Guest Writer: Peter Smith

I’ve been asked to write an entry that connects theatre, the arts, and climate change – and perhaps talk a little bit about the work going on at the Canadian Centre for Rural Creativity.

I’ll do my best – and will begin with a story…

Angelo Bellini Artwork

I come from a family of nine people – two parents and six siblings. With my father away for long stretches of time working on the railroad in his attempt to raise funds to see us fed and clothed my mother would often reach her ‘wit’s end’ with us children. We were a large group of large unwieldiness and had pretty much broken everything she cherished inside the house. To assist in getting her wits to return, and in hopes of saving a knickknack or two, she would shove us out the back door on a day telling us to ‘go play.’ And she’d do it in any sort of weather – in fact the days I remember most during the ‘go play’ period of my upbringing were days wild with storm. Once out the door my mother would lock it and then smile with a Mona Lisa sort of smile from behind the sheer curtains and gently repeat, ‘go play.’ She’d then recede like a great fish who is spied near the surface but then disappears with a subtle swish of her tail – descending into the deeper murk leaving the fisher wondering if the fish had been there at all.

With the gale swirling around us, my siblings wanting nothing to do with me, and me wanting nothing to do with them, we’d scatter like seeds on the wind.  I’d sometimes wander over to a friend’s house. Mostly to get out of the weather. But the mood over there wasn’t a whole lot better than it was over at my place. My friend’s mother would look at me from the top step of the kitchen with a sour expression: ‘what’s this boy doing here?’ the face said. ‘He’s soaking wet – dripping on my floors. No, no – oh no – this will not do.’ After a few encounters like this I made a unilateral decision to go a different route on the ‘go play’ days.  As my siblings disappeared into the storm going wherever they were going – I’d bow my head to the blinding snow or driving rain and walk onto the trail across the road from our house. It was a thin meandering path that took me past the swamp, through the wild apple orchard, to the farm fields and forests beyond. I’d eventually come out at Wonder Valley, home of Little Lake, and Willow Creek. It was the beginning of my learning about the world away from assignment and expectation. My guide was nature – nature that exploded all around me in a million points of light, in singular moments that kept everything and everybody busy in their own version of survival. Struggling past the branches at the edge of the creek – unable to see a horizon because of the raging storms I’d get lost. Stepping in behind an old oak one time to get out of the weather I discovered a small spring that bubbled its water up from deep in the earth. The pool was alive with insects and little clawed creatures that lived under the water. Protected by the tree I was able to watch the goings on, became held in the life there, the activity – eventually leaning forward I’d take in a slurp of that cold, perfect water, brushing aside the insects before I sipped. 

My path to the theatre was as surprising to me as that spring pool I encountered behind the old oak along Willow Creek. In elementary and highschool I played sports – almost any kind of sport – it had nothing to do with the art world – or so I thought. But at its best sport keeps a person in the moment, and at its best theatre holds a crowded room, a room that includes the actors on stage, in a single breath. We can be suspended in the moment together. Time is only ever a moment long anyway. And being aware of that, living inside of that, can be as exhilarating as anything I know.

I still love being in storms, being in the moment, and have devoted most of my life to storytelling, to creativity – be it on stage, or in a writers’ room, directing/producing a story for stage or screen. And about seven years ago, while artistic director of the Blyth Festival, because of a leaky roof, (that’s another story), founded an organization called the Canadian Centre for Rural Creativity (CCRC). At its core the CCRC has two tenets: treat others (including the earth) as you’d like to be treated – and leave the campsite better than found. We have projects going on in economic and community development, projects that sees artists, scientists and community activists working together, and every two years we bring ruralists from across the planet to the village of Blyth (though in 2020 we went virtual) for the bi-annual Rural Talks to Rural conference – or R2R. We share ideas, hold workshops, eat food together, walk together along the Guelph to Goderich Railtrail, and through it all we discuss the world in which we find ourselves. 

The theme of the last R2R was ‘seeing the world differently’ – not to see it as a commodity, but as a gift. Not as something we own, but something we share. As Bruce Mau, the designer, says, we are not separate from, nor above nature. Our lives happen in moments – startling, remarkable, painful, treacherous, loving and thoughtful, moments. If we consider our actions in those moments, if we consider the life of others in the pool of those moments, understand that where we are someone else will make a bed, then the way we see the world and act in it will certainly change.

We are living in a unique time on this old blue planet – and perhaps it has been ever thus – though the stakes seem higher this time. When I think of those stormy walks on the ‘go play’ days when I was a kid – sipping the fresh water from the pool of that spring – a spring alive with life, when I recall the moments in a story where the entire room erupts in laughter, or sits inside a complex and yet shared silence, I wonder – is it possible as a group, as a people, as a planet, for all of us to take a moment that leads to other ways of seeing, to a collective breath, that has us walking the path to higher ground, to a place where we consider and respect each other, where we understand that life is delicate and a gift – and can that moment have us change for the better?

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