Jerome Osentowski, founder of the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute (CRMPI), leads a workshop. (2017)
Biological Art Process
The goal is not making art. It is living a life. Art is a result.
Whether we are looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s Mechanics of Man, Audubon’s Birds of America, or Wilson Bentley’s Snow Crystals, nature has long been one of artists’ best muses. The tension that exists between the vast complexity of life and our simple observation of it is an irresistible itch from which some of the most inspiring art has been made. It was in this spirit that we could not resist a visit to the subject of a new book we were reading for research, The Forest Garden Greenhouse. This is how we came to be in Basalt, Colorado touring the thirty-year-old beauty of a food forest garden; one of the oldest known Permaculture sites in North America and home of ecological pioneer Jerome Osentowski.
Osentowski founded the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute (CRMPI) in 1986 after operating and consulting other small organic farm projects and researching alternative agriculture for a little over five years. CRMPI has helped to educate and develop not only local culture but also many others from around the world. By adapting to the extreme climatic conditions of the high altitude Rocky Mountains, the gardens are productive, bioactive, extremely complex, yet incredibly simple by nature’s standard and simple to replicate by human standards.
From our perspective, Osentowski’s gardens demonstrate permaculture techniques for how an impressive wonderland of food and medicine can be cultured by almost anyone anywhere anytime. Whether we must grow food to eat, create habitat sheltered within stressful environments, or to simply enjoy the garden, this artful process of biological collage is now more important than ever.
Osentowski’s perspective of the landscape he has come to know is an interesting one. He has been working with alternative agricultural systems for over thirty years. Decomposition and renewal are as central to his convention as they are to the fallen tree of Mark Dion’s public art project, Neukom.
The main climate battery manifold intake rises from the flagstone floor inside of the Phoenix greenhouse.
The amazing thing that contrasts Osentowski’s project here from others is that, at an altitude of over seven thousand feet, he has built a biome characteristic of most tropical rain forests. He’s been able to do this with the help of one of his greenhouses called, Phoenix. What’s interesting about Phoenix’s design is that it’s able to efficiently store solar heat in the soil by turning its biomass into what Osentowski calls a Climate Battery.
Working with the natural rhythms and cycles of the environment has allowed this garden to evolve into the masterpiece of resilience and performance that it is today.
When we got Osentowski’s book, The Forest Garden Greenhouse, we had just folded up our little rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn and were excited to move forward to the next stage and take all that we had learned along. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to ‘get away from it all’ while also being able to hold our experience up to something that we found inspiring from afar. So we arranged the trip. Along with all that, it felt a little silly; what the hell were we doing, running off to lollygag some place we’ve never been. There was so much to get done and to figure out. Hurricane season was upon us and our house and studio in Florida had to be prepped for world’s end floods and wind. What could we get out of this experience, really? Up close, it was gelling though. Recycled greenhouse parts, bespoke soil, hand-built oasis, sculpted earthworks from the mountain itself, overflowing abundance, growing community and inspiring conversation. All this we recognized right off as our language, our media and what we had hoped to find.
CRMPI students hiking with Basalt mountain in the distance. Photo by Christopher Behr
Building Soil and Habitat
“Gardening is the slowest form of the performing arts.”
With the sun veiled by a few wispy clouds that seem just overhead, songbirds perch somewhere high among the powdery blue-green needles of a lone Douglass fir that anchors the hillside and shades a weather beaten red picnic table. The thin, dry air hardly betrays the factual eighty-degree mark on the oversized dial of a crusty old plastic thermometer reporting from its post nailed into the trunk of the tree. The scene overlooks the brittle valley beyond, laden with barrel cacti, piñon pine, and juniper; cutting the view short is a long, dusty greenhouse structure surrounded by a dense over story of legumes, apples, cherries, mulberries, plums, apricots, and the odd grape vine rambling up a west facing wall.
On the south side of the house, inside one of several greenhouses, there’s an enormous fig tree weaving itself overhead and keeping the side of the house cool. It’s an awe-inspiring specimen with a base the girth of a barrel, and, fortunate timing for us, dripping with fruit; it was easy to understand why this individual was encouraged to consume two thirds of an entire greenhouse. Considering that this was planted, among many other fruiting trees, in the mid nineties, a mere two decades later the mature biology cultured is a stunningly verdant oasis amidst the otherwise parched, reddish-burnt-orange Rocky Mountain hillsides. The contrast is electric.
Sitting around this table, it’s easy for a visitor to marvel at how utterly transformed things are today but not as easy to imagine the steps in the thirty-year timeline. The dense foliage of the food forest is spotted with fruits while most of the lush green understory is a collection of nitrogen fixing, nutrient accumulating plants, vegetables and flowering herbs. There’s not a bare patch of soil in sight and hardly a crevice of open space that isn’t a footpath or some egress.
We ask how he’s been able to accomplish all this, that is to say, the edible paradise, without becoming overwhelmed by everything. Osentowski thoughtfully surveys his landscape as his fingers aimlessly work at a bottle cap wedged long ago in a hollowed out knot in the table top, “If you embrace the natural world, take it in, it brings you in and then you are no longer alone. We have this chaotic world out there where we are on the cell phone, or the internet, or always intensely getting from one meeting or email to the next. When you are in a forest garden, you are in a natural system, and when you work in a forest garden there’s no one thing that you do. There are many different activities throughout the day and it’s healing. I like to think that you don’t work real hard and then go down to the Yoga studio, you should be able to do your Yoga while you’re doing your gardening.”
The bees in the lambs ear near the SW corner of the Mana greenhouse. Photo by Christopher Behr
The soil here is carbon rich organic matter with hundreds of thousands of tiny organisms, the trees are filled with birds feeding from the garden, the rabbits and chickens forage on fodder, the insects and pollinators diversify genetic material, they are all working together in this system.
Although, there’s much more to this than habitat alone, it’s taking carbon back from the atmosphere and making a food web of life in the process. As far as carbon sequestration goes, consider that the average carbon content of dry wood weight from trees is 50% and the average carbon content of organic matter in a healthy, productive garden soil is around 60%, imagine what would happen if even half the world population of 7.5 billion people started embracing these principles and planted more perennial gardens. As a species, we could feed ourselves, solve climate change, not destroy the rest of life on Earth and do it all well within one generation.
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