Getting to Know the Neighbours

Part of getting to know your “place” is getting to know who shares it with you. You can really only do this by getting out in the open and seeing what’s out there. I’ve been doing this for a few years now in the backyard and larger neighbourhood of my east end Toronto home. Admittedly, it’s a great way to relax, but it’s also becoming for me a kind of spiritual practice. The American poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder talks about it in his book The Practice of the Wild:

The pathless world of wild nature is a surprising school and those who have lived through her can be tough and funny teachers. Out here one is in constant engagement with countless plants and animals. To be well educated is to have learned the songs, proverbs, stories, sayings, myths (and technologies) that come with this experiencing of the nonhuman members of the local ecological community. Practice in the field, “open country,” is foremost. Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance of spirit and humility.

The institute that I attended this summer, “Rooting Faith: Theology and Practices of Bioregional Discipleship,” was hosted by Ched Myers and Elaine Enns, who define their “place” as a semi-rural garden and the Southern Californian watershed in which it is situated. They moved there from Los Angeles (where Elaine had moved from Saskatchewan!) a few years ago, and part of the program was accompanying them as they learned more about their place. In the process of becoming a permacuture site, their garden was fragrant with sage, and full of produce like tomatilloes, oranges, and peaches. A Brazilian pepper tree just outside their fence spilled its spicy seeds over the ground.

And there were cacti everywhere — propagated by breaking off one fat pad and sticking it in the soil … up would come another cactus!

I found great beauty in what we observed on our first morning there, in the dry but still resinous sage whose scent we breathed in deeply, and in the lessons we drew from the Old Testament about humanity’s inability to further perfect what exists in nature. A phrase remains: “nothing we can make can mediate God more faithfully than what God has made.” But in reviewing my notes of that morning, I saw this scribbled down in a margin: “Western scrubjay. Northern mockingbird. Hummingbirds. Hawks. Vultures. Woodpeckers working lightpole. (Very active 10:15-10:40.)”

It was an acorn woodpecker and he spent the entire week excavating a series of utility poles. In so doing, he became to me the visual emblem of another phrase from our discussion: “We have grown up in landscapes that Creator did not make.” And, I might add, that nature herself has not relinquished to us, despite what we may think. Thank you, acorn woodpecker.

We also walked through Ched’s and Elaine’s place taking in the oak chapparal — a landscape that I had never heard of before this trip. Invoke “Mediterranean landscape,” though and it’s more familiar — hot, dry summers and scrubby, fragrant drought-resistant plants. Here I watched lark sparrows run through the scrub.

We sat in a dry riverbed (dry for a number of reasons: seasonal water flow, damming and diversion for drinking and recreation, global climate climate change):

A mockingbird sat nearby and sang his many tunes before our ambling flushed him:

And I watched turkey vultures tip-tip-tip overhead, looking down carefully at us.

Under huge, ancient California oaks, we talked about where we were, and while I engaged in this, I was also always just off to the side of everyone else, trying to determine who was with us.

Another trip, this one to the 80 acres of Appalachian Ohio and the larger environs that Julie Zickefoose and Bill Thompson III define as their “place,” — and the neighbours were much more apparent. Julie’s and Bill’s effort to provide a place of refuge for wildlife (primarily but not exclusively birds) displaced by urbanization, large-scale farming, and the extraction of fossil fuels (oil and natural gas) has resulted in a rich biodiversity: as I write this, they’ve seen 187 avian species on their property (known as Indigo Hill for all the indigo buntings that live there) and the place is crawling with snakes, turtles and amphibians of all sorts.

This is one of the box turtles we met on one of our walks:

A very special box turtle, as it happens. Turns out it is Shelly, whom Julie rescued from urban Marietta, OH, when it was about the size of a slider (you know, the mini hamburgers). Three years later, Shelly was big enough to be released. And she was, in August 2011. And then in July 2012, she ambled right across our path. Much to the delight of her foster turtlemom.

You can read Julie’s account of Shelly’s early days, the moment we found her, and see Shelly in action on Julie’s blog.

Every day, we saw bluebirds. Here, my partner Kelly holds a bunch in her hands.

