Local artist Jeff Davis balances sustainability and art with new food forest

In Duvall, Washington, a local artist is experimenting with a new art form: a garden, and not just any garden. Jeff Davis is creating a ‘food forest,’ filled with trees and perennials that keep producing year after year, made publicly available for the benefit of the community. “It’s not art in the way you usually think about art, but it is art,” he told me. “In some ways, it’s more tangible.”

Davis started the food forest when he moved to Duvall in the summer of 2019. He was looking for a long-term project where he could be of service to the community, one that would give him purpose and a way to express himself creatively. “The opportunity to lease this 1/2 acre of city-owned land crossed my path, and my intuition spoke up loud and clear,” he explained.

Not every person can look at a bit of unused land by the side of the road and see an art project, an education opportunity and a place to sustainably grow food all at once, but that’s Jeff Davis for you. After all, not everyone is an artist, a cultural anthropologist and a permaculture design expert. You would be forgiven for not recognizing that last one. Permaculture is a specific set of farming practices, all about looking at the whole system to design for sustainability, working with the land rather than against it. Instead of planting an entire field with a single crop, a permaculture garden chooses a variety of plants that work well together and with their environment. It also focuses on perennial agriculture: growing plants, like fruit trees, that keep producing year after year without the need for tilling or weeding.

This system comes with an ethos, too: leaving places and communities better than you found them. According to Davis, “We should care for the earth, care for each other and share the abundance… give what and where we can. That’s permaculture ethics.”

Davis has always enjoyed gardening and community projects, but permaculture hasn’t always been his thing. What led him to permaculture was his study of cultural anthropology. “When it was time to choose a major for college, I found myself reading books and watching documentaries about indigenous cultures. I was curious about their lifestyle, which seemed so simple, beautiful and free.” After completing his degree, including a summer spent in a thatched-roof hut in the Solomon Islands doing research, Davis developed a deep respect for the way in which indigenous cultures got what they needed directly from the land. It was asking the question of ‘how can I do that myself?’ that then led him down a path towards permaculture.

As is true for all of us, though, life wasn’t a straight path from point A to point B. After college, Davis moved to Spain to teach English, then to Colorado to work at a ski resort. “My life was lots of fun, and full of adventure, but I lacked the depth of purpose and meaning that I was really seeking.” Davis got in trouble for drinking and driving and spent a few weeks in jail because of it. To press the reset button on his life, he moved back to his hometown of San Juan Capistrano in California. It was there that Davis found The Ecology Center, a fledgling nonprofit environmental education center. “I ended up working there for four years,” he recounted. “We did some radical projects. I learned about sustainability, gardening, homesteading and helped build a community of like-minded people. My experience there was so positive. I learned a lot about myself and what I was capable of.”

After four years at the center, Davis felt the call to travel again. He wanted to put what he had learned there into practice. “I was asking a lot of big questions of myself and my purpose,” he explained. He traveled across Costa Rica, California and Hawaii, doing mostly volunteer work in sustainable agriculture and honing his craft. “In hindsight, I think this period of my life (almost three years) was about getting out of my rational mind and more into my body and heart. I’m still working on that today, and being outside, working with the elements, is really helpful for that,” Davis told me.

From there, he returned to the West Coast – Washington this time – and worked at Hawthorn Farm, a sustainable educational farm in Woodinville until August of last year when he moved to Duvall and started the food forest. The food forest has garnered a good deal of support from the local community, and detailed plans, guided by Jeff’s permaculture expertise, have been drawn up at popular community meetings. The project has attracted people from outside Duvall, too. Will Rak, a pioneer of food forests and the President of the Board for the Beacon Food Forest, one of the first in the country, now sits on the board of directors for the Duvall forest. Alexia Allen, Davis’ mentor from Hawthorn Farm, got involved too. “I have benefitted tremendously from local fruit trees.  Food forests are an incredible survival tool.  I know we are trained to go to the grocery store, but why pawn off our necessities to anything other than the reliable solar power that falls right next door?… When I heard about it, I knew I wanted to support it any way I could.”

Allen has a more pragmatic approach to permaculture, which she says “is a bit of an empty term to me, or is thrown around to mean a variety of useless things. For me, I would describe the best facet of permaculture as calories in < calories out. It’s important because without that flow of calories, I will die. Having productive fruit trees within walking distance increases my chances of staying alive. I like staying alive.”

With the pandemic posing a threat to food security across the county, that “not dying” angle is sounding pretty sweet, and Davis says he’s seen a big spike in interest since the pandemic started. While it has spoiled his hopes of hosting community gatherings in the near future, Davis says that COVID-19 “has inspired and motived me to continue doing what I’m doing. I think the virus is highlighting our ever-present need for local and resilient food systems, and our need for genuine human interactions. We need to come together, and what better place to do that than a garden?”

Rachel Witt is Davis’ partner, a self-described ‘plant dork’ in her own right. According to her, building that community around nature is one of Davis’ talents. In our fast-paced culture, she says, he has a way of slowing down and thinking deeply. “I think his approach to life and bringing forward community is a lot different and allows for more listening and thoughtfulness,” she explained. As a leader, Witt says, he is a big-picture thinker with tremendous vision, but he isn’t one to grab the microphone for himself, preferring to act as an enabler so that everyone can be heard.

Beyond that, “he has a crazy persistent streak when it comes to certain projects,” said Allen. “I also see that he navigates challenges using art, which elevates the challenge into a mythic and beautiful question.” Davis’ commitment and artistry comes through best with community projects like this one, which Allen described as “a love letter to future generations.”

Because a food forest is created by and for the community, and is filled with perennial crops that keep producing year after year, the food it produces can be and is made freely available to those who need it, alleviating hunger and food insecurity in the community.

Davis is not alone in this vision; the Beacon Food Forest has had a lot of success in providing food to its community that just keeps coming back year after year. Carla Perderlock, the community outreach coordinator for the forest, says that the forest there has helped to educate and feed countless people. It has become something of a “walk-through food bank,” she says.

Beyond that, Davis says that the food forest is in part an experiment, to prototype on a small scale what he hopes can eventually happen on a large one. Davis and food forest advocates like him envision a future where we use our open space in more productive, sustainable ways. He’d like to see more lawns with veggie gardens and fruit trees instead of grass, and in the same way that every neighborhood has a park or a skate park or a dog park, every neighborhood, he says, should have a food forest.

That vision may be a long way off, but the only way to realize it is the way Davis is doing it: with love, artistry, and determination—one shovelful at a time.