Garden Journal

yaabshkiiwejik, signaawshak, and ecosystem engineering

By Robin Buyers

When the glaciers receded from what would become the Lake Iroquois shoreline on which St. Matt’s now sits, they took North American worm species with them. For thousands of years, the Carolinian forests and oak savannahs that took root in the sediments deglaciation left behind depended on bacteria, fungi, and insects to break down organic material and build the forest floor.


By the time the first yaabshkiiwet—white person—was guided to the mouth of the Humber River by his Wendat companions in 1615, humans had been at home in the north central Great Lakes region for over 10,000 years. Eight distinct Peoples lived and traded here; European trade goods had already arrived. The climate, mediated by the lake, meant corn, squash, and beans had been cultivated for generations. Such crops augmented the abundance of plants and animals within forests which served as “carefully managed and cultivated horticultural storehouses for Native people.” [i]


This was the landscape into which Étienne Brûlé was invited, by a People seeking to add a trade alliance with the French to their other trading relationships. But by the end of the 17th century, European diseases and conflicts around control of the fur trade had decimated the Wendat. As more yaabshkiiwejik arrived, the Mississaugas would ultimately become the Indigenous Treaty holders with the British colonizers, in part by allowing Christian missions and “civilized” farming practices. Protecting land rights under legislation such as the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 became a means to survival.

How the signaawshak—earthworms—arrived with the Europeans is a matter of conjecture. Whether by hitchhiking in the ballast of ships or deliberately introduced by settlers, for centuries the 19 worm species now flourishing in Ontario have been changing its soils. Like humans, they are ecosystem engineers, their lifeways significantly modifying their environment.

For farmers and gardeners, worms in the soil are a sign of soil health. They thrive on organic matter, aerating and mixing the soil as they concentrate nutrients and increase soil fertility for crops. St. Matt’s is built, however, where glacial deposits of sand and gravel left behind along the Lake Iroquois shoreline were used to build the city. And so, when we lifted the grass to create Noojimo'iwewin Gitigaan, our Healing Garden, in May, there was more evidence of what was once a brick works than of worms. The soil was compacted, heavy with clay.


With the compost and manure that arrived in response to our call for soil amendments in spring, and a committed team to water all season long, both our medicine and food crops have come to harvest. A shovelful of earth might now contain a worm, or evidence of worm holes, and we are building next year’s beds using layers of organic material for worms to come.

Yet where settlement has replaced Carolinian forest and oak savannah, worms are an invasive species. Neither they nor the ecosystem engineering they undertake is easily eliminated. To invite worms already present in the city’s soils to benefit our new garden comes with a history of Indigenous displacement, of plants, animals and people. Settlers thought to build a food system that could support more human activity. But in doing so, we’ve damaged the food system already here, and the protective layer of woodland humus on which it depended.

Very little Carolinian forest or oak savannah remains in Ontario. But, if you visit these or other wooded places, please, clean your boots. Don’t let worms or worm eggs hitchhike. If you’re going fishing, dump bait back home, not in natural areas. Think of it as taking part in decolonizing the land.

[1] A. Rodney Bobiwash, “The History of Native People in Toronto: An Overview,” in Frances Sanderson & Heather Howard-Bobiwash (eds.), The Meeting Place: Aboriginal Life in Toronto (1997). For more information, see First Story, formerly the Toronto Native Community History Project.

Service Berries: Ozigwaakomin

by Robin Buyers

July 2020

On Wednesday morning, The Stop’s Wychwood Open Door Volunteer Program Assistant Eveen
Mohammad came round to the Right Relations Garden, inquiring about ingredients for an ice tea. We
began with mint, then daylily, then serviceberries: a first harvest shared with our Community Hub

The serviceberry bushes were already fruiting when the IPSG Garden Crew transplanted them in early
June, gradually ripening over the last month, at first only a taste to share among the gardeners and
curious passersby, now handfuls at a time in this July heat. Deep purple and slightly larger than a wild
blueberry, these are one of the first fruits of summer where what remains of the Carolinian ecosystem
meets mixed forest.

