It takes a child to teach us how to build a village.

Setting out to build a village and teach children about the negotiations and collaboration needed to work together in and understand how to live together  harmoniously with the land and each other. Sounds great.

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Sammy Tangir captured this amazing graphic from our staff meeting about the winter village at Evergreen Brick Works

Once the materials came out on the floor, and the first kids arrived, something else happened. Something I should have remembered by now: the first two children were two year olds (so being able to explain techniques and context for building villages will be impossible with words, so how to proceed?)

What works then for kids of this age, what they can be taught is the magic of the materials, and through the materials can be found lessons and much to chew on, especially if you’re not looking (that’s a joke, and an argument for using natural materials–because little kids will eat the workshop when you’re not looking – ha!).

We brought out clay, sticks, bits of plant, old flowers from the summer that have been eaten by birds (cup plant eaten by goldfinches if you care), bits of fired brick in miniature, leftover parts of christmas trees not needed for decoration when they were bought at market, and had a jam session.

This work is jazz. It’s setting up the stage with instruments, and letting go of the product you thought would emerge, as the players arrive with their own ideas, skills and inclinations.

One of the animators who helps bring out the creative side of children who i work with says: “the less you tell them, and direct them, the better.”

But also, in the same breath, she says “BUT: kids need to be told when they are damaging or hurting something (watching kids pour drinking water on the ground instead of on plants, this needs to be spoken).”

Somehow both can happen, but only if the facilitators are knowing that they cannot control the outcome, and are paying keen attention to what kids are naturally drawn to, and allowing this to emerge and be elaborated on through play.

This comes back to ideas of what we are trying to teach children, and really, what they can tell us about our desires to be heard and make change through those little illogical minds.

If we can impress upon them the importance of cooperation, care, true collaboration then they will be better able to manage shared resources in a world with less available and cheap energy, where these values will save lives.

Can you imagine trying to have this conversation with two year olds?

Well no, because the drivers for their worlds are more direct, less abstract. More about what is in their sensory view and not predicated on ideas of global resources and energy security. It’s really about feeling secure, though not for the wee ones, for us.

This i remembered all in the course of a minute when the children arrived, and i remembered my course as an artist, to bring out questions of depth through the material play, like a treasure hunt where we know all the stops on the map, but do not yet know what treasure will emerge at the end.

This potential could depress the more linear minded, that kids cannot follow through to the lessons we need to impart to make us feel secure and good about ourselves, but to me this brings deep and meaningful inspiration. I want to see how far I can go in finding transformation, and sometimes that looks like spending an hour listening to the inner imaginative world of a kid who others dismiss as, well, childish.

When it is possible to take this dream world and make it real, to get kids into leadership positions in the design, and to become a resource to them to realize projects beyond what they have participated in up until then. This brings more inspiration than work I have been commissioned to make from my own imagination, relying on my specialized professionalism.

(Don’t get me wrong, I am totally open to having projects of depth that I can display and make with my own hands, but when kids are involved in design and building environments they inhabit, this is a lesson beyond my own ego and/or professional aesthetic choices as a professional artist.)

You, little child, can tell us how to make this building, paint this hallway, design this garden, these are lessons of empowerment that are missing from childhood. It is also a method for finding and including a departure from what is possible, when you include those who think differently.

It is a test of adulthood to see how far you can take this process;

Can kids actually build parts of the urban environment?

Do they have what is needed?

Most of us would say: of course not. There are safe-work practices, skilled hand-work, judgement and assessment before implementation. Not to mention focus and maturity. All of these commonly held cultural beliefs which impart the lesson that we need professionals in every part of our lives, and that kids have no place in this world before they are trained and disciplined adults.

Ok maybe you would not want a two year old as a doctor (“I can see there is pain, but all you need is candy and a movie, you’ll be all better”). or a lawyer (“just pretend you know nothing until they have evidence….then say sorry….works for me”). I am sure you can think of funnier examples.

I have seen amazing things emerge when kids are given the control and power. Every year around our fire pit (at the Children’s Garden within Evergreen Brick Works) we would get pooling water, and we blamed the professionals. Those who graded the gavel in the space before we moved in did not do it properly….then everything we’ve layered on top is therefore effected by this grade (metaphor there).

Every mini flood we would bust out shovels and dig trenches to redirect the water. We were playing at making rivers, and every time, more or less, kids drained the fire pit space. Then, eventually we came up with the money to hire professionals to make a french drain and re-grade the space.

