Reflection on my project in the station of the cosmos

Sept 26, 2013

By Paul WartmanImage

Turning onto the dirt road brought the familiar sound of crunching gravel under the tire. It’s as if we were all going to the cottage—the excitement was visible in everyones’ shoulders as we scrunched up to the windows to see the tall pines overhead. Coming to a stop beside the community garden plots, everyone piled out of the vans and began taking in their surroundings—breathing in the farm-fresh air and pointing out the bowing, seed-laden sunflower heads. I had been here before, to the Ignatius Jesuit Centre, and felt pride and comfort for this place, as well as the urge to share it with others.

Our professor, Ralph Martin, was standing at the entrance to the Station of Cosmos with what looked like a grin mixed with feelings of anticipation and apprehension—at least that’s what I was feeling as our class of mixed backgrounds and experiences approached this rather abstract space. The grass was mown except for areas where it had been unscathed, left long and going to seed to sketch a path in this otherwise open, random space. I have walked this circular, expanding path before, stepping from where it all began, the big bang in the center, to the outermost point of time—the evolution of human beings and all our activities. This time, as we walked, Ralph asked each of us to reflect on our current research project as grad students and where we see ourselves afterwards. Big questions for such a seemingly small space. One by one we entered the path taking our own strides to the different stations in time.

A little background on my project. I finished my undergrad in Environmental Toxicology and Local Food Systems, and with a passion for permaculture and local food production I joined the Ignatius Farm team. After a full season of organic food production and with my background in community engagement I wanted to jump back into my community to help teach about one of my passions—Edible Forest Gardening. With the support of many different collaborators I ended up starting a project with Ecosource in Mississauga. I was given the space to experiment with Edible Forest Gardening at one of their community gardens. Amazing! Things got even better as my now-advisors caught wind of my actions and offered a transformation of the project into a masters program. The project has become a potential launching pad for permaculture into the academic world, which has got me pretty damn excited. At three sites throughout Guelph and Mississauga we are measuring the growth of apple trees in Edible Forest Garden systems and analyzing the microbial soil communities to determine if, and how, these designs foster a self-supporting ecosystem—that means growing food with no fossil fuel-based inputs.

Circling out from the center, I began reflecting on how I got to where I was, both as a student and as a speck of stardust. My gaze drifted from my feet to the apple trees to the tops of the black walnuts and eventually the tips of the pines. It was a strangely uplifting feeling to think that I was a part of something so old and so huge. As I paralleled the steps of my peers in the outer rings I thought of how meaningless our actions might be in the grand scheme of things, but, also, how much of an impact we were having within our life timeline—how our projects could cause a shift that might change the way we interact with our greater environment, on the grand scheme. These thoughts were reinforced by the stations spatially depicting the amount of time in between the formation of our planet and the first signs of life. It required so much time for such huge changes to take place. With such little time to create the huge changes that need to occur, my project has felt small and insignificant, but I see the potential that it holds and the support from my community is insurmountable. My project has begun to really focus and challenge the role that I play in my community as a teacher and innovator. I’m hoping to challenge the past 60 years of agriculture development and all the grief and shame that it’s created. I believe that I can help to create the space—physically, mentally, politically, habitually—for positive change to occur in our food system and to accelerate the movement that is healing and regenerating our world. The closely spaced stations that illustrated life blooming forth from the sea and innovation bursting from human imagination picked me up and motivated me to see the potential that we—a scattered smattering of the big bang—have on this planet. I kind of compare my community to a field of sunflowers; every sunflower—every community initiative—provides a source for every insect that licks its face, they provide a source for every bird that snags a seed, and they provide a positive space for every human that catches a glimpse. Moving forward, I see my project as a sunflower in a global field—a part of a revolution that is fostering positive spaces all over the world creating sources for solutions to burst forth.

As our group gathered near the end—heads filled with new perspectives and outlooks—the setting sun blared along the horizon lighting up the land with shadows as if it were telling the story of all that came and gone before us. Reminding us one last time that we are a piece of something much larger.