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Jun 17, 201302:37 PMCulture

Fun and Culture in the Mid-State

“Five Questions for Shannon Sylte”

Jun 17, 2013 - 02:37 PM
“Five Questions for Shannon Sylte”

Photography by Danielle Lucas

Shannon Sylte is an artist, landscape designer, and visionary. Her work has roots in fine art, biology, and organic farming. Her creations emphasize relationships between organic forms using as many naturally derived, biodegradable, and re-purposed materials as possible.

Shannon’s integration into The MakeSpace was inspired by the drive to observe the facets of our local ecosystems as reflected in urban agriculture and the art community.

A pioneer of self-directed education in permaculture design — a branch of regenerative ecological design that focuses on developing harmonious, symbiotic relationships with the earth — Shannon has designed the Accomac Inn restaurant's garden and is currently designing several community gardens in York (the Art Farm) and Harrisburg (the Peffer Street Edible Forest Garden), as well as illustrating a series of informative publications on the basics of permaculture design.

You've designed a restaurant garden and are designing several community gardens — how do you tailor your approach to different places?

Every client has different goals and visions for their landscape. Some parties are interested in just producing as much food as possible; others may have more of a focus of restoring ecological balance as well as creating an aesthetically pleasing garden.

After understanding a client's goals, next comes getting to know the land. We rarely think of landscapes having certain “personalities,” but in fact, they all have pockets of unique attributes, just as every living organism. There are features of a landscape that can tell you a lot about its history.

Good designers will observe the site that they are designing for many hours at different parts of the year to understand the more subtle characteristics it has such as its microclimates, existing plant life, and shifts in sun and wind exposure. Permaculture designers work with the natural succession of the land and gently adjust it to suit our human needs, instead of fighting its processes. This allows for less maintenance of the landscape in the long run.

Nature always prevails. Clear evidence of this is how dandelion always finds its way up through small cracks in the pavement, thriving despite our attempts to control it.

Which came first, your interest in art or biology? When and how did one start informing the other?

I grew up on a farmette called Firefly Hollow in Southern York, PA, and was ever-intrigued by its ecological diversity and complexities. I used to try to raise minnows, crayfish, and baby turtles from the creek and pond on the farm in an aquarium. I never succeeded with anything other than turtles and would cry and cry, and always wanted to understand why I could not live with crayfish and minnows in my room.

We had all sorts of other critters at different times throughout my childhood: horses, goats, sheep, llamas, chickens, ducks, geese, cats, dogs, rabbits ferrets, rats, mice, guinea pigs, and even a skunk. These were my friends, and it was in my early years that I first attempted to understand my relationship to other living things that had the same senses as me. I questioned my connections to them, and everything really. Until I had the desire to be socially accepted, I wasn't the kid inside in front of the TV all day, I was barefoot and wandering. This is where my fascination with our intricate connections to our world began.

My interest in the arts came not long after. It was one of the only things I felt good at and so continued to develop my skills until I found myself in school for fine art and then realized that my love did not lie in only painting and visual representation. I immediately changed my major to Biology, found myself struggling with where to go post-graduation, and dropped out.

During the years after this, I got to know myself and my goals lot better. After many jobs serving in restaurants, I got a job on an organic farm and finally felt that innate satisfaction that I'd felt as a child. It seemed serendipitous that the path narrowed and I learned of permaculture landscape design, which wraps my ability to visually communicate along with my love of plant life into a neat little package of my interests and strengths.

What is the biggest difference between working with paints and organic materials?

Natural paint-making takes patience if you want an exact color and it's nearly impossible to create the same hue twice. I am still finishing off my acrylic paint collection. It is difficult to produce very vibrant colors using mineral pigments. A nice purple tone, I've found, is very difficult to achieve because the pigment is considerably expensive.

When I use natural paints for artistic application, I use milk paint or an egg-based acrylic. Milk-based paints have a consistency similar to acrylic, and egg paint remains somewhat goopy, but preforms more like an oil paint in my experience.

