Notes from a cross-Canada community road trip

By Shayna Stock, with photography by Dominique Fenton

December 2007/January 2008

In July 2007, Shayna Stock and Dominique Fenton set off on a cross-country journey in search of community, planning to document their findings in words and images. They introduced the project in the August 2007 issue of Briarpatch and posted regular updates on their progress to the Briarpatch website throughout the summer and early fall. (Read their posts from the road at Alternative Routes.)

After 11 weeks, 13,690 kilometres and 14 blog entries, Shayna and Dominique’s cross-country road trip finally came to an end on Canada’s west coast in late September. Here Stock reflects on what they learned and Fenton shares some of his photos from the journey.

Waist-deep at the Waldegrave farm near Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, with members of the Otesha Project, a youth-run organization that uses theatre to mobilize young people to create local and global change.

I was sitting at Wheatberries Bakery in Gibsons, British Columbia. I had just missed boarding the ferry back to Vancouver by exactly two minutes. Sipping a chamomile spearmint tea, I opened up the book I had recently begun to read: The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield. The previous day, as I browsed the shelves of the local used bookstore, this book had seemed to pop out at me. As I grabbed for it, I recognized the title as the one my aunt and uncle had recently recommended to me.

In the guise of a fictional adventure story, the book presents the idea of an imminent collective shift in our society’ss consciousness. Although parts of the “prophecy” are a bit far-fetched, Redfield’s idea of a collective awakening resonates with the sentiments of many people Dom and I met over the past several weeks. Again and again, people spoke of their dissatisfaction with our society’s unsustainable and atomized way of life, and their growing interest in seeking out alternatives.

The first few pages of the book discuss the role of coincidences in our daily lives. Redfield proposes that there are no coincidences“šÃ„îthat all of the events in our lives are there to prepare us for whatever comes next.

As I read, I thought about the past three months and the journey that Dom and I had just completed. It was full of seemingly coincidental experiences — meeting old friends in places as obscure as an eco-centre in rural New Brunswick, a campground on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, and a roadside picnic area near Osoyoos, B.C. We had opened ourselves up to following our intuition, moving whenever and wherever felt right. We tried to let this trip determine its own route as much as possible. The result was a continuous and quick succession of lessons that we are still learning, and that will continue to be integrated into our lives for many years.

At Maison Emmanuel, people with disabilities and those who come to assist them share their lives with one another, creating mutually beneficial relationships.

Ed Belzer, pictured here with his grandson Joe, taught us that it“šÃ„ôs up to us to first choose who we want to be, and then do what we can to create an environment around us that enables us to become that person.

A multitude of alternatives

Because we sought out people who are making a conscious effort to integrate community into their daily lives, our eyes were immediately opened to a vast array of alternative ways of life, and to the pressing need for such alternatives to grow and spread.

The need for more environmentally sustainable living was articulated for us quite succinctly by David Newlands in Nova Scotia during the first stop of our cross-country tour. David posed this simple rhetorical question:

“If the way we are living right now is unsustainable—-and I think we’ve well proven by now that it is—-then what’s the alternative?”

David’s question is one that seems to be on the minds of a lot of people recently, and we were fortunate enough to gain first-hand experience on many distinct paths in this search for alternatives.

David is doing his part in the quest for a more sustainable way of life by helping to plan the co-housing community spearheaded by Ed and Kathryn Belzer in the Musquodoboit Valley of central Nova Scotia. Co-housing refers to a group of homes that are privately owned, where residents enjoy private control over their own unit, but share resources and decision-making about common areas and communal responsibilities. Ed and Kathryn are planning to build 12 to 20 off-grid, privately owned units on their land. Community members will share some meals and some common space, as well as the responsibilities and joys involved in farming the land and growing much of their own food.

The Belzers drew inspiration for their co-housing endeavour from a younger group of back-to-the-landers who live communally on what they call the Waldegrave Farm near Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia. This group of seven twentysomethings and two (maybe three, by now) children has been experimenting with sustainable technologies and community living for about four years on the land they bought together after cycling across Canada as part of the Climate Change Caravan in 2001.

It was here that we first learned the science and beauty of a composting toilet: if you time your visit right, you can catch a gorgeous sunset from their west-facing perch, which is located in a corner of the barn and surrounded by salvaged windows overlooking the fields.

Ume and Augi, the parents of two (now three?) small children, taught us a lot about the benefits of raising a family in a tight-knit community. With seven adults around, it was obvious that their children do not lack for attention, and running around outside all day means there’s no need for the artificial stimulation of video games and plastic toys.

Later in our journey, we discovered two eco-villages, both in Manitoba, and both fully reliant on the sun and the wind for their electricity needs. Prairie’s Edge, located in a rural area northeast of Winnipeg, currently consists of five adults and one baby. With a creek that provides good drinking water, a large woodlot to protect their buildings from those powerful prairie winds, and a price tag of $11,500 ten year ago, their 80-odd acre lot was a bargain.

