The Simple, Feel-Good Things

The Sandbox

socchangeby: Jessica Marais

I tumbled out of a summer internship in the Green mountains of Vermont just days before starting my full time job as Vision 2020 co-coordinator in the Office of Sustainability at McGill. For most of the summer I’d slept outside and hadn’t worn shoes, and so suddenly navigating the vibrant tangle of downtown Montreal in a heat wave to get to the 12th floor of a glass and concrete tower on Sherbrooke was just a little bit startling. Shoes were gently encouraged and there wasn’t much edible vegetation in sight, but I couldn’t help noticing some not-to-be-overlooked positive features of the space: plenty of light pouring in through tall, south-facing windows, temperature control, a steady flow of nibbled apple cores and spent tea leaves, and some of the most genuinely wonderful people I’ve ever met in my life. I tilted my head just a little to the side and saw that this was, as a matter of fact, a growing project waiting to happen.

The natural starting point was a vermi-compost system, to be followed by a micro-greens project that would provide us with a little fresh vitality in winter. In my first weeks at the university I had noticed that establishing an acronym for any project, collective, group, or vague idea of any kind was crucial to achieving serious status, so I settled on Project W.O.R.M (“Wondrous Organic Raw Material”) and Project G.G.R.O.W. (“Growing Grub Right on our own Windowsills”). I pitched the idea formally (wearing shoes) in a power point presentation that mostly featured pictures of soil microbes and worms and kale. I consulted with stakeholders, collected stories of past failures and successes, answered questions, got advice, and quickly achieved a lot of high fives and general office support. Evan Henry, one of the MOOS interns at the time, brought us a handful of healthy red wigglers in a matrix of oats and soil, and with a Rubbermaid, a drill, and an official lunchtime celebration we got going.

I love starting collective composting systems because they make people happy. This happened at the office too. It was a really, really busy year at MOOS, and the composter became a very small but meaningful forum for lightening things up and playing gently with bureaucratic norms (we had a three-month progress report with stats on things like office faunal biodiversity – 300% increase!). As we slowly moved the McGill Sustainability Strategy through the governance pathway and got closer and closer to the final version, the wigglies also happily digested marked-up copies into poop.

As people stopped by my desk to drop off their scraps we shared periodic updates on the reproductive rate of the worms, stories of composting adventures, memories of gardens past, and all the intricacies and changes we saw in growing seasons from Copenhagen to Chennai to Victoria to Madison. In the fall we collected leaves for the bin and talked about what we were ready to let go of. Answers ranged from summer to fear of failure to my friend who passed away. In the winter, while eating greens nourished by the compost, we talked about what we were ready to cultivate. It felt good. As it turns out the tweets and posts from projects W.O.R.M and G.G.R.O.W were some of MOOS’s most popular. It reminded us that in addition to working our butts off – indeed, because we were working our butts off – connecting around the simple, genuine, feel-good things was still so absolutely important.

Over the year the MOOS worms have flourished and digested, seeds have sprouted, tiny salads have been eaten, and as I wrap up my contract a few sunflowers and Swiss chard seedlings are growing taller in the windowsills. The bin also has a new steward in Julia Solomon, whose mad composting and gardening skills are being further honed in her garden plot at Mac. You’re welcome to visit any time, say hello to the wigglies, and leave an apple core for them to dance around. While you’re at it tell us about your own gardening stories, the (changing) weather where you’re from, and maybe what your grandparents used to grow. Happy spring!

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