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Last Wednesday I attended a Greenbelt Foundation Workshop on Creating Complete Communities in Rural Municipalities at Gellert Community Centre in Halton Hills.

As an independent researcher, I’m collaborating with Waterloo and Queens Universities, Save The Oak Ridges Moraine (STORM) Coalition and Mount Wolfe Farm in the development of the Oak Ridges Institute of Applied Sustainabiity (ORIAS) . This will be ‘clearing house’ for research and action on sustainability issues in the Greenbelt, using a complexity and systems thinking lens to solve problems and direct action. Today would be an opportunity for me to improve my knowledge on issues facing rural communities.

‘Complete communities’ offer a full range of jobs, retail and services, housing options, transportation options, and public service facilities. The Garden City Movement was one of the first proponents for creating communities that accommodate a wide range of community members through a mix in housing types and uses. Increasing urban sprawl, and its associated negative social, environmental, and health effects, prompted a turn in theory towards increasing density in urban areas. This idea has been brought into contemporary theoretical movements including Smart GrowthNew Urbanism, and Sustainable Development, which all advocate high-density ‘compact’ communities, and also increase the mix of activities and land uses that contribute to a complete community.

While supporting the development of complete communities in all settlement areas is a core objective of Provincial policies, small and rural communities can face difficulties with implementing the complete community concept in their unique context.

Today was an opportunity to hear about what rural municipalities in and around the Greenbelt are doing to support more diverse housing options, transportation modes, local jobs, and revitalized downtowns to create healthier, more sustainable, and complete communities.

The workshop started with a review of current work by Anna Shortly, Reesarch and Policy Analyst at the Greenbelt Foundation on her review of Rural Municpal Initiatives to create Complete Communites which will report next year. Municipalities are working to:

  • -directing growth to areas with infrastucturee (e.g King City Go Station)
  • -using focal points or nodes with a concentration of services eg Waterdown Community Node, and adopting policies to identify ‘nodes
  • -promoting diversification of housing types e.g -appartments & condos
  • -using vacant under-utilized/ lots
  • creating Community Improvement Plans CIPs)- e.g Bolton CIP with financial support support
  • Policies to promote Walking & Cycling and Public transit
  • Looking to create local Jobs!
  • Investing in historic, downtown & waterfronts
  • Creating valuing-added agricultural opportunities
  • Recreational tourism
  • DOWNTOWN revitalisation
  • Multi-Use Trails

We then heard from Melissa Ricci, Senior Policy Planner at Halton Hills on an intensification opportunity in Acton with some innovative use of Lego bricks and visualisations!

Michael Benner Directer of Planning and Building Services from the Grey Highlands gave as a fascinating overview of work to revitalise Markdale- the home of Chapman’s Ice Cream. The problems here are two fold, despite the ice cream firm being a big employer most of these are not locals. There is growing development pressure in this area where the main buyers are either (i) older people looking towards retirement or (ii) people who can work from home using teleconferencing facilities. Town Units are selling for $500K+, which is very likely outside the range of people with local jobs. But the attraction of building new homes is easy to see: $9 million in one time development charge revenue and $3m annual tax revenue, plus a new school and hospital. Grey Highlands is working to put this development in the right place, looking at local cores and main street and has even purchased property in the Downtown Markdale area for a multi use retail/ offices and private dwellings.

One aspect i found very interesting living here at Mount Wolf Farm is allowing a diversification of on-farm uses. There has been a rise in the number of machine shops on farms, particularly in the Mennonite community, adding to local employment and the rural economy.

The last speaker in the morning was Vicky van Ravenswaay from Pelham who spoke about community efforts amounting to a claiming back of the streets of Pelham for people. Focusing on the concept of Applied Walkability and Place-Making. Movements to redesign roads and pavements to make them more accessible to walkers- even through the wintert. In Pelham, Thursday nights are now market nights with street closures giving the streets back to the community.

The town also erected a series of Arches which at first looked like the entrance to McDonalds gone mad, but I found it interesting that after an accident that caused their removal they are now reinstated with colour themes and decorations at different times of the year. The concept of having a landmark or symbol can be a powerful place-maker (marker?) and – love it or hate it- can add an identity to a town .

Key lessons from Vicky: Don’t be affaid to close streets; Support, empower local groups; Start small & grow; Must have support of your leadership

A clear message was “if you have to put up street signs to say slow down you have designed the street wrong!”

