It was the spring of 1996 when Cheryl Cohan and Noah Erenberg were driving through Manitoba’s Interlake. The young couple’s quest: find some rural property they could buy and move to. Little did they know that what they’d find that afternoon would one day lead to the creation of a unique, non-profit community festival – the Matlock Festival of Music, Art and Nature. The event, which touches the lives of hundreds of Manitobans, is now in its fourth year and is held on the last weekend of August (this year’s dates are August 23 – 25, 2013).
On that spring drive some 17 years ago, out of the corner of her eye, Cohan saw a “For Sale” sign. It was down a dead end street off Gimli Road in the centre of Matlock, a small town in the Village of Dunnottar (which includes Matlock, Whytewold and Ponemah) about a 40-minute drive north of Winnipeg.
The property for sale was the old Kozak family homestead — 45 acres of forest and farmland, technically in the RM of St.Andrews, and bordering along the town of Matlock. The house on the property wasn’t habitable, but the price of the land was right. So, Cohan and Erenberg purchased the land and within a few months (by the fall of 1996), they had sold their home in Winnipeg, rented a small house adjacent to their newly purchased property and moved with their two kids (ages 6 and 4) out to the country.
Over the course of the next decade and a half, the family built an energy efficient home on the property and began turning the acreage into a partial nature preserve – a sustainable ecosystem teeming with flora, fauna and wildlife.
The journey down this green path included implementing a forest management plan and planting thousands of trees and many gardens of vegetables, herbs and flowers. The hayfield has been returned back to tall grass prairie where native grasses and sedges abound in amongst cattails, shrubs, berries and native flowers that attract hundreds of species of birds and provide a sanctuary for waterfowl and bees.
The family follows principles of biodynamic land management and sustainable living principles – enhancing and maintaining natural wetlands and features of the property. Others have contributed to the land through work exchange, artistic contributions, and cooperative ventures. Years ago a neighbour, Rose Flaig created a huge meditative labyrinth in the back hayfield. Trees, shrubs, milkweed, wild carrots, raspberries, strawberries, bedstraw, wild roses, dogwoods, and many other species of plants and trees now surround the labyrinth.
For Cohan, who is a cultural anthropologist, horticultural therapist and marriage and family therapist, transforming the landscape into a more natural state is all about sustainability for her own family, the community and the world at large.
“Sustainability and compassion is what it’s all about for me,” says Cohan who admits it took her a long time to really figure that out. “I follow the Charter for Compassion as a guiding principle in my endeavours and every day I am in awe of the beauty that surrounds me. I agree with the writer Dostoevsky who said, ‘Beauty will save the world’. It’s why I live in the country – the quiet and immense beauty is my therapy,” she adds.
The idyllic acreage is a perfect spot for Cohan to conduct recreational and therapeutic programs for schools and groups. The land is also an attraction for many friends, family and community members who visit or stay to soak up the peace and quiet and wonder of flowers and wilderness, foxes, deer and the magical fireflies and foggy nights.
“Anyone who comes over seems to instantly decompress as they get swallowed up in all this nature,” says Erenberg. “The surroundings have this incredibly calming effect on people.”
For the couple and their family, opening up their home and sharing their property with many people has always been an uplifting experience. Like-minded ideas of sustainability, health and wellness are discussed; while the endeavours and commitments of many friends and neighbours are continually inspiring.
Cohan had long been involved in arts programming and felt strongly about supporting young performers and artistic pursuits, so it seemed natural to create an event that synthesizes her personal philosophy, the local environment and the surrounding area.
“Part of starting the Matlock Festival,” says Cohan, “was to showcase the amazing natural habitat we live on and how we are committed to enhancing and maintaining – the birds, tall grasses, mixed forest, lowlands and the marsh, which is an extension of the Netley Marsh, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”
“This land is the gentle background of the festival,” adds Cohan. “Visitors can tour the area or just passively enjoy the mixed natural habitat. Most festival goers are respectful of having a very low impact on the land.”
The first Matlock Festival, held in 2010, came together quickly. Over the course of a few short months, volunteers from the local area as well as from Winnipeg appeared sporadically to help prepare the site for a festival that would feature music, art and nature in performances, workshops and interactive activities. Most of all, it would welcome local musicians, artists and other professionals to share their talents, expertise and knowledge.
“I am continually inspired by the remarkable folks in our community,” says Cohan. “Teachers, elders, artists and so many individuals who really step up to effect positive change in the world, usually in small ways that make a huge difference. Whether it’s our local fitness instructor, music teacher, fisher, teenager, politician, whomever, so many people are doing important work that all contributes to building sustainable, wonderful, kind and compassionate communities. This inspires us to do our small part by providing a platform for all individuals to share their most excellent selves.”
Cohan emphasizes the word, ‘our’ because the Festival is a collective effort with many folks pitching in their time and talent. In 2012 and 2013, a summer student was hired to help coordinate the festival.
“Having experienced small festivals and having seen the benefits to small communities and up and coming artists, it seemed like a good fit for our area,” says Cohan. “I was aware of a lot of artists and wellness practitioners, musicians and others who could help create a magnificent and fun event.”
“A lot of people create and participate in positive community endeavours,” continues Cohan, “ones that connect people and serve others to affect positive change. I like connecting to that and also to creating peaceful and compassionate endeavours – ones that are inclusive, diverse, accessible to all and celebrating all walks of life and ways of being.”
About 100 volunteers and a small volunteer board run this non-profit event.
“I’m overwhelmed by the massive volunteer effort that has made this event possible each year,” says Erenberg. “From the board to the scores of people who have contributed their time, expertise and hard work, it has shown me what can be created when a community comes together.”
Even though the Matlock Festival, which is now the RM of St.Andrews’ signature festival, has grown considerably since its modest start four years ago (attendance grew from 200 to 700 in three years), the event remains low-key, relaxed and family friendly. A diverse and wide ranging two-and-a-half days of music on two stages, art and nature-based activities, interactive workshops along with a kids area is offered for the low price of $25, making it one of the most affordable festivals of its kind in Manitoba. The non-profit festival runs from Friday, August 23 to Sunday, August 25, 2013 in Matlock.
Last year, the Festival teamed up with Seven Oaks School Division’s Neighbourhood Immigrant Settlement Program, which helped bring 70 new Canadians out to the Matlock Festival to pitch in and volunteer on a couple of occasions before the festival as well as during the event. Most of the newcomers, many who moved to Canada less than two years ago, are from India and The Philippines.
“One of our board members saw a need to offer a positive typical Manitoba summer experience for new Canadians. We invited a number of new Canadians to the land to enjoy the ‘beach’ and ‘festival’ experiences that so many Manitobans have had in their lifetimes,” says Cohan. “It was great to connect with a large and diverse group of people whom had never ventured out to the country.”
Along with many local volunteers, a group of new Canadians will also be back again to help out at this year’s festival. In addition, compassion will be a major theme that will inform this year’s event, as the Matlock Festival has become a signatory to the International Charter for Compassion. As well, a special tribute will honour community members who have passed on.
“We will be planting about 200 trees in a memory grove – a large circular grove of trees planted in memory of loved ones who are no longer with us,” explains Cohan. “For two dollars, folks can buy a tree and add it to the grove. Proceeds will go to a young performers fund, in memory of Alex Peter Danyliuk (Alex Dee), a local musician and amazing young man who suddenly died from a heart condition. He was a member of our ‘festival family’ and a friend to many of our young performers.”