Agents of Succession

Our last couple of field trips have explored how permaculture principles have been applied by local businesses: shaping company decisions both core and peripheral, and generating networks of restaurants, growers, roasters, visionary landscapers, and others who work to promote a kind of exchange that is ethical and regenerative. But the daydreamer version of myself has sensitive antennae, always on alert (rightly or wrongly) for the homogenizing effects of capital. And so I have a soft spot for the permaculture tinkerers and mad scientists – those creating for creativity’s sake, toiling in obscurity in a creaky greenhouse behind a funny-looking hedge.

We may have visited one this week. There is a side of Chris Adams that is decidedly not obscure: the side of a thousand anecdotes, a wellspring of local history made manifest in his looping stride, a dark alley and a ghost story. Even at his home in Victoria’s James Bay neighbourhood, where locals pause at the gate to chat with the chickens, nothing is concealed. The hedge isn’t that high. But Chris, who we paid a visit to this week as part of our Design Methods, Process and Mapping class, nevertheless carries a whiff of the mad scientist about him.

PDRE students on a base-mapping blitz in James Bay. Although aerial maps of the neighborhood are available online, permaculture base-mapping by hand sharpens one’s eye for detail and scale, and is considered an essential skill.

Straight up the path to the front door sit a pair of columnar apple trees, standing stout and majestic like vegetative Doric monuments. But even before this can register, my eyes are drawn to a two-storey living willow dome in a corner of the small front yard – the willow whips, which Chris propagates in a pair of rain barrels at the side of the house, are woven into a squat hourglass shape whose tips jut skyward. Chris tells us that the elevated platform, the “floor” of the second storey, makes a good breakfast nook on a dewy spring morning. This I easily believe.

Ferrocement garden beds, four abreast beside the path, undulate around their mesh lath skeletons. They’re beautiful, finished with an iron oxide pigment, and stand sturdy and solid. But I’m a bit thrown off by the material. This turns out to be an early jumping off point for Chris: “Be where you are,” he says, echoing a sentiment we’ve heard before from Mark Lakeman and Oliver Kelhammer. In this ecologically damaged world, in Chris’ view, chasing a pristine sliver of land to homestead isn’t sustainable, and may not be wholly ethical; better that we embrace and rehabilitate the contaminated places we inhabit now. He adds, “Living in the landscape you’re designing is important … cement becomes a comfortable material to use when you plan to stay somewhere.”

Early fall blooms in James Bay, with Chris Adams’ chicken run visible in the background.

And by the standards a settler like me usually marks time in, his rootedness here feels cement-worthy: Chris grew up just across the street from where we’re standing, with his grandparents’ place around the corner; his parents now live next door to his childhood house. Chris’ children will be the fifth generation of the family on this block. Chris himself left Vancouver Island for another one some years ago, spending a decade living in the U.K. before returning home. At one point, he says, he’d yearned for the pastoral existence and rolling landscapes on display in the southwestern English countryside; now he works to condense the stuff of these hundred-acre ambitions into the footprint of his front yard.

The cement beds are devoted partly to experimental polycultures. We stand at the bed nearest the front fence, and Chris points out an American groundnut that he hopes will twine its way up the stalks of interplanted Jerusalem artichoke. Chickweed serves as a groundcover, and Chinese artichoke tubers lurk below. “I don’t know whether these will get along,” Chris says.

Examining the upper tier of a two-storey willow structure in Chris Adams’ permaculture yard: the “eagle’s nest”, a platform resting on the top of the dome, can support the weight of several people.

The next bed contains springbank clover (the leaves and flowers are edible but its thin, roving roots are the main attraction), and camas (whose edible bulbs were traditionally harvested and prepared in a ‘pit cook’ by the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ Coast Salish First Nations). Both plants have great cultural significance, which for Chris is exactly the point of growing them. He tells us that he dreams of “camas fettuccini” on the menu at local restaurants: “it’s important for foods that come from here to be consumed here – they’re not just historical artifacts.”

We walk past an apple, plum, and a mulberry bush, planted from small to large to account for the sun aspect. A twisting medley of clove currants (Ribes odoratum), Japanese parsley (Cryptotaenia japonica), salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor), and Saskatchewan-sourced honeyberry bushes (Lonicera caerulea) grow amongst the trees. Two varieties of goji and a hardy kiwi vine are trellised tall along the fence. We pass a few quail picking around inside a covered wagon, and then approach the duck enclosure at the side of the house. Inside is a flock of Welsh Harlequin ducks, first bred in Criccieth, Wales, in the 1940s. The ducks survey us and issue a couple of perfunctory quacks before returning their attention to the repurposed bathtub whose spent water irrigates the surrounding plants.

Hops vine climbing towards a bedroom window – apropos as the Humulus lupulus plant has sedative properties.

Along the opposite fence is a larger, partially covered enclosure, this one housing chickens and rabbits. Chris tells us that the house’s previous tenant maintained a grass lawn and a deep dislike for dandelions – her eradication strategy involving liberal amounts of salt and vinegar and thereby badly taxing the soil. Chris’ response has been to mulch like mad, mainly with rabbit manure. In the enclosure he shows us the rabbit cages, which are suspended above the chicken run. The chickens scratch amongst the fallen rabbit droppings, consuming any fly larvae that might be present and leaving the digested compost – alfalfa meal, willow and goji leaves – behind. Besides the steady supply of compost, the rabbits supply Chris and his family with a sustainable protein source.

Chris sees the bounty in his yard as a kind of rejoinder to prevailing narratives around food scarcity. “Humans are excellent facilitators,” Chris says – he facilitates natural abundance by carrying the rabbit manure across the yard to mulch his tomato plants, but it’s the rabbits and the plants themselves that do the rest. “We can easily take on negative perceptions of ourselves as humans, but we can actually be brilliant stewards of the earth.” He relays a story about how, as a boy touring nearby Beacon Hill Park, he heard stories of how the Lekwungen First Peoples oversaw vast camas fields and managed the land using controlled burns. “We humans are a part of the landscape – we should embrace our role as positive agents in succession.”

(L-R): Colourful front steps at Chris Adams’ place; water plants fill a bath tub in front of the house’s cistern; a not-too-forbidding front yard scarecrow.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.