Night markets at the farm

It’s a warm summer’s evening after a 38 degree day. The sea breeze is in but that just means the air’s no longer baking and it’s got a bit more humid. The pumpkin vines look fine with healthy tendrils exploring loosely, the leaves on the apple tree above are a good green. I’d admire the condition of the borage, hyssop and several other mixed herb and vegetable plantings but I can’t see them behind the crowds of people even though they’re only a few metres from me. The aisles between the raised, rockwalled beds are filled with little tents selling art-print t-shirts, handmade pens and cards, chunky necklaces, pop-culture key rings, knitted cacti. A group of thirty-somethings perches on the edge of the cauliflower bed to eat their plates of satay. The lawn beyond the apple and pear trees is filled with people sitting and drinking beer and wine pop from biodegradable plastic cups.

It’s the Illuminati Nitemarket at the Perth Cultural Centre, last Friday night.

Three people are sitting with their backs to the camera on the edge of a waist-high garden bed. The garden bed is full of vegetables and has a fruit tree on the right hand side of the photo. Beyond are crowds of people walking or gaterhing around little tables, and in the farthest distance of the photo, about twenty metres away, are white tents housing market stalls, mostly hidden by the crowds in front of them.

Casual drifts of people, market tents and tables, and a thriving urban farm in the heart of the city.

Right in the heart of the city is this space dedicated to all kinds of arts and culture stuff. Surrounded by the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) gallery, the State Library, the State Museum, the State Art Gallery, and connected by flyover to the upper level of the main Perth train station, it’s really just a brick/paver/concrete space that is kind of a cross between carpark roof, pedestrian accessway and something to stop people and buildings just rolling down from the high edge at Barrack St to the low edge at William St. Being where it is, it gets used for whatever events might work out. There’s always something going on in the space during any festival, and it itself hosts the Awesome Kids Festival in October. Over the years the space keeps getting altered, adjusted, made more in keeping with this or that. The statue in the water became a live music stage, the water fountains became an eco pond, an unused corner became a hands-on-music-making kids playground, a large screen showing student films got installed in the amphitheatre. And most recently, the carpark roof section, closest to the train station, became an urban farm.

I first went there a while back to check out the pervious paving installation, that being something I worked with back in my green technology coordinator days. I was pleased to find an open space full of raised waist-high beds planted lushly with a cycle of vegies and herbs under fruit trees. Spaced widely for public recreational use rather than intensive production, of course, hence the need for pervious walkways for water management, but looking well organised and cared for. Various signage talks a little about the philosophy and the running of the space, covering much of the usual ground of greening the city, localising food, reconnecting to nature and to food production, community volunteers planting, seasonal cycles of harvest, food sharing. They don’t mention the little wrinkle of making healthy fresh vegies available to the street people who roam the central city, so I don’t know if sneaky removals are unofficially tolerated or quietly grumbled over. Neither do I know if the street people take advantage of the resource, though you’d hope they would.

I do love seeing this combination of farm and market. There’s an ease to strolling in a space that’s full of growing things, a kind of comfort to the soul of seeing the vegies and herbs thriving right there beside you. I’m watching people around me relax, despite the heat still being well above aircon levels. Many of them may feel an echo in their souls of holidays in Bali, with heat and lush plantings overhanging spicy banquets. I’m feeling an echo of the Nightmarket in Darwin, with happy crowds thronging between stalls after sunset. I’m remembering Melbourne – the open day at Petty’s Orchard, with crowds of people learning about heritage apple varieties in a market-day-like atmosphere in the middle of a big in-farm space. And also remembering shopping at the CERES markets held right next to their organic farm. The markets themselves were a tiny space and (being Victoria) it was almost never this hot in the early morning market hours. But you got the same sense of people relaxing, enjoying the feel of eating or shopping while being able to see just over the rail fence where some of that food and produce had come from. It’s a noticeable destress in ways I don’t think most people can even explain but which I suspect comes back to a kind of connection with food and place. Even though, in the case of the markets last Friday, there was no connection between garden and plate at all. I don’t think it’s an accident that people who shop at farm gate and farmers markets tend to love their food and the making of it more. I suspect that translates into being willing to pay slightly better prices on average too, though I’d have to see some figures.

I guess the point I wanted to circle back to though was about telling story through sense of place. There may be no actual relationship between what people are eating and what they’re looking at, but humans aren’t good at keeping those kinds of multiple simultaneous sensory inputs separate and we *will* confuse them without realising. It’s a story told with no words, but that reaches anyway into the heart and soul and subconscious, bypassing the conscious mind that would look for the meanings of words. This may be where the stories of farming have their deepest resonance and their greatest impact. And it’s just an inner-city market, selling artistic and creative goods for the Christmas rush.

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