By Fadila Chater
I pull into the driveway and see two white-haired cherubs dressed in pajamas playing in the tall grass.
“Hi!” one sings to me.
“Hello there,” I respond.
Her hair shimmers like a million silk strands on a sunlit loom. A tall man in a wicker hat appears behind them.
“Hey, how’s it going,” he says.
“Good! How are you? I hope I’m okay to park here,” I say.
He nods his head yes. I look for the keys to lock my doors, but he tells me there’s really no need.
Sean MacDonald and his little girls, Clara, 6 and Lily, 4, lead me to their backyard. I’m taken aback by the beauty and serenity of what I see; tall, luscious grass that rolls down a hill overlooking the expansive Nova Scotian countryside. I turn my head to see a brood of hens behind a chicken wire fence. We sit at the picnic table that’s centred like an apple tree in the Garden of Eden. The shaded backyard is a relief from the relentless heat that never seemed to dissipate that summer.
“This is splash,” Clara says, introducing me to her dog. Splash sniffs me out, making sure I’m worthy enough to sit amongst angels.
A woman comes from the house holding an infant. Her name is Erika, and the baby is Frances. Three little girls in total. How perfect.
“This is, like, pastoral—not pastoral—picturesque. But also pastoral,” I blurt out, overwhelmed by the nature that surrounds me. Living in Halifax for five years, never seeing a blade of grass taller than my big toe, rarely seeing the sun set over the horizon, had taken a serious toll on me. These images I took for granted when I was young and naïve, hoping one day I would make it somewhere big and more important than here.
Pastoral, it turns out, is the proper word to describe Sean and Erika’s life; the idealized country lifestyle that city folk only dream about. They were living it. Their children run around shoeless, completely satisfied playing with grass and rocks and anything lying around the backyard. They raise chickens and grow vegetables. It was hard to believe that Sean and Erika were originally from Kingston and Peterborough, two cities in Ontario. These come-from-aways make country living look natural.
The east coast turned out to be the best place to live for Sean and Erika. They met at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro. Sean had a knack for horticulture, which he picked up as a teenager working at a garden centre. Erika studied to be a veterinary technician. Sean became a landscaper and then returned to school to study planning. Now he looks after a small vineyard for the educational vineyard and winery program at NSCC Kingstec. Erika works part-time as a vet tech and full-time as a mother of three.
“Gardening and agriculture is something I’m passionate about,” Sean says. “I like being hands on, I like being physically active and engaged. I like seeing the growth and development of grapes, in particular, and any crop or produce. Seeing how they develop throughout the year—seeing a seed right through to harvest—is pretty cool.”
Sean and Erika have made a home for themselves in Brooklyn. As soon as they moved in, they found groups and social connections through curling and attending church in the neighbouring town of Windsor. They’ve been involved in several kid’s activities and parent groups since having Clara.
“It was important for us to get connected and find that social network,” Erika says. “And it was easy. It was better for us to have those connections and in such a small community, you pick a place and you see those people everywhere.”
Being involved in their community made adjusting to life on the East Coast a smooth transition. Having established themselves in Nova Scotia, Sean and Erika wanted to give back to the community that welcomed them so warmly. So, Sean had the idea to create a community garden. But, like many good ideas, his project struggled to take off.
“It was hard to keep everyone together and to move on with things,” he says.
Then he heard about the Happy Community Project, which was hosting public meetings in Windsor on a regular basis. Sean and Erika attended one of the first meetings, where, much to their surprise, other people were discussing the potential for community gardens in West Hants. Happy to hear that other people in the community had shared their vision, Sean and Erika jumped on board.
“It started the initial spark, and we all, from there, became committed to the project,” Sean says. “The Happy Community Project was the catalyst that started it.”
Unlike community gardens you’d see in places like Halifax or Montreal, the food grown and harvested at the West Hants Community Garden are shared amongst all. Between three locations, the gardens produce kale, cilantro, lettuce, tomatoes, peas, zucchinis, cucumbers and much more. And, a remainder of food is always donated to local food banks and groups in need. In fact, the production of food for charitable donations has been so successful, that earlier that summer two garden beds were installed at the Mathew 25 Food Bank in Windsor. Now those in need can grow and harvest their own delicious and nutritious food.
“It’s not a typical garden where you got this plot that’s yours, and that plot’s your neighbour’s and that plot’s the guy’s down the road. It’s all of these people working on one big garden,” Erika says, as she nurses Frances.
Food security and literacy have always been guiding causes in Sean and Erika’s community garden pursuits. They dream of a world in which everyone has access to clean, organic fruits and vegetables. Sadly, the reality is one in six children in Canada live in food insecure households. In Nova Scotia, 82 per cent of people on social assistance are food insecure. Evidence suggests that eating a well-balanced diet is necessary for developing brains. However, more and more children go to school hungry every day. I look at Sean and Erika’s three children and wonder what their lives would be like if they were born into a family less fortunate as theirs. Would they have the same access to healthy, nutrient-rich foods that they have now? Would Clara still be able to recite her favourite book, “There Were Monkeys In My Kitchen,” from memory? I think about my childhood and how fortunate I was to be fed healthy food. It’s something I took for granted at the time.
“There’s a lot of people in our community who can’t afford food,” Sean says. “Food should be a human right. You have to eat and so if you can’t afford to eat, it’s really hard. There should be no reason why in the beautiful, fertile, agricultural area that we have here that you can’t produce enough food to feed the residents of it.”
There is a great social aspect to a community garden, Sean says. Because so few people know how to plant and harvest vegetables today, a community garden is an opportunity for older generations to bestow lessons and skills onto impressionable young minds. The social connections made through community gardens are integral to a happy community.
“It brings people together, it helps strengthen the fabric of that community,” Sean says. “A community garden can help older people have a sense of purpose to share their knowledge to younger residents.”
Sean and Erika are stewards of their community. They care about the health and well-being of the people around them. And, they want their children to grow up with those same values. Like so many of the people I met on this journey of discovery, Sean and Erika want to empower people to take initiative and build a happier, safer, more fruitful future for themselves and their children.
Erika leaves the picnic table to put Frances down for bed. Clara and Lily continue playing behind me. Clara takes out an old camera to show me pictures of her grandpa, her knee and the toilet. I giggle. She loves taking pictures. I could tell by the way she eyed my camera when I set it up on the tripod earlier that evening. I take the camera off the tripod and hand it to her. She starts taking shots. First, of her dad. Then of herself. And finally, she turns the camera on me. A moment of reflection. All summer long I had been behind the camera, now it’s gaze was on me. Was I making a difference in my community like Sean and Erika are in Windsor? What am I doing today that will have a lasting impact on tomorrow? As I pack up my belongings and start my journey home, I take one last look at the picturesque scene; the white-haired cherubs, the Garden of Eden.