Our time at Prairie’s Edge answered a question for us that was posed by the Belzers at the beginning of our trip: How can we reduce the entry cost so that young people, or those of lower income, can be involved? Since the Belzers are looking at contracting a development company to build several condominium units that are powered by solar and wind energy, their entry cost looked like it was going to be prohibitively high for some people, especially young people.

The people at Prairie’s Edge showed us how to build a house that costs next to nothing. Many of the buildings on the property were rescued from nearby farms, where they were to be demolished. The newer structures that are going up now are built with straw bales and salvaged wood, and most of the furniture and appliances inside were rescued from a nearby dump. The Prairie’s Edgers are fortunate to live near a dump that is rich with the unwanted but only slightly used discards of cottagers who are constantly redecorating, remodelling, and upgrading their holiday abodes. Furthermore, they are able to keep their ongoing food and living expenses as low as $50 per person per month by growing most of their own food, preserving what they can for winter, and reusing or recycling as much as possible.

Prairie’s Edgers, in turn, gained most of their knowledge from the Northern Sun Farm, located southeast of Winnipeg, which was started about 15 years earlier. The community has designed and built several innovative alternative technologies—-including a solar oven, a solar dehydrator, and a water pump powered by the motor from an windshield wiper—-and has passed many of these designs, and other knowledge, on to their younger cohorts at Prairie’s Edge.

Though everyone at the Waldegrave Farm, Prairie’s Edge and the Northern Sun Farm participates in some kind of income-generating activity, it is generally short-term, seasonal, or part-time. Some people work from home (writing or editing, for example); others leave the farm for a month or two a year to do construction work; others do odd jobs for neighbours and friends. This type of short-term or part-time work enables community members to spend the rest of their time working for themselves and their community—-growing and preparing their food, designing and building their shelters, raising their children, nurturing their relationships—-a way of life that, from what we saw, is much more liberating and fulfilling than living and working in our over-individualized, over-institutionalized society.

Another alternative to institutionalization that we experienced was in two communities built around people with disabilities in Saint John, New Brunswick, and Val-Morin, Quebec. The first, L’Arche Saint John, is one of a worldwide network of L’Arche communities started by prolific community advocate Jean Vanier in the ’60s as a more humane alternative to institutionalization for people with developmental disabilities. Maison Emmanuel, another alternative to institutionalization for people with disabilities, follows the Camphill model, one of many brainchildren of philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner.

In both communities, people with disabilities and those who come to assist them share their lives with one another, creating mutually beneficial relationships, in recognition and appreciation of one another’s gifts and weaknesses.

Not only do these communities create a comfortable and nurturing environment for their “core members” (the L’Arche term for those with disabilities), but we also learned here how sharing one’s life with people with disabilities challenges us to open ourselves to others, to recognize and accept other individuals with all their strengths and weaknesses. By learning to accept weaknesses in other people, we also begin to notice, and forgive ourselves for, our own weaknesses, a process that can be quite liberating.

At L’Arche Saint John in New Brunswick, we learned how sharing one’s life with people with disabilities challenges us to open ourselves to others, and to recognize and accept other individuals with all their strengths and weaknesses.

Paul and Loralee’s boulevard “guerrilla” garden in Lethbridge, Alberta, has enabled them to develop more meaningful relationships with their neighbours.

Do-it-yourself community

The next major lesson we gleaned from our inter-actions with these communities is the joy and fulfilment that comes with being proactive in creating your own life in your own way. It seems like a simple concept, but before this trip I had never thought consciously about the idea that I have the potential to make my life whatever I want it to be.

It was Ed Belzer in Nova Scotia who first opened up this string of thoughts in my mind. He said that since he, like most of us, is heavily influenced by the people around him, the best thing he could do for himself is to surround himself with people who help him to be who he wants to be. This was part of his motivation in creating a co-housing community on his property. Ed’s statement reminds us that it’s up to us to first choose who we want to be, and then do what we can to create an environment around us that enables us to become that person.

We saw Ed’s words in action in Bonnie Couchie, a gifted musician who hosted us for a few days in her gorgeous guest suite in Pic River, Ontario. Bonnie moved to Pic River, a First Nations community north of Lake Superior, 15 years ago because she felt a strong connection with the place and the culture there. She hasn’t let the remoteness of her place of residence, far away from any urban centre, stop her from pursuing her passion. Rather than going to concerts, she brings the concerts home: in exchange for a performance and either a lesson or a joint recording, Bonnie provides visiting musicians with accommodation and all the money raised at the door. That way, she is able to access the music she loves without leaving the place she calls home.

Paul and Loralee Edwards in Lethbridge, Alberta, further proved to us the value of being proactive in creating community around you in the space in which you already reside. This guerrilla gardening duo transformed their boulevard (the area between the sidewalk and the road in front of their house) into a community garden. With a sign next to it inviting passersby to help themselves to the deliciously fresh veggies and herbs growing there, the garden has enabled Paul and Loralee to develop more meaningful relationships with their neighbours and with strangers like me, who hear about the garden from Loralee’s blog or by word of mouth and decide to stop by.