I'd like to point out that excessive amount of paint gets thrown away. I have recently set my natural paint making on the back burner after noticing a lot of salvaged house paints have become more accessible and keeping them out of the landfill is important to me. I still aim to provide my knowledge and services of natural paint-making, yet conservation of what's available has preceded lately.

If you could accomplish anything as a permaculture artist, what would it be?

We are nature, we are not apart from it, and treating nature as if it is a part of ourselves instills a sense of concern for what you put into it and what you extract from it. This is something that I see younger generations growing farther and farther apart from, which is disconcerting to me, and I believe the way we've abused nature may be a reflection of the abusive way we treat our bodies and minds.

I think that technology is a fabulous tool and while it brings us together, it also seems to pull us farther apart. Symbiosis is what makes an ecologically-sound world work, and disregarding the intricate connections and relationships in nature seems as though it could result in a lot of detriment for coming generations.

I hope to eventually illustrate a book about permaculture and work with younger generations to help them understand the basics. I think it is important for the environment and also for self-esteem. Understanding that every organism serves a purpose on this planet is reflected in socioeconomics — every single individual has a niche, serves a purpose, and does, in fact, need community to thrive. Just like rhizobia bacteria live on the root nodules of leguminous plants (beans), altering nitrogen to make it accessible to the plant, and in turn providing sustenance for the bacteria. This a simplistic example, but it illustrates how much we can learn from nature. In a world where we've become so autonomous, I think it's important to remember that we need each other.

Also I'd love to apply permaculture design to larger regions and not simply urban and suburban back yards. I'd love to do projects on a municipal scale and get whole communities involved in ecological restoration. [Permaculture design] is capable of benefiting, supporting, and sustaining us all and its impacts ripple out farther than just food production. There is also something innately satisfying about working directly with the plants and animals that we've evolved with on this planet.

According to your MakeSpace bio, “[your] integration into The MakeSpace was inspired by the drive to observe the facets of our local ecosystems as reflected in urban agriculture and the art community.” What have you observed so far, and what makes the intersection of urban agriculture and an art community worth the observation?

This has become a sensitive topic for me and is difficult to articulate clearly, but I'll try my best.

What I've observed is that some individuals view the community gardens in this city as invasive. In conjunction with the art scene, I have not observed much cultural diversity in the projects I'm involved in. I'm interested in finding ways to amend this. It seems as though this city is divided into a mosaic of “cultural ecosystems.” Those ecosystems could work together, but dissonance overwhelms and seems to inhibit the growth of the community. I hope that we can establish a way to coexist that everyone can view the renaissance that Harrisburg is going through as beneficial.

It is impractical to expect everyone to love gardening and love art, but I wish to see other niches harmoniously fit in with these. I've grown to observe that in the natural world, the more diversity there is, the more resilient a plant/animal community becomes. I'm hoping to learn how to navigate these complexities in social structure and help to bring more individuals together in the city of Harrisburg through food and art, specifically because they are universal languages.

Observation of the evolution of plant and animal life on the planet in this region, for these purposes, and learning from its progress is an element that is rarely considered. How has nature made things work? Nature has been here long before we have, so why not take a step back and learn from the relationships that have been working for millions of years longer than our species has existed? Nature didn't invent the wheel, but surely man's greatest influence was some natural occurrence that had the desired characteristics for the invention.

We have these complex, perceptive abilities that we use to enhance nature's glory, but what are we giving back to it? We are merely exploiting resources, polluting, and harming the ecosystems that sustain us. We've evolved to a point where it's intimidating to turn around and amend our wounds. Yet, when one starts to notice all of these connections, it's nearly impossible to stop.

You come to the realization that we are all apart of this incredibly ornate web. It's mind-blowing. It becomes humbling to play your role in the intricate dance of existence. This is more awe-inspiring than anything to me and I'm determined to share with those who would like to listen and encourage those who would like to learn.

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