EcoDharma is a Triratna retreat centre situated in a beautiful and wild part of the Catalan Pyrenees in Spain. Their community and retreats focus on blending the Buddha’s teaching with the emerging ecological paradigms of our time: sustainability, low-impact living, interconnectedness, and an honouring of the inseparability of the transformation of self and world.
Last month they began a major new project - a forest garden, thanks to a grant from a Swiss-based foundation. Guhyapati, EcoDharma’s founder and director, reports - “The idea of a forest garden comes from the world of permaculture, and offers a way of producing food modeled on the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems – applying Buddhist ethics to food production and care of the land-base. They are are an innovative approach to food production which seeks to address many of the key challenges of our times. They simulate natural processes in a way that supports biodiversity, ensures the natural recycling of nutrients, and builds nutrition and water retention properties into the soil. Being low in inputs and largely self-regulating once established, the approach contributes useful solutions towards the problems of climate change, fossil fuel dependency, and food security”.
“A forest garden is not just about agriculture in a narrow sense,” explains Liam, a key member of the project team. “Applying our ethical values to food production is fundamental to exploring how we can live in the world in ways that are less damaging and more respectful of life,” he claims. For many Buddhists vegetarianism and veganism are often seen to exemplify the ethical intention to reduce our harmful impact on the world. Increasingly it is becoming important to apply that sensibility to the wider impacts of food production. “Industrial farming methods continue to destroy wild habitat, erode and deplete top soil, and negatively impact water tables and aquifers. Forest gardens and other permaculture approaches move away from these exploitative approaches and replace them with forms of agriculture that work with, rather than against, natural processes,” Liam points out. “Today we are challenged to apply our ethical values more fully to questions of sustainability and the ecological impact of our actions. At the EcoDharma Centre we want to find practical answers that express our ethical sensibility in concrete and meaningful ways. That is what this forest garden is about.”
Food forests contains multi-storied layers of trees and plants, simulating the various canopies and undergrowth of perennials and climbers found in woodlands. These layers, ground-cover and shade, create a useful microclimate which can help retain humidity and regulate temperatures. Together with swales (ditches on contour to catch surface run off) and ponds, fed by springs and roof water, the system has been designed with help from Caspar Brown, a good friend of EcoDharma, to make the most of available water and reduce the need for irrigation.
The project will help preserve local varieties of fruit trees. “As far as we can tell this project is unique in developing a forest garden under these particular conditions, in terms of climate and altitude,” says Grace, who has done much of the research into the tree varieties. “We have been careful to learn as much as we can from people in the surrounding area, so that we can use tree varieties well adapted to these conditions.” The first phase of the planting includes over one hundred fruit and nut trees, together with varieties selected for their contribution to soil nutrition.
As well as furthering EcoDharma’s aim of increased food self-reliance, the project contributes an educational dimension. “We have designed in pathways and glades. As the woodland matures people will enjoy spending time amidst the rich biodiversity. We hope that their curiosity into the complexity of evolved natural systems will be stimulated, and that a growing sense of wonder and appreciation can translate into respect and care for the natural environment,” explains Julie, another team member. The project is being run in collaboration with the network Permaculture Barcelona who are developing a partnered forest garden at the Can Masdeu social centre in Barcelona, forging additional links for EcoDharma into the city.