Amelanchier canadensis is a Carolinian forest understory species. As our three establish themselves in
the Right Relations Garden, they will become a hedge at the south end,


The portrait of Elder Mary Lou Smoke, together with her husband Dan, is one of 28 honouring Elders
painted by Tannis Nielsen and young Indigenous artists and community members along the Lower
Simcoe Street underpass.


blooming early next spring, one of the first sources of nectar for pollinators. When Europeans arrived, settlers mistook these blossoms for those of a European relative, Amelanchier ovalis, and so they called them by the same name, sardisberry. But to the Anishinaabe people native to this place, they are ozigwaakomin.


Elder Mary Lou Smoke, Anishinaabekwe, advised us as we built the Garden that “acknowledging the plants by their Indigenous names would be educational as well as respectful.”

The Elders who have gifted their voices to the online Ojibwe People’s Dictionary can help us learn the proper pronunciation in this International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Ozigwaakomin. Boozhoo
 “Greetings serviceberry,” since “serviceberry” is the most common name for
this species in our area now. And perhaps apt for a church built as Methodist, as one of the stories about
serviceberry is that it bloomed at the time the circuit riders would once more find their way to European
settlements to conduct services that had had to wait until the thaw.

Yes, the St. Matt’s of 2020 cares about our weekly worship services, even when we must meet online.
But this week’s gifting of mint, daylily, and serviceberries to refresh others means that we have yet another small way to turn our worship into witness, to be a congregation that serves.

Water is Life

by Robin Buyers

Elders say that the First Teaching is Gratitude for Life. When Elder Jimmy Dick holds a Sunrise Ceremony, he shares this Teaching, and counsels greeting each day with a drink of water. Kairos Blanket Exercise facilitator, trainer, and Grandmother, Mim Harder agrees, saying that we might pause even to acknowledge the Water that is part of our morning cup of coffee or tea.


Gardeners come to understand that Water is Life in the tending of what has been planted. July began hot and dry, 10 days without a drop of rain. Robin and Michael Buyers, Nelly Kimunguyi, and Betsy Anderson worked out a schedule for ensuring that the gardens got the water they needed every morning, before the sun hit the leaves.


One morning, Lorraine Cowley came by to commiserate about the time and effort it takes to water at St. Matt’s, given the placement of the outdoor taps in our aging building. It seems the Cowley family had taken on garden care in the past, and discovered that the tap in the east narthex window well required considerable athleticism, even for the tall and long-limbed, to use. After one attempt, we’d settled on using only the tap under the Rushton Road stairs, still not easy to reach, but doable.


And then the rain came. First a Wednesday storm that tested the trellising of our tomatoes and beans. Then a full day Saturday of the gentle rain that allows our Relations, the Plants, to drink deep and thrive. Many of us in the congregation were able to taste and see the lushness of the gardens when we met at a distance last Sunday afternoon to wish Lauren and Ruby well on her parental leave.

By this week, the serviceberries were juicier, the vines of beans and squash longer, the tomatoes taller. Once the sun came out, we were back to daily watering, but with the task made


easier by our beloved solver-of-all-problems-with-the-church-building, John Shipman. There’s now a tap at the top of the west narthex window well. We are so grateful.


Catherine Brooks closed our Summer Solstice Circle to bless the Right Relations Garden with the Anishinaabe Water Song, a song Elder Mary Lou Smoke says people learn so fast its as if they’ve known it all their lives:


Wichita do ya do ya do ya

Wichita do ya do ya do ya

Wichita do ya do ya do ya

Wichita do ya do ya heh


Wacha tonaya hey ya hey ya

Wacha tonaya hey ya hey


The sound of Water flowing, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, that Life that gave us birth, lives in our bodies, and quenches the thirst for Life of All Our Relations, all living things.


Anishinaabe Language text from

Art by Shawna Brooks

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