Video: Cityfarming the Front Range

The Wall Street Journal, that verdiest of periodicals, gave some video love to cityfarming recently. For some reason the story passed over such exemplary urban efforts as Philadelphia’s profitable Somerton Tanks and Oakland’s charitable City Slicker Farms in favor of a couple folks working in my home state of Colorado: Kipp Nash, the founder of Boulder yardfarming network Community Roots, and Denver first-timer Debbie Dalrymple. Not that I’m complainin’.

Blacktail Permaculture makes it happen

It’s one thing to learn about the work of pioneers like Paul Stamets and John Todd and get all excited about their vision of the 21st century. It’s quite another to roll your sleeves up and actually start putting that vision into action. But that’s just what my buddies at the Blacktail Permaculture farm are on well on their way to doing. Situated on plot just outside of Denver, the Blacktail crew recently submitted a grant to use fungi to filter polluted groundwater and restore the native tallgrass prarie ecosystem. While grants don’t tend to read all that interestingly, this one happens to packed with verdy tidbits about the science of regeneration. Read on for the full text.

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The Seamstress and the Sorcerer: a Contemporary Creation myth

By Adam Brock

It’s been a long time since I wrote fiction, and I’ve never really tried my hand at allegory before. But for a while now, I’ve been thinking of something I read in a Bioneers book: we need a new creation myth. Genesis is steeped in patriarchal anthropocentrism, and the creation myths of the Modernist religion of science fail to inspire. Here’s my crack at reinterpreting the story of Gaia through the guise of traditional mythlogy… let me know what you think.

There once was a magical seamstress. Like Jesus, she was the product of spontaneous conception, but her mother was roiling seas. As soon as she was born, she began dancing. Slowly at first, but with grace. As she danced, she left a trail of fabric everywhere she went, an ever-extending gown that, when untangled, told the story of her dance.

She spent her youth dancing underwater, swimming with the tides and pulsing with the seasons. She would stumble at times, breaking off bits and pieces of the fabric here and there. But time after time, she would begin again, and the fabric would heal over itself. As she crossed back and forth over her path, parts the fabric would wind around itself, creating intricate, flowing knots.

As she grew older, she learned all kinds of tricks. She would capture beams of sunlight and swallow them, using the fire they contained to dance still faster. She began twirling up to the unfamiliar surface of the water, and learned how to breathe air. Little by little, her sweet breath spread throughout the land, until it had completely transformed it. The pace of her dance quickened, and the fabric grew longer and longer. It developed new patterns, in a wider and wider palette of colors, dizzyingly complex but somehow completely simple and elegant. The seas were filled with the colorful knots of the dancer’s fabric, and she stepped out of the water and onto the land.

By now, her dance had gained the wisdom of a full-grown woman. For long periods of time, it would slow to a crawl, only to break into a sudden burst of spontaneous spinning, diving and soaring. Still, it was never random. Always, the seamstress’ dance was a conversation with her surroundings: the weather, the terrain, and, increasingly, the fabric itself, which now covered both land and sea in a spectacle of interwoven, brightly colored knots.

But then something strange happened. As the seamstress danced, she began to fill a slight tug on her back. The tug became more and more insistent, until finally she turned around. She was amazed by what she saw – seemingly out of nowhere, part of the fabric she had just spun had formed itself into the shape of a sorcerer. And the sorcerer was beginning to dance on its own. If the seamstress’ dance was ballet, this was capoeira: angular, aggressive and unpredictable. As his form coalesced, the sorcerer’s skin lost its delicate patterns and faded to an even pale tan. Its dance got ever larger and more violent, and began enveloping more and more of the fabric. Like a tornado, the sorcerer bounced around the globe, grasping at the fabric and tearing its tassels and filigrees. Everything it touched became the same dull color, and took on the same limp arrangement as the sorcerer.

Within only a few minutes, the entire work of the seamstress lay in shambles. Patches of color remained in a vast landscape of tattered fabric. The air was getting smoky, the waters began to cloud, and the sorcerer himself began to stumble – for without more fabric to gather, his magic had no power.

To be continued…

Urban Permaculture Part 1: Waste = Food

While I might not be doing a whole lot of posting these days, Andrew Faust is keeping himself busy on the blogosphere. The following is the first piece in a series, cross-posted on Green Brooklyn, on how permaculture principles can apply to urban settings, specifically in NYC.

– Adam 

An Ecological Design View of Brooklyn and New York CityPermaculture works with whole systems integrated ecological design goals. We create designs based on our understandings of how the earth works and what human beings truly need for a high quality of life. As a person practicing and teaching permaculture design in New York City, I describe the goal of permaculture as: to create ecologically intelligent designs for human settlements.

In part we accomplish this by creating more regionally self-sufficient, local economies. I call it retrofitting the infrastructure. Instead of centralized mass production, the commodification of basic necessities and the long distance transportation of goods and energy services, we want to shorten the distance of transmission of all goods and services, this improves quality, efficiency and creates truer food security. In permaculture design we seek to close the loop on linear energy and nutrient flows.

In this series we will look at what these design goals offer in the way of insights and opportunities to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Brooklyn and New York City overall. Some of the key urban permaculture issues we will explore through this series:

  • Bringing ecological design to New York cities infrastructure
  • Water issues, air quality, soil contamination
  • Boosting our vitality and health
  • Creating healthy architecture
  • Greening urban environments
  • Bringing food production, trees and biodiversity back into urban landscapes

In whole systems design analysis everything is interconnected and pollution is a result of an unused excess. We want high urban density areas like New York City and Brooklyn to begin to generate and properly digest some of its vast quantity of imported and exported nutrients. By adopting this goal we will address a range of interconnected realities which I shall outline herein.

