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Nancy Finlayson

The Garden at 100 Stanley Street

Story By Eleanor Gebrou

Photography By Kerry Ssemugenyi

Envision, if you will, a green space bustling with local plant and insect life; a sanctuary from the nearby downtown streets. Picture a family of newly minted monarch butterflies perched in a bed of purple cone flowers, or a peckish yellow finch drinking rainwater from a cup plant during the peak of summer’s heat. Imagine the warm wind singing through the trees amid a chorus of peaceful bird song. What I’ve just described is the lush carolinian oasis found at Nancy Finlayson’s Stanley street garden.

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I first met Finlayson when I was about 5 years old, it was my first day of senior kindergarten and I remember clinging to my mom’s thigh as my curious eyes scanned the wide wooden room which would become my growing place for the year. I spotted a small woman with curly grey hair, wearing a loosely-fit bohemian dress. She seemed to be the lady of the room, and she was smiling at me. She walked over and greeted my mother and I, and it might have been the gentle cadence in her voice, or her understanding of my first-day jitters, but I trusted her immediately. Back then she was Mme. Finlayson, my kindergarten teacher and oh boy did she love nature— her curriculum revolved around it. Our studies moved with the changing seasons, showcased in the garden that she had co-planted adjacent to our playground. She had this unmistakable Miss. Frizzle quality about her, it all just felt so magical.

Fast forward to 2019 and over 2 decades had passed since I was last in her care. To my surprise, Mme. Finlayson looked exactly the same as my childhood eyes remembered, though at 5’10, my vantage point had shifted considerably. After we finished catching up, she regaled me with a colourful account of her introduction to gardening. She was born during a time of war, and could often be found thinning out carrots and beets, and tying tomato plants with her father in the small village from which she hailed. She helped him to plant red geraniums and white petunia plants around a local cenotaph plot where the veterans were remembered. Her father also taught her to can and preserve edible gardened items that would last them through the winter. “When you touch something and see it coming out of the ground it’s very rewarding,” she said gleefully. “Is that why you do it?” I queried. She paused for a moment before responding, “I suppose we’re all a part of nature, it’s just ingrained in me, I accept that stewardship.” She still spoke about nature in the same inspired way I remembered— evoking language that assumed a humble connection to the land that she cultivated so diligently. However, despite appearances, Nancy Finlayson was not the same.

She appeared visibly distressed as she explained that the City of London considered her home to be a threat to their $39-million road widening and rail bridge repair project. The city plans to expropriate her land in order to expand a nearby bridge. They have offered to transport Finalyson’s 122-year-old heritage home across the street, a move that would cost local taxpayers around $50,000, but she’s not interested in that option because of her attachment to her garden. More than 6100 community members galvanised on Finayson’s behalf by signing a petition in her support, but as of today, the city still plans to use her land for their development project.

 

“I suppose we’re all a part of nature, it’s just ingrained in me, I accept that stewardship.”

— Nancy Finlayson

 
 
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For Finlayson, the past couple of years have been characterised by an uphill battle with the city. She stands to lose her home, which she bought and raised her 3 children in, as a single mother no less. She stands to lose the garden that has flourished in her care, for the past 3 decades. She’s had a rough go, but her heartfelt contribution to the beautification of her community continues to inspire. Audrey Hepburn once said “to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” Likewise, the garden at 100 Stanley street is a striking depiction of the beauty that abounds when a few seeds are truly cared for.

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