These little ones are here because Julie has built safe boxes in which bluebird parents can nest and raise a brood or two each summer. This was a good year — several pairs had three broods.The bluebirds are a great example of knowing your place and who lives there in the negative sense — while bluebirds have made a comeback, they have needed human help because humans have hurt them so much. Destroying habitat for farmland and cities, spraying pesticides that poison the food the parents gather, importing house sparrows from Europe that peck the life out of eggs and chicks — these human actions have all had a deleterious effect on the eastern bluebird. Julie’s nest boxes are a “bluebird trail,” part of an effort begun in the 1960s to provide safe heaven for these beautiful birds. Here Julie checks another nest to make sure it’s free of parasites now that the eggs are hatching.

Indigo Hill is also full of ruby-throated hummingbirds, drawn not just by sugar solution in feeders but also by thick plantings of cardinal flower and salvia. There’s a rule, tested by dedicated hummingbird watchers, that you count the maximum number of hummers you see using your food source, and you multiply that by 6 to get an accurate figure of how many there are. The highest we counted at one time on this trip was 12  — so 72 hummingbirds on this territory, sharing this place. Compared to past years, that’s a low number.

Walks in the broader environs brought other neighbours. This is a Green Frog, Rana clamitans:

A dogbane beetle.

Butterflies, pooling on a country road to glean phosphorus. The yellow ones are eastern tiger swallowtails; the black ones are, I think, a mixture of female black morph eastern swallowtails and spicebush swallowtails. The difference is in the number and placement of orange spots, the quality of the blue, and the shape of the little tails on each wing.

This is the female black morph:

I have never seen so many butterflies: blues, sulphurs, skippers, hairstreaks, satyrs, and fritillaries. I’ll need to spend time poring over photos and guidebooks to determine just what I saw, but –this being her place– Julie knew them all at first glance. Well, almost all — she had to puzzle out a couple at home, because she thought she saw something new for the area, a county record. And in fact she had. She knows her place and what lives there with her. And it’s a far cry from the monarchs, cabbage whites, red admirals and eastern commas that I am used to in my own place!

What of my own place? I’ve defined it within this city of 2.5 million people as an area easily travelled within an hour on foot or with some streetcar assistance. It extends from my 30 x 100 foot urban lot to Toronto’s eastern beaches, the Leslie Spit, and the Glen Stewart and Taylor-Massey ravines. Squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, beavers, coyote, rabbits, and red foxes all live here, as do garter snakes and eastern painted turtles. Butterflies, moths and insects. I have seen well over 100 species of birds here, including a snowy owl. We have counted 68 bird species in our backyard alone, everything from redbreasted nuthatch to scarlet tanager to redtailed hawk.

But a recent facebook exchange makes me wonder how well I know my place and those who share it with me.  Seeking some wisdom on home improvements, I posted this update:

We are planning to replace our roof this year. We live in a bungalow in a raccoon-intensive neighbourhood and so animal damage and break-in are not uncommon (though so far we’ve only had damage, not squatters!). We’re therefore considering a metal roof and are seeking opinions from those of you who may have them.

My friend Richard, a United Church minister in the neighbourhood, replied that he couldn’t help but read the post from the raccoon’s point of view, wondering what it must feel like to live in such a “human-intensive neighbourhood.”

Do you, like Ched and Elaine, like Julie and Bill, like Kelly and me, have a practice of walking (or running, biking, or canoeing) around what you define as your place?

What do you see when you do?

Who do you see?

Kelly and me walking up Dean’s Fork, part of Julie’s “place”. I am carrying Julie’s dog, Chet Baker, who had inadvertently gotten a little too familiar with a nest of yellowjackets. (Photo: Julie Zickefoose)


Where Are You From?

“So, where are you from?” Seems an easy enough question. But when asked, I have almost always given a more complicated answer. “I’m a Newfoundlander who lives in Toronto.”  Proof: the picture atop this blog is me looking out over the Bay of Islands, where I grew up.

All of a sudden, “where I am from” becomes “who I am.” This would not surprise the people I met when I traveled to Palestine and Israel in 2005. Nor would it surprise the Indigenous peoples I have met or worked with here in Canada or in my travels to Ecuador a year ago, peoples who live in places of incomparable beauty, underneath which lies oil, the current or projected extraction of which threatens the land.