Some facts and figures to get us rolling:

  • New York City population: 8,250,567 as of 2006
  • New York City imports 20,000 tons of food a day
  • New York City exports 13,000 tons of trash a day
  • 40% of New York’s trash is organic matter
  • 600 diesel fume spewing tractor trailers a day haul this trash in a nine mile long convoy to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan and Idaho
  • The average NYC household throws out 2 pounds of organic “waste” a day = 1 million tons a year
  • There are 12,000 vacant lots in New York City which are publicly owned

So let’s connect the dots. The way to improve this highly energy intensive and pollution producing linear flow is to begin composting this organic matter, turning this “waste” into a resource. We need to have accessible and well maintained ways to compost properly throughout New York City and Brooklyn. We need to begin composting on a citywide — as well as individual household — level. Start small and remember one person beginning to compost makes a big difference.

On the 12,000 publicly owned vacant lots we can compost this organic material and start community gardens, biodiversity reserves, tree farms, orchards and small inner city farms.

One of our ideas in Permaculture is that within the problem lies the solution. These are a couple of clear examples of how this works.

In Brooklyn there are many brownfields and other contaminated old industrial sites.

An Ecological Design View of Brooklyn and New York CityOne of the most successful ways to bring back a contaminated site is to begin to introduce living soil (i.e. compost), a diverse vegetative community and mushrooms and fungi. The microbes and enzymes in living soil breakdown a wide range of harmful synthetic chemicals and certain plant species are known to sequester heavy metals, enabling the gathering and reclamation of these metals.

In our upcoming postings on Urban Permaculture we will look at the dynamic processes by which nature provides us with healthy air, water and food. We will look into the many ways to bring these essential ecological elements back into our urban landscapes.

This Urban Permaculture series addresses a range of ecological issues in New York City and Brooklyn and presents permaculture design solutions to these city-wide problems. For more information about Andrew Faust and his Permaculture Design in NYC class, please go to The Center for Bioregional Living at www.homebiome.com.

A Sense of Place: The Pitchfork Collective

By Adam Brock

Over the last year or so, I’ve slowly begun to come to terms with the fact that everything that mattered in the first two decades of my life – all my achievements and disappointments, my aspirations and concerns – occurred under conditions that are fast becoming obsolete. The economic meltdown that’s currently underway only serves to underscore the fact that the growth-centric society in which I grew up is poorly suited to the new realities of a rapidly changing climate and declining supply of energy.

Fortunately, I’ve never been one to shy away from change. Instead, I’ve spent the better part of the past year trying to figure out what it might mean to live in a way that works with, rather than against, natural systems. Do l I have to renounce the urban lifestyle to live sustainably? Will it make me happier, or more stressed out?

For now, these questions are largely hypothetical: as long as I’m at school in New York, sustainable living remains little more than an abstraction. Sure, I can refuse plastic bags, buy local food, and use compact fluorescent bulbs in my apartment, but in the end these are only gestures at leaving a lighter footprint, greening the edges of a way of life that is fundamentally against nature. But with graduation fast advancing – and the prospects of finding a secure career seeming less attractive by the week – I decided to use the generous break between my final two semesters to seek out a Forest Green way of life in my hometown of Denver.

Which is how I found myself living in the Pitchfork Collective, a cooperative living space founded about a year ago in central Denver. The three-story house, in the historic Five Points neighborhood, is home to an ever-shifting cast of characters, all between the ages of 17 and 27. During the course of my stay, I met couch-surfing hipster vagabonds, transgender wiccans, crust-punk anarchists, and many other folks too unique to slap a label on. What united them all was a respect for diversity, defiant individualism, and a belief in sustainable community.

Like any group of activist youth, the Pitchfork Collective wasn’t without its downsides: the industrial-sized sink was rarely without a pile of dirty dishes, and during the course of my stay, more than a few non-residents took advantage of the house’s open-door policy by overstaying their welcome. Still, I continually found myself surprised by the amazing things going on around the house – at any given time, collective members might be busy making crafts to sell on Etsy, planning for the springtime permaculture garden, teaching a class on positive menstruation, or cooking burritos to hand out to migrant workers. Despite the griminess, the constant flux of residents, and the youthful naiveté, I had to admit that Pitchfork was thriving. And it’s not alone: at least five or six similar houses have formed just past the frontiers of central Denver’s gentrification, all of them connected in a tight-knit community of young radicals.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Pitchfork was its role as host of Denver’s food not bombs, a program that cooks and serves recently expired food to needy communities across the country. Every Saturday morning, volunteers made the rounds at several local grocery stores that have agreed to donate unwanted food, delivering dozens of boxes of produce, baked goods and leftover bulk goods to Pitchfork’s front lawn. An ever-shifting crew of residents and friends assembled to sort, prepare, and cook the food, working with whatever was in abundance that week. Once the dishes were ready, they were loaded into an old biodiesel pickup and driven to a nearby park, where a crowd of eager customers awaited.

The long train ride back to New York gave me some time to assess my stay at Pitchfork. Is it sustainable? Probably not – even food not bombs is based on a surplus of produce grown far, far away. It’s also not for everybody; with such a diverse set of roommates, collective living can strain the most open of minds. Still, I don’t think Pitchfork really needs to be a universal template to be successful. After all, the whole point of the regeneration is to move away from universal templates in favor of new ways of living based on local climate and culture. Under these criteria, then, I’d say the Pitchfork Collective is a damn good first attempt at urban sustainability. In a society filled with cookie-cutter neighborhoods and lives that lack meaning, Pitchfork proves that diversity can succeed, that you don’t need stuff to be satisfied, that community is key – and that doing it yourself can be a whole lot more fun than letting others to do it for you.