Sunday, November 30, 2008

It takes a village to raise an adult

On Saturday I attended a forum about food security in Nanaimo. At the turn of the (previous) century, Vancouver Island produced 85% of its food locally. Now only 5% of the island's food needs are met locally. This is astonishing if you consider that we have a mild climate that allows us to grow winter greens and that the ocean also is a source of food.

The City of Nanaimo has quite a progressive attitude towards local food production. Municipal bylaws allow the growing of vegetables in front yards. They encourage real estate developers to plant edible landscapes. City parks and school playgrounds have some space set aside for community gardens.

Although there are some community gardeners doing stellar work, not all of the space that the City makes freely available is used. In addition to that, local farmers wish more Nanaimo residents would buy their groceries from farmers' markets.

One of the obstacles that became apparent during the discussions was the general population's loss of skills. In the past, say about 50 years ago, it was common for people to grow some of their own food, to store some types of fruits and vegetables in root cellars, to can other types of produce, and to cook recipes that employed seasonal plants.

But, after the Second World War, social and economic trends tempted people to rely more and more on convenience foods and on foods that had been imported from distant climatic zones.

I am a prime example of that. When I moved from Africa to Canada just over thirty years ago, I was able to keep right on buying oranges, bananas, avocados, etc.

But earlier this year the province of British Columbia introduced a tax on carbon-based fuels like gasoline, diesel, natural gas and home heating fuel. People are starting to re-think their habits and to ask themselves if they can do things differently. It turns out that efforts to reduce the consumption of carbon-based fuels overlap very nicely with the concept of increasing our level of food security.

At the food security forum there also were representatives of Vancouver Island Health Authority. They were talking about the staggering rise in the rate of diabetes in Canada, the health benefits of eating vegetables and the exercise that gardening provided.

The people who already were involved with community gardens reported what a lot of fun it was to work together. They said that all aspects of food production and consumption -- gardening, harvesting, canning, cooking and eating -- were so much more enjoyable when they carried them out in each others' company. This testified to a fact of which most of us are aware at some level, namely, that food helps us to come together and celebrate.

I then recognized that we at Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community already were carrying out some of the suggestions at the food security forum and already had plans to carry out the remaining suggestions once we moved into our apartment complex.

Once we're living there, we intend to have organic vegetable gardens and an orchard.

But, in the mean time, those who know how to cook seasonal fruits and vegetables have been sharing their recipes with those who didn't know how to do so. At our potluck dinner last Friday night, we enjoyed a delicious meal that focused mainly on fall and winter vegetables.

After we'd cleared the table, we returned to it. About half of us strung popcorn so that we could have environmentally friendly Chrismtas decorations (that we would feed to the birds after Christmas). The other half of us wrote Christmas cards to the friends of our community.

As we did all this, we were sharing stories and telling jokes. I felt so warm and fuzzy. In looking back on it, I realize that some of my behaviours had changed for the better, and it hadn't taken anyone wagging their finger at me (or my feeling guilty) in order for me to switch.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Embracing FOG

There has been just one occasion since I've moved to Nanaimo on which I've thought, "Uh oh, what have I done?

I knew that, in moving from Alberta to Coastal British Columbia, I would be trading a continental climate for a temperate rainforest climate. Each has its advantages. Alberta has lots of blue skies and sunshine (but snow and cold winter temperatures). Coastal BC has milder winter temperatures (but, as the climate zone's name suggests, rainy winters).

Back in Alberta there had been many people who had retired to Coastal BC, just because it had milder winters. Some of them had enjoyed the coast, and had stayed on. But I knew of instances in which Albertans had simply not been able to take the grey winters, and had moved back to Alberta (or become snowbirds and gone to Arizona for the winters).

I loved the lush vegetation of the coast, and felt confident that the surroundings that appealed to me so much would compensate for the rainy winters. When I'd lived in Melbourne for two and a half years, I'd experienced a sort of Mediterranean climate with drizzly winters. I'd survived those winters, so felt sure I'd survive the winters on Vancouver Island too.

But the suburb in which I'd lived in Melbourne had been slightly inland, and I had not experienced the full effect of the coastal fog. After Vancouver Island's rainy season had set in in earnest this November, we had a few foggy days in a row. My temporary condo is right on the waterfront. But it might as well have been on the moon. I couldn't have told you, from looking out my window, where I lived.

