A Garden in Parkdale: Files from the First Year.

Flower Sun

Summer was a gas. A handout so thoroughly unassuming and yet drenched with the kind of fulfillment that you only get out of a really great, aching workout. Outdoors, camping…I worked at a community garden, attended workshops… Actually, let’s just forgo this didactic listing of events and instead, aim for one of those meandering, metaphorical streams of recollections and reflections. The ones that somehow converge into a watering hole brimming with grunts, darting eyes and false alarms. Is it just a far-off mirage or is it actually thriving with beasts of all stripes? Are those bobbing logs or idle crocodiles? Hold your nose tight and high, dear reader, for those rare pellets of wisdom might just be under a muddy morass of self-indulgent reverie.

~~~~~

We begin aplomb with Shannon Thompson. Shannon is one of those people who get tagged with all sorts of “mushy” adjectives. Any attempt of writing about her is inevitably weighted with the desperation of fetching for qualities that haven’t been attributed to her previously by someone else. But it’s nigh impossible. Take a cursory glance at people’s comments about her and you get a sense of how much she means to a lot of people: sincere, passionate, hard-working, enthusiastic, inspiring, supportive, brilliant, so on and so forth. You see what I mean? It’s as if I’ve just missed out on this train and I can clearly see the departing end-carriage brimming with people and spirited chatter. It gets tiring sometimes, and equivocally cliché. But the words just don’t mean for naught, for I have had the privilege and the anecdotal heft to see those abstract concepts flow out, materialize and touch a medley of faces.

“Her light is one I grow towards.” Why couldn’t I think of something similar? I guess I could’ve just slipped this one in clandestinely and assume I didn’t know any better. But that certainly isn’t the case. And in any case, I should aim for higher. When you’re stuck in a pit of appraisal, the only thing left to do is look up. And Shannon’s light is definitely one that I look up to.

My first encounter with Shannon was on my interview day. I’d spoken to her earlier on phone, and the thing that struck me foremost was her enthusiasm. It’s not something you can glean just by the way she speaks, although that does play a major role, but more so with her unbridled knack for compassion (stay with me, folks). It’s more of the energetic kind, replete with an elegant skill of listening that she often attributes to her teaching & communications course that she took a while back. She hears you out completely, and unless absolutely pressing for time, returns serve in an uninterrupted, measured and determined manner. But that was the first thing that struck me about Shannon: that infectious sense of enthusiasm.

You get an idea of that energy more when you speak with her in person. The way her expressions are playfully animated, and how she sprinkles every conversation with chuckles and the singsong way by which she carries it. Youthful, for sure, but not in that overbearing way; rebellious without being antagonizing – most of the times, anyway.

Back to the interview: I was the last one being questioned and sorted out for the day. There were about four panelists from what I remember, and I half-expected them to just get through this exercise tiredly and be done with it. I actually did sense a bit of that but my memory is clouded with the presence of Shannon’s, you guessed it, enthusiasm. The questions were pretty standard and the answers flowed naturally.

I got wind of this job opening on Craigslist as I was idly browsing the web one evening. The posting looked innocuous enough, and I figured, what the heck? It sure beat all the retail job opportunities. I fired away a cover letter and résumé to Shannon, not holding out any hope in case it got shattered as usual. At the time, I was mired in a work situation that I absolutely loathed, and the application sent to Greenest City was among the many that I had written after one particularly frustrating day at work.

