(COURTESY SONNY DUDEK)
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Although gardening is an activity practiced during the warm summer months, Kanien’kehá:ka elders at the Turtle Bay Elders’ Lodge are still busy talking about crops and seeds.
Over the course of the last year, residents at the Lodge have been hard at work planning, planting, maintaining and cultivating the produce from the inaugural year of their gardening project.
But as the cold weather closed in and the earth hardened, elders saw their harvesting activities draw to an end.
Certified therapeutic recreation specialist and team leader of the Activity Program at the Lodge, Sonny Dudek, explained that harvesting wrapped-up in early October.
Dudek said elders are already actively planning for planting time in the spring.
“Over the winter, it’s more about planning, discussing and evaluating what they liked or disliked,” said Dudek.
Seventy-one-year-old Wallace Snow said this past summer was his first introduction to gardening, an activity he said he’s already looking forward to for 2021. “It’s comforting and it’s something to do that passes our time real quick,” he said candidly.
Moreover, Dudek highlighted that cultivating gardens is beneficial in many ways.
“It’s so important to emphasize how therapeutic it can be to just focus on something like gardening (and) to see something grow,” said Dudek. “It’s part of the history and it’s part of the culture. It really helped the elders here during the pandemic.”
According to Dudek, employees at the Lodge were astonished at the level of involvement demonstrated by some residents, including Snow.
“Even though we had a plan coming into the spring about who would be doing what, some residents really surprised us,” Dudek said. “We didn’t think they would be so interested in it, and then, they became the stars of the project.”
Throughout the past months, Dudek used a tablet to compile photos and videos of the residents as they worked in the different gardens. While the brisk winter temperature forces elders to stay indoor, Dudek said they will have the opportunity to look through the memories and reminisce about their successful gardening season.
Dudek looked back at the fond memories shared with the elders during the days of warmer weather.
“Being outside everyday, sitting by the garden, telling stories and talking about how they used to sit with their grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters in their gardens, it opened a lot of great stories, laughs and good times,” said Dudek.
Dudek said that up until last week, elders were still busy drawing out beans and separating them.
Facilities manager at the Kahnawake’s Shako’tiiatakehnhas Community Services (KSCS), Dwayne Kirby, has been on the garden project since 2016. He explained that the proposal for the initiative was first presented to KSCS by the Activity Department in 2015 and that funding was awarded the following year.
When all the work was said and done, the highly anticipated project came just in time to lift the spirits of everyone at the Lodge.
Kirby underlined the cultural and historical significance of gardening for Onkwehón:we, and, even more specifically, for Kanien’kehá:- ka elders. “A lot of our elders were raised as gardeners. If they lived in the rural areas, they literally lived off the land,” he said.
Such is the case for Kahnawa’kehró:non Mitchell Diabo, known by community members as the “Road Runner.” According to Dudek, Diabo is one of the elders who quickly picked up the hobby.
As Dudek said this, he began scrolling through the hundreds – possibly thousands – of vividly-coloured photos and videos on his tablet.
He selected a video showing Diabo leaning on the edge of a wooden raised bed, tugging at small tufts of greens poking from the soil, yanking out what turned out to be ruby-red beets. Dudek asked Diabo how long it had been since he last cultivated the root vegetable, “Quite a way!” he answered, “Back in 1952.”
“He usually doesn’t get off his walker,” said Dudek, pointing at the screen still showing Diabo standing behind the elevated garden.
Dudek explained the various beneficial components of gardening, which he said includes stretching, balance, coordination and socializing. “Sometimes we think it’s just an activity, but in reality it’s a lot more than that,” he added.
As it happens, elders at the Lodge weren’t alone to take up the activity this past spring. Dudek said he noticed gardening tools and such selling at a rapid pace when it came time to prepare for the season.
Without a doubt, the many benefits help account for the increase of people who turned to the cultivation of flowers and crops as a way to combat the stress brought on by these times of uncertainty.
“At this point in the pandemic, people are growing tired of being caged up, so to speak,” said Kirby. But nevertheless, Kirby pointed out that positive events like this gardening project still occurred in the midst of the heaviest parts of the pandemic.
The colourful sight the gardens offered has temporarily been replaced with festive garlands, blooming poinsettia plants and shimmering lights decorating the inside of the Lodge. A delightfully joyous setting for community elders to enjoy as they impatiently wait for spring to bloom.
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil is a multimedia journalist based in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, Canada. She holds a BA in journalism, with a minor in law and society from Montreal's Concordia University.
Laurence began reporting with The Eastern Door in the fall of 2020, after completing a fellowship with the Institute for Investigative Journalism, a national investigative organization.
Among many things, Laurence is passionate about investigative reporting, human rights, and environmental issues.