The afternoons discussions were held in focus groups around these themes:

I joined in with Public Consultation and Small Town Revitalization discussions. My takeaways were:

Public Consultation

Public consultation should be a partnership. It should aim to get to the heart of local stories and develop visions in a participatory journey

Generally this comes too little, too late. If you are afraid of what the public might say and you aren’t prepared to give up control over the outcome, then consultation just becomes a box ticking exercise. At the point most of the respondents will be making a knee-jerk reaction in fear over loss of THEIR control.

Small Town Revitalisation

Our session started with a serious concern about the maximum number of people that a community can support before it loses its character as a small town, which prompted the group to think about what makes a small/ rural town what it is and consider that this might be a moving target as expectations change from generation to generation. Are we perhaps suffering from shifting baseline syndrome. A conversation around public consultations emerged, with the agreement that this happens too late in the path to development so towns suffer from death by 1000 cuts rather than any serious efforts to focus on long-term planning. In the context of sustainability, focusing on local jobs, affordable housing and reducing dependence on the car/ increasing active transport were thought to be good mechanisms for revitalisation.

I found this a very valuable workshop with my key takeaway thoughts for creating Complete Communities:

  • Make people part of the planning process at the beginning and define review processes.
  • Explain the role of risk, uncertainty and complexity especially with reference to climate change
  • Focus on local livelihoods and active transport/ transit where possible
  • Don’t underestimate the power of place-making in creating communities

” Hedgelayers do it in style!” may sound like an amusing bumper-sticker but it refers to one of the most fascinating features of this rural skill: that local differences exist in hedgerow management, called by the National Hedgelaying Society Regional Styles. There are more than 30 styles recorded in the UK, with more in Europe, according to the NHLS.

Hedgelaying in Europe has evolved over hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years in a process perhaps not dissimilar to that which drives the emergence of new species. The simple practice of cutting or bending stems to form a living fence is expressed differently as local ecology and geology, and the temperament of local people define it, with differing styles- and even the tools for the job- as an emerging property. Hedgelaying certainly came to the Americas with European settlers (although dead hedging was use by the First Nations, and some form of management may have existed…) but it seems to have died out, along with the planting of deciduous hedgerows outside gardens.

In the modern world, connection to the landscape and the local appears to be waning. The Hedgelaying in the Ontario’s Landscape project was started to explore, amongst other things, the relationship between people and the landscape through the practice of this rural skill. How might Ontarions interpret hedgerows and hedgelaying? How would it fit into the landscape where field boundary management is not a familiar practice?

One of the drawbacks for anyone wanting to learn and practice hedgelaying in the North American landscape is the paucity of good hedgerows. If you want to manage your hedgerow using hedgelaying techniques, you need a high frequency (approx 5/m) of stems in the 2-10cm width bracket, and really not much higher than 3-4m. For the traditional hedgelayer this paucity represents a serious drawback. However, as I am learning, thelack of ‘good’ hedgerows can be navigated with a bit of imagination!

Last weekend professional hedgelayer Nigel Adams and I taught 17 people to lay ‘hedgerows’ at Wellspring Forest Farm in New York State. We had seen the materials we would be working with on video thanks to owner Steve Gabriel but what looked reasonable on film didn’t translate well to reality. Seeing the woodland edge with many mature trees and a section of patchy invasive European buckthorn scrub we tried not to be dispirited but it seemed like it would be a hard job to produce anything resembling a well layed hedge. Having taught workshops already in Ontario, I think I had been more prepared for the North American hedgerow context than Nigel. Then Steve showed us a line of willows along a raised bank which, although a little short, was enough to raise our spirits. We also found two sections of woodland edge with a fair number of stems. After a good nights sleep Nigel felt better about our hedges and even decided that we should increase the number of stems in the hedge by pushing in cut willow branches from our binder pile- we had more than enough. Not something you would see in the National Hedgelaying Championships in the UK!

The hedgerows we layed, in South of England and Midland styles, both made good living fences and were aesthetically pleasing, and it reinforced my belief that until new planted hedges mature, North American hedgelaying was perhaps going to be about bringing skills developed on European hedgerows to local contexts, not being afraid to break rules and try new things. The interplay of skills and new contexts will hopefully allow new styles to emerge.

Yesterday as I continued to research the history of hedgerows and hedgelaying on this continent, I came across the work of Dr Johann D. Schoepf (1752-1800), a German-born physician and botanist who wrote about his travels in North America in “Travels in the Confederation (1783-4)”

Its clear then from Dr Schoepf’s writing that the methods of hedgelaying we practiced this weekend were even in 1783 the ‘Style’ in North America: inter-planting stems where they didn’t exist and finding stems ‘standing together as much as possible’- in effect creating a hedge line out of a confusion of stems in the woodland edge or field boundary.

Something to think about as the interest in hedgerows and hedgelaying in North America continues to rise.

