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Expired · 26th October 2009
Ray Grigg
Trying to explain the permaculture creations of Oliver Kellhammer is like trying to explain any work of art. His creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness are amazing. The result of his efforts are revelations that seem so simple, profound, bold, elegant and obvious that, in retrospect, one wonders why anyone didn't think of them before. But no one else did. And this is what makes Kellhammer an artist.

Kellhammer has been repairing degraded urban landscapes for 25 years. He also serves as a writer, teacher and panelist. But his commissioned works are his true creations ‹ not so much constructed designs as inventive "happenings". He does this by intensely observing nature, then amalgamating his deep understanding of biological processes with nature's own adaptive ingenuity. When these two sources of creativity are mixed together, the results offer surprising benefits for both humans and the wild things that live in cities.

We already know about nature's adaptive ingenuity. But Kellhammer's artistic soul was nourished by years of study in creative writing and fine arts. The artist and nature entered their first important collaboration on a deserted and garbage-strewn highway right-of-way in downtown Vancouver, BC. Kellhammer was looking for a way to turn the critical awareness of his artist's conscience into a constructive activity that would satisfy his creative drive but also benefit society. And this site must have seemed like the painter's perfect blank canvas.

Imagine a flat and desolate landscape of sparse weeds littered with discarded plastic bags and used syringes, a wasteland in the industrial heartland of the city that might eventually become, in some far-off day, a major roadway carving a community into more isolated pieces. The site had little soil, little hope and little of the life that nourishes and vitalizes cities.

Kellhammer's first step in this self-initiated project was to build a small stone fence around a square of ground. To keep away vandals and municipal officials, he erected counterfeit signs that read, "City of Vancouver Soil Testing Site". On this patch of defined territory he planted cover crops that would add nourishment to the impoverished land. This outlandish act was the beginning of a process that soon took on a life of its own.

In a short time, one or two curious people who noticed the unusual activity asked if they could plant things, too. They staked out their little pieces of territory and began their restoration efforts. Someone started a compost pile and others brought organic waste to make soil. The ad hoc subdivision of gardens grew until a main pathway had to be planned between the escalating number of plots. The composts proliferated and the manufacture of soil burgeoned when a nearby trucking company that imported refrigerated fruits and vegetable from California happily offered their spoiled produce. A gardening expert from Taiwan contributed his planting skills and showed the community how to compost soya waste from tofu production. Earthworms appeared and flourished, adding their magic to the growing fertility of the land.

The growing expanded like a green contagion. In addition to favourite food crops in the gardens, people brought shrubs and trees for the surrounding areas. Birds came and nested. A complex, self-sustaining ecology was evolving.

As expected, a rat problem was created by the overflowing banquet of fruit and vegetables in the composts. For a while, as Kellhammer described it, the place was a virtual Serengeti of running rats instead of leaping springboks. But nature's ingenuity solved this problem, too. Hawks appeared in the nearby trees to hunt during the day, while owls took up the task at night. Soon the rats were mostly gone. And the city politicians who once railed against the perceived anarchy of the whole project could see its civic beauty and began to support it with grants.

On the strength of this success, Kellhammer won a contract with the city to stabilize a bank that was created when a new urban bridge was built. The soggy slope was large, steep and unsightly. Its threatened collapse endangered apartment blocks above and a road below. The alternative to Kellhammer's creativity was to spend millions constructing a concrete retaining wall.

Kellhammer's solution was simple, elegant and ingenious. Willows, because they grow in such wet conditions, are perfectly suited to bind the soil together with their complex root systems. So he stuck hundreds of willow cuttings into the exposed bank. Then he used branches and wooden pins to build little retaining walls that would hold patches of soil in place for other plants to establish. Next, he located bird houses on posts throughout the bank – birds, he noted, are masters at growing their own food supply by distributing seeds. The barren bank was soon stabilized by a mass of sprouting willows and berry bushes. The natural succession of vegetation slowly transformed the bank into an urban forest that is now rich with alders, conifers and all the evolving biodiversity that make ecologies permanent – a permaculture.

On Cortes Island, where Kellhammer now teaches and works, his newest project is the restoration of a logging clear-cut now suffering the effects of a warming climate – a corporation took the timber and sold the ravaged land to a private buyer. If, as Kellhammer reasons, we are moving into a period of global warming akin to the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum that occurred 55 million years ago, why not plant the trees that were growing here then? So, with the help of fossil records that identify the dominant species of that distant time, these are the trees he is planting – a new ecology to harmonize with the changing circumstances.

But Oliver Kellhammer plants more than just trees and gardens. He also plants purpose and inspiration, meaning and hope, faith and joy. His living works of art remind us that ingenuity and resourcefulness can work with nature's sustaining power to fix what is broken, to restore what is lost, to enliven what is dying. This is creativity at its best.