, like not being wedded to huge industrial systems for our survival. It’s also a root chakra conversation around foundation, survival, home, security.
Even just having a lemon tree that produces lemons outside of our home, it’s an incredibly securing feeling that I don’t have to go pay money for this. I don’t have to rely on somebody else or on a system, and certainly won’t have the idea of food shortages, or the ideas of if the trucks stop running for some reason, or any of this very delicate balance of things that have brought food to the grocery stores for all this time. There are ways to make our systems way more robust by relying more on our local centers, and in every way, and food is basically the most foundational way.
TS: Now, you mentioned, Erin, that even some of your friends who have read now the book Grounded have said to you, “God, I didn’t really put these two things together. I didn’t put, on the one hand, the climate crisis and the work you’re doing with creating healthy soil and healthy microbiomes in the soil, I didn’t really put that together with the yoga practices of breathing up the central axis, and claiming the power of the divine feminine in balance with the masculine, and putting it all into one picture.”
I noticed even during this conversation, I noticed myself being a little like, “These two things feel different to me, but I know they’re connected. I kind of feel they are, but I can’t quite explain it.” I wonder if you could speak more to that, to this moment in time where people like your friends and me in this moment, listening to our conversation, are trying to find this full, integrated, braided way of understanding the inner and the outer?
EM: I love that you just said braided. It made me think of the beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass. What actually just came to my mind is in terms of it coming home and that metaphor, I every time come back to this idea of indigenous peoples and lands. Obviously we’ve had a lot of upheaval in the last year and some, about our history, our shared history, and this intergenerational trauma that is worldwide with colonization.
The original way, maybe not original, but the way that for hundreds of years and then even thousands of years conquest has been part of our human history, and we’re all living with that somatic reality in our bodies. So many of us are on that healing journey. Then if you really look at it, so much of it has to do with connection to the land. If you look at origin stories and original stories, and if we’re talking about spiritual growth, it’s like indigenous cultures all over the world for all of time have honored the great mother, and the soil as the great mother, and this idea of the great void from which everything springs.
That, spiritually, physically, and practically, was severely damaged over the last 5,000 years. We have broken origin stories, and we have origin stories of violence, and then we’ve lived it out. We live it out by destroying the soil in all kinds of ways. We live it out by having a broken food system. We’ve lived it out through colonization and slavery. It also gets to the notion of private property, which I bring up. Which I found—that was at the bottom of when I did years of work on the right to housing and homelessness.
I was like, “Why can’t we figure this out?” Once again, just intellectually I was like, “How is it that all of humanity can’t solve this problem? Why can’t we do this? What is there?” What I found at the bottom of this muck was the concept of private property. There was no way to get around it intellectually. That just sat there with me for years. I had to leave it as an intellectual pursuit. I couldn’t get any further until it came all the way back around, when I bumped into goddess history, which is not ever something that I thought was going to happen.
It was like when I was dealing with soil carbon sequestration, I realized and I was going to give talks about it, I realized I couldn’t talk about it without talking about patriarchy. Then I started digging into patriarchy, and then I bumped into goddess history. I was like, “What is goddess history?” I had no idea. I had no idea. Then I started digging into goddess history, and then I started learning about this destruction of the origin story of the great mother.
That actually brought me to connection with indigenous peoples and lands, where I’m like, “Oh my God, humans all over the world have been working with the cycles of nature forever, and telling loving origin stories about the great mother, and the divine feminine, and the divine masculine in whatever language. These energies are universal.” The fact that it’s so true from the macro to the micro, in my own experience, my own personal healing journey paralleling what I see happening at the macro level and the systemic level, and having studied institutions and watching our institutions do what they’re doing right now, it actually all makes perfect sense to me.