The following weekend, I was visiting and staying over at a friend’s place in Ottawa. We were enjoying the warm afternoon sun over a cup of tea when my cell phone buzzed. I picked it up and it was Shannon calling from Toronto. I don’t recall what we exactly talked about; it might’ve just been a confirmation from her about receiving my letter and résumé. Whatever it was, after I finished the call my friend looked at me and asked me why I had a smile on my face. I wasn’t offered any job position, really, but talking with Shannon had still left me smiling. It happened a lot over the course of summer and continues on till now.

There’s a side-point I want to address here, and that deals with the perception of me being a dedicated environmentalist or a seasoned community worker which enabled me to land this job. That, unfortunately, isn’t the case; although I wish it were. Sure, I had nascent ideas about climate change and opinions about sinister oil conglomerates. But does that earmark me from the rest of the roving populace? No. You see, the reason for me succeeding what could’ve been a field of far more suitable individuals is about as clear to me as it would be to you. The mechanics of why and how, the situational digressions and the particular environment at the time had somehow, peculiarly, aligned in my favour. I could venture a guess, from an immodest point of view, and say that my impression at the table might’ve tipped the scale a little towards my end. We are animals of vanity: from my immaculate, pin-striped suit to my starched shirt, the reasons for this and that, and the where and when get waylaid by the colours of persuasion. They are stuffed with elements of your disposition but did they really carry me past the finish line in this race? I don’t know, quite honestly. I suppose when it is all said and done, when Shannon and I and the others reflectively contemplate on the year that was, I could maybe ask her “why me?” But, for now, that sort of self-serving question remains mute when there’s still a lot that needs to be tended to. I’ll be sure to let you in on it when and if I get that question answered.

The day after the interview, I was called by Shannon and congratulated for landing the gig. I was elated. I was in the Queen streetcar when she called and I almost high-fived a fellow passenger standing beside me. I didn’t, of course. That would’ve been just confusing and really presumptuous of me. Especially so if it turned out that the stranger was just fired from his work. Talk about a faux pas!

Thus began my work with Greenest City, under the wing and tutelage of Shannon Thompson. Along with Bhavana Kapal & Abbey Huggan, we were entrusted with the task of leading six other youths, hereon referred to as the Youth Green Squad (YGS), into the heady levels of environmentalism, food security, urban gardening and sustainable consumption. Quite a plate, you would think. When you’re kind of green to this whole thing, it becomes even more daunting. It would be commensurate if I said I welcomed the challenge and faced the current with gusto. That, sadly again, is not the case.What happened instead was a curious and not-quite resolved extension of a job-in-training position that continues on till today. I bit my fingernails, wilted at times, and just tried to thoroughly absorb everything that was going on around me. Parkdale’s first community garden: check. Organic food: OK. Youth stewardship: check. Environmental awareness: check. Seed saving: right. Food security: sure. Issues on vulnerability: Uh huh. Arts influx, vitality, permaculture, 100 mile diet, cycling … I might have just bit more than I could chew. It’s definitely not the first time that I’ve gotten myself into such a scenario. But I’ve never before been thrust into a situation where I’m accountable for the holistic development of individuals, and not just for some abstract, quantifiable numbers of a faceless company.

Wooden Chair

