Editorial: It is perhaps difficult to imagine what Stratford, Ontario and Oaxaca City, Mexico have in common other than being on the same continent. This year I re-visited both and was moved by what I saw and learned. Over the years Stratford has successfully linked itself to Shakespeare’s Stratford-Upon-Avon in England. This was done through vision, persuasion and a good dose of confidence. The outcome is a summer theatre festival that is known throughout the world. Oaxaca’s challenge was somewhat different. It was a poor, arid state in southern Mexico whose cathedral had been occupied for more than 120 years by Mexican soldiers. The local people wanted the soldiers out and with the help of influential artists not only reclaimed their church and monastery but turned the barren land around it into an ethno-botanical garden. Both are features this month on Riding the buses.
Stratford, a small Victorian city located on the Avon River about a 1½-hour drive west of Toronto, shares both its name and that of its river with Stratford-Upon-Avon along with its love for all things Shakespearean. John Davis Barnett, a head-honcho in what was then a railway town (late 1800s), had a personal library that contained 1,500 volumes about Shakespeare; Barnett had 785 baths installed so that his employees could clean up and read books after work. A love for the literary started early in the town’s history.
R. Thomas Orr (1870-1957) came along and persuaded the powers-that-be to convert industrial space along the Avon River into parkland and hire Canada’s foremost landscape architect to design it. He didn’t stop there for when a woolen mill burnt down he got the city to turn the space into Shakespearean Gardens filled with plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s works.
So it probably wasn’t much of a stretch when the town was going through tough times in the mid-1900s that Tom Patterson, a journalist, talked it into staging a Shakespeare Festival and convinced legendary British director Tyrone Guthrie to be its first artistic director. A giant canvas tent was hoisted on the banks of the Avon River and the festival proclaimed.
A similar spirit to ‘make things happen’ is evident at the Ethnobotanical Garden in Oaxaca. When the Spanish occupied Mexico they were attracted to Oaxaca because they found the ‘perfect red’ there that the whole world was clamouring for. The Spaniards took the red dye, which became Mexico’s most valued export after silver, introduced Christianity and built the fabulous Santo Domingo monastery at the centre of the city. When the Spaniards were finally kicked out of the country the Mexican military took over the monastery.
Fast forward to 1994 when Francisco Toledo, one of Mexico’s best-known artists, talked the government into moving the soldiers out (and not selling the property to an American for a convention centre as the state government had suggested). Instead, the land around the monastery would become a botanical garden. Oaxaca has long been known for its many species of plants that have provided food, fuel, fiber, medicines, spices and dyes for the people. Toledo wanted the garden to show this relationship—to be an “ethno” garden. Toledo together with artist Luis Zárate designed the garden out of love.
There were lots of challenges. The soil was poor and the garden could not draw water from the very limited town supply so half the plants could not be watered at all. Eventually they developed an impressive rainwater collection system and through it all continued to collect rare species from around the state. Today it is a must-see garden and it warms the heart.
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