On August 3, the First Nations’ Garden in Montréal’s Botanical Gardens will open.
The concept was included in Brother Marie-Victorin’s original plans for the Jardins Botanique de Montréal. But it has taken well over half a century for his vision to be realized.
After touring the site on Monday, July 30th, it seems impossible that the garden will be ready. Workers were busy planting trees and even constructing trellises; an Innu artist was only just starting to build an Inukshuk from rocks he had specially transported from the North; the interpretation pavilion featured blank walls instead of interpretive signs; and transplanted trees, shrubs as well as the plots of the Three Sisters sacred plants (corn, beans, and squash) were wilting from the heat and drought.
But surely this doesn’t matter.
Perhaps this state of “unreadiness” is part of the teaching. Oh sure, the opening is scheduled for August 3 and over 1,000 people are expected. Yes, there will be a flurry of dignitaries including Florent Vollant, spokesman for the First Nations’ Garden, Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Québec and Labrador, as well as Montreal mayor, Pierre Bourque and others..
But will it really matter if everything is not in its “proper place”?
No! What is significant is that the vision is finally being realized. Plus, I’m told that the eleven First Nations’ peoples of Québec have cooperated and are represented here: the Abenaki, Algonquin, Attikamek, Cree, Huron-Wendat, Innu, Malecite, Micmac, Mohawk, Naskapi and Inuit.
Over time, the goal of this garden has evolved. It “serve[s] as a crossroads of cultures, a place for sharing knowledge, allowing non-Native Quebeckers to discover or rediscover the culture of the first inhabitants of North America, while offering an opportunity for the First Nations to share their traditions, wisdom and know-how. The Botanical Garden and a committee of First Nations representatives specially formed for this project worked closely to come up with a set of guidelines and criteria to be integrated into the project concept and design.”
Jean-Jacques Lincourt, Director of the Montreal Botanical Gardens notes, “The First Nations’ Garden avoids stereotypes; it is a contemporary garden, one inspired by Amerindian and Inuit cultures. It highlights not only Native knowledge of plants, but also First Nations activities relating to the plant world, from gathering food and medicinal plants to using wood and trees to make things, and build and transport their homes, and growing plants, mainly corn, squash and beans.”
Okay… so says the press-release bumpff. But what of the actual garden-in-progress that we visited? What is it that Eric and I noted, that appealed to us? What appealed to my thirteen-year-old nephew, Dan Citynski, who’s visiting from Vancouver?
We were impressed with how the 5,000 plants (comprising 300 species) were integrated into the stand of mixed hardwoods originally planted in the 1960s.
This grove provides a well-shaded location. Well-established maple, ironwood and other native species provide the necessary canopy and understory growth to sustain the introduction of other species vital to the creation of this garden.
To create the First Nations garden, herbaceous plants such as the clintonia lily (also called bluebead lily), bloodroot, and hairy gooseberry were interplanted among the established woodland. All were selected because the First Nations peoples traditionally used them, for medicine, food, shelter, clothing. And, all were selected by the First Nations consultants themselves.
But how were they gathered? Anyone who knows the woods intimately knows also that gathering from the wild is tricky. Wild plants usually don’t grow in large masses, which means they must be collected from many sites. Secondly, special care must be taken so that the mother group of plants (if indeed there is a group) - and the ground in which they grow - won’t be permanently disturbed.
The garden’s team of horticulturists and botanists gathered specimens only from sites where construction or widening of roads would have destroyed the plants. This impressed us.
Not only did the plants interest us. So too did the creative energy nurturing the garden design. A stone’s throw away from an Algonquin shelter built from birch branches was a sculpture which particularly inspired my godson. It was a metal panel, built of vertical bars upon whose sides were painted the image of a caribou’s head, in black. As we walked along the quiet, shady woodland path, our eyes were caught by sudden yet very subtle movement. The image, just like the actual animal in the wild, was fleeting: first it was there, then, as we walked past it, the image on the bars disappeared, melting into the woods just as a real animal might.
Then, as we continued walking, the image reappeared, for the caribou head had been painted on either side of the sculpture’s metal bars.
How well this artwork captured the spirit vision of the Algonquin hunter who needed the caribou hide to cover his shelter. How well it conveyed the difficulty of finding, let alone killing such wild game.
For me, this sculpture symbolizes the spirit of these gardens: something felt, something known, something that is there for us to see - if only we’ll take the time to pause. What an indefinable spirit of the wild deep inside the heart of bustling Montreal!
Does it matter if everything is not absolutely “in its place” on August 3 at the First Nations Garden in Montreal?
No. The First Nations’ Garden was a vision of the founder of Montreal’s Botanical Gardens. It has taken half a century for the vision to be transformed to reality. We can wait for it to evolve… for a garden grows, changes, dies back, and prospers according to the vagaries of nature.
It’s a good time to visit this garden, in its first year. Then return, in a year or two, to see how it is evolving. Seven First Nations gardeners have been hired to tend the plants, in addition to animators who will interpret the garden for visitors. Go, learn of the Three Sisters, of the uses of the Tree of Peace (white pine), and of Kanisopakak (the Algonquin word for goldthread). Who knows, perhaps when you return you will incorporate some of these species in your own garden, insodoing transplanting some First Nations traditions into your private space.
There are many other delightful gardens to visit at the Jardins Botanique du Montréal. Don’t miss the Garden of the Senses, whose touchable plants were selected for their smell and texture. As well, there are year-round activities such as the annual Bonsai show in the Japanese pavilion, September 7, 8, and 9. Contacts: Tel: (514) 872-1400; Fax 514-872-4917, Internet www.ville.montreal.qc.ca/jardin
Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based north of Quyon, West Québec. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org