It’s like, of course, if we come up with destructive origin stories, and then we live out something like colonization and all of this environmental destruction, we’re living out what we said we were going to do. It’s all one big system. If we’re living that out on the collective, we’re going to have something like climate change. If you’re living that out in the individual level, you’re probably not going to feel very good. You might have a lot of stress. You might be in a breakdown state, or anxiety, or any of the things that I had going on in the beginning. That’s how I see it. Does that make sense?
TS: It does, and it’s helpful. I’m curious to know more in your own biography, with your own intergenerational, traumatic human history, one that we all have, how you were able to create a level of rooted healing for yourself that’s informing you in your work now.
EM: I started looking at my matrilineal line and my patrilineal line, and there’s still a lot to do. Along my maternal line, my mom is Chinese, and her parents lived in Taiwan but left right before the Cultural Revolution. Their families were in China. I’m actually just starting to get to a place where I think that my grandmother might have a Mongolian background, because it’s right around in the same area. I’m looking into that.
I’ve been reflecting and healing a lot, also, particularly on the maternal line. There’s something very powerful about the womb, to womb, to womb, intergenerational passing on trauma or healing. I’m looking at this particularly, especially being in the US. We have then generations, again, of movement, or immigration, or even being stolen or taken from land, and people being moved from their land. I’m working all the way back with the idea of Mongolian tribal spirituality and connection to the land that’s there, and then northern China, and then Taiwan. Each generation being moved and of a different, really, culture.
That root chakra trauma, that sense of upsetting that connection to the land, to our mothers, to our people, to our cultures, to our tribes, that will deeply affect that root energy. I think that’s why I ended up in this root conversation in Bali one day, because I had this healing to do. When your root chakra isn’t aligned and balanced, that’s when you’re not owning your power. We’re giving our power away and externalizing our power. The way we do it collectively is in the most oppressive nature of capitalism. That has been the thread.
Then on the other side we have Celtic magic, and learning about witches, and also learning about the Catholic church, and a lot of the abuse and the things that have come through that side, and the stories that have been passed down through organized religion. That’s actually where the first thread came from, and now I’m working all the way around back to the maternal line healing. It’s never ending. There’s quite a bit.
Then that leads to beautiful conversations with everybody, because as we were deep in these race conversations, which we still are, the concept of race at all, but then everybody has a story about their family, their background, where they came from, the mix. It’s such a nuanced conversation, and there’s a beautiful humanity and healing that’s coming, and also having us look at the trauma that’s been passed down, and how it’s showing up in the world right now, and how it’s showing up in our society, in our economy, the way we think about things, the way people speak about things, embedded in our language.
All of that healing is—I think we’re just at the very beginning collectively with this healing, and so am I.
TS: Now, there’s one more thing I want to ask you about, Erin, because in this conversation I’m so impressed by how articulate you are and how courageous you are. In the book Grounded, you share a bit about what it took for you to liberate the power of your voice, that it wasn’t just there, that you had to go through a journey for that to happen. I wonder if you can tell us a bit about that, what you had to go through to find the power of your voice.
EM: Thank you. I almost choked up a little bit. That’s actually the energetic response to that voice conversation. We literally say “choke up.” In 2018, so I had been writing this book for a while by that point. I was in a plant medicine ceremony, and I was invited by a guide to sing, and I couldn’t. I literally couldn’t. Nothing would come out. It just cracked something open in me, and I ended up weeping, and weeping, and weeping, and realized that I had a deeply suppressed desire to sing.
This actually gets back to that potentially Mongolian roots of throat singing, like ancestral throat singing. I’m now being drawn to all sorts of ancestral expression through voice and song, because that’s such an ancient part and powerful part of plant medicine ceremonies all over the world and all of indigenous wisdom. The throat is so incredibly important. That was 2018.
The next talk I gave was about patriarchy, actually, and one of the first things that happened is as I used the word, because I knew I had to, it was terrifying to say that word, actually, at the time. I would feel like a hand around my throat. I talk about this in the book. It was the craziest feeling, but it was like this is some kind of somatic memory. Then I shared that with groups of women, and lots of women were feeling the same thing.