~~~~~

On a sunny, warm spring weekend, when the breeze still harbours a trace of winter in the absence of the sun, more than a dozen hopefuls converged in the still-bare Hope garden. The name ‘Hope’ is an inventive play at ‘Healthy, Organic Parkdale Edibles (has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?) It was to be both an interview as well as a day’s session of work bee in the garden. Holding a clipboard each, as if to indicate that the participants were under a constant shadow of scrutiny — a moment’s slip and they would have to glance worryingly over their shoulder as I scribble a note while shaking my head and rolling my eyes – we sat under the shade of an imposing, aged, unnamed maple tree in the park. Shannon explained the day’s itinerary: all of the prospective environmentalists would be interviewed by a panel consisting of her along with me, Bhavana and Anna (an office intern) on the order of how we received the applications; the rest would be tending to the garden under the supervision of Abbey, the resident garden coordinator. Some applicants requested to be interviewed earlier, some later, and we tried to accommodate that as best as we could.

We had asked the Youth Green Squad wannabes, a week before the day of, to bring a piece of their creation that somehow embodied their being and, if possible, how it would enunciate their probable tenure working with Greenest City. It was idea breached by Bhavana, in the lead-up to the hiring day, to bring another aspect of the applicants to round up their presentation. We didn’t want to settle at just looking at the fruits; we wanted to smell them and taste them as well. Almost everyone brought something along with them, save for a pair of Tibetan sisters who not only managed to not do their project, but also come in late. Tut tut tut, I inwardly muttered, and placed an asterisk beside their names. I must confess that it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, and that writing semi-detached notes of judgement for the sake of objectivity was something I actually liked getting used to.

Wooden Chair Really

As the interviewees whittled down for the day, our ad hoc interview table now under the shade of the tall community housing building that looms over the western edge of the park, we collected our notes and bade good night to each other. We had initially intended to compare and decide who was going to be hired at the conclusion of the process, but the evening turned out to be too chilly and we gave up on that notion soon enough. Throughout the whole session, as we grilled – conversationally, of course – one youth after another, I was struck by the realization that I could have just as easily been on the other side of the table. And even from that point, I wasn’t sure I would’ve stood out as a possible YGS recruit. Some of these kids were pretty damn talented and passionate. Some were even older than me, for crying out loud.

The following day, in the basement office underneath the local community centre, we gathered our notes and engaged in a dispiriting exercise of elimination. I tested the water, since I couldn’t profess to any real, strong feelings about any of the candidates. Shannon and Bhavana were more resolute, relatively speaking, although I could tell that even they were slightly drained from picking out of a pool so equally competent and deserving. We had six to pick from the dozens, and as far as I could tell, only a couple of names were clear-cut choices among all of the judges.

