Circle of Hope: Talking about the land between

Story and photos by Michelle Annette Tremblay

We were all drawn by the same thing. Even though it was Saturday morning, the official snoozing-ground of late-sleepers world-wide (of which I am a devout card-carrying member); even though it was cold and blustery; even though it was the first morning of the season that we had to scrape ice off our collective windshields, on Nov. 4 we all made our way to the Art Centre in Madoc. There were about 40 of us in total, coming from all directions, most having never met before. 

 Madoc’s Arts Centre was host for one of four Land Knowledge Talking Circles held throughout the Land Between region. Photo by Michelle Annette Tremblay

Madoc’s Arts Centre was host for one of four Land Knowledge Talking Circles held throughout the Land Between region. Photo by Michelle Annette Tremblay

 Anishinaabe elder Gerard Sagassige provided the welcome to the Land Between Talking Circle, setting the stage for an open and meaningful discussion among participants. Photo by Michelle Annette Tremblay

Anishinaabe elder Gerard Sagassige provided the welcome to the Land Between Talking Circle, setting the stage for an open and meaningful discussion among participants. Photo by Michelle Annette Tremblay

We were bee-keepers, educators, farmers, wildlife enthusiasts, artists, parents, hunters, foragers, activists. We all had one thing in common: a deep belief in the stewardship of 'the land between.' As we entered and quietly seated ourselves in a large circle, Anishinaabe elder Gerard Sagassige lit sage and cedar, began to sing and drum, and welcomed us to the Talking Circle of the Land Between.

Nestled between the Canadian Shield and the St. Lawrence Lowlands, the Land Between extends across central Ontario from the Frontenac Arch in the east, to Georgian Bay and Southern Parry Sound. It is a regional belt spanning nine counties, running parallel and to the north of Highway 7. 

I spent my 1980s-childhood here, climbing trees and catching fireflies, but I never heard it called the Land Between until a few years ago. I always knew, somehow, that this area was special, but the actual specifics eluded me. 

I had just moved back to Paudash Lake in North Hastings after 15 years of education and world travel. I joked to my husband that I was like a salmon, swimming back upstream to have children in my own childhood home. And why wouldn't I? I couldn't shake the feeling that this place, this unique, diverse, high-vibrational place is the perfect setting to raise a family. Even though I didn't know at the time just how important and unique this place truly is.

So, what exactly is 'the Land Between?' If you talk to an ecologist, they'll explain that it's an 'ecotone,' a place where two distinct ecosystems collide and overlap. Our specific ecotone is a carnival of diversity; the most visually obvious diversity being our landscape. If you drive from Toronto to Apsley, for example, you'll slowly notice a shift from flat farmland and deciduous forests, to rolling hills and emerging evergreens. As you continue to head north, you'll still see some deciduous trees interspersed with the evergreens, but you'll also notice more and more bodies of water, and exposed Precambrian rock. 

 The Land Between Region covers nine counties and is distinguished by its water, plant, insect and animal diversity, which includes Ontario’s only native lizard. Graphic courtesy The Land Between

The Land Between Region covers nine counties and is distinguished by its water, plant, insect and animal diversity, which includes Ontario’s only native lizard. Graphic courtesy The Land Between

The Land Between is the only area in the province with exposed rock barrens, and also has the highest concentration of lakes. We have an abundance of lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands; swamps, fens, bogs, and marshes. With all this water and plant diversity comes an explosion of animal and insect diversity. The Land Between hosts flora and fauna from both the north and the south, living side by side. There are also species living here that you won't find anywhere else in the world, including the five-lined skink, Ontario's only native lizard. 

Concerned by funding cuts to programs that encouraged dialogue between land stewards and government Leora Berman, CEO and co-founder of The Land Between conservation organization, has been working with her team to increase awareness, protect this one-of-a-kind ecotone and create new opportunities. From producing a three-part documentary that aired on TVO, to creating a Facebook-like social media platform called 'Frog-Circle' for land stewards, to organizing annual turtle advocacy events, Berman has been busy defending the Land Between. 

“The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs used to have district biologists or representatives that were involved with local hunters and farmers, but that's no longer the case due to budget cuts,” explains Berman. “Even Ontario's environmental bill of rights is limited in its application.”

