Forest Gardening: A Living Sukkah
Sitting in our Sukkah at Eden Village, a hexagon of black locust from our forest, I can gaze in each direction and learn something about the place I am dwelling. I can look out to the east and see our production fields, mostly in covercrop of oats, with an occasional row of cosmos or cabbage, and behind the fields a cob oven, and behind that, our kitchen. To the south, a wetland and forest, from which we harvested the black locust and the invasive phragmites which we used as schach to cover our Sukkah. To the north, the office, theatre,and share circle, center of the creative cyclone during the summer camp season. But to the west is my favorite view: our Hebrew calendar garden, and surrounding it, islands of fruit trees & vines, surrounded by perennial vegetables, medicinal herbs, soil building plants, nectary flowers that feed pollinators, and structural plants that are like little sukkot for spiders, wasps, birds, mice, snakes, dragonflies, worms, beetles. This is our edible forest garden.
Part wild, and part domestic, the forest garden feels very similar to the Sukkah. It too is a dwelling place, a place to gather in and make holy, a place to draw inspiration and joy and sustenance. A forest garden is a perennial polyculture that is composed of diverse plants that are beneficial to humans and to the ecosystem, and that draws inspiration from the social interaction of plant communities in nature.
In monoculture, most iconically pictured in a dense stand of identical, chemically fertilized corn stalks, modern techniques of mechanization and chemical pest control are employed to make single commodity production as ‘efficient’ as possible. In reality that efficiency is only possible through the use of fossil fuels, to power the combines that have replaced human hands, and to be converted into chemical fertilizer that has replaced living soil. Every aspect of the plant’s life-cycle is isolated and controlled.
Forest gardening does not isolate, it invites. On Sukkot, we invite ushpizin, exalted guests, into our dwelling place. According to the Lurianic Kabbalists, each of the teacher/ancestors we ask to sit with us in our Sukkah represents one of the seven ‘lower’ sefirot, emanations of divine energy. In the same way, when planting our forest garden, we create plant guilds, inviting a connected but diverse cast of characters that each bring their own strategies for survival and reproduction, their own ecological specialties, their own medicine, their own invertebrate friends, their own tastes and smells, their own unique divine presence into our community.
In addition, when starting a new plant guild, we often add mychorhizal inoculant, a concentrated pro-biotic syrup to help transform the rocky clay that makes up the majority of our land into rich dense, living, soil. These microbes (fungi, yeasts, and bacteria) allow organic matter in the soil to break down, allow tree roots to absorb nutrients and moisture more efficiently, and enable certain plants to pull nitrogen out of the air and ‘fix’ it in the soil, making it available for other plants. Trusting in their invisible power and utter precision, we can feel with great depth the immaculate orchestration of the life support systems that make our earthly existence possible.
On Sukkot, we remember the precarious balance of our existence, that all our structures are in fact temporary, even King Solomon’s Temple. At the same time, we revel in the immense abundance of the earth itself, which nurtures and supports us with utter grace and forgiveness. By planting fruit trees, by turning baseball fields and suburban lawns into little gardens of Eden, we are creating a home in the deepest sense. We are not just receiving shefa, divine abundance, but making it our practice, our way of existence. In this sense, we are students of the apple tree and the shiitake mycelium and the winter squash, and even the sun, whose very innermost nature it is to give.
Understanding this, we may choose to shift our thinking from a rhetoric of scarcity, so pervasive in the wider culture today (recession, terrorism, resource scramble), to an ethic of abundance. In fact, studies have been done that show that calorie for calorie, small scale diverse vegetable production is in fact more productive on the same land than fossil fuel based conventional agriculture. And that is just in terms of food production, without factoring in “externalities” such as climate change and poisoned water from pesticides. The ‘fact’ is that the earth wants to feed us, a lot, a lot of lots of different things! In permaculture, we call this overyielding, that by mimicking natural plant communities and working with nature, we are actually more productive than when we attempt to isolate, control, and work against her. This practice is a combination of faith, gratitude, observation, sweat, and participation in the processes of life.
On a deeper level, on Sukkot we combine the four species (myrtle, willow, palm, citron) through the waving the Lulav, in an act of theurgy, a drawing down of the divine, that celebrates this life force by mapping it onto the six directions. As in other earth based wisdom traditions, we honor the sacred directions, the Arba Ruachot, the four winds. The word ruach is commonly used in the context of the life force, or flowing spirit, within our bodies and this is precisely the energy that we invoke in the the waving of the lulav, combining the fragrant and fertile abundance of the etrog with the active, extensive quality of the lulav, traditionally the center protrusion of a date palm. We shake the lulav in mystical extension of the divine flow to the four corners of the earth, as well as outward and inward, tuning the channels of manifestation, and allowing the garden to grow, in ourselves, and all around us.
