Permaculture Quinta Essentia, An Interview with Frank Raymond Cetera, Alchemy Nursery

Co-Presented by Magazine & Open Myth Source.

Interview by Willi Paul


The history of Alchemy is so complex and plump (dating back over 2500 years and concerning the physical, spiritual and philosophical worlds) that the present day study and integration of traditional alchemic processes and symbols into permaculture could be a job for many people for many lifetimes.  We just don’t know what may come of all this.

Instead, I think that one short term goal we can have is to use the terminology and creativity of alchemy as a framework for creating a template around not only permaculture but also the ecovillage and intentional community movement which we are helping to bring to prominence and influence people.  One example would be our use of the Quinta Essentia terminology and symbology as the title of our fiscal sponsorship program.  Quinta Essentia is the fifth and highest essence in alchemy, after earth, air, fire and water – a renewed consciousness that everything has increased dimensions that gives exalted significance.  This is how we want the projects that we facilitate to view themselves and to be viewed, as significant and embodying the all important aspects of our movement towards enlightened consciousness.

How does The Alchemical Nursery infuse spirituality into the day to day “seed to dinner table” of permaculture?

Group spiritual practice is a goal of The Alchemical Nursery and has manifested itself in a few ways so far within our community.  As Liz has mentioned we regularly held shamanic journeys together during our start-up phase, and many of our members practice some sort of spirituality within their personal lives.  Unfortunately, the creation and development of an organization such as ours has led us to move this focus to the backburner while we get administrative burdens and plans more focused.  We intend to try and re-energize our community towards a spirituality encompassed by our vision at our Holiday Gathering this year where we intend to hold a group visioning ceremony and pull Angel Cards for each of us present as well as for our organization and City for the year of 2011.  It is our sincere hope that this visioning and consciousness raising directed towards the upcoming year will enable everyone to greater infuse some concept of spirituality into the work they do either with Alchemical and permaculture, or within their own personal lives.

What leaders and groups provide the foundation for The Alchemical Nursery? What opportunities and tools do you share with

Outside of our hardworking group of volunteers and Board members here in upstate Central New York, we take our foundation from the ecovillage and intentional communities movements.  We look to groups such as the Global Ecovillage Network, the Fellowship for Intentional Community, and Permaculture Activist for knowledge and organizing at the meta-scale.  We absorb experiences and knowledge from our member’s personal journeys such as trips to Findhorn and other ecovillages, Rainbow Gatherings, or regional events and activism of alchemical affinity such as the Syracuse Peace Council.

Living Mandala seems to be trying to encompass a vast network of alchemists across the country, which is quite a task.  Although we are able to also reach out to such a geographic expanse with our website, and other project sponsorships (for example, we have recently become the fiscal sponsors of the GreenFire Foundation project based across the country in California whose goal is to provide infrastructure grants to existing or developing EcoVillages and sustainable communities), our current focus is much more local in practical scope. Therefore our ability to contribute to a network such as Living Mandala might be limited at this time.  We have though, and would continue to do so, acted as an affiliate in helping promote Living Mandala sponsored educational opportunities in our New York region.

How would you teach “co-creating” to seniors?

Well our goal is to try and work with current groups of seniors (and other groups) in our area to bring them into a common sphere, provide them with resources and services that they can use and share, and allow them to help build or co-create an overlay network that we have envisioned between disbursed community groups (which you may realize is a common issue with trying to create an ecovillage or intentional community model in an urban environment).  Learning through action might be a good way to say it, or experiential education.  We hope to help institute a timebank in the region for instance, and of course seniors or any other subgroup that choose to participate would help build this project as we travel it, and we would learn and co-create it together.

Is sustainability like a new religion?

It’s actually a very old religion if you look at it as a set of beliefs or a way to relate to the world that shapes a person’s world view.  But the problem with today’s version of sustainability as religion is that commerce and capitalism and industrial civilization are all mixed up in it.  And therefore, the religion is tinted by the color of money, and the world view becomes one of exploitation and conspicuous consumption in honor of Mother Earth.  Greenwashing is not only done on the corporate scale, but it trickles down into suburban neighborhoods and supposedly good intended public interest groups.  If sustainability was a true religion in today’s world, there would be a dogmatic bible of “green” that everyone studied and followed literally, instead everyone interprets it for themselves, and give each other pats on the back for buying just as much shit though it may have a few less components of virgin resources in it.  I guess consumption is still the new religion.

Is music and art part of the permaculture vision there? Is art more… Nature inspired?

100% for sure.  Art and culture are a part of any full-featured settlement, and are especially important in permaculture because art is not just something that exists of itself, but is often an important component of how permaculture or eco-design functions most productively.  Take flowforms as one example, which energize water while providing an artistic and aesthetic landscape component or artistic endeavor for a craftsperson.

