You say you want to build a straw bale house? Interested in permaculture? Always wanted to find out how to tap maple trees or create your own stained-glass window?

If so, the Deanery Project is for you.

Nestled on the shores of Lower Ship Harbour on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, the Deanery Project's home began its life in the 1930s as an Anglican church summer camp. The property came up for sale in 2011, almost certainly destined for high-end cottages or condos.

Executive director Kim Thompson recalls what happened next.

“A group of local residents, artists and environmental educators got together, and we got a long-term loan from someone who believed in our idea,” she says. “And we were able to save it. It was in really rough shape — the roof was off, the ceilings were down… if we hadn’t been able to get it that year, it would have been very challenging to save it.”

Deanery Project founders envisaged a “place-based, experiential, hands-on learning site” for the old camp, so the community rallied to get it off the ground.

Environmental education has been a focus for the group from the beginning, along with social justice and practical skills our grandparents would have known by heart. It’s also a haven for the arts, as evidenced by the recent donation of a stained-glass studio from a local artist who was moving to Cape Breton.

“Who knew stained glass was going to be a thing?” laughs Thompson. “It was not on anybody’s radar, but I think that’s one of the things the Deanery does pretty well: act nimbly, with the ability to read a situation.”

Thompson, an adjunct instructor with the Dalhousie University School of Architecture — where she teaches natural building techniques — brings her students down each summer as part of their Free Lab practicum.

On Nova Scotia's eastern shore, the non-profit @DeaneryNS provides environmental education and teaches natural building techniques on the site of a former Anglican summer camp.

“They’ve brought a lot of energy to the space; it’s been a catalyst for the living lab model that’s evolved from here ever since,” she says.

“We now have relationships with many other faculties: oceanography departments, NSCAD University, Nova Scotia Community College and others,” Thompson says. “We use permaculture design principles, the arts and two-eyed seeing (learning to see things through both Indigenous and Western worldviews) to inform everything we do. Those have been the foundational lenses that guide us. Climate informs all of that as well, acting as the thread that knits a lot of the work together.”

The Deanery regularly hosts groups of students working towards their Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) in a ten-month hybrid online and in-person course led by environmental educator Charles Williams.

Permaculture is a way to sustainably manage resources by adopting the cyclical nature of the environment; for example, imitating the no-waste, closed loop systems found in ecosystems.

“He took their book learning and applied it on-site over a weekend, making berms, doing seed propagation, learning about compost, worms and natural building. It was a lot, but it worked really well,” says Thompson.

The Deanery often partners with organizations engaged in experiential learning with a climate and/or social justice focus.

“Over the last year we’ve been developing a relationship with Howl — a group that works with youth under 30 (across the country) — and is currently developing a Maritime base. We host 10- and six-day retreats with 12 to 18 youth each time; half Indigenous and half non-Indigenous,” says Thompson.

From June 10 to 15 this year, youth will learn about Mi’kmaw lifeways and land stewardship and African-Nova Scotian history and activism. They’ll also take part in environmental restoration activities happening locally.

The Deanery also has big plans in an area dear to Thompson’s heart.

“We’re working toward a repeat of Natural Building EAST, a colloquium that we hosted in 2019, just before COVID, which was hugely successful,” she says. “Architects, builders, designers and the general public came, and we had an amazing array of presenters.”

With a focus this year on disaster preparedness and carbon sequestration, the gathering could not be timelier as the province braces for another storm season.

Find out more about what’s happening at the Deanery this summer by visiting their Facebook or Instagram page.

The Climate Story Network is an initiative of Climate Focus, a non-profit organization dedicated to covering stories about community-driven climate solutions.

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