It’s a balmy spring Friday afternoon, I’m sitting on the hood of my car getting reacquainted with the sun as I wait to pick up my passenger, Stuart Coles, at the subway station car pool site. Emerging from the subway’s dark tunnels, the 89-year old approaches the lot with a slow but steady stride and greets me warmly. This former Presbyterian clergyman looks like the archetypal wizard of fantasy lore with a long white beard, bushy eyebrows and a serene smile shaped out of his deeply creased face. He also speaks the part—nearly a century’s worth of wisdom calmly flows out of his mouth in carefully composed words as he relates the story of Kimbercote Farm, the communal gathering space hosting this weekend’s Earth day event, as we begin our two hour trek northward from Toronto to Beaver Valley.
The tragic events of the Second World War conjured an awakening in Stuart. Unable to make sense of the nightmarish contradiction of Christians murdering masses of humanity during the war, the compassionate clergyman sought to re-establish positive Christian ideals in his misguided religion. He organized over one hundred of the most agitated sympathizers to pool together their scant funds to start the community now known as Kimbercote Farm.
Stuart speaks passionately of their original goal, yet with the composure that comes from experience. “We were trying to find some way of turning our religious culture from being preoccupied with death, doubt, wickedness and other negatives, into something good news, something positive,” he says. They endeavoured to create an intentional community in rural Ontario as a solution to this trial of faith. Restrained by building restrictions imposed in the protected Niagara Escarpment, the group was unable to create a permanent community, so they instead chose to foster a community of common interests. By developing a positive space for people to learn and grow reciprocally, they communally produced events focused on restoring the positive messages in Christian parables that were lost over time. Today, that community has evolved to meet the current needs of society’s most urgent concern: the environment.
We arrive at the century-old wood paneled farmhouse in the early evening. Kimbercote’s current staff members, Katie Pearson and Jay Stiles, warmly welcome us into the kitchen. A diverse crowd is gathered around the table: families with young children, a contingent of students from the University of Waterloo and adults of all ages. A farm more in name than in practice, Katie explains to newcomers that Kimbercote is a place for people to reflect and learn about environmental sustainability and social justice issues. She also tells the group that they provide work exchange opportunities in lieu of payment to prevent turning anyone away because of cost.
Reflecting the ideals it espouses, Kimbercote Farm practices environmental sustainability. Its two residents, Jay and Katie, live with a small footprint on the land and hope that visitors to the farm do the same. Katie promotes the use of the composting toilets by relating her daily ritual: “I enjoy the sunrise in the morning, so if you see the door of the composting toilet open, that’s me in it.” Expanding on the benefits of the environmentally friendly toilet, she advocates its dual purpose of converting human waste into humanure, which they can then use to organically fertilize their farm. Kimbercote also employs other environmentally sustainable practices such as passive solar heating, cob ovens and straw bale construction technology. As the discussion starts to wrap up, an excited hum filters through the dozen or so sitting in the kitchen. After final remarks from Katie about the spirit of Kimbercote’s communal nature, the individuals gel into a happy group eagerly anticipating the weekend’s events.
An improv guitar and banjo ensemble beckons a few of us from the farmhouse into the darkness of the crisp spring air. Moonlight illuminates the curvaceous hills and valleys of the 100 acre property as we saunter over to the others. Gathered around the repetitive flicker of the campfire, the group sparks into song and story telling, happily passing the hours until the flames drop to a moonlike glow.
Opting to sleep in the straw bale bunkhouse, I awaken to the sun’s rays streaming directly into my tired eyes. I rise to the rousing fresh morning air and head to the farmhouse to attend Stuart’s Money versus Wealth workshop. He begins by first analyzing the money supply and its impact on our lives, then facilitates a lively discussion among the attendees. The event also includes a number of other workshops and activities: a land stewardship workshop teaching environmental sustainability practices; a discussion on terminator seeds and their destructive impact on the environment; and naturalist led field trips (guiding, animal tracking and nature awareness training). Alongside the programs, a number of arts and crafts activities keep the kids entertained: bat box making, recycling junk into jewellery and tote bag making. The multiple generations in attendance are all willing to share their collective wisdom and varied points of view, providing the participants with a unique, multi-faceted learning experience.
The graffitied walls of the ramshackle barn provide a colourful backdrop for Saturday night’s main event—an appearance by one of Canada’s leading dub poets Michael St. George. A thunder of drum beats and droning bass jars the dead silence of the country night into action. Some sway in their seats to the poet’s clever social commentary, while others shake it up on the dance floor. With the small but charged up crowd cheering their approval, St. George ends the night inviting all on stage to grab a drum and take part in the communal music creation.
After an eventful weekend, Stuart and I both look forward to a relaxing Sunday drive home. Passing through Toronto’s sprawling suburbs we eventually reach the city and get caught in gridlock. I drop Stuart off at home and get back onto the same congested highway. As I look around at the countless drivers compartmentalized in their cabins, I consider how car culture impacts urban life.
As cities race toward each other along the urban sprawl highway, communities often fight back against the environmental and economic impact that this sprawl brings. What is often overlooked is the very threat to community itself—the impersonal nature of interaction that arises from city living. Peering down on Southern Ontario’s cities from atop the Niagara Escarpment, Kimbercote Farm contests the autonomous urban psyche. Born out of Stuart’s original vision, Kimbercote fosters community building by providing a positive space for people to gather. Through lessons of environmental sustainability and social justice, they hope the friends of Kimbercote will not just learn from these messages, but bring their awareness back to their urban homes to provoke communal renewal.
For more information visit www.kimbercote.org
Kiva Bottero publishes The Mindful Word, a journal of engaged living and mindfulness. Working with a collective of individuals who are committed to creating a culture of engaged living, he also hosts events and engaged-spirituality initiatives. Visit him online at www.themindfulword.org.