Art is also a way of looking at a subject or topic through a different lens, telling a story to people in different ways – which really is necessary because everyone’s filters of the world are not the same.  Some will react more to sound, or certain types of images, or even tactile creations such as sculpture, and all of these types of artistic creations can have stories of nature or permaculture or whatever you desire built into them.

“The goal of evolving an ecovillage in the context of a currently existing urban mosaic is a long-term project, growing from an eco-house to an eco-block to an eco-hood to an eco-village.  To achieve this goal, Alchemical is working on creating the major supporting systems of everyday life that any ecovillage needs for success.” Please tell us about the elements and implementations of the “supporting systems?” What are the political hurdles?

Oh gee, this is where we go over to Second Story Café or Roji Tea House and have a soy latte together.  This is where our vision is elucidated for the listener, and boy does it take more than a paragraph or two.  Essentially, I remember Liz and I discussing all the great things we wanted to do, how creating the Alchemical Nursery would be the pathway for this work, and then realizing that we could never do even a portion of the things that needed done only through our organization, and with the limited social capitol we had available to us at that time; and of how, as you quoted above, this would be the work of a lifetime.  We can’t lay claim to a couple contiguous acres in an urban mosaic and plunk down an ecovillage community on it, as you possibly could in a rural field somewhere.  So the planning and process is recognized to be an ongoing and ever developing endeavor.

That endeavor then becomes a series of smaller more well defined goals and objectives, meant to develop the supporting systems of our envisioned community.  Food systems, education systems, arts and culture systems, safety and security systems, transportation systems, economy systems, and on and on.  Our fiscal sponsorship program is intended to facilitate many of these projects, providing our organizational status, while maintaining the autonomy of the project or artists themselves.  Our general organizing and educating is another way we can help facilitate these supporting pillars.

As a 501(c)3 organization, our ability to lobby is limited, but we are able to take positions and make statements about issues that affect us. We hope that with more education about these issues, that our community members will be more likely to find the candidates out there (such as those involved with the Green Party platform) to support, political figures that will be more likely to move ahead our vision through legal or governmental changes that need made in areas such as codes and zoning.  It is still illegal to keep chickens in the City of Syracuse for instance, now how behind the times are we?  The other end of being a 501(c)3 is that we are able to be fully autonomous as an organization, and we have the legitimacy to operate within the current political and governmental systems to change things around.  One could always covertly keep some guerrilla chickens in their backyard, but without creating the systematic changes that would legally allow such things, the community at large would still not be on board for able to keep chickens as well.

Can you define sound alchemy and how human-made noises will work with Natural sounds?

I’m actually looking forward to discovering this more and more over the next years myself.  The property that I will be living in on the Near Westside of Syracuse, and which we will landscape according to permaculture principles will be a living laboratory for how human-made noises (as well as smells, sights, textures, etc) from an urban environment can be a part of an integrated natural environment permaculture design.  Flowing water, ringing meditation bells, backyard birds and insects, and hand tools will no doubt have to compete with car traffic, sirens, yelling pedestrians, and lawnmowers.  Will the sense of serenity and completeness that these alchemical sounds provide be enough of a catalyst to help change the aural landscape?  Time will tell.

How does The Alchemical Nursery work with all ages and backgrounds?

We strive to.  We hosted free child care and activities for families during the Upstate NY Permaculture Gathering which we organized in Syracuse during March 2010; and are lending our support and endorsement to the lower income neighbors of the Near Westside in Syracuse who are being confronted with the possibility of police supervision through pole mounted surveillance cameras.

We recognize that family and community span multiple generations.  We live in Upstate NY, the region where the native Haudenosaunee originated seven generation sustainability, and this concept rings as true and hard with us as the first wintery hailstorm of November in these parts.  We also live in Syracuse, NY which is becoming a true melting pot with a quite large refugee and immigrant population from all over the world.  Many wonderful organizations are focused on these subgroups, and we hope that we can bring our sensibilities and vision to these groups and the variety of ages and backgrounds they represent.

Can you teach permaculture online?

Permaculture, as with most intelligent concepts or ideas is too multi-faceted to be completely taught online.  We can share knowledge and data, we can demonstrate via video certain techniques, we can podcast conversations and opinion about what works and what doesn’t – but we still can’t convey an individuals waking up to the first frost when they didn’t bring their potted plants in and then recognizing which species succumbed and which didn’t, and adding that to their inner repository of wisdom.  The online experience cannot duplicate trial and error, unique intricacies of individual sites, or permaculture’s potential influence on local current events and how those events can be understood by the application of permacultural principles.  Online resources are one tool in a person’s toolbox.


Frank Raymond Cetera is intent on change, or as he would say, a return to before the change of when current lifestyles led by consumerist, reactionary, dependent thinking took hold of our brothers and sisters.  Frank is Co-Founder of The Alchemical Nursery, and current Board President; he is an educated forester and resource manager, an experienced non-profit administrator and organizer, and a small business counselor; and does believe in mixing business with pleasure.

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