OliverK.org. Artist. Activist. Inspiration. Fast talker and fast walker. Friend of the slime mould. Radical gardener.
Oliver had so much to share, but I think the most important lesson he sent us all home with was to not give up on the city. That everything is going to be O.K.
Oh, and also that we should always take action before asking, and that most rules don’t apply.
Over the years Oliver has worked in various cities, asking the plants “what can I do to help,” or rather, “what can I not do,” allowing them to take over and reinstate their own natural systems. What a revolutionary idea! Let them be. Create a weed sanctuary. Observe the plants’ processes; interact in ways that benefit you and those around you without messing up the systems; observe others interacting. Utilize these processes to solve problems like eroding banks or dirt slip-sliding onto the road from a newly deposited berm (dropped before any asking was done of course).
It all seems so simple. Too simple. But the thing is, the earth is trying hard to keep itself intact, to regenerate organic matter to feed itself. This was not simply understood (as you understand something you’ve been told or something you’ve read), but felt, as we all stood in a young grand fir forest that had established itself on an old concrete tennis court in the Whaletown Commons. With the help of mycelia and bacteria, plants can do anything! Or as Oliver would say, “don’t lose hope, there’s always something in the world that will eat all the shit you do.” The earth has enlisted mycelia, bacteria, and plants to ‘do the dirty work’, you might say, so lets join forces, rather than fighting against something so powerful.
How can we help? Catching and storing the energy and interest of his community members helped Oliver to give an empty lot in Toronto back to the earth, allowing a green oasis to take over. This in turn helped the community, provided a yield, and brought biodiversity and life back to the area all in one fell swoop. I guess the point that I’m getting at is that we can help by reuniting the separated entities of “nature” and “people,” and that we can do this in a city! I have often felt that the only hope for “being part of nature” is to escape the city, but like so many situations, it may be more beneficial not to turn our backs — to try to make the city a better place, not only by integrating more “nature” into it, but also by recognizing the “nature” that is already here, like the weeds pushing up through the concrete, and offering them the same respect that we offer to old growth forests.
Another thought provoking conversation with Oliver questioned the seemingly black and white dichotomy of native and non-native species. Putting the short life span of humans up against the unthinkably long history of the earth turns clean lines of black and white to a textured and moveable wash of grey. Similar to the concept of shifting baselines, this generational amnesia can also be applied to which species are “supposed” to be around. Movement of species from coast to coast or continent to continent can increase productivity, biodiversity, and resiliency in both the species and the ecosystem. Think of Oliver’s sequoia tree, a species thought to be extinct that survived in a pocket of Chinese countryside. If this non-native tree had never made it’s way to China, or if it had been torn out, we may have lost the species forever.
“I don’t have an answer for you, but I can tell you a story.”
This is how Max, welcoming criticism yet full of belief for his own systems, began our chat at Manson’s Landing. If you’ve been to Manson’s Landing, you’ll know that it’s a small piece of paradise — turquoise blue ocean and white sand beach, extending south to north and rushing around a corner into a sheltered lagoon overflowing with clams fresh for the digging. Under the blue sky and long awaited hot sun we sat in a circle in the grass, and although some of us most certainly had criticisms on the tips of our tongues we were docile in the heat of the day and the calm of Max’s voice.
Max take’s on the “Meat Punk” title not with pride, but with duty. He feels that he was only given the name because people needed to observe and interact with this character, learning from it and questioning their own beliefs and systems. My own beliefs about killing animals and eating animals were examined during, and after, this conversation. One interesting thing that Max said was that he disagreed with the common vegetarian idea that if you can’t kill it you shouldn’t eat it. This is an idea that I myself had preached earlier in my life, although in the past year I have found myself forgetting about it and not complying to it, though not outwardly disagreeing with it. Max’s point in disregarding this idea was that not everyone has to be — or should be— a killer. In a book I recently read (The Last Heathen by Charles Montgomery, which explores the cultures and religions of the Melanesians in the wake of the Melanesian Mission), I learned that some cultures still employ an “assassin” of sorts. A person who often fills the role of kastom priest or “witch doctor”, who is also responsible for killing anyone who has wronged or offended the ancestors. This is a position within the society that must be filled, so taking it on is honourable, however it is also a position that is troubling and includes making sacrifices, and therefor takes a certain kind of person.
Although my example is arguably more intense, this social system can be the same when all you are doing is killing animals. In a social system, like any system, not every part must be performing the same functions (although redundancy is key to resiliency), and it’s actually OKAY for me to benefit nutritionally from another persons life-ending capabilities.
At first glance Max and Heidi didn’t seem to be permaculturists. They don’t have an aquaponics set up, a cob house, or a chicken tractor. However, one of the things that was clarified by our time on Linnaea farm (or perhaps by our constant cleansing in Hazel Lake) was that permaculture isn’t always that obvious; it isn’t a specific system, rather a collection of systems that fall under the label of permaculture because of their ethics, practicality, and sustainability.
