Interview: Maria Erb

Maria ErbI’m most comfortable in emergent spaces, whether real or imagined. Maybe on some level I have an inner tuning fork of sorts that points me in the direction of things opening up, broadening, and moving. I definitely feel constrained when they’re not and I feel it bodily when they are.” — Maria Erb 6/19/23 


Who is Maria Erb?

Maria Erb is an Instructional Designer in the Information Services Division of the University of Portland. She’s also an avid backpacker and gardener who spent time farming in New Hampshire. I met Maria as a result of her backpacking with my wife, Lisa. And once I learned the extent to which she shares my passion for gardening, we’ve enjoyed sharing plants and seeds at every opportunity. 


The Interview… 

J: Where are you from originally… where’d you grow up and what was it like growing up?

M: I grew up in a small mill town in the Rust Belt near the Ohio border. The area had been thriving at one point but by the time I came along, it had been in decline for quite a while. Most of the steel industry was gone and there wasn’t a sense of a second wave of anything coming along next or at least, not any time soon. Fortunately, a lot of people who had worked in the mills for a few decades owned their own homes and some even had small businesses to work in after the steel heyday was over. One of my uncles had worked the 4 pm to midnight shift for a couple of decades and also ran a TV repair business during the day so was able to transition into that business fully. My Aunt did the bookkeeping and some electronics sales and my cousins drove the shop van all over town picking up and dropping off TVs, which were mostly huge consoles at that time looking a lot like living room furniture. Another uncle, who was known for having a collection of small engines, auto parts, and other odds and ends near his farm house, took on more of a junk dealer role and was also able to pick up work doing deliveries for a local pharmacy. While there wasn’t a lot of homelessness because housing was inexpensive (and still is for the most part) there also wasn’t a sense (to me) of people moving into new territory or moving forward. The place always felt suspended in time. Even now, when I visited about four years ago, things looked the same. Same donut shop, same pizza place, same nightclub lounge.  Forty plus years and it’s still got the same palette.

But I’m sure a lot of those feelings of flatness had something to do with my own internal landscape which was very narrow and constricting. I had several difficult personal circumstances that made me feel very much at odds with the environment and culture around me. You could have dropped me down almost anywhere and I would have felt like an alien from another planet which is definitely how I felt in the middle of a working class, mostly Catholic, small town in Northern Appalachia. So I suppose I was projecting a lot of those feelings onto what I saw around me.

J: That’s such a compelling and insightful response… and I must say, remarkably well written. Thank you for that. It brings so many possible questions to mind, but I guess I’ll stay with the image you created at the end of your comment, which is that of a young person struggling to fit into the community —the environment— in which you grew up. You obviously didn’t stay there, because we’re a long way from northern Appalachia. How did you come to leave your hometown… and where have you traveled and lived since then? Have any of those places felt more welcoming?

M: As you can imagine, all of that inner Sturm und Drang created a locomotive force that compelled me to want to get as far away as fast as possible. My plan in high school was to get good grades so that I’d have my choice of far-away colleges. But, good grades aside, finances constrained those choices to more regional offerings. My next plan was to get a marketable degree so I’d have a shot at being able to support myself in a location more appealing to me. I didn’t have a job when I graduated and my dread at returning back to where I came from was so great that I bought a one-way ticket to Boston and left the day after graduation. I had a cousin who was a student at MIT and his fraternity would rent out rooms in the frat house during the summer to family and friends. So I had an inexpensive place to stay and 3 months to find a decent job. All I had with me were some clothes, a suit for going on job interviews, and my typewriter. That’s it! But that’s how I got out on my own, and so could finally begin the long journey of starting to unravel the tangled glob of emotions that had necessarily been boxed up and placed in the far recesses of my internal space until a more genial environment should arise. Boston was a great place for me and with the backdrop of a dynamic, vibrant, cosmopolitan city, I felt more comfortable surrounded by so many possibilities.

From there, I eventually moved to a small farm in rural New Hampshire which furnished much needed space and other provisions for the next leg of my journey. I worked at a university near the Vermont border and was very much at home with the progressive, environmentally-focused, practical attitude of the area. Working in a tech job during the day and doing farm chores the rest of the time was an ideal balance for me.  Even though I was still hemorrhaging my energy by trying to fit into straight culture, I didn’t feel as bound or restricted in that part of New England.  There was a lot more room to breathe — inside as well as outside.

What brought me to the PNW was a combination of things: weariness with the long, cold winters; a couple of shifts in my personal economy; a desire for new beginnings; and something that’s maybe more mystical. I had been to Portland a number of times and loved its quirky charm.  I also loved its decent bicycle infrastructure which is a must for me as I’m someone who bikes for transportation. But I think the thing that called to me was on a much deeper level.  Somehow, I sensed that this is where I needed to be to complete the journey that had started three decades earlier. And that has been the case.

