Salt City Sorcerers: Alchemical Nursery
Bringing new meaning to the phrase "salt the Earth" by promoting permaculture in Syracuse
By Evan Klonsky : Illustration by Amelia Bienstock
In May 2007, Elizabeth Slate returned to Syracuse University to finish her degree in sociology. As a new mother, she had spent the past year and a half on the road searching for a suitable environment to raise her daughter.
Slate unsuccessfully returned home with what she saw as the only solution: build her own eco-village. Coincidentally, Slate’s neighbor at the time, Frank Cetera, a graduate student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, had similar ideas. The two quickly partnered up and founded an organization centered on permaculture, an approach to designing human settlements to mimic relationships found in nature.
The organization, known as the Alchemical Nursery, is starting to gain traction as an alternative lifestyle community in Syracuse. While its commitment to the environment is noble, it is also an unprecendented approach within the existing local landscape. Permaculture advocates practices like wetland design systems and forest gardening, which Cetera calls “on the fringe of the ideas that the public is comfortable with at this point.”
The project’s ultimate goal is connecting multiple properties to live off the same agricultural area and simultanesously creating a social stimulant. “It’s a framework that we’re trying to work on developing so everyone has that as a way of interacting and communicating with each other,” Cetera said.
Alchemical Nursery members believe that integrating permacultural methods will save energy, eliminate waste, and pave the way toward increased sustainability and self-sufficiency. The organization’s efforts also focus on providing an economic and social catalyst for urban areas by weaving agriculture into Syracuse’s inner city.
“A lot of people associate us with the green or urban sustainability movement, and we are definitely associated with those movements,” Cetera said. “But we are trying to take things a step further.” Perhaps the best way to understand how the organization goes that extra mile is to examine its name.
While a moniker like Alchemical Nursery might conjure images of medieval preschoolers or basement chemistry experiments, it actually takes on a more literal meaning. Alchemy, in its broadest sense, reflects the metamorphosis from one material to another, while nursery refers to a careful cultivation of progress. Therefore, Slate’s coinage of Alchemical Nursery implies a nurturing attitude toward the growth and transformation of urban communities.
“In my opinion, it’s the way everyone should be living,” Slate said. “You can’t just focus on one piece of an issue and hope to make much of a change. It’s not only how you design and maintain the landscape around you, but also how to live in terms of a lifestyle.”
Given its unconventional practices and radical, often lofty rhetoric about “transforming” the community, the Alchemical Nursery may be confused with some kind of communalist cult, and critics of the movement have not refrained from voicing their opinions.
An article by Greg Williams in Whole Earth accused permaculturists of being not only idealistic, but also naively dogmatic. “Their core ideas on the productivity of mature ecosystems are both unsubstantiated and contradict ecological theory,” Williams wrote.
Emanuel Carter, a professor of landscape architecture at SUNY-ESF, disagrees. He recently brought his students to one of Alchemical Nursery’s ecological demonstrations. “It’s an idealist point of view, but it’s also coldly practical in many ways,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle that if you agree to live in, you can sustain it almost ad infinitum.”
Even if the organization doesn’t convince droves of Syracuse residents to adopt new lifestyles, it may offer effective solutions to many of the city’s problems. Carter calls permaculturists “urban pioneers” because their practices benefit both the environment and low-income residents. Teaching the urban poor to grow their own food or share green spaces has the potential to create noticeable savings among consumers.
“It’s a matter of communicating and understanding our concepts,” Cetera said. “Once we’re able to communicate to someone to the point where they understand it, then they accept it.”
Slate and Cetera know that radical change won’t happen overnight, and are content with starting small — at least for now. The group began a project that involves buying a property for only one dollar as part of the Near West Side Initiative. It aims to recondition its Otisco Street property and demonstrate that shared backyards are more efficient than separate areas.
Carter doubts the Alchemical Nursery will receive national attention anytime soon as an example of sound ecological living. Yet he believes it will convince at least a small percentage of residents to make more efficient lifestyle changes. Thus, Slate and Cetera view their work with a measure of success.
The Alchemical Nursery saw growth from The Upstate N.Y. Permaculture Gathering on March 13 at the Gear Factory. It brought more than 100 like-minded individuals together to share beliefs on permaculture, urban sustainability, and community resources.
“There’s no better thing that citizens can do but choose to anchor their lives in a certain place and be good to their neighbors,” Carter said. “And seemingly, that’s part of the Alchemical Nursery’s mission. It’s citizenship, what you do for your neighbors and with your neighbors, that exudes what good citizenship can be.”