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Earth-Worming


In 1970 my first love brought me, a city girl, to a house near Claremont on the border of the Pickering Lands. Here, rents were low and a CPR train left for Union Station each morning at 8:05, arriving there at 8:50. I was a student at the University of Toronto.

Our first evening, early spring, we walked within a symphony of sounds: red-winged blackbirds, bullfrogs, a chorus of spring peepers. In the distance, cows lowed, sheep bleated, dogs barked, a rooster crowed. As the sun dipped below the horizon, a whip-poor-will called. All new music.

For 24 months, I was immersed in the life on the Lands. Alongside my farming neighbours I fell into the rhythms of the place. In the spring we harvested fiddleheads and marsh marigolds by Duffins Creek, and dug wild leeks in the woods. We crushed berries for jams in June and July, cut up cucumbers and tomatoes for pickles in August and September. A crowd of us squeezed tangy juice from red ripe sumacs. No wonder people described these Lands as a breadbasket!

One day in 1972 Government men, heavy with plans and edicts, swept the lands and expropriated 18,600 acres for a second airport. I returned to the city and my classes. My professor, also a publisher, gave me a desk and a task. “Write the expropriation story. Tell us what’s up.” I told the story in The Movable Airport, (Hakkert, 1973), then became rooted in the city where I worked in public educational broadcasting. I forgot the Lands and even their stories.

At one time I was privileged to have Ursula Franklin, visionary scientist, passionate humanist and tireless activist for peace and justice, as mentor. We met shortly after the Montreal Massacre, when I worked at TVOntario charged with exploring the social impact of the new televisual technologies. My research had revealed the potential of these technologies to socialize children into violence, and I sought Franklin out with my concerns.

Her response was classic Ursula. “You must do something,” she said emphatically and in the next breath, “How can I help?” And so began my immersion into Ursula’s ‘earthworm theory of social change’. “Become like the earthworm,” she said. “Publish your research, yes, and engage all you meet in your concerns. Invite them to join you in ‘doing something”. In this way you’ll prepare the soil for new seeds to germinate and grow.”

She explained that social change doesn’t occur as an avalanche down the mountain. It happens through seeds sown in well-prepared soil. As each earthworm moves grains of earth through its body it is an agent of preparation: its castings enrich the soil; its passage aerates the earth. So began a 4-year public education project that took me into 91 communities across Canada. Throughout, Ursula was always available to tutor me in earth-worming practice.

After 42 years away from the Lands, a phone call. The caller said, “No airport yet, but the lands are in danger. Come for a tour. We’ll show you what’s happened.”

We boarded a bus at Brougham Town Hall. Our first stop was a redbrick farm-house, birthplace of Ernie, the great-grandson of its first colonial inhabitant and sole remaining resident farmer. His mother, stooped and bent, watched from behind the gauze-curtained kitchen window as we clustered about him outside. “Mother wouldn’t leave,” he said. “She could not believe these Lands could ever be paved. Made no sense to her or to me.” Inside his empty barn, his voice swelled as he told of the family’s century old dairy herd and then broke. “I lost the herd to auction. Can’t work a proper farm on a single year’s lease.”

I walked the Lands, heart breaking. Hedgerows bulldozed, barns razed, ghost houses. Yet the Lands remained – abandoned, yes, but abundant as ever. I had to do something.

I began sharing stories of the Lands with friends and soon realized that many, especially those under 45 have little awareness of the Lands’ history, their vulnerability, or their potential. Yet as Wendell Berry reminds us, “the fate of the land and the fate of its people are inextricably bound.”

There are libraries full of books that document why at this time of climate change and chaotic global markets we should not pave these Lands. But as long as no one cares…

Caring hinges on affection. Affection hinges on familiarity. Artists are those best able to engage unknowing hearts and minds in ways that enable us see anew. Harvest, is a collective, celebratory experience of the Lands led by some of Canada’s finest artists. As their gifts of sacred ceremony, poetry, music and dance stir our senses, light up our hearts and minds we are offered the opportunity to re-vision what could be. I thank each of them for joining me with whole-hearted dedication in this co-creative endeavor.

May Harvest inspire us to engage in our own unique practices of earth-worming so that our words and deeds prepare these Lands for an abundant future of local, safe food, healthy communities and good jobs that sustain us, body and soul.


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