J: What an interesting journey… with some super interesting twists. Like a cousin attending MIT with a place for you to stay. How often does something like that happen? And at a time when you were in such a fragile state… a life-saving oasis. The trip west from a New England farm is a bit more common. I’ve met several farmers out here who got their start in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine. It’s obvious that the organic farm/homestead movement is strong there. And I love your spiritual references. I have a strong spiritual/philosophical inclination myself, and like you, I feel this place has a much greater acceptance of that approach to engaging and understanding life. But now I need to get to a question… so let’s focus on the mystical for a moment… have you always felt an awareness of your spiritual nature — regardless of whether you were able to name it — or is that something that came to you later in your journey?

M: As a kid, I didn’t have any interest at all in things of a spiritual nature. I didn’t like going to church, nothing about it resonated with me. Life seemed to be a material thing and I was ok with that.  But one day when I was in high school, sitting in biology class, I had this inner revelation that still to this day reverberates. We were learning about single celled animals, parameciums I believe, and suddenly I was just filled with this overwhelming sense of awe and wonder at the elegance, efficiency, and utility of the design of these creatures. Nothing was random, everything seemed to me to be so perfectly fitted and portioned. I felt that such a thing couldn’t have come about randomly. It was by design. 

Now, I’m a hardcore minimalist — min to the max as I always say — so this experience was speaking my love language loud and clear. I think it’s really funny that nothing about universal salvation, omnipotence, and omniscience spoke to me then (or even does now). But simple, beautiful design? That’s my number apparently. I also feel incredible reverence any time I have my hands in the soil or watch a seedling grow and then go to seed. Miraculous. I’m always interested to find out what other people feel is sacred or miraculous. And especially what speaks to them and resonates most deeply.

J: Those are beautiful insights. Thanks so much for sharing them. Unlike you, religion and spirituality did resonate with me from my earliest memories, but those feelings led me on a somewhat desperate search to understand what I was feeling, and when I found no answers that seemed honest or sincere, my life kind of fell apart. Then I happened upon the taoist way of thinking which feels very much like your view of simple, beautiful design. And, also like you, I feel that truth very deeply when I have my hands in the soil and watch my seedling friends grow and seed and grow again. Perfect, simple, and beautifully balanced. Design so perfect it doesn’t even matter if it’s random or planned. But back to your simple, beautiful design… it sounds like that way of thinking could lead a person to math or physics as easily as biology or agronomy or gardening. Have you found that to be true? And also, when you say minimalist, how does that way of thinking translate into lifestyle for you?

M: The love of simple, elegant design didn’t lead me personally towards mathematics or physics — could have but didn’t. In the same way,  I’m pretty sure most people sitting in biology class aren’t bowled over by the design of single-celled animals even if they are aficionados of spare construction! But that’s what is so interesting about these sudden moments of deep insight or connection. They don’t follow an if-then course — there’s definitely a mystical element involved. As for the whole minimalist thing, it’s something that’s always been in my wiring from day one. I’ve always gravitated towards plain lines, small spaces, lack of adornment, and utility.  I’ve always had a disdain for clutter and bloat. I have some sort of internal meter that goes berserk at one tick over “enough”. I’m always looking for simpler, easier ways to do things, always looking to pare down, retool, reimagine, and recombine. Also, I love modular design and, as you can probably guess, anything Shaker made.

J: You have such a well defined aesthetic sensibility. I think that’s so cool. It’s like you inherently recognize your path in the way life unfolds before you, and there’s definitely a mystical quality to that. You both see it and sense it. I feel an affinity to that way of experiencing the world. But, a question comes to mind… is there conflict when comparing natural design and minimalist design? For example, the zen aesthetic (which I love) is certainly minimalist, and a zen approach to gardening strives to create a refined view of nature (cosmologically refined?); whereas an English cottage garden (which I also love) is anything but minimalist and strives to create an abundant view of nature that seemingly has room for a little bit of everything that might naturally want to join the party. Is one garden style more in tune with nature than the other, or are they both merely expressing nature within different contexts? Sorry… that all sounds kind of convoluted. Can you find a question to answer in all my blathering?

M: Well, imo, there’s not much that’s natural about gardens of any kind. I mean, nature doesn’t make gardens. We do. All gardens are a mix of intrusion, imposition, intention, and hopefully, maybe, some collaboration. I like Zen gardens and cottage gardens too. But they’re gardens and pretty much by definition, requiring a lot of involvement to maintain. I’ve always been intrigued by Fukuoka’s “seedball” style of gardening, to use the term very broadly. The idea of mixing up a lot of things and letting Nature take its course with all of it seems pretty darn natural to me, but if I throw down a bunch of kale seeds I’m going to get a bunch of aphids and not much kale. Even a hardcore minimalist like me is tasked with using the least intrusive intervention that still gets the job done to do this unnatural thing of creating a garden. 

