Nothing Comes From Nothing

Exploring An Urban Oasis: The Ecology Center With Gregory Foster

"Nothing can be made from nothing - once we see that's so, already we are on the way to what we want to know."

– Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things, translated)

Agroecology seeks to restore traditional, healthy relationships within the food system by challenging us to reexamine where and how our food came to be. Think about where a bowl of rice comes from – it’s harvested, packaged, shipped to the grocery store, and ends up on the dinner table. But rice is much more indispensable than that. Food is much more indispensable than that. In this bowl of rice is a farmer working hard in the field to provide for their family. There is energy from the sun, water, wind, and air that creates a climate for seeds to thrive. Inside, there is soil containing archaeological fragments of our plant and animal ancestors. Nothing comes from nothing – a shift in mindfulness inadvertently builds a harmonious relationship between the people who grow the food and the people eating it.

Begin With Observation

The first step in synchronizing current food systems is using permaculture's primary principle. Through the eyes of someone who looks onto a permaculture garden without awareness, it's messy, out of control; it's disorienting. Observation is learned as children, yet over time, it became abandoned as modern society splintered the attention span.

Permaculture calls on the child within to rebuild the innate skill of observation. By taking time to observe, synergy can be felt between all existing elements within a permaculture system. This enlightenment can only be activated through consciousness.

Stop and smell the flowers; immerse all five senses into the natural world. Textures, colors, spaces, smells, tastes – the landscape becomes a vivid painting, and the designer becomes an artist.

"Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration."

       —David Holmgren

sponsored content
Life Imitates Patterns

How does the spider spin its web? How do bees form honeycombs? The creation of all matter in the universe is linked to the expression of repetitive patterns. The incognizant observer doesn't realize they're subconsciously drawn to waves or cyclical configurations of seasons, lunar cycles, and ocean tides; when, in fact, patterns make up their entire existence.

Examples of Patterns

Spirals grow continuously outward. Sunflower seeds, the Milky Way, climbing vines, and human DNA are examples of this. Designing landscapes in spirals is whimsical and has a practical application–they're space-saving, maximize edges, and enhance the strength of an object by creating anchorage.

Dendritic or branch patterns concentrate at a center point and disperse energy, as apparent in the sprouting of plant life. Tree branches, root networks, and waterways are all dendritic patterns at play. They are helpful in the design, particularly in water management, due to their ability to conserve energy sources from the point of volume. Branch patterns divert water, moving materials and energy across a large landscape.

Sinuous or meandering patterns are rhythmic channels that produce a multitude of curves. Almost all streams and rivers follow an identical course that, if observed from above, would resemble a serpentine flow. In nature, sinuous patterns slow soil erosion, increase surface area, and uniformly transfer energy.

The universe was created in a random, chaotic explosion – one that fragments of life clung to. Scatter patterns maximize the dispersal of matter, diversity, and cover. Many plants and flowers utilize this pattern as they spread their seeds across various landscapes, ensuring the species' survival.

Nature thematically reworks and recreates a handful of patterns. These shape our awareness and ultimately determine how land systems will be designed. Imitating nature's intricate blueprint, the architecture of a regenerative ecosystem will mimic the ebbs and flows of energy channels and exhibit how each element performs several functions.

sponsored content
A Dirt Cocktail

How you treat the soil is arguably the most significant contribution to regenerative systems and the overall health of our planet. Soil performs several vital functions outside of supporting plant and animal life. Healthy soil maintains the ecosystem through water and air filtration, recycling nutrients, and recharging groundwater; the profile of soil is extraordinary; according to the USDA, there are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than people on earth. It also contains inorganic mineral fractions of silt, sand, rock, and clay. Healthy soil is pertinent to our human health. Why? High mineral and nutrient content amounts to mineral-packed and nutrient-dense foods. Eating food from healthy soil both tastes better and nourishes the brain and body.

Building healthy soil is a marathon, not a sprint. Hummus, the product of decayed plant and animal matter, hosts a myriad of microbes – bacteria, archaea, fungi, protozoa, and microscopic animals. By creating a nutrient bank, microbes service the entire terrestrial ecosystem, thus facilitating plant resilience and adaptation. Biota also improves soil health by creating space to capture and store water, oxygen, and carbon. A telltale sign of healthy soil is a loose and squishy feel that's not crumbly or hard when held. Integrating compost and living mulch is key to improving soil quality over time. Compost, quite literally, brings life back into the soil. Mulch protects soil from roasting under the sun and reducing water evaporation.

