Permaculture teaches us to value the marginal: to value that vibrancy and thrum that animates a garden’s edge; the sometimes dancing, sometimes writhing give-and-take that plays with easy reciprocity along a streambank. As practitioners we try to observe these edges, to toy with them, to harness them, and to expand them. It’s a principle that’s etched into each curving swale and meandering boundary – for at the margins there exists more diversity, more dynamism, and more abundance.
But the permaculture movement today is a bigger tent than it used to be. No longer the preserve of homesteaders, its approach is being stretched and challenged, and also applied – at least as a kind of analytical lens – to macro-level problems like food security and climate change. And so the terrain of the “marginal” has coevolved with it.
We spent this past weekend discussing this transformation with Oliver Kellhammer, an activist and artist who, for the past three decades, has trafficked in what might best be described as permaculture agitprop.
Oliver cut his teeth in the working-class Toronto of the 1980s. An early project was a sort of “weed sanctuary” in the city, hemmed in by wire fence and floodlights – a botanical Supermax without the visitor’s hours. But, in what was to become a kind of motif for his life and work, the squeeze of gentrification pushed Oliver out of town, and he landed in East Vancouver in 1990.
East Van at that time was – as it remains today – one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country, a sizeable portion of its residents living with a drug dependence or substance use disorder, and with the attendant political decision-making enveloped in a fog of neoliberalism. An early development push meant that houses scheduled for the wrecker’s ball sat empty while a housing shortage raged; the Frances Street Squats, one of the largest and most notable public squats in Canadian history, had kicked off months earlier.
Inspired by guerilla gardening that sprang up after the squatters’ eventual removal by Vancouver police, Oliver decided to squat a piece of land adjacent to a highway right-of-way in what is now False Creek. Signs reading “City of Vancouver Soil Testing Plot” were surreptitiously erected – half-true, if one was willing to interpret it either charitably or else too-literally – and local residents trickled over to the site as word spread and garden beds were scratched out.
The East Van neighbourhood was also home to a large Chinese population, many from the Pearl River Delta, and it was from their shared knowledge that Oliver learned his earliest permaculture practices. A nearby tofu factory became a source of free mulch, in the form of discarded tofu curd; water was brought in by hand from the public washrooms in a nearby park.
The garden became what Oliver calls an “open-source landscape”: residents gardening together, the land mirroring the messy diversity of the neighbourhood. There was no singular authority, no overseers, and because of this the whole undertaking possessed a stout resilience. Fierce neighbourhood support meant that attempts to raze the gardens for development were repeatedly thwarted. Water mains were eventually installed by the city, and the Cottonwood Community Garden still remains today.
“Permaculture demands that we advance, not retreat,” Oliver told us, and to him this means going to the most blighted and disturbed land to garden, rather than seeking the pristine. There’s the eye of the artist, and the eye of the ecologist, and not always much to separate the two: buildings in the city, secure in their primacy in the built environment, are transformed at a glance into slow-release fertilizer. (I should add, too, in Oliver’s case, the eye of the mad scientist – he’s proudly grafted Pyrus communis ‘Williams’, the Bartlett pear, to hawthorn rootstock, creating a Frankenstein-like pear tree with a built-in barbed wire fence to guard against deer.)
Our valuable margins, then, can look unfamiliar to us in a post-industrial landscape. In the UK, many red-listed species now exist only in brownfield ecosystems, those tracts of previously industrial land thought to be too badly degraded for easy remediation. When a bitterly cold Michigan winter killed off the pheasants in its rural game reserves, the state’s Department of Natural Resources caught and exported wild city pheasants that had adapted to life in the hollowed-out downtown of Detroit to improve the rural gene pool.
And of course there are the socially and culturally entrenched human “margins”: what different people are allowed to do in an urban landscape varies, with policing and urban design both used as instruments to enforce class privilege. Those who harvest food in public parks and from public trees are simultaneously criminalized and invisibilized, not likely to warrant much consideration from a city department that sprays the grass for “weeds”. But of course we have much to learn from them, as we have much to learn from those houseless residents who close waste cycles by repurposing other peoples’ discards.
And so here the elephant in the room – and a stubborn tension within efforts to “re-green” more generally – is the issue of housing. What is the value of green space if people can’t live there? In Vancouver, and increasingly in Victoria, the use value of a house has been outstripped by its exchange value: the house re-cast as commodity.
Here on the West Coast, people take rightful pride in our progressive building codes and use of green building materials; but we lag badly in terms of recognizing housing as a human right and addressing housing precarity and the runaway affordability crisis. Oliver called the community gardens a “holiday from capitalism” – liberating precisely because their early architects never got permission. And for this the gardens thrive joyfully on the margins.
Is there a way to harness this same subversive freedom-making for housing? Does permaculture offer a strategic direction? Poet Hakim Bey has written about “temporary autonomous zones”, those spaces that elude formal structures of control – for a permaculturalist, think of the familiar ephemeral garden started without permission. A lesson might be to shake off some of the purity-mindedness that can grip us all, the better to find new margins in the messiness of contemporary life. If we can make beautiful what we have now, engaging with the synthetic and the chemical and the unsightly, we might be closer to achieving what Bey gestures at when he writes that “art tells gorgeous lies that come true”.
Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.