I’ve just finished this plum eating spoon which I’m please with. I’m getting to grips with the synergies between understanding the wood, form (what shapes and lines come together to make a spoon), working with tools (sharpness and hold) and the unknowable element I am happy to call ‘magic’!

As is often the case, the story behind the wood brings me a satisfaction that deepens the carving experience, even though this wood brings some sadness with it. Perhaps all wood does, once it has stopped being a tree? The plum was a dying tree in the garden of a man who recently moved into a hospice. I was working as part of a gardening team tasked with clearing up the garden with a view to selling the house, and was given permission to fell the tree for spoons.

The trunk was about 6 inches in diameter and about 7 foot high and i could see from the get-go it wasn’t going to cleave straight; and so it was, a spiralling growth pattern revealed that cleaved into twisted halves. The wood is beautiful, a richness and colour to it that is so pleasing after carving basswood for a bit too long. At the edges, and here and there through the woo, a dark purple ( or plum!) stain from the sap was visible that gives an overall feeling of raspberry ripple ice cream!. Perhaps I could have used a different cleaving technique or instead used a saw to cut the wood, but I had what i had, and made the best of it. Once I started carving away with my axe the spoon began to emerge.

There is still room for improvement of course but I like the spoon pattern and will use it to shape other spoons from the tree.

Of course a good spoon needs a good finish and having got to the end of the raw linseed oil I found in Poppa’s workshop I was delighted to find a small tin of Walnut Oil (from Lee Valley in Ottawa) hiding away behind paint thinners and other wood preservatives. I have also wanted to combine my oil with beeswax to make something more protective and had some kindly given to me from Larry at Humber Valley Honey that has been sitting on my desk for some time. Using a recipe from Garden Betty I made up our first batch of Mount Wolfe Farm Spoon Butter as well. I’m now wondering if I can make some locally sourced walnut oil from the black walnuts that hammer down on the roof every Autumn, so our Spoon Butter would be a truly sustainable product!

In the past year or so I have been undergoing a transition in my thinking and practice away from conservation ecology into a more socio-ecological position. there are no wildlife problems after all,only human ones right? Ive always been interested in systems thinking and complexity ever since reading Fritjof Kapra’s Web of Life, but I’m beginning to explore how these relate to my practice and have inevitably begun a deep-dive with the help of Complexity Explorer and more recently the Human Current.
Thanks to these great podcasts- I’m currently working through them from Episode 1 and have therefore just discovered the work of Diego Espinosa. I listened to the podcast on his book The Certainty Merchants this morning while driving my border collie Magpie to the vets to get his bandage changed. His foot was squished by a slow moving car, but the wound is recovering really well. He loves a bit of complexity science in the car to calm his nerves!
I made some notes on the podcast but i recommend you listen to it, and the one before (Episode 6) which is really a scene setter for the question of interest to me:
How do we build more natural relationships with uncertainty?
Post WW2 society became obsessed with certainty and there rose a tribe- The Certainty Merchants- who you could pay to shore up your live against certainty. Using money we buy the things we need to make us feel safe. We have also undermined the basic organic protection mechanisms- 100,000 years of human behavioural heuristics such as strong social networks and generational economic pacts (inherited wealth). The ego-driven drive towards independence has actually increased vulnerability and reduced resilience and led to pathological systemic impacts such as stress-inflammation-diabetes epidemic.
We need to re-engage with uncertainty and accept it as part of our human condition. We can learn so much for the natural world, remembering we are part of it. Self is just a construct. Our conscious minds tend towards using statistics and probability in problem solving which remains reductionist and risk averse.
A must-listen, and undoubtedly a must-read.
If you like this then you’ll also like this read on Medium Time To Design Our Networks











Cooling off for six hours in a police cell in Esher, Surrey, in 1997, with King Arthur Pendragon taking up residence in the cell next door, I had a moment to reflect on the power of words, language and stories. We had both been arrested at the protest in Canbury Gardens, Kingston– the site of the annual Kingston Green Fair. While he was calmly debating with the duty officer as to whether Excalibur was a sword, or actually a religious artefact and therefore it should accompany him into his cell, I was contemplating my reasons for getting angry about the proposed felling of fifty six Lombardy poplars so that new residents of luxury riverside flats would have a better view of the river.

The protest included veterans from Twyford Down (1991) and Newbury Bypass (1994), much bigger protests than the one taking place in leafy, well-to-do Kingston. The line of poplars weren’t native woodland threatened by road building. They were introduced trees planted in the 1930s for screening of a now-disused power station. To those of us who attended the annual  Green Fair however, and who couldn’t leave jobs to join the big protest camps, they were a symbol of resistance to the destruction of the countryside.