We’re back to this kind of like witch wound. If you’re talking about also intergenerational trauma, and in Europe, for example, in witch hunts, and it’s like, “This stuff is still real in our bodies.” The fear of expressing through that is tremendous. I have a voice coach now. I work on voice every single day. I work on making all kinds of sounds, because there is the sense of you can’t make certain sounds or it has to sound good in this way. It was just all of these stories from thousands of years of why I can’t do this, say this, make this noise, be this way.
Unlocking the throat, it’s been everything in terms of I mean literally writing a book. It’s our communication center. It’s our truth center, being in our truth, and not allowing me to then give away my power in that way, where I would never apologize if I didn’t mean it now, or any of these things that seem small. Really standing in my truth in every moment is the critical part. Now, here we are talking about the book, and so it’s been really incredible.
TS: What would you say, Erin, to someone who’s listening who’s in the middle of that journey of liberating their voice, and they want to go further?
EM: I’d just say keep going. Lean into it, invest in it. Get a guide, a coach. As soon as you open up to it, somebody will show up, the right person. Just keep going and keep practicing. If it requires crying through it, cry through it. If it requires yelling and screaming through it, do that. Whatever it takes, it’s worth it. It’s never ending. I think collectively we have such a huge throat chakra project right now, that it’s going to take all of us.
The more you free yourself, the more you free other people. The more you share—lots of people have hired my vocal guide woman. She’s not just a coach. She’s a spiritual guide. They just see me opening up this way, and sharing even on social media and stuff like that, it’s sharing the truth, sharing poetry. There’s no end to the joy. Singing is just one of the most powerful and deeply healing things that we have as humans, so just give yourself that gift.
TS: Finally, Erin, there’s a quote on your website, “The hour calls for optimism. We’ll save pessimism for better times.” What I want to know here: your optimistic vision of where we’re going as a collective.
EM: Thank you. That’s such a beautiful question. I feel incredibly optimistic. I don’t really have much pessimism left at all. It’s pretty much gone. I feel like this journey, it’s within all of us. In a way, it’s sort of written. We actually are so much more safe than we realize. When I started this book, I didn’t feel safe at all. I started it on a mission to save everybody and everything in whatever way I could, because I thought we were bound for utter destruction.
Certainly lots of things get to be worked on, and we get to do a lot of healing. It’s all right here for us. Mother Nature heals so fast when we work with her. I think as soon as we can start telling the story to each other and dropping into our own internal individual work, continuing on with this intergenerational healing and the societal healing that we’re already doing, accelerating it even. Then working together, which I already see.
One thing is that I live in a world of people who are doing these incredible projects and connecting up healthy food and gardens and things with people who don’t have food, and creating regenerative farms all over, working on the policy. Everybody I know has some hand in creating the new world. It’s so beautiful. Everybody that starts working on it suddenly feels fulfilled and happy and thrilled, and like we’re doing the right thing, that we’re walking the path of alignment. It feels better for us individually. It feels better collectively. We’re creating new systems.
We don’t have to live—well, we’re just not going to live under these systems that aren’t working anymore, so being a hand in just creating that. We don’t know for sure what it’s going to look like, but it’s beautiful. It’s regenerative. Even a regenerative economy that’s like everything we create, every, say, product, is regenerative. So it comes from the earth. It can be compostable or whatever it is, and the way that we exchange money around it, or whatever system we have, is in highest service to all. Because we’re doing our work around it, we can work with that.
I think there’s such a tremendous opportunity as to what we’re going to create in the next even like 50 years. It’s spectacular.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Erin Yu-Juin McMorrow. She’s the author of the new book with Sounds True, Grounded: A Fierce, Feminine Guide to Connecting to the Soil and Healing from the Ground Up. Thank you so much for our conversation that in and of itself, I feel, was regenerative. So thank you so much.
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