At the end of it, the two women decided that they were going to only choose those kids that were currently not attending university and/or, to put it bluntly, from a non-privileged way of life. I agreed, partly because this was one of our mandates in the YGS program, but mainly because this made the selection process so much easier.

~~~~~

The office of Greenest City is a basement space generously provided by the Masaryk-Cowan Community Centre. James Caldwell, the director of the centre, by Shannon’s own endorsement is a keen environmentalist and was on-ball from the inception of the program. The office has an L-shaped layout, with two points of entry from the main floor as well as from the side of the building. The first thing you notice about the basement office is that it doesn’t really feel like a basement. With the exception of the absence of windows on the wall and the presence of all sorts of pipes running across on the ceiling, the brightly coloured basement feels like any other level in the building. With it’s high walls and ample lighting, the office offers a cool respite from the heat of the summer and a warm recluse in the winter. I certainly didn’t imagine feeling how cozy it would in the cold weather; but it is, and as I type this paragraph, the steady hum of the radiator behind me gently cloaks the air with a close, dungeon-y warmth.

Most of the furniture and equipments in the office are either donated or borrowed from Shannon. The used computers were all received from a dealer with a charitable bent. Almost everything in here was once owned by someone else — the less the impact on earth. The walls are all hung with pictures from past endeavours of Greenest City, and posters of plants and animals. There are lots of chairs on the floor, as if inviting a visitor to sit down, chat and learn about the colourful pictures and posters on the wall. What’s the hurry?

The first time I ambled down the steps as a freshly inducted employee of Greenest City, the office was already thrumming with Anna and Mona Koochek typing away on the computers. Mona was a volunteer at the time and she was helping in organizing the garden opening celebration to be held on the weekend. An undergraduate of York University with an affable and coquettish disposition that far exceeds her diminutive frame, she immediately laid out the plans for the party and took us to task with it. Posters were put up, restaurant owners approached, and meals secured. The idea was to get as much cuisine as we could that reflected the diverse spices of the community. There were going to be curries, rice dishes, falafel balls, momos, Ethiopian daal … every platter a slice of Parkdale’s colourful makeup.

The opening ceremony at the garden was a celebration of vaudevillian moderation. Held in the park on which the garden was tilled, the crisp early spring air was cracked by shrieks of children laughing and people chattering. A local, bluegrass band serenaded the attendants softly, prompting the occasional whoot and claps of approval. The outdoor party was set up so that a tent covering the A/V equipment flanked the southern side of the garden, with rows of chair borrowed from the community centre lined around it further down. Colourful posters acknowledging the donors and offering tidbits about the garden were hung on the fences, artfully created by Abbey, who has a flair for wispy lines and delicate sketches.

Observing Shannon schmooze and move about the ceremony is to study a natural connector in all her glory. She stands at a medium height — with a healthy, stocky frame trained from years of cycling and indulging in all sorts of outdoor recreations such as kayaking and hiking. She capers every so often, and her penchant for operatic gestures is amplified when a certain subject or anecdote stokes her fancy. Shannon is one of those rare people gifted with the affability to instantly strike you as friendly and approachable in the most unforced manner — connecting for her is not an effort of socializing but rather a natural means of conversation.

I was stuck in one of my usual moments of uncertainty when faced with a large theatre of unknown faces mingling and creating atmosphere. I wanted to look like I was involved, like someone who was too distracted to bother introducing himself or wishing cordialities to similarly perplexed patrons. There are only so many times you can pretend like the stitch on your sleeve looked really interesting. And so I clicked. My dark, bulky and ugly D-SLR became my means of conversation, and I explored all the intricate patterns of the characters before me through the eyes of my trusty, slightly dusty zoom lens.

The whole event was a performance of colours bouncing ever which way: children’s faces were painted, the rosette of dishes screamed spice and earth-borne culture. The kaleidoscope of the procession was politely balanced with local residents and community activists; all young, old and feasting on a portion of ingredients that made up the neighbourhood where they lived. All of the dishes were paid for by the local BIA; all of them prepared by local restauranteurs. Towards the latter half of the day, an African drumming band further enlivened the affair, kids and adults alike shaking their hips and trying to maintain rhythm with the tribal beat of the drummers.

And then Shannon spoke, wearing a green, costume hat adorned with fruits and vegetables. The local dignitaries spoke as well, pledging their support and belief in all of the hot button, kitchen table environmental issues. People laughed, people clapped. It was quite the landmark event: Parkdale getting her first, very own organic garden space. A lot of promises to be met, and a lot more things to look forward to.

I clicked my camera shut and took stock of what transpired from the day. The volunteers had now started to clean the park up. No paper cups or plates were used for the party, instead we used the cutlery from the community kitchen and some partygoers brought in their own eating implements. Everything was being washed, nothing wasted. I marveled at the quiet, sensible prudentiality of the operation. All of the efforts were marked by an easy-going affirmation, none of it barked or cajoled out with an imposing aura of erudite insistence. It was my third day at work and, already, it felt like I was on the cusp of something utterly transformative.

HOPE Garden Sign

~~~~~

To be continued…

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Awesome! I just finished my 8th year teaching and have found that plants are a really good teaching tool!

    I also found some good resources here:

    http://www.howtodothings.com/education/how-to-grow-plants-in-the-classroom

    http://www.howtodothings.com/education/how-to-do-gardening-science-fair-projects

    http://www.howtodothings.com/education/how-to-plan-a-garden-for-kids

    Have fun!

    Reply

  2. There are no places better than gardens and parks, everyone enjoys them, helping to maintain them is more fun than chore and there are always people willing to help out, it may be a lot of work but the outcome is always worth it, there are no places more relaxing than parks and gardens (except for maybe countryside and churches) and when the weather permits there are always people spending hours in these areas, even if the weather is poor there are still those who walk through the parks daily or take the dogs in them, and even with garden people still visit and spend time in them even through winter. There are few places within cities can offer what gardens and parks can as long as we look after them and care for them, from helping with general tidying to keeping the park benches clean.

    Reply

  3. I have to agree having open areas such as communial parks and gardens is of benefit to all the community, there needs to be somewhere in towns and cities where people can get close to nature and just relax.

    Reply

  4. It is important that we keep as much of the countryside in our urban areas, we need to maintain and cherish them, for a lot of city folk it is the only time they get to see such a wide variety of plants and trees in one area, plus it breaks up the concrete and the tarmac.

    Reply

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