Then I woke up, maybe for the third morning in a row, to a particularly dense fog. I stood at the window, thinking to myself, "Yes, Nanaimo is a vibrant town with lots of neat stuff going on. Yes, I love my fellow cohos [members of my cohousing community]. Yes, it's so convenient to be able to take the garbage out in my sandals. But, holy Batman, I'm living in a sensory deprivation chamber!!! I don't know if I can take this!!!!!!!"

Just then, a piece of driftwood floated into view, barely discernable through the fog. Perched on it was some sort of sea bird. Being so new here, I didn't know the species. It was quite large and angular. Compared with the grey background, the driftwood and the bird looked black. The scene reminded me of some Chinese and Japanese paintings I've seen. Just a few brushstrokes in black and white. And then, before I knew it, they had drifted into the fog, beyond my field of vision. That vignette was so exquisite, so ephemeral, that I felt awestruck.

Right on the spot, I determined to see the beauty in all the seascape's changing moods. From that moment to this, I have remained resolutely cheerful about the weather.

In fact, we've had a mixture of weather through the remainder of November -- some sunny days and some rainy ones. This morning I again woke up to fog, but this time it didn't freak me out.

I know I will need to live through a coastal winter, indeed a few coastal winters, before I'm qualified to pass judgement. But, the way I feel now, I have survived my baptism by fog, and have earned my stripes an islander.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Passing the Baton : Founders in Cohousing

It often takes cohousing communities a long times -- years -- to get off the ground.

In the case of my cohousing community, a small handful of people were sitting around the kitchen table in one of their homes, and they started to have a "What if?" conversation.

From that point to this one, they've gone through a lot of steps, some of which I don't even know about. I do know they looked at many different pieces of land before they found one that met their criteria. They then had to apply to the City of Nanaimo to get the land re-zoned from single family residential to medium density, multi family residential.

They and their friends invested their savings and took out second mortgages so that they could buy the land and take on the many expenses that are involved when a group acts as its own developer.

Then there was all the research, the visiting of existing cohousing communities to see what worked best, the identification of what the initial owners wanted this cohousing community to be like, the hiring of architects, the application for a building permit and on and on.

By joining the group when the building already is under construction, I have had it easy by comparison. When I joined Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community, I found all of the existing owners very welcoming towards me. Since I wasn't new just to their community but also to Nanaimo, they went out of their way to tell me about things that were going on in town, to invite me to events they were attending, and to invite me to their homes.

I felt warm and fuzzy, and thought, "What a lovely group of people." But I didn't stop to analyze it until I read something in one of Diana Leafe Christian's books. I can't remember if it was in Finding Community or in Creating a Life Together. In any event, in her writing she discussed The Founders.

She said that, as new owners joined the project, the founders needed to walk a fine line. Yes, the founders certainly were a great resource, because they knew the history of the project. Consequently they could provide insights into the reasons for early decisions, they could tell newcomers where they could find this or that piece of information, and so on.

But DLC (as people in the chousing movement call her) went on to say that there could be a temptation on the part of the founders to hang onto control. An individual founder or a small group of founders might refuse to accommodate the ideas and wishes of new owners.

It was only then that I became aware of how fortunate I was. Yes, the long standing owners of Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community had been very friendly and hospitable towards me. But there was more to it than that. They also had welcomed me onto committees, and had been open to my suggestions.

Although all of the existing owners of Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community have been like that, I think Susana embodies the attitude of openess to an extraordinary degree. She is one of the people who participated in that very first "What if?" conversation. She has spent years working towards this dream.

Yet she repeatedly has thanked me for contributions I've made since I've joined the group in Nanaimo, and has complimented me on my ideas and suggestions. Susana is an example to me. I hope that, as more people buy into our project, I will be as gracious to them as Susana and the long standing members of Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community have been towards me.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Olympic Torch in Nanaimo

I have just stumbled onto the fact that the Olympic Torch will come to Nanaimo on its way to the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Winter Olympics. Woohoo!

