Paul Andersen: Taking communion in a forest church

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

High priest of permaculture Jerome Osentowski served communion with slices of fresh-off-the-tree oranges and pomegranates grown in Basalt.

“Come up for some biophilia,” Jerome invited in response to one of my columns where I had mentioned this concept: “love of life.”

Celebrating such love under a leafy canopy in Jerome’s greenhouse, Jerome plucked two navel oranges and a big, red pomegranate. He sliced into these succulent treats and laid them out for his three visitors.

In one step we had gone from a cold, dark December afternoon into a warm, humid springlike environment perfumed with the sweet fragrance of growing things.

“This is what you can do with a greenhouse in the mountains of Colorado,” said Jerome, naming a variety of fruiting plants from which he plucked delicacies that we popped into our mouths. All around were beds of salad greens from which he cut a large bag for us to take home.

Jerome’s hospitality in his Colorado Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, on the flank of Basalt Mountain, revealed how biophilia has been in practice for decades. Here, among the pinon/juniper forest, Jerome cultivates plants year-round within a sustaining framework of living organisms.

“Check this out,” he said, pulling up a section of boardwalk. He buried his hand in leafy mulch and pulled out a fistful of squirming worms. “Worm casings,” he said showing off one of the best of organic soil additives.

Biophilia is a mantra of biologist/philosopher E.O. Wilson, who I was fortunate to meet at an Aspen Ideas Festival. Wilson prescribes a purposeful relationship between man and nature if the biosphere is to thrive.

Otherwise, warns Wilson: “The one process now going on that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”

Just as Wilson advocates the connective thread of life in moral tones, so does Jerome create those connections in the self-contained world he has created on Basalt Mountain. Permaculture is a system of connectivity and mutuality where life complements other life in a sustainable, natural pattern of production.

This connective notion goes beyond food and sustenance, as a New York Times article described with “church forests” in Ethiopia. “A church, to be a church, must be enveloped by a forest,” explains an Ethiopian forest ecologist.

Where the author described the church of his childhood surrounded by parking lots, a natural church, he surmised, “Should be immersed in creation, enjoying and protecting the forest and shores and mountains, the whole Earth.”

Feeling the soul-nourishing of a forest church, the author wrote, “My moments of awe at the beauty of the church forests were countered by feelings of despair. They were so small. So much of the surrounding forest had already disappeared. Why not save more of the forest than just a small patch around the church? Where was the church when 97 percent of Ethiopia’s primary forest was destroyed?”

Yet, the writer found hope in these forest churches, which preach spiritual optimism for the living world through the recognition of mutuality between man and nature.

“Church forests are proof that when faith and science make common cause on ecological issues, it results in a model that bears repeating. We have the blueprint of life held in these tiny circles of faith, and that’s something to rejoice over and protect and expand with every resource we can muster.”

The oranges and pomegranate Jerome served were a kind of communion with the living spirit of the biosphere. Such communion can be expressed when we nourish ourselves with healthy, sustainable, organic food, all grown from the earth, from the soil, and with nutrients from the microbial building blocks that underpin it all.

Being with Jerome in his greenhouse amid the exotic biodiversity he has created on Basalt Mountain felt like communion with an agronomic priest who nurtures sacraments from the fount of life. Stepping back out into the cold during the shortest days of the year reminded us of the harsh, thin line between a cold world and the sacred warmth of life.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at