Camp Arowhon, Algonquin Park - When the owner of the camp mentions that it's not uncommon to see moose drinking at a spot just north of the lodge, the chorus of half-whispered "oohs" is like the call of loons on a distant lake. While we don't all catch a glimpse of antlers, here at the Centre for Social Justice's second annual Social Justice Retreat, August 19 to 22, we at least catch up with ourselves and our allies. And any activist's greatest ally, of course, is breakfast. Removed from the city, my body releases its hard-learned habit of fending off things, pancakes and all.
After the buffet's whisked away and the young ones go off to play with childcare staff who seem almost suspiciously glad to be surrounded by toddlers at 9 in the morning, the opening plenary commences at a smaller lodge at the edge of the lake.
What a revelation - open-air panels. I'm used to fluorescent lights and stuffy rooms. But with the sunlight playing on the lakefront through the open doors, the mood is perfect for Helen Forsey to start us off with ruminations on the divide between the urban and the rural.
Forsey, a resident of Ompah, Ontario, reminds us that cities are not the only nexus of change. "Cities need to end the stupidity of one-size-fits-all legislation. Little things like one or two sentences in a government report can kill a rural community," she says.
As an example, she points out that compelling a small town drinking clean water from a well to install a filtration plant can mean no library funds. Her words can also apply to the arrogance of urban activists who make pronouncements on the right way to live on the earth when we can't even find it under all the pavement.
Allison Elwell-Shallhorn of the Toronto Youth Cabinet provides a perfect closing remark for the panel. "We always talk about 20 years from now," she reflects. "I want to know about 20 days from now. I want to know how we're going to improve the next 20 minutes."
While the next 20 minutes - and 40 more after that - are spent discussing things that move in years and not minutes, the tone struck by Elwell-Shallhorn resonates through the group visioning exercise, as it's called, which begins with participants closing their eyes as Kim Fry of the Ontario Coalition for Social Justice leads us through an aerial tour of our own ideal community.
Over the next couple of days, songs are sung, animated workshops on economics and consensus held, pancakes inhaled, beers drunk. A certain toddler exhibits advanced knowledge of civil disobedience.
But those are city things, and on the last morning, sitting around the fire pit for a final evaluation session, I realize that I'm still avoiding the kind of stillness and solitude that the forest has been offering all weekend. I find a trail and head north. For me, the forest is usually a green blur seen through a car window, garnishing the highway like parsley on a truck-stop diner plate. But here, I find myself on a rock jutting out over a small valley, revelling in the unbroken skyline.
There are countless sounds, none of them trying to be the loudest, and sensory overload turns to auditory feasting. I marvel at how the forest makes true multiculturalism easy - so many radically different life forms living in such close proximity and making it work. The forest is the first Internet, the original city, the seminal consensus workshop.
I return to camp just in time to consume everyone's lunch leftovers and disassemble the tent. I hop sadly into the car. By the time we arrive downtown, anywhere is better than the back seat of a car. But I also see the city in a new light: as the potential consort of that leafy paradise. A statement by one of the speakers, Uzma Shakir of the Council of Associations Serving South Asians, stays with me: "We need to have honest conversations." The honesty is certainly there in the forest, but beavers get bored easily - and so do we.
If we can find new ways to keep each other's attention, there's enormous potential to become allies to one another and to our counterparts, human and otherwise, in the rural lands. I'll get us started: Do we need so many right angles? The damned things are everywhere.