Minnie Pennell has been referred to as Cobourg’s First Environmentalist, the Queen of Green. The legacy of her presence in Cobourg can pretty well be seen everywhere.
Take a trip down the main streets of several Ontario towns.None are as rich and lush with the naturalness of green things as is Cobourg’s King Street.
Cobourg poet and columnist, Grahame Woods was recently moved to eloquently extol the beautiful breathing boulevard of trees along King Street that has been providing canopy services for generations of Cobourgers. The gentle curve of King Street cleverly positions the Town Hall clock tower in the middle of everyone’s focus, pedestrians and drivers alike.
The same canopy that inspires poets, also inspires shoppers, financial industry workers, manual labourers, caterpillars of children heading to Victoria Park, drive-through tourists, delivery truck drivers, countless bicyclists,, and the rare drunk fallen face up, lost in a swirl of stars and green, oh so much green, all over the place.
How can this be attributed to one individual, the late Minnie Pennell, the founder of the Cobourg Ecology Garden?
Minnie didn’t plant those trees. She simply lived her green life amongst them and came to love of the natural disorder of things expansively. As a result, Minnie blessed many organizations with her wilful energy.
She was a member in good standing with the Willow Beach Field Naturalist Society, which mandates itself as nature advocacy. Former Chair, Russell Lake, recalls Minnie as a “strong-willed woman” who easily convinced the Willow Beach crowd to provide funding for the Cobourg Ecology Garden that existed only in her mind at that time.
She was the chair of the Cobourg Environmental Advisory Committee in 1995 when the seed of the Cobourg Ecology Garden began to germinate. This was the magic of Minnie – spreading a good idea around, turning sceptics and agnostics into believers of the green embrace of the earth. She was an organizer, a go-getter, the mother of nurture and nature.
Where the Cobourg Ecology Garden now sits, was scrubland at best. The nearest neighbours were fuel storage tanks, coal piles, and a harbour devoted to serving industry. As this faded into history with the development of Legion Village, Minnie saw the opportunity to develop an ecology garden at the foot of Hibernia Street.
Cobourg Councillor, Miriam Mutton, worked with Minnie at the idea stage of the Ecology Garden. She was a landscape designer. “The garden is a reminder of our connection to the earth and the location makes it easily accessible. We need an opportunity to reconnect during the day,” said Miriam.
Former Town Councillor Bob Spooner was responsible for Parks and Recreation when Minnie first approached him about the development of the Cobourg Ecology Garden. “I remember her as a very determined woman. She had a well-informed answer to every question I had,” added Mr Spooner.
In February 1996, the Ecology garden got its go.
Minnie’s ability to draw in the community to realize the vision of the Ecology Garden was notable. Northumberland Community Coalition Garden Chair, Ben Burd, was involved in discussion of common aims with Minnie that spring.
Preparing for the Ecology Garden’s first Earth Day ceremony, April 22, 1996. Minnie Pennell told the community that the Garden will provide a “unique opportunity to participate in, as well as enjoy a community garden unlike any other in town.” The turn out for this sunrise ceremony was inspiring.
Minnie Pennell was an organizer, speaking one on one, to colleagues, to municipal power, to anyone that would be helpful to the project. In a missive she wrote, “An ecology garden has a great potential to become an invaluable inspiration and teaching tool for all gardeners, novice or experienced, and will bring together in a safe, pleasant outdoor work environment many different age groups.”
That Earth Day was the beginning of 15 more that has brought a dedicated community of volunteers to continue the legacy. At the first dedication of the Ecology Garden, as the first sliver of sun rose above the horizon, the warm words reached out to the gathering; “May the gentleness of spring rains soften the tensions within us, and the power of ocean waves steady and strengthen us. May the wisdom of earth open us to mystery … the music of its forest streams delight us and the simplicity of its wildflowers captivate our hearts. In silence let us experience the sun.”
Minnie Pennell did more than raise a Garden. She also raised a green consciousness throughout the town, a consciousness that spread slowly but steady. Listen to Cobourg politicians and you will hear traces of that consciousness, for example when Mayor Gil Brocanier makes a passing reference to Cobourg’s beautiful ‘urban forest.’ That is Minnie’s influence.