"...according to the USDA, there are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than people on earth."

Legumes may also be integrated as a tasty solution to help neutralize pH levels and improve nitrogen in the ground. Historically, legumes have gained recognition as a "soil building" crop used by Indigenous agriculture. Legumes can be incorporated into the soil-sphere through direct planting or crop rotation. Crop rotations are traditional, regenerative planting cycles which prove beneficial when balancing nutrients within the soil. Crop rotations work sequentially, planting complementary crops and alternating what is grown in a given season. For example, corn requires large amounts of nitrogen and should be planted into a new plot in the following year to ensure the soil has time to replenish nutrients.

When in doubt – plant more trees. Agroforestry is a requirement in a regenerative permaculture model. Trees can act as a nutrient bank and living mulch on a grander scale. They are particularly beneficial when working with clay soil.

Though clay soil is favorable in drought conditions, hardened clay is virtually impossible to manipulate without labor-intensive tools. Tree roots break up clay soil, allowing water and oxygen to penetrate deep into the earth. Providing shade, their canopy protects soil and plants from direct sunlight through and reduces ground temperatures. Equally important is the role of trees in slowing climate change and attracting biodiversity. The canopy provides shelter for many species of birds, insects, and wildlife. As wildlife establishes a dwelling between branches, animal excrement makes for delicious plant fertilizer!

Everything Starts From A Seed

While soil supports life, seeds give life. Seedlings settle into the earth, ready to begin their metamorphosis. A tiny seed creates enough food to feed all of humanity; it erects habitation for all biodiversity and has made the most beautiful landscapes known to man. Seeds house enough energy to reproduce and scatter worldwide without needing a farmer or gardener. Seeds are… spectacular.

Culturally and ancestrally significant, seed cultivation was done by Indigenous women to improve the quality of wild plants. Seed saving has allowed Indigenous ancestors to create a lineage of their most valued and treasured seeds – mainly that of corn, beans, and grains. Heirlooms (plant varieties at least 50 years old) are then handed down through generations of land stewards.

While heirlooms have preserved Indigenous food traditions, they pose something more special farmers can learn from. Seeds adapt to their specific environment over time and become more resilient to climate and soil changes. Through the multi-generational seed-saving, abnormalities in seeds' DNA structure begin to stabilize. What remains are only the desired traits of the seeds, adapted to a specific garden or farm, and best of all, they are non-GMO!

sponsored content
How Can You Start a "Seed Lab" At Home or on a Farm?
  • Save seeds only from the healthiest, most robust plants.
  • Wait until seeds are ripe before harvesting them. Seeds will not germinate if picked before maturation.
  • Make sure seeds are completely dried out. To test the dryness of a seed, press a fingernail into it; if there is no change in form– it's dry! Any moisture will cause mold and bacteria to grow on the seeds, rendering them non-viable.
  • Store seeds in a cool, dark place. Paper envelopes or seed packets work the best.

Seed saving can be a fun, easy way to discover what can survive in a garden or farm. This regenerative method can increase crop productivity and fill the land with bountiful and diverse plant life. Not only is saving seeds free, but it also gives the farmer or gardener complete autonomy and creativity over crops. Learning the value of seeds, mindful awareness of patterns in nature, and building healthy soil creates a foundation for building regenerative permaculture designs.

sponsored content
Campesino a Niño: Farmer to Child With Gregory Foster

Children are at the front and center of sustainability and should be integrated into the process in which farmers share knowledge. Inheriting environmental and social problems of previous generations, they are the only hope for the survival of sustainable food systems. The children of today will be the leaders of tomorrow.

"We have a sense of urgency. We feel we have one generation to move this needle. Hence, we need to cultivate a certain kind of leadership that explicitly teaches children about the importance of interdependence and rejects the illusion of individual sovereignty[…]what we know is we need each other first and foremost."

