By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
The vision the late Minnie Pennell had for the Cobourg Ecology Garden saw its first fruition 25 years ago.
That quarter-century of evolution into what it is today was celebrated Saturday with a special ceremony that honoured those beginnings.
The opening cry from Town Crier Mandy Robinson gave a brief history of the initiative that began in 1996 with a tree planting at a sunrise ceremony on the Lake Ontario shore immediately south of Legion Village. She described it as an “all-natural organic chemical-free garden” where everyone can “gain new ideas, implement new strategies and witness artistic loving hands at work.”
Garden chair Dora Body recalled that first ceremony, attended by then-Mayor Joan Chalovich and maybe six people – a contrast to several dozen gathered around Saturday at proper social distance among themselves.
“Minnie Pennell was a very determined woman, and you wouldn’t want to say no to her, because I tried once,” Body said.
“It was very, very important to Minnie that this garden begin on a spiritual foundation, and she wanted to make it as interfaith as possible, that every spirituality would be respected.”
That first ceremony featured an Indigenous Baha’i citizen, the late Evelyn Loft-Watts, to offer the blessing. On Saturday, Alderville resident Julie Bothwell made sure there could be a strong spiritual element to the proceedings, accepting a tobacco offering to preside over a smudging ceremony and blessing.
“As Indigenous people, our Mother Earth is a strong part of who we are,” Bothwell stated.
“We believe we would not be where we are today without our Mother. As we know, our Mother’s playing a significant part in our lives – all of us – so we cannot ignore the work of our Mother Earth and how she sustains us.”
Body followed up with a holy water ceremony, scattering the drops out of the bowl with a small evergreen bough.
“You are gathered here because you love Mother Earth, because you want to cherish the trees and the birds and the animals,” she said.
Mayor John Henderson has personal memories of the garden’s early days, when his son was hired as a summer student.
“I can tell you, the Ecology Garden doesn’t look then as it does today,” Henderson said.
He got a call from his son asking for tools, and Henderson lent a helping hand as well. Over that summer, they graded the two paths at the far end.
“Its beauty, moments of tranquility and educational value are immeasurable,” he stated.
“I want to use that word again – it’s a gift, and I hope we all sustain it.”
Cobourg Councillor Emily Chorley had personal memories too, as her family has its annual photo shoot in the garden. For years, they have loved this location and, more recently, enjoyed the messages of hope on the painted rocks people leave at the site.
She offered her own tribute to Pennell’s vision and commitment, the creativity of the garden’s designers, the contributions of Sister Linda Gregg and the Villa St. Joseph and support of the town’s parks departments.
Chorley also singled out nonagenarian Master Gardener Marie Gordon, who had been part of the project since 2004 and was present for the celebration.
“Twenty-five years from now I hope the Cobourg Ecology Garden will have motivated all of us, not just to maintain our green spaces but to expand them, not just to appreciate the environment but to rejuvenate it, and not just to talk about sustainability but to really live it.”
Deputy Director of Community Services Teresa Behan noted that there is considerable overlap in the mission statement of the Ecology Garden and that of the town’s parks department. The two have worked together since the garden started, she said, and the garden was instrumental in the town’s past Communities In Bloom wins.
The first words out of the town crier’s mouth after ringing her bell had been, “It’s so great to ring that bell again!”
Chorley echoed the sentiment.
“It’s my first in-person meeting this year, and I can’t tell you how good it feels to see all of you face-to-face,” she said.
The celebration of the garden echoes another celebration – “the beginning of our recovery from the pandemic and our ability to emerge from our individual cocoons and come together again.
“If there’s one thing for me I have learned from the pandemic, it’s the tremendous importance of our parks and public spaces, the natural environment and our connection with nature for supporting our mental, physical and our spiritual health.
“And the Ecology Garden has been a lifeline to so many people over the last year and a half. It’s a haven, it’s a place of peace, of joy. It’s a place of hope.”
Other highlights included the unveiling of the Silver Garden plot based on Madison Walter’s design, and the reading of the work by the winners in the poetry contest held in celebration of the milestone. Cobourg Poet Laureate Jessica Outram introduced the winners for their readings:
First place, student division – Kate Legakis with a poem called Renewal
Second place, student division – Hailey Richard with a poem called Sons of Nature
First place, adult division – Felicity Sidnell-Reid with a poem called Daphne’s Shade
Second place, adult division – Marie-Lynn Hammond with a poem called Remembering
Another person watching the ceremony, and remembering, was former Mayor Joan Chalovich.
“It just makes you feel so thankful that the initiative was started, and I was grateful to be part of it and support it, to get it going,” Chalovich said.
“The people of Cobourg are really – when they take a project on, they do it so well. And so many new people have come now to realize that this is really a unique initiative and it’s going to be here for the long term, and I am very happy for that.
“Minnie Pennell did such a great job. She was kind of the head of the rest of us. She got us gong to really realize that the environment and the natural areas are important to the town,” Chalovich recalled.
“There were others at that time, but you need leaders in the community that will spark the initiatives. So when I look up through here and see how it’s still natural, but it’s polished, and it’s got so much. It’s an educational program, as well as for the beauty and the recreation of the people.”