The Athabasca River in Northern Alberta, both indigenous territory and site of Canada’s tar sands projects.

The Napo River in Ecuador gives way to the Yasuni River — Indigenous territory, UNESCO biosphere reserve … and site of future oil extraction activities.

Place is one of those qualities, perhaps the most important one, that defines us. The “local landscape,” writes Ellen Davis in Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, is “not just physical but also economic, political, and cultural.” It is, in a sense, the summary of who we are.

Biblically, we are searching for the promised land, the land of milk and honey. When the book of Isaiah imagines justice achieved, the language is unequivocally land-centred: in chapter 55, the righteous are told that  “the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” In chapter 58, those who act justly are assured that they “shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”

One of the reflective activities we undertook at the “Rooting Faith” summer institute I recently attended was to sit in silence and think about the place that meant the most to us. A slideshow clicked through my mind:  the hill behind, the swamp below, and the woods surrounding our house in Corner Brook, where I spent almost every summer and many winter days of my childhood; the rocky point, studded with low-growing juniper, on which my grandfather’s summer house was built in Brookfield; Gros Morne national park; cold, misty, and rocky Middle Cove.

My partner Kelly walks into the fog at Middle Cove, 2005.

And yet, when I opened my eyes to answer the question, what was the last picture? A small backyard in Toronto, with a big silver maple, a growing lilac of the deepest purple you could imagine, sumac bushes, geraniums, dahlias, nasturtiums, alpine plants among the rocks, vegetables in a constant battle of survival against squirrels, and birds singing everywhere.

And within a 15 minute walk, a sandy (and sometimes icy) beach:

two well-treed ravines, full of life:

and a little further along, a thin spit of land reaching into Lake Ontario giving nature a toehold in the city and standing as a beacon for migrating and breeding birds:

This is my territory, the land I walk, the land that comes to the forefront when I am pressed to think about where I identify. I was surprised to realize that England, where I was born and lived the first three years of my life, didn’t make the list. This led me to what I think is the most important part of the “where are you from” or “what place means the most to you” questions: “why?”

Is it important to you because it’s where you were born? Because it’s where your people are rooted?  Where you enjoyed the exuberance of a childhood spent outside? Perhaps it is important because it’s where you built your own life away from your family of origin. Is it where you invest your emotions, spirit, and energy? These last four, and increasingly the last two, are clearly the more important to me.

Where we are from might be as much about what we have made there as what (or where) made us. I say this as a European Canadian and believe that it is probably a very different answer than many Indigenous peoples in Canada or elsewhere would offer. And I wonder, is that because we are disconnected from the land or differently connected?

I recently visited a friend, the writer, painter, and naturalist Julie Zickefoose, on the 80 acres in Southeast Ohio that she and her family are letting revert from farm and orchard land to its natural state.

Julie’s husband Bill shows Kelly the 80 acre view from the birding tower built onto their house.

Part of the view: the meadow home of deer and bluebirds.

I asked Julie to tell me, without thinking about it, where she was from and she swiftly answered “Appalachian Ohio.” This from a person raised on the east coast of the United States who spent most of her life (so far) there and a not insignificant amount of her time identifying and protecting some of its more ecologically valuable and at-risk areas. Unlike me, while she also had a deep sense of where she came from, she did not articulate dual ties. She could gesture out her studio window towards the former orchard where her father-in-law is (quite legally!) buried and know that one day she would end up in that same soil … and that that was how it should be.

We were watching birds.

Julie is deeply rooted in and connected to her land, to Appalachian Ohio. Although crafted in part by working the land, that connection is undoubtedly different than that felt by the people who farmed it before her — because this work was to bring things onto the land, not produce out of it. Rich fields and woodlands are now (once again) a haven for frogs, birds, turtles, snakes, rabbits, deer, coyotes, foxes and probably one day, bears. Native wildflowers flourish, attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Yet this connection, also made in part by the desire to see that land in its natural state, is undoubtedly different than that felt by the Monongahela, the area’s original inhabitants displaced after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Is it any less a connection, or is it just different?