Councillor Miriam Mutton commented that Minnie, “was a focused and energetic community-minded citizen who was passionate about the environment, and, knew how to get things done. She was fearless when it was necessary to bring a matter to the attention of the local politicians.”
In the Cobourg Ecology Garden Minnie lead by example and encouraged people of all ages and abilities to get involved. She made it easy for others to volunteer because she expressed her appreciation.
“I knew Minnie mostly through involvement with the Ecology Garden and in this regard Minnie's legacy to Cobourg is her leadership by example in enabling opportunities for others to participate, and, to enjoy the simple pleasures of a garden and the important lessons to be learned there about our environment.”
Since that beginning the Cobourg Ecology Garden has grown and developed and become an intrinsic part of Cobourg life. It is not just a place where green things grow, but where a green consciousness grows.
Over the years the Ecology Garden has instructed local students who have gone on to university education in related fields of ecological research. The garden has provided an opportunity for growing vegetables in a totally organic manner, without chemical interventions. The food that has been grown has been provided to various United Way agencies, shelters, transition homes.
All this from a single seed: Minnie’s life enhancing spirit. Although she was in the centre of things, her inherent generosity was limitless. In a letter to the editor, 1998, she extolled every individual and organization that had benefited the Garden.
The Cobourg Ecology Garden was not the last stop on her green ambition. Cobourg Poet Laureate Emeritus, Eric Winter, did little more than point to a plot of land on Elgin Street and suggest an arboretum, when Minnie took the baton and made it a reality.
Mr Winter recalls that time, “Minnie was the major fund-getter for the arboretum - she went to the bingo regularly and hated the smell of cigarettes which she had to endure as a result. She was great to work with. We got people to donate trees ($200 in the ground) and we aimed to get as large a variety of examples as we could.”
The arboretum is diversity on display year around. It is a community of trees sharing sun and soil as the seasons rotate in accordance with the natural harmony of living things. This is the manifestation of Cobourg’s greatest treedom fighter.
The lush King Street canopy is an inheritance, as is everything that emerges from the soil with the sole intent of facing up to the sun. Minnie saw to it that generations of Cobourgers would not squander their inheritance, but rather, enrich it with continuing care.
The Cobourg Ecology Garden will be celebrating the legacy of Minnie Pennell on September 24, from 10am-2pm. A Black Cherry tree will be planted in tribute at 11am. Poetry will be read. Music will be provided. Most of all, living things will be encouraged to continue their unrelenting evolution.
The poem below was written by Eric Winter and first published in p o e t r y'z o w n, issue 8, officially released on Thursday, February 26, 2009
Poem for a gardener (M.P.)
I doubt if you noticed the crow that was there on that day
the one with a faraway look in his eye
thin, with a hump back, pecking away
poking at mud,
making a couple of flaps with a cry
pretending indifference as any crow should.
You did not know then you’d soon be taken with Rue,
Fever Few, Lungswort and Leprachaun’s Gold,
Too taken up with the plain buttercup
with Fleebane and Woodruff, Bloodroot and flax,
and all of your flora.
In brief, you were a bit lax
when it came to observing that black bit of fauna
still keeping an eye out, nosing around
and pecking away in the corner.
Now apples are ripe and ready for plucking
sunflower all blackened.
Rudbekia gone and gone Coreopsis,
Stacis Byzantia, gone is the Primula
and only Chrysanthemum stays. How summer flies!
Now here’s a surprise
It was me, me wearing my Halloween disguise,
I was that crow with the hump and the shifty,
faraway, look in his eyes.
And I saw it all.
He came like a storm telling stories of stables.
The big one, immortal, who labored twelve fold
and by ruse he had stolen the apples of gold
fresh from the garden of Hesperides
and (Good Heavens!) it has to be told
You got taken in,
He seduced you down by the harbour’s west wall.
I wasn’t meaning to watch, I tell you,
I wasn’t meaning to watch,
I wasn’t meaning to watch for the fall,
but I saw it all.
It’s too much on my conscience for me to stay mute
I know what went on with that bearer of fruit,
stinking of cow muck.
Say what you will - the mythology pardon
I’ll tell them to look by the lake.
The consequence there!
They can see for themselves -
the little one there called Ecology Garden
I know what you did.
I know what it was went on there
I’ll let the town know.
Watch out now.
You’d better beware.
For I’m going to tell.
I’m going to tell on you