When you take a closer look, it becomes clear that Heidi and Max’s lifestyle falls in line with many of the permaculture principles, therefor falling under the permaculture umbrella. The principle that first became evident in the duo’s actions was Using Biological Resources & Producing No Waste, which they took to a whole new level. Why build your systems to mimic natural systems when you can just use the existing systems to your benefit? Heidi and Max forage for much of their food, utilizing the natural systems that are growing food (plants and animals) whether they eat it or not, and by doing this they have also cut down on their waste substantially. In fact not only are they avoiding almost all packaging associated with bought food, but they are also Cycling and Recycling Energy by eating the “waste” (such as organ meats) that others produce when processing animals. Beyond this, Max also spoke of remediating natural systems and taking responsibility for our human affects on them by eating invasive species, or species that have increased disproportionately (such as sea urchins) to their predators (such as sea otters). This action mirrors the morals of the permaculture principles Solving Problems Creatively and Striving for Diversity — not to mention Obtaining a Yield. More than anything though, I believe that these two embody the principle of Managing Edges. They themselves seem to be living with one foot in human-managed systems, gardening and gleaning (utilizing the surplus of human society), and the other in non-human-managed natural systems, thus inhabiting the edge between the two.
Wait…. Raisins grow on trees? It’s true! Well, almost. The fruit of the raisin tree, although small, dry, and dark — like a raisin — is not actually edible. However, while the hard, pea-sized fruit dries up, the edible fruit-stalk, or rachis, of the Raisin Tree becomes swollen and juicy with maturity. Eaten raw, the fruit-stalk is similar to asian pear, cooked it is similar to candied walnut, and dried it is, for all practical purposes, a raisin. A mature Raisin Tree, as young as 7-10 years old, can yield 5-10 pounds of edible fruit-stalks.
A bit about the tree:
The Raisin Tree, native to the mountainous regions of China, is a medium-to-large deciduous tree belonging to the Buckthorn family. This tree is very hardy, and once established it can tolerate drought and extreme cold beyond it’s USDA Hardiness Zone 5-10 classification. In extreme cold conditions branches may die, and the tree will seem dead, but the spring will bring new shoots that will replace the damaged branches. The Raisin Tree grows well in full sun or partial shade, although it produces considerably more fruit-stalks (and fruits, but who cares) in sunny conditions. Although the Raisin Tree likes slightly acidic soils (tolerating anywhere from highly acidic to slightly alkaline), it may be hard to grow on the coast because it requires a long, hot summer for it’s fruit-stalks to fully ripen, and while it prefers moist soil, it does not like wet soil. When classifying British Columbian weather, I might lean more towards the word wet than moist.
The Raisin Tree is wildly independent, and not only self-pollinates but also self-prunes! As the tree grows, the lower branches are dropped in favour of newer ones, and all you have to do is sit back and let the heat and sun ripen those juicy fruit-stalks for ya.
One thing to be aware of is that the fruit-stalks, located at the ends of the branches, may be difficult to harvest as the tree becomes larger. One suggestion to remedy this is to cut the branches off and harvest from them once they’ve fallen to the ground. I would also suggest experimenting with dwarfing or heavy pruning to create a more harvestable tree.
Other products of the tree:
Traditionally the Raisin Tree was never cultivated for food in China, but rather for it’s high-quality wood. The wood can be used for construction, flooring, furniture, tools, and crafts, and is favoured because it has no common pests or diseases. Due to it’s serious determination to survive, the Raisin Tree can likely be coppiced, which would provide more timber for production.
A sweet “tree honey” can be made using extracts from the fruit stalks, and perhaps from the young leaves and twigs as well. Tree honey is used to make sweet treats or wine, and may have some serious health benefits due to liver-protecting and anti-inflammatory antioxidants present in the plant.
Beyond obtaining a few different yields for ourselves, the Raisin Tree also provides food and habitat for creatures such as birds and small mammals, and in early summer it is covered in numerous fragrant white flowers which are thought to attract bees and other insects. The Raisin Tree’s tolerance of partial shade makes it versatile in that it can be used as either a canopy or sub-canopy layer in agroforestry or food forest systems.
The Raisin Tree is also well suited for reforestation because it grows fairly quickly, provides habitat and food for wildlife, and although hardy once established it is not invasive.
The tree’s deciduous nature, grand size, and love of hot summers would make it a multifunctional element of a passive solar design. I would recommend growing one on the south side of your house where it would effectively manage temperatures by allowing for solar gain during the winter, gradually offering more and more shade throughout the spring, and providing full shade in the summer. The thermal mass of the house behind it would create a microclimate where it would be more likely to get the long hot summers that it needs in order to produce it’s edible fruit-stalks, so the tree is happy and so are we.
DISCLAIMER : this article may cause confusion. Please be assured that the raisins commonly sold in stores and eaten in oatmeal cookies are, in fact, dried grapes which were grown on grape vines.
Unripe fruit and fruit-stalks
when the fruits have dried up, the fruit-stalks are ready to harvest
Kitseiner, John. 2014. “Permaculture Plants: Raisin Tree.” Temperate Climate Permaculture, August 12. Accessed June 2, 2017.