By Richard Bell
The Deanery Project in Ship Harbour will be celebrating its 10th anniversary on September 1 as one of Nova Scotia’s pioneering nonprofits, combining environmental stewardship, energy conservation, traditional skills, natural building, and permaculture, all informed by a commitment to local community building using the arts to educate and celebrate.
Deanery founder and executive director Kim Thompson admits that the broad range of activities that the Deanery has sponsored sometimes makes it hard for people to define what the organization is all about.
But the diversity is by design. “From Day 1, we’ve resisted being put in a box doing only one thing—whether focused on the forests, or biking, or permaculture,” Thompson said. “We’ve gotten as far as we have by looking at who’s in the room at the time, at what they’re passionate about. So our projects can ebb and flow. But it’s all place-based experiential learning.”
For its first 75 years, the roughly 25-acre location was home to an Anglican summer camp that served generations of children on the Eastern Shore. But in the mid-1990s, the camp fell on hard times, and stood empty for several years before Thompson, who lived nearby, pulled together a new nonprofit and secured a loan to buy the property.
Thompson was herself a pioneer in the new field of natural building. In 1993, she built the first straw-bale house in Atlantic Canada, which was also the first two-story loadbearing straw-bale house anywhere in Canada.
Getting the site’s buildings back into shape became a model for the building projects to come. “The place became a living laboratory to do research and to demonstrate environmentally responsible ways to live in community,” Thompson said.
One project has often led in surprising ways to yet another project. In year one, the Deanery’s first new building project was constructing a solar kiln to dry wood without burning any fossil fuels. “We learned that Dalhousie was going to cut down 47 big trees to build its Life Sciences Center,” Thompson said. “Usually builders just chip these trees and ship the chips to a landfill. We got Dal to give us the trees and showed that we could dry them with the sun. And to close the circle, we used some of that dried wood to make benches in the new Dal building.”
This experience with Dal then led to an even more creative art recycling project when HRM decided to cut down some trees to build a roundabout on the Common. “The city gave us the trees, and we worked with five artists who took the wood and created permanent art installations on the Common,” Thompson said.
More than the projects though, Thompson emphasizes the importance of the people who have passed through. “It’s been a gift to provide space for young people to come and learn while they’re going through a transient time in their lives, from local people to international visitors. They can land with us, build some community, and share skills. And we’ve always had a deep appreciation for the knowledge keepers of traditional skills, like the late master of the scythe and blacksmith Oliver Murphy, or organic farmer Jim Thompson pruning trees and maple tapping. And Free Lab students from Dal’s architecture school have lived on site every summer while they designed and built new structures. (The Deanery Project’s AGM and 10th anniversary party is on September 11. The website is: https://thedeaneryproject.com).
[Note: Richard Bell was a founding board member of the Deanery Project, and served as Board Chair for four years. He is no longer on the board.]