Following tradition, the Olympic Flame will be lit in Olympia, Greece. It then will be flown to Victoria, British Columbia. After being carried on a 45,000 kilometre journey that will take it to every province and territory (including Canada's Far North), it will end up at BC Place for the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron on February 12, 2010.

Each volunteer gets to carry the Torch for 300 metres. The two most feasible dates for me are October 31st, 2009, when the Torch will travel from Victoria to Nanaimo, and November 1st, 2009, when it will travel from Nanaimo to Tofino.

There are two companies sponsoring the Torch Relay, namely, Coca-Cola and RBC Royal Bank. Each of them has a website on which you can apply to be a Torch Bearer. I started with Coca-Cola's registration process. I don't know if it was just me, but I found it difficult to make head or tail of it. I then tried RBC Royal Bank's registration form. Luckily RBC's registration process was very user-friendly (at least it seemed so to me).

Applicants will be informed in the summer of 2009 whether or not they have been selected to be Torch Bearers.

The registration process ended up being a bit humorous for me. I had to pledge to help to make Canada a better place. There were several buttons showing activities that would assist the community or the environment. I had to indicate my selection by clicking on one button. When I looked at the choices, I realized that, in buying into Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community, I was undertaking virtually all of the activites (to say nothing of Pacific Gardens' benefits that weren't even listed amongst the options!).

Filling in that form reminded me how a supportive infrastructure, such as a cohousing community provides, empowers a person to make heaps of healthy changes to his/her lifestyle in one fell swoop. It's actually taking some time for it to sink in for me that life really can be this good.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pigs Will Fly

In doing a Google search for cohousing, I stumbled on pigs will fly : the can do community blog. That gave me a chuckle. Pigs Will Fly struck me as a lovely metaphor for what we were doing at Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community in Nanaimo.

Actually, we aren't that revolutionary. We'll be living in apartment condos in a "normal" neighbourhood, a couple of kilometres from Nanaimo's downtown core. If you went past our building project, you wouldn't necessarily know that it was "different."

But the consensus decision-making process we have chosen for our strata complex does take us beyond an average level of collaboration.

When I stop to think about it, there is a lot of cooperation in the world. Everyone, by and large, crosses a street when the light is green and stops when the light is red. Through thousands of agreements that most of us honour most of the time, we make it feasible for ourselves to live in society.

But living in society wasn't enough for me. I wanted more out of life. I wanted to live in community.

I remember a moment when I caught a glimpse of what was possible. It was at the turn of the millennium. At the time I was living in Melbourne. Because of Australia's longitude, we were one of the first countries to reach midnight. It was a thrill for me to watch, albeit on TV, the spectacular display of fireworks over Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I was so excited that I stayed up for the better part of 24 hours, and watched cities around the world reaching midnight. How can I forget the fireworks over the Eiffel Tower? Or the fountains dancing exquisitely to Handel's "Messiah" in Las Vegas? Interestingly enough, some of the low tech displays were gorgeous too. I remember how much I enjoyed the traditional dancing in Jordan.

What was so magical for me was the synergistic way in which all the people of the world pulled that off. I don't remember any UN negotiations or treaties or anything. People self-organized. It just happened. For that 24-hour block of time, the news focused on celebration, beauty and fun.

But, soon enough, we returned to business as usual.

Now, three months into my cohousing adventure, I've suddenly realized that I have attained what I longed for -- but wouldn't have been able to articulate -- back then. For me, joining a cohousing community has turned every day into the turn of the millennium.

It's not all beauty and bright lights. I guess our planning meetings might be compared with the preparations and rehearsals people had to go through before they put on those spectacles at the stroke of midnight.

Besides that, our project isn't obviously impressive, in the way a fireworks display is. Maybe the traditional dances are more representative of our efforts.

But, ever since I joined this project, I have felt alive.

Another way in which the turn of the millennium serves as a metaphor for cohousing is the paradox between the highly independent spirits that people in the cohousing movement have and how much cooperation the consensus decision-making process requires. Each of those millennium displays was unique, and yet they all fitted themselves to the larger timing framework.

Similarly, the people who are attracted to cohousing are very individual (sometimes even eccentric?). Yet we are the people who create communities that operate on degrees of cooperation that, at least for North American society, are extraordinary.

So I reckon it has to be true that pigs can fly.