Article by Yolande Clark
Autumn is uncharacteristically balmy this year, and all the folks at the bustling Knowlesville Fall fair are in high spirits. Children and adults play and chat in the yard outside the Knowlesville Art & Nature School, and inside the brightly painted and beautifully restored former church building, an exhibition of local art is taking place. Tegan Wong-Daugherty takes the stage to play the guitar that she crafted herself, and the joyful music rings out. The energy is as warm as the weather, and the scene exemplifies community, cooperation and celebration.
It was just eight years ago, that Tegan and Leland Wong-Daugherty watched as a flatbed truck slowly rolled down unpaved South Knowlesville Road, transporting what was the then-dilapidated Armond church, to its new life at the centre of a new community—a community that didn’t even really exist yet. At that point, the Wong-Daugherty's were one of the only young families that had decided to put down roots in South Knowlesville. Once a small farming community, the area had become depopulated over the years, but the couple had a vision of co-creating a neighbourhood where people know each other, and work together, and raise their children with a deep connection to the land.
The couple, who now have four kids, ranging from one year, to twelve years old, first met in Knowlesville as young adults, while working with Jean Arnold, the former director of the Falls Brook Centre.
Leland is originally from Baton Rouge Louisiana, and went to university in Ohio. But after enrolling in the California Institute of the Arts for grad school at the behest of his father, he had a revelation. "I got [to California], and it was sunny every day. It was a plastic land, totally materialistic, and I went through the hallways of this new school and I thought, another year of my life is going to be spent in these fluorescent-lit hallways with more professors who aren’t happy, and why? I don’t want to be here.”
Finally willing to risk disappointing his academic parents, Leland left school one night, and eventually travelled from the west coast to the east, working on farms along the way. He made it to Maine, where he met Stu Fleishaker of the Speerville Flour Mill near Woodstock New Brunswick, who introduced him to Jean Arnold, and South Knowlesville.
"I saw the land and I just thought, this place is beautiful. I want to live here” Leland says. "So I worked hard to figure out how to become a landed immigrant. I was about twenty-three at the time."
Tegan, born in Ottawa, arrived in Knowlesville by way of India. As one of eighteen students on a class trip to Rajastan during her second year at the University of Guelph, Tegan met social activist and educator Bunker Roy. Tegan remembers Roy being highly unimpressed with the many students studying 'International Development’. “Why dont you go to your own backyard and start to revive the rural areas of your own country?” Tegan recalls Roy asking. "He said he had a sister organization in rural New Brunswick called the Falls Brook Centre, run by Jean Arnold, and he said ‘go and find her’. Being a good student at that time, I wrote down her name. Of the 18 [students] I guess I’m the only one who actually did go and find her.”
Like Leland, Tegan was struck by the stark beauty of the land in Knowlesville, and also by the rigours of rural life. “It might sound so crazy but I was picking rocks when I first came here, and it was so real! I was feeling the rocks, my hands were getting all chapped, and I just got into it. I liked the tangible connection to my own physical being. But I think what really solidified my place was coming through the winter here. The winters are hard. It was cold, and it was so isolating, and so silent that your ears are riniging. It was almost too much. But I remember that first spring. I could feel it in my body. I think that was the first time in my life that I actually experienced spring and that's what glued me to this place."
During their first two years together, Tegan and Leland lived together in a trailer that they outfitted with a woodstove and sleeping platform. During this time, Leland was discovering how to blend his skills as an artist, with his new found passion for building and making practical objects and structures. “It wasn’t until I started working on farms that I slowly started to get a feel for using a hammer, using a saw, and then I started to merge my drawing skills with my building skills and they kept helping each other out” he says, although the elegance and craftsmanship of Leland’s buildings are belied by his humility. “I have a very fine focus on strawbale and timber framing, and after that I’m just making it up, and using my artist-side to pretend to be a builder. I just use my creative abilities to wing it really well. It isn’t rocket science. It’s like learning a language, and all of these things are just parts of a sentence. Once you know the parts, it’s not complicated, it’s just repetition: cut and paste, cut and paste."
After building a small timber-framed strawbale structure for Arnold’s forest museum on the grounds of the former Falls Brook Centre, Tegan and Leland worked together to build their own small strawbale cottage on their property next door, which they powered using solar energy. Soon after, they welcomed their first child. But while the Falls Brook Centre provided employment and short-term friendship, "we realized, especially with having kids, that we missed that deeper connection of having neighbours that you get to know and grow old with” Tegan explains. “We thought, how are we going to encourage people to come down this dirt road for more than just a fair, or an event, but to actually consider it a home?"