Some of the other participants at the “Rooting Faith” seminar had trouble identifying the place that meant the most to them because (as I recall) they did not yet feel rooted in a place. This may have been because they were still in or recently emerging from university life, and sat on an unsettled cusp. Or perhaps as children they lived an itinerant family life, permanently on that cusp. I’ve no doubt they’ll find the answer but I have no idea when. Maybe when they find their own private Appalachian Ohio. Or maybe they’ll be like me, always invoking one home while simultaneously pointing to the other.

The Common Sense Sabbatical

The focus of my sabbatical is the land we inhabit. How does it shape us? How do we shape it? And what role does our faith (in my case, liberal Christian) have to do with it? I began this exploration with a week in California at the home of Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, otherwise known as the Bartimaeus Institute, in a course called “Rooting Faith: Theology and Practices of Bioregional Discipleship” — a time for us to reflect biblically and theologically on the land, and to learn more about permaculture.

An old California oak under which we did some good thinking and reflecting.

As our permacuture specialist Chris Grataski noted, permaculture has about a million definitions. At heart, it is a form of agriculture that is based on mimicking naturally occurring ecosystems — so for example, rather than cycling the same annual crops in and out of the same piece of chemically enriched soil, you try to create an agricultural ecosystem that, through living and dying, is able to nourish and sustain itself. The more I heard Chris talk about permaculture, the more I remembered Indigenous agricultural traditions like the companion (or closely grouped) growing of the three sisters (beans, corn, and squash), wherein the beans fix nitrogen in the soil for the other crops, the corn provides a structure up which the beans can climb, and the squash forms a kind of living mulch, keeping the soil damp and preventing the growth of weeds. (It makes a pretty nice soup, too, by the way.)

The more Chris taught us — double-digging rather than mechanically tilling, building a garden bed by sheet mulching — the more I imagined my grandmothers working their mixed gardens in Safe Harbour in the 1920s or 30s, tilling the soil by hand, adding natural organic fertilizers (capelin!) and moving things around year to year. “Why, it’s like common sense!” I blurted out one afternoon, and that got one of Chris’s infrequent but large, generous, and thoughtful grins.

What exactly is a sheet mulch bed, you ask? Why, it’s when you take this dry patch

Add a layer of cardboard

Then a thick layer of straw or hay — it can even be mouldy! This and some other dry brown garden waste mimic the older material you would find falling in a natural ecosystem such as a forest.

Then a layer of green waste — this mimics the newer material an ecosystem sheds.

A heavy layer of manure and compost — we all know what this mimics.

And then finally we have something into which we can plant

Elaine plants a Viburnum opulus, known as Kalyna in her ancestral home of Ukraine, where it has great cultural resonance, signifying both struggle and the rootedness of family. Also known as cramp bark, in folk medicine this plant was used by women all over the world to deal with menstrual and childbirth pain.

Building this garden, which took a couple of days on our part and even more of Chris’s and Elaine’s energy in the planning and gathering of raw materials, was hard work but it feels good to have been a part of something that will continue to grow, feeding itself and providing beauty and healing to all who seek it. The work of my hands, together with others’, is now a part of this place in the oak chaparral of Southern California.

But what we did there is a very small piece, as Wendell Berry reminds us in his foreword to theologian Ellen F. Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible.

We have been given the earth to live, not on but with and from, and only on the condition that we care properly for it. We did not make it, and we know little about it. In fact we don’t, and will never, know enough about it to make our survival sure or our lives carefree. Our relation to our land will always remain, to a significant extent, mysterious. Therefore, our use of it must be determined more by reverence and humility, by local memory and affection, than by the knowledge that we now call “objective” or “scientific.” Above all, we must not damage it permanently or compromise its natural means of sustaining itself. The best farmers have always accepted this …

My sabbatical journey continues …

Going Places

As part of my sabbatical project on “place,” I’ve been thinking about where I’ve been lately. I travel a lot: for work, to see family, and for pleasure. In the last year alone, I have crossed both the Atlantic ocean and the Equator, journeyed across the Canada-US border 3 times, criss-crossed Canada’s airspace Atlantic to Pacific twice, and touched down in the northern Boreal forest twice as well. That’s a lot of crossing.

I’ve also just recently finished a book about crossings, place, and identity: Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing, the Australian-American’s fictionalized telling of the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wampanoag who in 1665 became the first native American to graduate Harvard College. (Incidentally, it took more than 300 years for a second Wampanoag to receive an undergraduate degree from Harvard; Tiffany Smalley did so in May 2011.)