At Eden Village, our Hebrew Calendar Garden, a technology for exploring living time, is also calibrated to the directions. Large spiraling beds for the months are inhabited by symbolic and seasonal plants. Tevet and Shvat are towards the north, representing the solitary wisdom, and creative potential, of Winter. Adar and Nisan are in the East, drawing forth the inspired energy of Spring. Tammuz and Av are in the South, active and intense in the heat of Summer. And Tishrei, the season of Autumn, is in the West. Our Tishrei bed contains winter squash, an apple tree guild, bee balm, purple violas. In an individual guild, we like to map out physical correspondences between the plant personalities we are bringing in and the energies of the directions. The calendar garden thus allows us to use plants to observe living time and to explore the symbolism of the festivals and the Arba Ruachot.
Sukkot is a great gathering in, as we honor and celebrate the physical and spiritual work of the summer that has culminated in our harvest. The autumnal, westerly qualities of reflection and celebration are present throughout the month of Tishrei, and the High Holy Days in particular, but it is the harvest festival aspect of Sukkot that is most resonant to us.
The Sukkot that we build hearken back to two different ecological relationships that we have lived as Jews. During Temple times, this period was the busiest time of the year, not only sewing next year’s grain, but harvesting as well, and thus huts were built and lived in close to the field while preparing for the pilgrimage to the great harvest festival in Jerusalem. At the same time, Sukkot also carries the older mythical-historical connotation of remembering our passage from Egypt and our wandering in the desert, when we truly lived according to the precarious balance of the elements.
Rabbi David Seidenberg quotes from Yalkut Shimoni, Pikudei: “When Israel was encamped the pillar of cloud was…like a sukkah and made a canopy over the tent from without, and filled the tabernacle mishkan from within…and this was one of the clouds of glory that served Israel forty years in the wilderness: one on their right and one on their left and one before them and one behind them and one above them and the cloud of the Shekhinah between them.”
As the waving of the Lulav honors the great directions, the schach with which we cover the Sukkah reminds us of the wild itself. It must be composed of cut, live branches, and must not be bundled or secured with artificial materials. It is living, natural, wild, and yet is part of our structure. Like a forest garden, it is both wild and domestic. It both shelters us and reminds us of our balanced and temporary existence on this Earth. It must provide shade and dwelling space, and yet remain open to the stars, and open to the rain.
During Sukkot, the rainy season is just beginning in Israel, and we contemplate the joyful and precise balance of our life on this gift-planet. That the rains may come in their proper time, in the proper proportion, not too much, not too little, as we we pray in the latter passage of the V’ahavta and with great emphasis in the latter part of Sukkot. There was a time when our grandfathers and grandmothers were so connected to the rain, that it was a matter of life or death. Eating has always been a holy act for Jews, but in modern times, we have let our agriculture leave us and become industrialized, let our eating leave us and become commercialized. We have lost some of that direct connection to the earth and thus to the water, but have remained a profoundly land based people despite ourselves. Honoring the earthly rhythms in our yearly festival cycles and singing them to life, however deeply encoded in our liturgy, we practice an ancient panentheistic agricultural religion whose purpose is to elevate our earthly existence and breathe unity back into a world that keeps forgetting itself.
But the circumstances of the world are beginning to shake us out of our complacency, that tendency to forget. The wool over our eyes is quite wet, in some parts of the world, and quite on fire in others, and dry as a bone in still others. So we are beginning to feel the effects of our actions, of disconnect, of treating the water, the land, and animals as a material resource to be bought and sold and used and used up. We are feeling the effects of a hundred years of the physical and spiritual monoculture of consumer culture.
By planting trees, by restoring degraded land to garden-kingdom, and by honoring the balance of the elements by dwelling in our sukkat shelomecha, our canopy of peace, we are restoring our human potential, our ability to bring forth. Forest gardens sequester carbon, restore biodiversity, increase water availability, and feed animals and humans for generations into the future. Generational continuity and memory is a foundational principle of Judaism, and can be beautifully expressed in the planting of trees who have productive lifespans in the range of hundreds of years.
One day he was going along the road, when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked, “In how many years will this tree that you are planting bear fruit?” The man responded, “In seventy years.” Honi asked, “Are you sure that you will live seventy more years to enjoy the fruit of this tree?!” The man said, “I was born into a world with carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I plant for my descendants.”
Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 23a
As we allow the joyous gathering in energy of Sukkot to infuse our winter with life and possibility, may we draw inspiration from the wild places, and bring them into our dwelling places, plant a wild and abundant garden for future generations, and remember and praise the source of our provenance.