Southwestern Ontario park installs wind phone to help those who are grieving

Ausable River Cut Conservation Area Photo Courtesy of Ross Atkinson

On the shore of Lake Huron, about an hour’s drive northwest of London, Ont., sits the Ausable River Cut Conservation Area. A 32-acre park dissected by the Old Ausable Channel with sandy shores and the broad-leafed trees of a Carolinian forest. It’s a popular spot for hiking, canoeing, and fishing. But as of this spring, the conservation area features a new draw: a wind phone.

A wind phone is an unconnected telephone booth, offering a private space for a one-way conversation, a concept that originated in Ōtsuchi, Japan.

Venture 300 metres from the conservation area’s parking lot and tucked off the main trail, hidden amongst the trees, is a phone booth—not bright red or glassed-in like you might be used to. This phone booth is homemade and open to the elements, built from wood and tin, with a small bench to sit on. The most notable feature is a black, push-button phone bolted to the wood. When you put it to your ear, there’s no dial tone, just silence. The phone isn’t connected to anything. A small plaque next to the phone is inscribed with a poem explaining what the setup is all about: to give those grieving a lost loved one the opportunity to say goodbye.

Ausable River Cut Conservation Area
Photo Courtesy of Ross Atkinson

The Lambton Shores Nature Trails, a volunteer group that helps maintain sections of the conservation area, installed the wind phone after reading about one along a trail in Newfoundland. Ross Atkinson, the group’s chair of operations, felt the concept could benefit the community, providing an outlet for those grieving while motivating people to get out into nature.

“A lot of people don’t want to discuss death or passing with other people, whether it’s family or friends or children. They just want to ignore it,” he says. “Even though this is an unconnected phone, it allows people to go in there and chat and get something off their chest.”

Atkinson, along with volunteers Lee Main and Ed Hunter, built the phone booth from recycled materials. They chose the location based on the area’s level ground, making it wheelchair accessible. Atkinson purchased the phone from Amazon. “I was thinking that if it ever got vandalized and we had to replace it, well, I don’t want to have to replace an antique. It’s easier for me to just replace it with a replica phone,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s going to really happen.”

Ausable River Cut Conservation Area
Photo Courtesy of Ross Atkinson (Right: Ross Atkinson, Left: Lambton Shores Nature Trails board member Ed Hunter)

The group borrowed the poem on the plaque from the Newfoundland wind phone. It reads:

“Though I’ve lost you, I can hear your voice in the silent echoes of your absence. You speak to me through rustling leaves, whistling wind, and bowing branches. Though I’ve lost you, I feel you here in this shrine of trees in nature’s sanctuary. The Wind Phone is for all who grieve. You are welcome to find solace here. Please use it to connect with those you have lost. To feel the comfort of their memory. You may hear their voices in the wind. May you be at peace with your losses.”

The idea for the wind phone came from Japanese architect Itaru Sasaki in 2011. He built a white phone booth with a rotary phone in Bell Gardia Kujira-Yama Garden outside Otsuchi as a way to grieve his cousin’s death from cancer. However, on March 11, 2011, the area was rocked by an earthquake and tsunami, claiming the lives of nearly 20,000 people. After the catastrophe, other mourners started to use the wind phone.

The idea has since spanned continents, with over 100 wind phones recorded worldwide in places such as Canada, the U.S., the Netherlands, and the U.K. In the academic journal Refract, author Laura Boyce explores the growing use of wind phones, stating that it demonstrates “a need for dedicated places to maintain sustained relationships with the dead.”

The Lambton Shores Nature Trails volunteer group posted about the Ausable River Cut Conservation Area wind phone on its social media channels and within two weeks the posts had received 10,000 views.

Ausable River Cut Conservation Area
Photo Courtesy of Ken and Anne Higgs

“I had an email from a lady who just reading the poem alone, she was crying. She admitted to crying while she was making up the email to send me thanking us for putting the wind phone in place,” Atkinson says.

The volunteer group received permission from the conservation area’s stewardship and lands manager to install the phone. Considering how much success it’s had, Atkinson says they’re thinking about installing more.

“So what if within three or four or five kilometres, there’s two of them,” he says. “It just gives people more choice of where to go.”

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