Carved canoes moored at the historically recreated Wampanoag village at Plimoth Plantation.  I took this and the other pictures  in this blog in Wampanoag territory in 2010.

Geraldine Brooks is an amazing writer. Her telling (again, fictionalized) of the history of the Sarajevo Haddagah in People of the Book will both break and lift your heart. Interestingly, like Caleb’s Crossing, it is about contested terrain — in recent history you cannot get much more contested than the former Yugoslavia; in North American history you cannot get much more contested than the space that is still uneasily inhabited by both its Indigenous peoples and those of us whose descendants came much later and exerted claim — claim that they justified with scripture, such as Deuteronomy 8:7-9

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams,with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.

It was indeed a good land:

And a fruitful one:

The  lead character in Caleb’s Crossing is not in fact Caleb, but Bethia Mayfield, the daughter and granddaughter of English missionaries who desire good relations with their Wampanoag neighbours … albeit within the framework of Christian conversion. Yet even as they seek to convert they also have a degree of respect for Wampanoag ways of farming, and for their right to the land. This places them in conflict with other settlers, just as their missionary zeal places them in conflict with Indigenous spiritual leaders.  Only Bethia, who in childhood established a deep friendship with Caleb, comes close to navigating the path between two cultures. And Caleb? Well, Caleb’s crossing –from Martha’s Vineyard to Cambridge, from Wampanoag to white culture– has no happy ending.

My theology is hardly profound but I think our settler ancestors should perhaps have read a little further, or a little more carefully, in texts like Deuteronomy, which advise us to eat only our fill before thanking God for what God has given. Once we have enough, in other words, whether that be food or land or whatever we have taken from the land, we need to stop. And we need to not be arrogant: Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ (Deuteronomy 8:17)

What horrible history we might have avoided had we but given slightly more critical thought to what places we were crossing into, and how we would relate to those whom we found already inhabiting those places.

How many of us still relate to those people:

Sign outside the Wampanoag village at Plimoth Plantation, advising visitors how to relate respectfully to the Indigenous people who work there as re-enactors.

My crossings this year took me to many places:  the territories of the Kichwa, the Syilx, the Nuu-chah-nulth, the Coast Salish,the Chumash, the Shawnee, the Cherokee, the Beothuk the Mi’kmaq, the Mikisew Cree and the Athabasca Chipewyan. I travelled through many others (for example, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Erie), and I of course live in the territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit.  I try hard to remember that when I travel, and when I stay at home.

I try hard to remember that someone was here, in this place, long before I was.

Sabbath Time

Hard to believe, but I started my career in the Canadian ecumenical justice world 15 years ago, and have been with my current employer just over 13 years. I was due for a sabbatical 8 years ago but never found the time to take it…

Now, though, after a tumultuous 3 years (tumult can be both good and bad), I’ve decided it’s time to stop and reflect on where on this earth I am rooted and how that defines who I am and what I do. So I’m taking a study leave to explore what I am calling a “theology of dirt” to explore how our place in world shapes us and what we do with our lives.  It’s not going to be an exhaustive or a scholarly venture. And while I will undoubtedly benefit from this sabbatical, I don’t want it to be entirely or even primarily self-reflective. The questions I pose may begin with me but I hope to end up with reflections that draw on experiences other than my own and that have relevance for other activists, faith-based or not.

Who am I? Expatriate Newfoundlander. Spouse. Birdwatcher. Social justice advocate. Gardener. Historian. Christian. Perhaps even in that order.

The next two months are going to be fun. A week at the Bartimaeus Institute in California, exploring theology and permaculture.  Time with friends on their Appalachian farm which they are letting evolve back to nature and which, I think, has a strong influence on who they are and what they do. New lessons to be learned from both these experiences. Time to think about previous journeys in the Boreal forest and Amazon rain forest, both of them home to Indigenous peoples struggling to protect their territories from the devastation of the oil economy. Lessons to relearn there. Time to sit in my own small patch. Work to be done there.

I’ve always been moved by the opening lines of Psalm 24: The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it …and in a sense this passage captures what this blog, “god is in the dirt”  aims to explore. I’ll be posting here, once a week at least, more if I am so moved and able. Check back.