Favourite space: Past, present and future

Photo by Alison Caldwell, Alleycat Photography http://www.alleycatphotography.ca/: Wayne Caldwell at his farm in Huron County.
Mary Baxter's picture
Mary Baxter is editor of Morelmag.ca and a contributing editor of Better Farming magazine, the largest circulating farm magazine in Ontario and Canada’s top website for online farm news. In 2007, she, along with her former Better Farming colleagues won the Canadian Association of Journalists' Award for Investigative Journalism in the magazine category. In 2012, she also won the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ Star Prize for print journalism. Mary is based in London, ON.




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It’s tempting to imagine Wayne Caldwell as a time lord hard pressed to choose as his favourite space either the county where he’s lived for most of his life or his equivalent of a TARDIS.

Like Doctor Who, the lead character in the long-running popular British sci-fi series of the same name who travels in time to different worlds with the aid of a handy instrument called a TARDIS (time and relative dimension in space), Caldwell is a rare individual: a planner who focuses on rural rather than urban areas.

And if time lords were real and Caldwell, director of the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, were one, his TARDIS would no doubt be a planning document. It is the catalyst that propels Caldwell into the past, present and distant future to address challenges that include how to foster growth in rural areas, prepare for climate change and best protect farmland.

For Caldwell, becoming involved in rural planning seemed like a natural extension of his heritage, his interest in geography and his knack for seeing both sides of an issue. Or, as he explains, he sees grey where others might see only black and white.

Indeed, his career has evolved as organically as the crops that occupy the hills surrounding the Huron County farm where he’s lived for more than 30 years. This is the county where his career germinated. His family has farmed here since the 1870s; Caldwell himself grew up on the family farm that his grandfather bought near Blyth in 1905.

The first green shoot of his career broke ground in his final year of high school when he obtained a summer job in the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources’ Wingham office. The appointment initiated what would turn out to be decades of public service, all of it centred in Huron County.

Caldwell’s career growth entered a new stage after he decided in the early 1980s to attend a public meeting about an official plan update for his home municipality, East Wawanosh (now part of the Township of North Huron). During the meeting, he met Huron County’s planning director and was offered a summer job in the county’s planning department. That same summer, a planner there announced his departure. Caldwell obtained not only a full-time position but also his current home — the planner’s 54-acre farm near Benmiller.

He would remain with the county for more than two decades. Along the way, he earned a PhD in planning and began teaching at the University of Guelph. In 2007, he resigned from the county to teach full time.

With the blossoming of his career came a slow separation from his beloved Huron County and what is, for him, its epicentre: the farmstead where he and his wife Deborah raised their two children, Alison and Mike.

In his early years of teaching, Caldwell commuted from the farm. After he was appointed director four years ago, he and Deb moved to Guelph. Now the farm is a weekend retreat and a place to catch up with Alison, her partner, Adam, and Disney, a Labradoodle who announces the arrival of visitors with eager barks.

“It’s the cost of doing business,” Caldwell says ruefully of the slow yet inevitable transition.

The farm is where we meet to discuss his career and passion for the county that fostered it. We discuss Huron’s great outdoor attractions: the beaches, Maitland River, the hiking trails, the rural scenery. He describes visiting a historic cemetery at the top of a hill in the former East Wawanosh: “If you get a chance to walk around it and just feel the wind whispering throughout the big pine trees, you’ll know it’s a magical space because of its isolation and because of the peace and quiet there.”

He talks about the farmhouse he and Deb restored and renovated over the years. The 1920s-era bricked four-square house section with its hipped roof and big front porch — the type of sturdy farmhouse that frequently appears in Alice Munro’s early stories set in Huron County — is not the oldest part. The bricked cabin at the back, where the kitchen is now housed, was built in the early 1870s.

Tucked in one corner near the rear of the house is a lush garden of perennials. (Caldwell shyly claims the role of prime gardener.) The garden’s secluded stone patio offers a panorama of sloping late-June farm fields and bush.

Photo by Mary Baxter: The view from the Caldwell farm of surrounding fields

Missing from the view are the wind turbines that dot other hills nearby. Like stars appearing in the twilight sky, the turbines are not yet overwhelming in number, but they signal the likelihood of more to come.

We touch briefly on the turbines as well as other issues that define contemporary rural living. The conversation turns to the practice of planning itself and how planners serve their communities.

People often equate planning time frames with the life of a regulation — about 20 years, Caldwell observes. “I think we should be thinking in terms of hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”

Look at the challenges of finding a solution to handling nuclear waste. (The Bruce Power nuclear site, at the centre of a controversy over an Ontario Power Generation proposal to bury low-grade waste, is an hour’s drive northwest.) If we don’t deal with it properly now, something could happen later on — civil unrest, another ice age — that could jeopardize the security of the waste. “So it speaks to the responsibility of the future,” he says.

Recently, Caldwell, working with Kelsey Lang, a graduate student in the Guelph rural planning program, completed a report for the Commonwealth Foundation on planning for agriculture and food security within the Commonwealth. The report describes some of the challenges farmers face, such as climate change, land degradation and urbanization. Caldwell acknowledges the emergence of discouraging trends in our environment. Yet he’s also seen hopeful signs.

“I can remember — on the farm where I grew up, just outside of Blyth — a creek down the side where we used to always go fishing,” he recalls. “You’d pull out little chubs and things like that. But the creek often had a really bad odour to it, and at that time there was a cheese factory in Blyth and a tannery. In the ’70s, that was how you got rid of waste; you dumped it.” Today, nobody thinks dumping chemicals in a creek is acceptable. “And now that’s a great little trout stream.”

We have to trust “that we can make good decisions as a species,” he says. Yet, as someone who gazes fearlessly into the grey, he recognizes our progress is never as straight ahead as we might want it to be. “There is always this balance. There may be the ideal, and then there’s the practicality of those decisions that don’t always get to the ideal.”

— September 10, 2015

This story was edited by R. Franklin Carter.