Canticle Farm, Oakland, CA
As the sun filters through fruit trees, casting a dappled light on the mulch below, and bees, in their ancient dance of pollination, busily buzz from open flower to open flower, I breath in the rich oxygenated air. Dew from the morning still lingers on the grass and the chorus of joyful birds reminds me that it is spring. Where it not for the barking dogs and car alarms mixed into the dawn chorus, I would almost forget that I am in East Oakland, a dense urban area east of San Francisco.
This beautiful anomaly of a lush oasis of farmland in a densely urban area is Canticle Farm, an intentional community and urban farm in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California. The community refers to themselves as a “Platform for the Great Turning”, and is founded on a rich interweaving of philosophies, including Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects, Franciscan spirituality, the Catholic worker movement, and integral nonviolence, to name a few.
The farm is comprised of three conjoining properties where the fences have been removed and replaced with a sprawling permaculture garden of vegetables, fruit trees, flowers, and native plants. There is a green house, a small seasonal pond, a chicken coup, a composting toilet and even a tipi. There are five separate houses, each with a name from St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Creatures.
As a Platform for the Great Turning, they strive to transform Oakland “one heart, one home, one block at a time”, which they do through a variety of offerings. They host workshops, such as an herb class, nonviolent communication class and a yearlong intensive in the Work that Reconnects for people of color. “The idea with the workshops is to offer skills that we can bring back to this community”, explains resident Chiara Symens-Bucher. Chiara, now 27, grew up on the property and when her parents, Anne and Terry Symens-Bucher, started the community a few years ago, she moved back to be a part of it.
With a beautiful site and rich theoretical framework, they are enacting some powerful change in their community. For example, every Sunday afternoon they offer a free farmers market called Fruta Gift. The residents of Canticle Farm collect unused produce from surrounding farmer’s markets, as well as their own bumper crops from food they are growing in their garden, and offer it to community members for free. People come with grocery bags, wagons and carts and fill up on local, organic produce.
The market has grown from beyond a place to get food to a place for gathering and strengthening community. “Fruta gift is the thing that has really (changed things)”, explains Chiara. “Growing up, my parents have always been really friendly with the neighbors across the street. They’ve been here 30 plus years, so (…) I’ve known them and grown up with them, but we talk way more now, we see each other more and they’re coming out more. (…) There is more of a relationship there.”
“And it has just brought so many beautiful stories”, chimes in Poncho Ramos-Steirle, who, along with Anne and Terry and a few others, helped found the community. “There were these guys in gangs. I remember the first time they drove by in their cars, with their tattoos and (music blaring), and there was a 7 year old with a bag of plums and they just rolled down the window and (shouted), ‘Oh, plums. I love plums!’ They were totally melting. (…) When you connect with people and have the door wide open, people love to see that. This is just a pretext to connect with people and facilitate the growth of healthy food.”
While Canticle Farm is actively creating change through their own efforts, they are also creating ripples that have inspired residents to take action. One such example is in the lot in front of the apartments next door. It used to be quite an eye soar, full of trash and dead grass, but now has been transformed into a garden.
“(There was) this lawn that was full of trash and dead grass and alcohol bottles, and now it’s a mini food forest”, explains Poncho. “We call it El Jardencito Revolucionario- the little garden revolution.” Although supported by Canticle Farm, it was the apartment residents who started the garden. “After Fruta Gift, we started having conversations about food. (…) And what’s amazing is Maurilio, (the man who started the garden), started it with a pepper tree that he watered from the window of his bathroom with a hose. Then, a sister who was living here, said, ‘lets have a workshop on planting fruit trees’. So we planted 17 fruit trees there with the neighbors. Now you have cherry trees, apple trees and figs and nectarines and peaches and pears and oranges and it’s a little fruit forest there, and it brings so much peace.”
Chiara, who always noticed the area growing up, can really feel the difference it makes. “It was such an eye soar and (…) it’s now so different to see green things growing there. It’s makes such an energetic difference on the street. Now there are guys out there in the shade of the little fruit trees, hanging out on a Sunday afternoon.”
Many of us who dream of food forests and farmer’s markets wouldn’t pick the Fruitvale district of Oakland, a place rife with markers of the Great Unraveling, such as poverty, drugs and violence, as our ideal location. But the choice to be in inner city Oakland was in fact part of the design of Canticle Farm. It offers a rich opportunity to enact change where it is most needed.
“It’s now scientifically proven that the greener a neighborhood, the more peaceful,” explains Poncho. “You look at (other areas of Oakland) and see how much greener it is here. And, we don’t need to wait, we don’t need to get permission from anyone. We just need to go and do it.”