Q & A with Eugene suburban permaculturist Jan Spencer

Jan Spencer has turned his home into an example of suburban permaculture. His website  chronicles the process of utilizing methods such as edible landscaping, water catchment systems, a greenhouse, chicken coop and much more.

Q: What sparked your interest? Where did this whole thing begin?

A: Well for my entire life I’ve been into environmental kind of stuff, even beginning in my last year of high school. So I’ve always had a concern for the planet and that’s just increased since then, I’m 60 now. I have a fair amount of my own kind of background, from the period of the late 60s, early 70s, the kind of “youth rebellion.” I never went to Vietnam, because my draft number was too high, but it was that era. There were radical groups on college campuses and there was a lot of upheaval. So that’s kind of a little bit of my background, of a kind of dislike, you could say, of the establishment and authorities. And I never got over that. I’ve had a counter culture sensibility pretty much my entire life. And that’s only increased as time has gone on.

Q: And more recently, what led you to where you are now?

The view when entering Spencer's backyard. The structure is his bungalow, which he built himself and lives in. Photograph courtesy of Jan Spencer, suburbanpermaculture.org.

A: I moved to Eugene 20 years ago because I knew Eugene had a greater, more of a green kind of a culture. I didn’t know anyone here, but I knew the northwest was better that way. It’s greener and there’s the oceans and the mountains and stuff. So I moved to Eugene and within a couple of years I was involved in a lot of stuff. Forest activism, for example. Food activism, vegetarian activism. And then I was involved with another group that called my attention to urban land use. Urban design, how are cities designed. And that’s what got me into the focus that I have now.

The same view of Spencer's property pre-renovation, in 2000. Photograph courtesy of Jan Spencer, suburbanpermaculture.org.

So then 12 years ago, it came to be time to buy a house. And a fellow I know, his wife owned this house and the people who were living here didn’t want to buy the house. So I did. And my intention from the beginning was just to do all of this stuff, a suburban make over. So I immediately got into that. I pretty much hit the ground running. Within a year the grass was gone, another year I had the rain catchment and I had all these tree’s planted. It’s just been kind of constant stuff that I have been able to do because I choose a different way of living and I keep my costs way down. I rent several rooms and that’s what pays the mortgage and in less than four years the mortgage is over. So I have the time to work on my place.

Q: It must be an incredible amount of work. What motivates you to keep going?

A: For one it’s fun. I like doing this; I like to know where my food comes from. I don’t buy fruit and vegetables much at all. I freeze, I dry somethings, some just keep in the ground in the winter time, like winter squash keeps in the ground for a year. It’s so interesting to learn about using natural processes, to be less dependent on unnatural processes. And obviously, I’ve got a computer — this isn’t talking about “let’s all live like people did in 1850.” I’m sure not interested in that, but I don’t think that’s the choice. It’s one of those ethical and philosophical — and spiritual in a way — choices. If we had values and ideals and goals that were positive in a humanistic kind of way, but could also fit in to what the planet can put up with, then it would be a healthier, safer, more peaceful situation for everyone. So there’s a big chunk of idealism involved in this too.

Q: Do you work with anybody else in this pursuit?

A: There are within a three minute bike ride, a dozen other houses doing this kind of stuff. Mine is the oldest. There’s another house right over here. My friends there have been doing this for about 8 years.  And this is another really interesting dynamic, is that other people have come upon doing this stuff independently. There’s people all over the country doing this kind of thing. It’s not common. There’s more of it going on in Eugene than in most places.

I entered into it for the fun, for the political reasons, for the environmental reasons. Artistically it’s like a performance art project; it’s like living in a performance art project. You see the garden grow; you see things you planted get bigger every year and you start to enjoy the fruit that it puts out; you’re kind of more tuned into the seasons. It’s aesthetically more attractive. I love it. It’s just aesthetically beautiful. Strategically it makes a lot of sense. I love to have people come over here.

Q: What kinds of people come over?

A: The place has become a community resource for education. I can’t even think about how many tours I’ve had here, whether I organized a tour or other people want to come over here. Permaculture classes, home tours, solar tours, people like that. And I like that. Ultimately, the direction where this goes to is creating a kind of a culture and a kind of an economy. And it’s not all gonna happen on a quarter acre but it’s part of a part of a broader vision for, you could say, regime change. For something other than market global capitalism.

Spencer teaching with one of his self-produced posters, "Transforming a Suburban Property," at the 2011 Northwest Permaculture Convergence at the Columbia County Fairgrounds in St. Helens, Ore. Photograph courtesy of Jan Spencer, suburbanpermaculture.org.

Q: How have residents in the neighborhood responded to what you are doing?

A: Both my neighbors are very sympathetic. My neighbor over hear took out part of his driveway and put in a garden. Bill and I collaborated on taking out this hedge, so he’s got some stuff on his side of the fence. Over here Dan approached me with the idea of taking out some non-edible trees on his parking lot and along the east side of my front yard. We collaborated and had somebody cut them down and grind the stumps out and we decided we are going to replace that with some edible landscaping — kiwi fruit, grapes. When you think about what would it take to make this kind of thing more common and to create safer and more secure kinds of neighborhoods, it’s knowing who your neighbors are and knowing how to work with them, and be productive with them. It’s a good idea no matter what.

I think permaculture provides a basis for both practical structures and design, not just what a back yard looks like, but designing an economic system. Having an economic system that serves the culture, instead of the culture serving the economic system, which is what we have now.

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