This project illuminated the enormous community-building potential that can exist in something as simple as a garden. Paul told me about one woman who had come by to thank them for the garden. She was a single mother of four, and was grateful for the free produce. He also said the garden has brought them out of their backyard, where they used to spend a lot of their time, and onto their front porch, where they are more able to meet their neighbours. And like any healthy garden, this one appears to be spreading: already, Paul and Loralee’s next-door neighbours are preparing to turn their own boulevard into a garden next spring.

Building community, I was reminded, does not have to mean giving up everything and moving to a farm. It can happen right where you are—-you just need to plant a few seeds, literal or metaphorical, and find a few people to help weed and water along the way.

Jeremy at Prairie’s Edge, near River Hills, Manitoba, layers another coat of lime plaster on his straw bale house as wife Lindsay and daughter Sati look on.

Paul, of the Lofstedt farm in Kaslo, B.C., spoke of the importance of maintaining space within a community to grow as individuals.

Community overload

As inspiring and energizing as this journey has been, by the time we reached “Beautiful British Columbia,” both Dom and I were beginning to feel the stress of being in constant transition, in and out of other people’s spaces. As irresistibly appealing as it may sound to spend three months travelling across Canada with someone you love, following the direction of the sun and letting serendipity have its way with you, pushing you into the lives of all kinds of inspirational people and then abruptly pulling you out again, it does get tiring. In deciding to do this trip we gave up, to a large extent, control over our own lives.

That’s why the last community we visited together was so appropriate. The people at Lofstedt Farm in Kaslo, B.C., were also preparing to take more control over their own lives. The experimental farm, which over the past 23 years has provided opportunities for countless people to try their hand at organic agriculture and gardening, will soon be sold. After sharing space, work, meals, and ideas with one another for anywhere from a few months to several years, the people who currently call the farm home are looking forward to developing as individuals in their own spaces, at least for a while.

It was Paul at Lofstedt Farm who expressed this feeling most clearly. In his opinion, humans are not meant to live communally; it’s tiring to live and work so closely with other people. Rather than living communally like at Lofstedt, he spoke of “recreating villages,” in which people have their own living spaces to grow as individuals, but still support one another and share certain resources.

We told Paul the story of the Northern Sun Farm in south-eastern Manitoba, which began about 25 years ago as a group of people sharing one living space and all responsibilities and resources. Over the years, the intentional community has developed into more of a village, with each family living in a separate dwelling, each household growing their own food but still sharing many resources and the odd potluck meal.

Perhaps it was the bias of our own current situation influencing the lessons that we garnered from Paul and the others at Lofstedt, or maybe it was Paul’s message about individual space that spurred Dom and me to think about our own individual space, or lack thereof. Either way, just like the rest of the communities we visited, this one provided us with the lessons we needed to learn when we were ready to learn them.

This is another message in The Celestine Prophecy, the book I was reading at Wheatberries Bakery: the universe teaches us what we need to know when we’re ready to learn it.

Sam, 14, helps to build a new community centre, to accomodate the growing Northern Sun Farm community in Manitoba.

Lindsay sets the table for lunch at Prairie’s Edge, while daughter

Sati snuggles soundly.

“Boldness has genius, power and magic in it”

As I closed the book and was getting ready to board the ferry to Vancouver, I noticed a small sign hanging on the wall by the bakery door. It looked like someone had found inspiration in the words and simply printed the excerpt off from their computer, framed it, and hung it in a somewhat illogical spot on the bakery wall. It read:

Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and plans:

That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.

A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamed would have come their way.

Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it.

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

Begin it now.

The words so resonated with my experiences during these past months that I copied them down in my journal. They summarize one of the most fundamental life lessons that was reinforced for me on this journey: to trust the world and follow my dreams with gusto, knowing that everything will fall into place to support me in whatever I need to do.

This was the way that Dom and I approached this journey. Without knowing exactly how it would play out—-financially, logistically, or otherwise—-we took a leap and committed ourselves. And from there, everything fell into place’s it always does.

As our society awakens to the fact that we cannot continue to live our cookie-cutter, one-car-per-person, atomized way of life, interdependence on those around us will become a critical factor in our search for solutions. And the solutions won’t just arrive unexpectedly on our doorsteps one morning. We, as a global community, must take a giant collective leap forward in strengthening our communities and reorganzing them around the things that matter most to us.

The people we met this summer are trail-blazers in the quest for the forgotten knowledge of unconditional compassion and meaningful human interaction, but they are not saints. They are ordinary people like you and me who had an idea one day, and were bold enough to commit themselves to it. I encourage you to do the same. Start small if you need to. Host a potluck or a house concert. Plant some veggies in your front yard. Organize a carpool group or a neighbourhood child-care rotation. Barter. As we saw again and again, even simple actions like these can unleash major change.

And if you’re feeling more ambitious, go for the total immersion experience: start pooling resources and ideas with a group of friends. Buy some land, or a house in the city, and start your own intentional community. Whatever it is, “begin it now” and let the genius, power and magic of your boldness be your guide.

Shayna Stock recently leapt into the Briarpatch community as its new publisher. Dominique Fenton is now immersing himself in the healing arts community of Victoria, B.C.

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