Gregory Foster, Education Director at The Ecology Center, believes it's their mission to reconnect growers and eaters with children at its heart. The Ecology Center is modeling the future of education, a community-based co-sharing experience. The on-site education program focuses on building awareness through the methodology of observation, sensory exploration, and core philosophy– learn by doing. This is a stark contrast to the modern education system most have been programmed by.

"If you look at schools, they either look like a factory or a jail. The kids move through on their conveyor belt, grade specifically. One grade at a time."

After having taught in a Waldorf school for roughly 15 years, Gregory began to notice how the introduction of technology, particularly cell phones and computers, influenced children's experiences.

"The children were modeling their parents having a relationship with their invisible community through this technology portal, and it changed the relationship that the kids had with me as a human teacher. Each child developed their own invisible community, and their classroom was no longer their primary community."

The classroom environment was no longer authentically working for the children. It wasn't until the school started a biodynamic farm adjacent to the classroom that he observed higher inquisition into relationships within a farm system. At this point, Gregory began his quest to find education models that better meet the needs of this "new variety" of child. Eventually, this led to the study of permaculture, and he began incorporating it into his teaching.

A School Without Walls

What would it look like if the school experience was turned inside out?" Gregory found community within The Ecology Center– and a school with a different value system. A value system that he believes allows children to look through the eyes of a farmer rather than a factory worker.

"It starts with the kids having their hands in the soil and their feet firmly planted in the earth. Instead of brick and mortar, you have the complete ecosystem of all the plant and animal life coming together to model sustainability that we want our children to become and drive forward."

The Ecology Center's education programs create authentic experiences connecting children with all five senses to growing and eating food. It highlights the value of soil and seeds while teaching them to explore the beautiful patterns in nature. Where does a fig tree come from? How do I harvest a fig? How do I give the fig back to the community? Here, the children begin to imagine how all landscapes can become regenerative through the hands and the heart. They harness practical knowledge, such as math, history, social studies, art, and problem-solving, through direct interaction with their environment. Aside from field trips and summer camps, The Ecology Center hosts three main education programs within their sustainable village– Microgreens, Farm Raised, and Rad Traditions.  

Microgreens is quite remarkable. Children up to three years experience their first time on a farm, observing what is growing around them, touching and tasting all that is good. Through the hands, they become a part of the cycle of growers and eaters. They learn to mimic the natural relationships between plants, animals, and their parents.

"They climb the trees, touch everything, smell everything, and what they're encountering here is sort of the opposite of what they'd encounter in a grocery store, a library program, a hospital, or any other sanitized environment. They are experiencing thousands and thousands of biomes, and they're also experiencing adults who are working on themselves who are meeting and talking about creating and designing an inner space to be worthy of imitation so that the child grows like a garden, not like a construction site. The parents learn to become gardeners of children."

Farm-Raised allows a child to go on a journey where they will use their hands to create–to write, draw, paint–to make things beautiful. There is an emphasis on the heart by finding ways to care for the community and share the abundance. Once the children are old enough, they begin an apprenticeship under a farm and culinary maestro that teaches the intelligence of the tools needed to make a meal.

"They become leaders in the ability to communicate how to make the Earth a better place, how to make people better off, and then learn how to share their talents with others."

In their teenage years, they begin looking for places in the world where they can make a meaningful difference. The community created at The Ecology Center becomes a hub of exploration into other areas of sustainability- from business to design, virtually any path they wish to follow.

Rad Traditions, in contrast, is available for children who do not attend the farm school all year round. This program moves into projects celebrating art in its many forms– visual, ceramic, culinary, agriculture, and "wild arts."

"We want to provide an opportunity using these wonderful traditions that people understand […] the actual experience for the children is about the food. They're experiencing that the world is a place of goodness; they're experiencing that the world is a place of beauty, and then we explicitly connect them to food. We teach them all about regenerative principles; we teach them permaculture ethics. So we are very explicit in leading them into a relationship with food that we believe will be therapeutic."

The Ecology Center has successfully created an eco-village with food at the center. Gregory states, "We are modeling a sustainable village; we are not modeling a sustainable factory. So in order to model a sustainable village, the village needs to be present in some way, some shape, some form- at all times." This community has come together to shape the next generation of environmental leaders and will transform the food system as we know it.

Follow our four-part series to discover The Ecology Center's impactful footprint on the community. And remember the future is abundant!