At the time, the emotional stories around the protection of the trees weren’t enough for me, and importantly didn’t influence the people that seemed to matter: developers, councillors, government, the police.  I wanted more. I wanted indisputable scientific fact as to the importance of theses trees. In that police cell I decided to become an ecologist: armed with those facts- the REAL story-I would be unstoppable. Surely no one would argue with the facts! So I studied a foundation science course in my evenings, then a biology “A’ Level and finally I went to University to study ecology. A Masters Degree in Applied Ecology and Conservation followed directly and here I am, armed to the teeth with science on habitat destruction, fragmentation, invasive species and global warming. Yet its not enough. 97% of all scientist agree (Cook et al 2013) that global warming is anthropogenic in origin and causing runaway climate breakdown. The IPBES are reporting what amounts to a 6th mass extinction. Yet  the response, the action taken to address this is woefully inadequate and glacially slow.

I worked in conservation for 15 years and learned that there were however only so many people who would sit up and take action over the facts of biodiversity loss and climate change. Facts are far too abstract for most people. The economist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow explains that a large part of our decision making processes are fast, automatic emotional, stereotypic, and unconscious. I was beginning to find that telling people the factual story and asking them to change their lives was not working. A way through began to emerge for me by listening to people’s stories and trying to highlight with them where nature mattered; to help them see they were embedded in ‘nature’ not separate from it. Facts provide architecture but it was the stories that made them relevant. In a world beset by problems caused by human population growth and resource use, things cant be just what they are; they become what people see them as.

Choice of words and language are critical to understanding and they can be used to build bridges or erect walls. Late last year, George Monbiot called for a change in the language we use around the environment and climate change, proposing amongst other changes the use of the words climate breakdown instead of climate change to convey the sense of urgency; and that phrase ecosystem services, much hated by non-ecologists, should be instead called life support systems.

Words, in this case the deliberate removal of them from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, prompted Robert Macfarlane, Captain of the  Modern Nature Writing Ship, to collaborate with artist Jackie Morris to create The Lost Words, a tome of poems and art that have captured the hearts and minds of so many people that local fundraising campaigns to buy Lost Words have sprung up in all over Britain . At this time we are also exploring a Lost Words Ontario.

Working for the Wildlife Trusts we sometimes struggled with scientific language as a barrier to popular communication. That dreaded word ecosystem services for one, but also the concept of a Living Landscape– the landscape-level conservation thinking that is the key mission of the Trusts- defied abbreviation to media-friendly comms. When you start to explain it, it becomes two wordy but when asked to reduce it to something the public would understand it becomes something so amorphous as to lose its meaning entirely. Perhaps, I thought, some concepts are just not easily explained with words.

In Savage Gods Kingsnorth, after years of using words to fight for nature, finds himself in a place where words- the Savage Gods- are failing him, and language might be tricking him into believing he no longer has a sense of purpose.

“None of this is real. The Scot’s pine is real it is a being, a presence, the birds are real, the solidity of the earth is real and the words are nothing. Nothing. The words are not alive. The words are not quickened, they do not dance or stagger, they are not inhabited. They are hammered survey stakes, acrylic falsehoods that die in the reality of the place. All humans do is talk. Talk talk talk and out come the sounds and like poetry they change nothing but we talk talk talk anyway and we mistake the sounds for meaning or action and the tree just stands there silently and we just talk.” p31

” Is Language the Trap? The field is full of language. Everything is speaking to everything else, and some of it i can hear and some of it, because of my biology or my cultural inheritance, i am not equipped to. All nature is language- but none of it is written down.” p117

I was introduced to Paul Kingsnorth’s writing by a good friend who recognised in his works something I was going through in my own personal journey. Kingsnorth was an activist at Twyford Down, Solsbury Hill and the M11 link road. He has worked for Greenpeace and then was deputy editor of The Ecologist. In 2001 he had the honour of being named one of Britain’s Top 10 Troublemakers by the New Statesman. He is a writer of books, poetry and articles exploring place, nature and environmental concern. In 2009 he co-founded, with Dougald Hine, the Dark Mountain Project , a network of writers and artists who have all but accepted that social collapse is around the corner and have named themselves witnesses to the event.

I read ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist‘ where in a series of essays Paul explored his growing distance from the world of environmental activism. I recognised the sense of it but I wasn’t yet ready to give up ‘the fight’ as Paul seemed to had done. He had gone deeper into the world of environmental politics and protest than I ever had, however. For me, Canbury Gardens had led to Nuclear Testing and anti-WTO protests but I put my energies completely into deepening my scientific understanding.

