Active-ist Imagination

March 3, 2015

On a frigid day in February, I had lunch with Sandra Campbell at Aviv, a favourite Annex restaurant. We talked about one of her current projects, A Magical Mystery Tour to the Pickering Lands. A bit of history: in 1972, the federal government expropriated 18,000 hectares of class-one agricultural land north east of Toronto, to build a second Toronto airport. A resident of the area back then, Sandra wrote a book called The Moveable Airport, part of the Case Studies in Community Action series. The airport plan was shelved after a great deal of protest; now it’s back on the table again. This time, though, Sandra is taking a different approach in making her views known.

MM: Why a Magical Mystery Tour? Why not just write your MP?

SC: Many are now turning away from the practices of industrial food production because it is more of a short-term, extractive industry as opposed to a stewardship industry. We’re seeing that our growing lands are rare, a vital resource that we must care for. The arguments for the necessity for land stewardship are all there; but many are blind to its potential not only to feed us well but also to provide good, meaningful jobs over the long term. Too many are still stuck in the mindset that the only source of jobs is to build huge infrastructure projects like roads, buildings, airplanes.

So the rational arguments for changing our practices of food production are everywhere and now we need to energize people for the heavy slogging of making changes in their lives and communities. We get into rutted ways of thinking—that there’s only one way. But making change is not just about saying NO. It’s about saying YES. Our imaginations can spin us out of the ruts, connect us in a heartened way to what really matters.

We’ve — all of us — witnessed the power of heartened imaginations in the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. What drove people and inspired their courage was not so much the intellectual constructs– but intellectual constructs attached to incredibly deep feeling and a vision of difference.

One of the poets I’ve read over the years is Wendell Berry, a grand old man of eighty-five who won a huge award last year and gave an inspiring speech in which he said that the health of our lands depends on our caring for them and that all caring hinges on affection. So I’ve taken the idea that we need to help urban folks become familiar with these lands and in that familiarity build an affection that will enable them to discover their own stories in that land and its potential to guide their own actions to care for it.

The experience of The Magical Mystery Bus Tour is intended to spark people’s heartened imaginations. The trip would begin in downtown Toronto and be animated by poets reading their poetry to awaken people’s memories of their resonant moments in nature. By the time participants arrive at the site they’ve connected to memories of a texture, a sound, a feeling in nature. Then once at the site they will be guided by dancers who will lead them on an exploration of different aspects of the site.

When we go to poetry readings we’re often sitting still, but you’re combining travel with a poetry reading. Have you had experiences of this before?

I went on a five-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh — me and 1,000 other people — in the Catskills and because there were so many people, we were billeted all around the site of the retreat. Every morning at 5:30 we would be picked up by a school bus and we’d all shuffle out of our motels, get on the bus and it was a silent retreat but on each bus was a Buddhist priest who would read poetry. Some was Thich Nhat Hahn’s poems. He’s a fine poet. After the reading, there would be a guided meditation.

Our bus trip was forty minutes and by the time we arrived at the site we were, in a sense, in an altered state. The day went on with meditation, teaching and walking meditation until ten at night, when we’d get back on the bus to return to our residence and it was the same process: poems read and guided meditation to close the day. All this was done in silence and I found it deeply moving, almost magical.

I have a friend who makes banners out of beautiful paper and I always have loved the idea of Buddhist prayer flags. So I thought that after the dancers people could make some of these flags and put key words on them that arose from their experiences of the poetry and dance. The banners would be to take home to hang in their homes or offices as a reminder of that day.There would be no other agenda than to open participants to nature’s gifts of the day.

You mentioned the Porch View Dances that Kaeja d’Dance put on in Toronto. What element do you want to make part of your project?

As I understand Porch View Dances, they are about enabling people to express their sense of place in an embodied way, to express it with their bodies, and it’s pleasurable. It’s celebratory in a quiet way.

Prior to the dance, dancers interview neighbourhood people to get a sense of who lives what they love, how they work, what animates their days, their friendships, their paths through community.

Do you see residents of the Pickering Lands being the performers?

There’s very few people. The lands were expropriated. People left.

Is there a particular site you have in mind?

Not yet. Still exploring. I went on a walking tour last year, It was a beautiful fall day and a lot of us were in tears because the neglect of the land is sad, and the tears came because we were awed by the beauty of the place. It’s beautiful but it hasn’t been cared for and so we felt great sadness.

This is not just a bus tour in the traditional sense …

I see it as a guided experience for invited guests– people who are working on issues of safe food and water and land stewardship. As we all know, people on the front lines of change get burnt out so it would be to reinvigorate them, to give them an opportunity to reconnect to what they care about.

Why not take someone who’s in favour of building the airport?

Eventually yes, but the first round is to invite the willing pioneers and to reinvigorate them, to give them new energy and renewed vision.


At the beginning of a change process those who are open, who wish to try new alternatives need to be nourished and cheered on. It takes a lot of energy to sustain your vision in the face of nay-sayers.

Yet there’s nothing as infectious as somebody who is totally turned on to an idea, who feels so excited by it. After this trip we hope people will return to their homes, their offices telling their friends, families and neighbours, “You wouldn’t believe this land! It’s so fantastic! We’ve got this huge breadbasket, it could be bountiful, Imagine what we could do.” That’s very infectious energy. It’s has a ripple effect that I’ve seen work time and time again.

When I think of environmental activism I associate it with fear.

Absolutely, yes. And fear contracts. The Bus Trip seeks to counter the contraction. The experiences will enable participants to extend their minds, bodies, spirits to re-engage with nature’s gift, with what they really care about.

For those interested in knowing more, there’s a video here.

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