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Whit’s Secret (Guerilla) Garden Of The Commons

Ben Riley, Maria Farinacci, Erin Grady, Kari Johnson and Geran Wales. Photo by Alex Notman.
Ben Riley, Maria Farinacci, Erin Grady, Kari Johnson and Geran Wales. Photo by Alex Notman.

If you’re driving south into Eugene from I-105, look east to the foot of Skinner Butte and you may just see a rainbow. Stripes of color framing a mural shoot upward from Lincoln Alley, which, as of May 9, was still an impenetrable knot of blackberry bushes scattered with broken glass and garbage. By May 12, however, the strip of land housed a blue picnic table, a community mural and garden beds filled with the seeds of sunflowers, irises, lemon balm, Jerusalem artichoke, raspberries, bleeding heart and other plants. This is the Secret Garden of the Commons.

The project grew from a collaboration between the Cascadia Forest Defenders (CFD) and fledgling “food sovereignty” sustainable garden group, the Avant-Gardeners, after meeting this spring at the Global Climate Convergence, brought to Eugene by the Civil Liberties Defense Center.

“One of the things that we talked quite a bit about is the way that we view space and public access to space,” says Avant-Gardener Geran Wales. “Both of these groups hold to an ethic that we can care for the land in common in a way that supports human and nonhuman communities rather than only see space as something that can be either for private use or for a public right-of-way.”

The concept behind the commons is land that does not fall under private or public ownership and is accessible to all. While the groups did not ask for permission to work in the alley, CFD member Erin Grady says, “The idea was, it’s public space; it’s already completely unusable … It wasn’t serving its purpose, so we decided to give it a new one.” She describes the garden as an experiment in food security, community resilience, friendship and getting to know your neighbors. 

The neighbors have started to come out; a local security guard has promised to keep an eye on the space at night and James Heating and Air Conditioning across 1st Avenue has offered the group its hose to water the garden in exchange for access to the tomatoes that will eventually grow there. Avant-Gardener Ben Riley cautions that the garden’s soil has yet to be tested — they are currently in the process — and thus they have preemptively planted remediation plants like sunflowers, which “take toxins out of the soil and heavy metals.”

Maria Farinacci, also of CFD, brought local muralist Kari Johnson into the fold, after meeting during February’s First Friday ArtWalk, to design a mural for the alley’s concrete retaining wall.

“I sketched it out and everyone else painted it in,” Johnson says. After clearing the blackberry brambles and trash on May 9, Johnson, members of CFD and Avant-Gardeners as well as members of the community worked on the mural. 

“It tells the story we are trying to tell with this garden,” Farinacci says. “We’re really trying to not just create another community garden but really talk about issues that our county and our city faces, from clearcuts to homelessness to how we live in the urban space.”

Both groups will continue to work on the Secret Garden of the Commons, but they hope the neighborhood will eventually adopt it.

“If it does become something that the neighborhood really wants to take care of, that we can pass it over to them, then it’s a 100 percent success,” Grady says. “And if it doesn’t become that, we painted a really cool mural and got rid of some blackberries.”

For more information, go to the Eugene Avant-Gardeners Facebook group page at wkly.ws/1r8 or email CFD at ForestDefenseNow@gmail.com.