Savage Gods finds Paul sense-making with his family from his new home in Ireland. The fire in his belly is cooling, becoming something less consumptive, more like the tributaries of a river finding its way through the land. Without the energy from those fires, he is exploring his seemingly frustrated creativity.

“What does a writer do when his words stop working? I dont know. All I know is I’m churning inside and everything I know is windskipping like brown willow leaves in a winter gale”

The move to Ireland brings reflections on place making and connection. How does a self-proclaimed “wanderer through words and worlds” make the connections with place and land that he once had and still craves. Kingsnorth knows that connection to land is an important part of his or anyone’s sense of self, – a ‘sense of reciprocity between a people and the place they live in,‘ yet he finds it almost impossible to bear once he has them.He escaped from his middle-class upbringing and he found no solidarity with his Oxford peers. Now he has also come to hate idealists like the one he used to be.

“I was born in the rootless suburbs and they have given me a rootless soul. I am not a tree. I am some kind of slinking animal in the hedgerow. I am a seed on the wind. I am water. I am coming to the rocks at the lip of the fall.” p25

This style is echoed later in the book when he quotes the Song of Amergin, the invocation of the spirit of Ireland by the mythological poet-druid of the Milesians. As with the original poem perhaps this is a calling to the spirit of the land for recognition, but not this time for a people, but for one man’s uprooted soul.

Language is perhaps our greatest achievement and, if we all just want to connect, to belong to something, language might well be the tool of our demise. Words are an abstraction of things, they are not those things. Language sets us apart in an observers role and defies belonging which we all simultaneously crave and fear. Belonging brings acceptance and annihilation of individuality in the same moment.

The most Savage Gods though seem to be not words or language but the thoughts behind them. The cognitions that form as we unconsciously filter the information from our environment with our evolutionary-sculpted sensory systems. The world we see is the one we inherited through millennia of interactions between us and our environment. The cruel trick begins with thought: the separation starts before words are formed,  because if  we saw things how they really were we would be seeing flow not form, process not state. Yet words and language are part of the road map for survival; they brought us here to where we are today.

In The Language Instinct Steven Pinker, buidling on the work of Noam Chomsky before him, proposed that the ability to learn language is inherited, that we possess a proto-language or ‘mentalese’ which is the same for every language and forms a grammatical structure on which our learning is mapped. This would suggest a thought-prison of our own making, an inability to escape from thinking outside our own box. Recent insights from  Professor of Linguistics Vyvyan Evans in his book The Language Myth challenge this notion. He argues that thoughts aren’t taking place in an abstract mentalese but are “embodied”, arising directly in and from experience. If this is indeed true, thoughts and the language that arise from them aren’t an abstraction at all, but a direct consequence of interaction with the material world, all be it still through a biological filter. It is impossible as yet for an unaided individual to see gamma radiation or smell the world as richly as a dog would.

Where we are could also be a cul-de-sac. In the science fiction novel ‘Blindsight‘ Peter Watts suggests that this separation from ‘being’ through consciousness could actually be an aberration, an evolutionary dead end.

“Evolution across the universe was nothing but the endless proliferation of automatic, organized complexity, a vast arid Turing machine full of self-replicating machinery forever unaware of its own existence. And we—we were the flukes and the fossils. We were the flightless birds lauding our own mastery over some remote island while serpents and carnivores washed up on our shores.”

Life cannot exist for long separated from itself. I am reminded of a time-lapse model of source-sink dynamics, the sink ‘winking’ out of existence unable to maintain itself in a hostile environment without migration from the source.

Savage Gods reads at first like the notebook for a finished work. Something to be honed and crafted and, well……completed. In my head I often asked Kingsnorth why he felt it necessary to publish these ‘workings out’. But if we suffer from seeing form not flow, here he gives us flow. beautifully. Here he is exploring the trap every being falls into when, rather than just doing, begins to ask themselves why?  The answer, if there is one, may not lie in the book, or the bowl or the basket but in the crafting of the book, bowl or basket. We are possessed by ghosts of the evolutionary process which we mistake for purpose. We have come too far down the line of self-reflection which was only ever meant to be a side show to the greater theme of being.

The book also feels aptly titled because it feels like a prayer offered up for a revelation, for insight into the true reality of things, and for meaning and direction.

Perhaps there is only peace to be made with that reality. Defy those Savage Gods, stop fighting and start doing. We can’t easily do both.

Savage Gods was released in early June in Europe and  is available for pre-order in North America through publishers Two Dollar Radio. I am grateful for them for providing a preview copy.






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