The couple settled on the idea of creating a community land trust, and offering small plots of land at little to no cost, to families who would be willing to move to Knowlesville and build their own homes.
“It just sort of kept snowballing and increasing in scope, and things happened in our lives, and I lost my parents to cancer and was a recipient of their material wealth” says Leland. “So we started to have the means to put practically into motion some of the things that were necessary, like buying land."
“Initially we got about 49 acres. But it’s not really free land in the sense that it’s not an ownership thing, it’s going back to an older way of saying we are stewards of the land and we can make our home on the land but we don’t actually own the land” says Tegan. "The land trust will own the land and keep it in perpetuity, available to people who need a place to live."
Acquiring the land and growing their own family was one thing—the couple eventually built a second larger strawbale, solar-powered home near the first home they built—but attracting other families to join them was another challenge. One of the barriers the couple saw to building community and thriving themselves, was the fact that there was no longer a school, or public gathering place in the area. When they discovered that the church in nearby Armond was available, Tegan saw it as the perfect opportunity to make the school a reality, while preserving a local heritage structure. So the building was moved, and Leland and Tegan, along with some help from friends and visitors, refurbished it, insulating the walls, and building a strawbale addition on to the back.
"The school is really a community education centre. It’s more than just a school, it’s our community heart place” says Tegan. "A lot of the older people grew up with one-room schoolhouses in this area said that as soon as the schools were removed from the rural areas, it really took the heart out of the community. Our idea is that we can bring the heart back into a rural area that was dying, and it seems to be working."
South Knowlesville now has twelve households living in the vicinity, and the Knowlesville Art & Nature school is a going concern, with three classes, including a preschool. The school focuses on outdoor education, (which includes tending to the large vegetable garden) with a pedagogical underpinning of Waldorf, Enki and Montessori philosophies. As the director and also the teacher of the youngest group of kids, Tegan’s focus these days is the school, and its administration and development, which has grown considerably over the past few years, and now includes families that drive from Woodstock in order to attend.
The children who live in the community though, “get to have this experience of unity between their homelife and their outer school life, instead of being bussed off to a different community” says Tegan. “This has a huge benefit in terms of integrating. They will go out and help with the houses that are being built, or help out with the community gardens, and seasonal festivals. There are intergenerational things that are happening here, which I don’t know if kids get as much of in a bigger institutional setting. Definitely the seniors that are coming in and volunteering get that direct interaction which I think is healthy for them as well."
Tegan is philosophical about postponing, at least for now, her interest in making stringed instruments and writing music. “It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down and just written without the purpose of being in the learning environment, but I imagine it will come back when I’m in a different mode again” she says. "I really want to make a cello some day, so that might be something I do once I’m a grandmother. I’ll be a grandmother Luthier."
Leland, in addition to the building projects he is always involved with and his support role at the school, is currently immersing himself in his passion for kites and kite-making, as both an artistic pursuit and a business. These are not the kites sold in toy stores though, but rather stunning works of art, made of ethically sourced, high-quality materials, and printed with Leland’s unabashedly euphoric illustrations. "I feel that the kite is a bridging of spirit, that it’s a close connection to the spirit world because it’s made of such little stuff” he says. “It’s material, but because it’s so ineffable-- just a piece of fabric and some wood-- it’s closer to the spirit realm. There are all these symbolic things, these things about the golden thread connecting us to heaven and earth.”
For Leland, the pursuit of connection, balance and joy threads through the story of his childhood, his journey to New Brunswick, and the dream that he and Tegan are making reality in South Knowlesville. And indeed, "Leland is a great balancer” says Tegan. “He does things more deliberately, but I throw all my stuff up in the air and then the first one that needs to be caught tends to get our attention, so it’s a little chaotic at times, but at the same time, a lot gets done.” Watching the fall fair come to a close, and the children and families leaving happy, tired, but inspired by a day spent in kinship with others, it’s impossible not to recognize that the engaged and dynamic community that is now thriving in Knowlesville exists thanks to this couple’s efforts. Like Leland though, Tegan is modest about what they have accomplished together. “It’s an interesting sort of dance” she concedes, smiling.