J: Some great points, and in the past I think I would have agreed with you wholeheartedly. But now, it feels to me like when we say nature and gardens are fundamentally different, and essentially that gardens are unnatural, we’re presupposing that humans are not part of nature. That we’re unnatural organisms existing within a natural ecosystem… with the ecosystem being life itself. So now I like to think of nature as being life in a naturally sustained (or sustainable) state of balance… or, on the scale of my own garden, a naturally balanced ecosystem. That way, I get to be part of nature, just like all my other plant and animal friends. I do my best to garden for the insects, which are an important key to natural balance. With insect balance, the garden needs plenty of aphids to feed all the aphid eaters. And food plants regenerate as readily as other plants… I probably get (or could get) almost as much food out of volunteer plants as I do plants that I bring in each year. Mustard greens, cilantro, magenta spreen, tomatoes, leeks, lettuce, shiso, dill, arugula… if I allow the plants to complete their life cycle naturally, they reproduce naturally. It’s still true that, as the gardener, I influence the ecosystem, but in my undoubtedly self-affirming way of thinking, that’s the natural contribution my species provides the ecosystem. 🙂 

Admittedly, my naturally balanced front-yard ecosystem is an aspiration rather than a reality, but every year I discover more insects that I used to see regularly in the pastures and over-grown tree rows of my rural youth, all of which were teeming with life. The feeling I always got from Fukuoka’s writings is that he believed in observing life and then trying to duplicate or borrow from its processes to find a healthier (for the earth) way of producing food. Permaculture follows those principles, don’t you think? Food forests alter an existing ecosystem the same way beaver dams do, but the end result is a balanced ecosystem that more easily sustains the gardener. So now, I guess my follow-up question to you is: do you think it’s possible to develop a more natural, balanced way of existing on earth, or do you think the earth will ultimately become untenable for nature as we’ve come to think of it? 

M: I try to follow permaculture principles fairly closely and I’m all for anything that wants to reseed itself without taking over (I’m looking at you Miner’s lettuce) but even Fukuoka acknowledged that we have to change the way we look at food and eating first and foremost. I mean, we’re probably not going to get sweet corn with a side order of permaculture. I personally like bitter, caustic plants that can defend themselves and are unattractive to insects and I’m fine with apples that aren’t bright red, shiny, and round but that’s not what our food systems are designed to produce. Dinosaurs were part of nature too and they’re not here anymore along with lots of other species that have disappeared. A cautionary tale for all of us, don’t you think? In the near term though, I’d love to find some kale that can fend off aphids. 

J: Hear, hear! Definitely a cautionary tale. And I think the kale you’re looking for comes with a side of ladybugs. And sweet corn is addictive in all of its forms. And humans, like any other invasive species, will most likely survive only as long as it (we) can find new ecosystems to overrun, consume, and unwittingly destroy. But that seems like such a downer to me when I think about it, and since I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for much of my life, I tend to put my blinders on and go mess around in my garden and talk to my friends and neighbors while I nibble on bitter greens. While I’m nibbling, I’m remembering that you said you found Portland to have a quirky charm and be a city that felt like a place that served your needs. Do you still feel that way? And the journey you’re undertaking… is it still unfurling or are you feeling content at the moment? 

M: I’m still lovin’ PDX, that’s for sure. I do feel the journey that brought me out here is winding down, or is even over… but a new journey is starting up. And it seems to be in Portland, at least for now.  That’s all I know about it so far! 

J: PDX works for me, too. I love it here; and I especially love my neighborhood. It’s a great place to plant a garden, which we both clearly love. But before we end this interview, I’m wondering about how you got involved in IT work. You do tech support work at Portland State… right? And you used to do some scientific research work… was that biochemistry or something else? How did all that come about?

M: Hmmm, perhaps you are thinking about someone else? I do work for a university in Portland but not Portland State. I’ve never done tech support or scientific research. I started out as a journalist and migrated into tech happenstance. I had a friend who was trying to make a career change. She signed up for a programming course at a local technical college and asked me if I’d attend the first class with her. She hated it, but I loved it and ended up completing the whole program in web development. From there, I got a job building online programs for a university in New Hampshire and I’ve been in that field ever since. My job title changes from time to time and the description varies but it’s usually a mix of Ed Tech, multimedia, web technologies, and instructional design. It’s been a good fit for me overall because I like to do lots of different things and to reimagine the familiar in the light of new possibilities.

J: No, not someone else— I was totally thinking of you, but I clearly was thinking about your tech background in the wrong way, so thanks for clearing all that up. However, I was correct that you have a strong technical side and a tech-oriented background to go with your farming background. And I really like how you tied multimedia and web in with instructional design. It really does require a broad knowledge base to do what you do. Also, your response brought to light an absolutely wonderful observation… you like to reimagine the familiar in the light of new possibilities. That’s beautifully put. I could sit with that thought all day and be content. Now I’m curious what it looks like when you go about the process of reimagining the familiar in the light of new possibilities. Do you daydream? Do you take notes? Are you empirical or opportunistically organic? Are flow charts involved? Is it even possible for you to describe this process?

M: I don’t have a hard and fast process at all, it’s just kind of how I think about things in general.  I suppose some of it is typical of how most futurists would think about things, i.e. extrapolating out current trends, lighting on signals and patterns, etc. I’m most comfortable in emergent spaces, whether real or imagined. Maybe on some level I have an inner tuning fork of sorts that points me in the direction of things opening up, broadening, and moving. I definitely feel constrained when they’re not and I feel it bodily when they are. So I guess it’s a mix of thinking like a futurist and intuiting where currents are moving or are blocked. Something like that.