The design and build landscape firm built a trench EXACTLY where the kids had been making it for years! We just left it impermanent, for you don’t want to take away problems that others may solve later. Now there is no river to dig, and our wallets are lighter for paying professionals. Somehow ‘playing at’ doing the same work with kids really taught everyone something. It proved what is possible when we do not disguise our problems and ask for help.  (anecdotally i remember one mom digging with her two kids, she looks up at me and smiles “I am so glad we are doing this here, and not in my back yard”).

These inclinations are natural; to dig, to build, to destroy and rebuild. Often nature takes the role of reclaiming materials back to base elements, even while we are living within them. Removing the curtain behind which we hide imperfections, and asking families who visit to invest themselves in rebuilding our space, is what I observe creates the cohesion and connection that we speak about in placemaking, village/city building. When this relationship is extended to caring for other living things like plants and animals things really get interesting.

In the coming month we will continue to build towards this idea of a connected, healthy village, and I will bring in the voices of other facilitators of this work, to share alternate perspectives of what we are building towards.

These villages depicted are the first step in a winter of village building, where we look to what kids have to teach us, and will celebrate this work during family day in February 2017. On that day, what we have learned through many weekends of setting out provocative materials and watching the jazz emerge from expert miniature hands will have it’s moment in the winter sun, and we will see if the idealized village in my imagination is alive in the sculptures we make with kids.

the right wood

To try and find the right wood that is 4-6′ long in pencil to pinky-finger thin in almost branchless shoots that will weather the sun and rain for more than a year or two for outdoor building and sculpture does my head in!

Growing here there are dogwoods, of the striking reds and pale yellow greens, though they have usually been planted stem by stem in the few trca plantings that the city can afford and are anything but branchless. They will outlast willow birch and poplar, especially if the bark is intact, though I have the feeling that their color will bleed to a mordor black.

There are, cultivated in a few hundred ultra manicured front gardens in toronto, multi-stemmed hazel trees. They shine almost golden, and I am enamored by the beaked-hazel, which I have seen but twice in and around the don in the last five years. Most of the hazels you see are horribly pruned out of season and above the ground, since it is somewhat counter-intuitive knowledge that this short beauty will not last twenty years without being cut back down to the ground.

Here grows the principle problem with finding stems of the length I need to produce useful garden fencing and furniture; that without pruning to make the stumps more competitive and multi stemmed, they tend to divide oddly. If I could run around at night, in the right season mind, and bring these beautiful trees back ‘into cycle’ it would solve the problem of the right wood.

Another more capable and equally as water/sun resistant as hazel is the locust. There certainly is an incredible amount of work involved in removing the paired thorns of the black locust. Many days I have set out with grand schemes of processing this tree, and have switched to more useful tasks within the hour. This tree, the black locust, is unfortunately brittle, and does not take to twisting into rope to secure corners of fencing or whathaveyou. The bark is amazing, though mildly toxic, and has similar qualities to cherry or elm barks (used for chair backings, leatherlike).

Though I love the willows, unless they are planted as live structures (putting 8″ of the stem in the ground in late fall early spring, and caring for them well over the first year) I think they will rot out in 5, depending on how much sun they get to degrade the bark.

This problem evolved out of trying to make animal enclosures, and you would not invest in a massive amount of willow hurdles unless they were going to last. Hazel can buy you another 5-10 years, and I would assume locust is about the same. This is of course without treating the wood, which could be done with a turpentine produced as a byproduct of traditional charcoal production.

The list grows short, though maples, ash and others like chestnut or even yew would do beautifully, though I would prefer, in most cases to leave these tall competitive saplings intact for the most part (except for some singling or light thinning).

When I built the fence at belong, I harvested roughly 200 8-12′ thumb sized sugar maple stems per acre. This provided the uprights, numbering around 160, for the 1000 pussy willows that were then woven to make a 155′ fence. I would not have harvested more, since there was 3′ of snow and it looked like the deer and rabbits were doing enough thinning of the stems, and had their own version of forest stewardship well in hand (so to speak). Also it pays to be selective in material, since I was almost selecting to the mm to create something that was thin enough for willows to bend around but thick enough to withstand being upright. Regardless this abundance of young trees does not exist in the g.t.a. Obviously.

It seems to be a long road, enculturing the use and stewardship of branchwood to create an alternate economy in outdoor fencing, charcoal, living structures in todays urban cityscape.

One stump at a time.

http://www.foolishnature.org

on the left native red osier dogwood with invasive crack willow, leftovers from the fall in z middle

on the left native red osier dogwood with invasive crack willow, leftovers from the fall in z middle

braching dogwoods on the left and willow center n right

braching dogwoods on the left and willow center n right