 The Land Between CEO and co-founder Leora Berman, shown with Anishinaabe elder Gerard Sagassige, has been busy encouraging dialogue and increasing awareness through a variety of ventures, including a TVO documentary, a social media platform and annual turtle advocacy events. Photo by Michelle Annette Tremblay

The Land Between CEO and co-founder Leora Berman, shown with Anishinaabe elder Gerard Sagassige, has been busy encouraging dialogue and increasing awareness through a variety of ventures, including a TVO documentary, a social media platform and annual turtle advocacy events. Photo by Michelle Annette Tremblay

So Berman decided, with her partners, to hold four Land Knowledge Talking Circles throughout the Land Between region. Talking Circles are traditional Indigenous ceremonies where people share knowledge and ideas in a democratic process where everyone has a turn to speak uninterrupted, and everyone listens. Generally there are no recordings allowed, because talking circles are sacred. However, in this case, participants were audio recorded and Berman will be compiling a report which chronicles the participants’ concerns, observations and suggestions. The findings will be published next year.

“Their knowledge and participation is more influential than they realize,” emphasizes Berman. “That's because right now there is no other platform. No one else is asking landowners anything; there’s no forum. That's why it's so important to talk to land stewards: the people who live close to the land, interact with the environment, and make it a priority to advocate for the land.”

Once Berman and Sagassige explained the day's format, we began. One at a time, we were passed a goose feather, chosen because geese symbolise community. While holding the goose feather, each person had an opportunity to introduce themselves, and describe the changes they'd witnessed in the Land Between during the last few years. There was no interrupting. No hurrying. Everyone was given the same chance to speak, regardless of age, profession, or articulation. 

For myself, I usually get a bit anxious before speaking to a group, but this format had some surprising effects. By the time it was my turn to speak, I had already been engaged in active listening for over an hour. I'd heard about the decline of the rusty-patched bumble bee. I'd heard about the plight of the turtles trying to lay their eggs in the spring without being flattened by speeding motorists. I'd listened intently while a hunter described the changes he has witnessed over a few decades of being in the bush. A dark-sky-region advocate talked about light pollution from cities. I knew I couldn't interrupt, so there was no planning-my-next-statement. I just listened. By the time it was my turn, I was so tuned in to the sharing that it didn't occur to me to be nervous. There was no place for ego. We were a collective by then, all focused. All in tune with each other.

“It's amazing what comes about at the community level,” says Berman. “What qualifies their leadership is democratic consensus, and you can only get that by hearing each other. All good work happens at the local level.”

After two hours of communion, we broke our reverence for a healthy vegan lunch and mingled for a while. Connections were made, email addresses were exchanged. But it was short-lived. There was more work to do. More sharing. More listening.

 The Land Between Talking Circle drew some 40 participants from diverse areas of Hastings County with varying backgrounds and interests. Photo by Michelle Annette Tremblay

The Land Between Talking Circle drew some 40 participants from diverse areas of Hastings County with varying backgrounds and interests. Photo by Michelle Annette Tremblay

After lunch, the sharing got even more profound. Members began building on what others had said before them. No one looked at their phones. By the end, two major themes stood out for me. Firstly, that it's up to us, on a local level, to mobilize and advocate for the protection of the Land Between, and secondly, that we are all incredibly rich. Not necessary rich in the materialistic sense, but rich with experience and access to something amazing.

It's been 12 years since I said to my husband, “Hey, how about we buy this house in rural Ontario and raise a couple of kids?” We go to large cities like Toronto very infrequently, and honestly we're completely out of touch with how most Canadians live. After a day of reflecting, I suddenly felt waves of gratitude. We wake up to bird song every morning. We see a symphony of stars almost every night. We're within walking distance of three different lakes. Our children can identify which berries are safe to eat and which aren't. We interact with wildlife on a daily basis. Our cost of living is low. We swim all summer and ski all winter. We are surrounded by artists and back-to-the-landers. We are surrounded by pulsating life. We have space. Space to live. Space to think. Space to listen. Space to grow. We are as much a part of this ecotone as the beavers and the five-lined skinks. We are its keepers.

By the end of the day, I honestly felt so much love for every individual that participated in the talking circle. There was so much knowledge and so much care that at the end we all emerged slightly dazed. Heads spinning with information. More email addresses were exchanged, but this networking was devoid of any ulterior motives or career aspirations. There was an understanding. We're in this together. And you are too. 

If you're interested in being a land steward, and getting involved with the Land Between conservation organization, you can learn about their upcoming initiatives, including the new Blue Lakes Project, at www.thelandbetween.ca or even create a social media profile for yourself at FrogCircle.ca and connect with other land stewards.