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My interview for this week’s post  takes us into a different direction. Earth Day is around the corner with many planned celebrations, conferences and dates. I decided to reintroduce to my readers scientist and ecologist, Katerina ‘Kat’ vanDeusen. She and I have been presenters at a women’s’ gathering:“Strawberry Moon Festival.” that used to take place in June. My elder who organized this event is no longer able to do so. However, I found myself looking over bios for the last event and came upon Kat’s bio.

Intrigued, I called Kat and she agreed to be interviewed for my blog..

Kat comes from a matrilineal heritage of healers, one of whom, her Grandmother from Puerto Rico, taught her how to respect, gather and use wild   plants. And yes, to sense the presences in nature that can guide us, heal us and provide for us.

Kat is a senior project scientist and completed graduate work for a masters in bio-engineering at Cook College, Rutgers University where she also studied molecular plant biology. She is the primary coordinator for an innovative program within her company, EWMA. EWMA primarily tackles sites in New Jersey and New York State. An environmental engineer, she uses her expertise for “phytoremediation”, using plants and trees to decompose the components of toxic pollution from contaminated water and land sites. This is a unique and effective program.

Many of our undeveloped land in these states have soils and waterways contaminated with:

Petroleum products
Dry cleaner fluids (particularly toxic)
Landfill waste

These sites are termed Brownfield sites. Our traditional way of dealing with contaminated sites is to extract the soil for example, remove it. Then the question becomes where do we dump this toxic soil? Other techniques for water breaks down the contaminants and then sprays them into the air. Is that further contributing to air pollution?

Kat is unique in this field. As a trained scientist she uses the skills and tools from her education. However, her grandmother taught her something about working with the plant kingdom in more traditional, esoteric ways. Kat has a knack for scouting out an area, observing plant species present which often leads to a hidden toxic dump site. How does she do this? The plants tell her, she replies.

How does she work?

  1. She evaluates the landscape or Brownfield.
  2. Evaluates plant and tree species present; these two steps are complex as our topography undulates, has curves and slopes.
  3. If she has to replant the area, she uses plants/trees in multiple steps to prevent further contamination into water or lowlands.
  4. Specific plants/trees can eat up contaminants, metabolize them, which results in in the expiration of water vapor into the air that is no longer toxic.
  5. First successors like cedar trees, pokeweed do this efficiently.
  6. Does it work? Ground water is repeatedly tested and these scientists note an 80% reduction in contaminants in the soil and water.
  7. Cattails (Typha latifolia), Phragmites are great at protecting habitats. Have you observed these plants around waterways near our highways?  While some may consider Phragmites to be invasive I find it interesting that these plants are part of nature’s clean up crew. Dandelions are soil stabilizers. Did you know sunflowers are planted extensively around Chernobyl? They absorb the radiation from the soil. Fukushima sunflower project is under way.

Kat concluded our interview by stating nature has effectively engineered a way to create balance and the renewed hope of cleaning up our mess.

Lastly, she gives thanks to the plant kingdom for their guidance and when done often feels she receives their blessing.

She states: “The true measure of a scientist is to allow themselves to be open to all possibilities not the empirical.” This philosophy allows the scientist within and her scientific curiosity to blend with her matrilineal ability to perceive plants differently: which plants give a clue to a problem, which plants can literally eat up toxins and bring healthy renewal to our land. Her projects are unique. Her approach is innovative. Her results are measurable and positive.

Earth Day is upon us; a national awareness time for our country to celebrate the abundance and bounty the earth provides for us. And, to highlight the problems before us and stimulate us to take action. I would like to see us honor the earth everyday, wouldn’t you? Katerina vanDeusen’s phytoremediation efforts remind us of the complexity of nature. We still have much to learn don’t we? Earth Day for me is a reminder to stop, observe, and give thanks.

Enjoy. Judith





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