Wiggle Room

The hope in cities for me lies in spontaneous and passionate creation. The kind of creation that Oliver spoke to, and demonstrated in his public art works and community gardens in Vancouver and Toronto. I really started listening the morning of our conversation with Oliver Kelhammer when I realized that he was the person that had instigated the creation of one of my favourite roosts in Vancouver, the Cottonwood Gardens. I had never really thought to investigate the story behind those little plots and winding paths; figured that they were part of a municipally-funded project to brighten up a rather dreary part of the city, I guess. I was overjoyed to see pictures of the collaborative and subversive beginning of the place, with community members taking advantage of a new space to exercise their autonomy in the city and share their knowledge. It’s a radical idea: open space, in the city, for people to do what they do. Whatever that might be. And it may be that no one even knows what that might be.

Ever tried to put on some pants but there was a plant??! I know I HAVE!!

Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin is another great example of this creativity that Oliver brought up. It is my understanding that this space was hard-won, wrenched from the grasp of a gaggle of salivating developers by the PEOPLE. That’s what I imagine, anyways.

Tempelhofer was a parade ground initially, then used as an airport, and today it is a zone for recreation and experimentation. There are community gardens, pop-up markets, naked sunbathers, walking and cycling trails, windsurfers, concerts, and to top ‘er all off, a 2.5-hectare BBQ area. It strikes me as admirable of the city planners to open a space for all that and more amidst the bustle of the capital of Germany. City planners are all about place-making, it’s kind of like water in permaculture: the idea isn’t to facilitate a landscape conducive to people rushing about without interaction or engagement, they want people to slow, s p r e a d, sink. However, the importance of pointless space can’t be overstated. Redundancy is resilience! Urban engagement comes from the freedom to express and experiment, people are going to do this no matter what because we are beautiful and creative little bugs, but it’s even better if it’s city-sanctioned! After speaking with Oliver it wasn’t at all surprising to me that he left Cortes for NYC. He clearly thrives on the energy of the city, and sees hope for the future in subversive ways of living in all kinds of environments. Or maybe he just does whatever the slime mould tells him to do.


Planetary CPR

Everything Oliver spoke about came back to an unrelenting respect and appreciation for the dynamism of the world. I found our conversation with him encouraging and inspiring, and reflected on how his view on ecological restoration stimulated and challenged my own. One thing we seemed to be in agreement about: the ecological and social systems in which we are embedded are perpetually in motion, so why do we idealize one configuration of an ecosystem over another? Critics of traditional environmental restoration argue that the very idea of a historical baseline is arbitrary and unscientific. To a certain extent, I agree. What was so ideal about the specific arrangement of biomass somewhere post-ice-age, pre-colonization? It seems that a certain degree of human fragility makes its way into the science of restoration; a little raw piece of our collective and historical consciousness that says, “how it was before us, that was pure.” Unpacking this further, it seems to assume that humanity is apart from nature; something that imposes itself upon the helpless landscape as a parasitic other. The point in making this distinction is not to minimize the destruction caused by human systems in the world. It is only to question the assumption of a practice that is becoming more and more relevant every day. It’s as important to understand the underpinnings and context of your restoration as much as it is important to think about the effects in the future!

Hey! This guy’s native! Right?

Oliver’s work in the urban landscape was, in his words, “giving a voice to nature”, but I also took it to be a statement about the role of nature in our cities and in our cultural imagination. The very beginnings of conservation lie entrenched in the idea of pure and pristine nature. But realistically, if that ever did exist (debatable), it certainly doesn’t anymore. How can we retrofit our conservation ethic, still reaching back to antiquity and calling up images of worth-protecting landscapes like cascading waterfalls and stunning mountain peaks, and start caring just as hard about the second- and third-growth that surround us? 

Emma Maris, in her book Rambunctious Garden, has some hopeful words about the future of restoration and the value of taking the idea of nature to the streets and incorporating (and thus giving value or a “voice” to) the natural world that perforates our urban landscapes. We are within the natural world, and it pokes through our concrete and shades our sidewalks and buzzes down our streets.

So…maybe we have a saviour complex. Maybe we need to do some reevaluating of what “nature” means to us. But restoration can still be good, I think! And the conversation we had with Oliver really drove home some aspects of the practice that really make sense to me. I can see a hopeful future through his eyes, especially when he throws around happy little terms like “planetary CPR”. I love that one.


Sophie Noel

An afterthought to many gardeners, an annoyance to others, and a true gem of the backyard ecosystem to the rest, Borago Officinalis is a plant of many names and credentials. Borage strolls into the interview with 5-page-long resume and references ranging from Sir Francis Bacon to Pliny, Dioscorides to Linnaeus. Borage gets the job.

Also called starflower, bee bush, bee bread, and bugloss, borage generally clocks in at 80-100cm, and can be identified by its blue, five-pointed flowers.

The common name for this plant, borage, is said to be derived from the Latin word corago- courage, which is among the many reputed benefits of the plant. John Evelyn, writing in the seventeenth century, reports that borage is able to “revive the hypochrondriac and cheer the hard student”, while John Gerard is quoted at length extolling the virtues of the plant: “the leaves and floures of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadnesse, dulnesse and melancholy”.

The humble Bee enjoying its Bee Bush

Native to the mediterranean, specifically Syria, Borage is an extremely adaptable plant that has naturalized all over Europe and North America. It can be found growing on the side of the road, or cultivated in a garden, or happily sprouting out of refuse piles. It truly is not picky. Because it flourishes as a weed, it has been cast to the wayside of traditional gardening. However, borage has much to offer everyone in the neighbourhood; from the hobby gardener to the market farmer, the bees to the strawberries.  Read on to find out what borage can do for YOU!

Every part of the borage plant has a plethora of uses. It has been described as a diuretic, demulcent, and emollient, and these properties can be accessed through topical use or ingestion of the plant. The seed oil is said to have anti-inflammatory properties, which help alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. The leaves can be steamed and eaten like a leafy green, or used in a facial steam that is beneficial to dry skin. Because of the plant’s anti-inflammatory properties, as well as its potential benefits to mood and ability to “drive away all sadnesse”, it is a particularly helpful supplement for women during trying times in the menstrual cycle. The plant can be consumed steeped in water with lemon and sugar, for some refreshing and restorative summer sippin’.

As a permaculture plant, borage comes in swinging. It is a pollinator-attractant, hence the nickname “bee bush”. It also adds trace minerals to the soil, and is a great addition to compost or mulch. It self-seeds and grows willingly wherever it finds itself, so it’s a great addition to a garden even just for the purpose of cut-and-drop mulching. It makes a great companion plant for strawberries, squash, and tomatoes (and many others, but these in particular) by increasing resistance to pest and disease, and deterring hornworms and Japanese beetles from tomatoes. Borage is a hard-working, even-tempered, and eye-catching addition to your garden, and if you don’t agree after all that, then I need to find a new career goal because persuasive garden journalism clearly isn’t going to work out. 


“Borage”. A Modern Herbal. Accessed from https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/borage66.html#his

“Borage Seed Oil”. Arthritis Research UK. Accessed from http://www.arthritisresearchuk.org/arthritis-information/complementary-and-alternative-medicines/cam-report/complementary-medicines-for-rheumatoid-arthritis/borage-seed-oil.aspx

“All About Borage”. Permaculture Research Institute. Accessed from https://permaculturenews.org/2011/01/21/all-about-borage/

“Borage”. Herbs Info. Accessed from http://www.herbs-info.com/borage.html