Where the tall pine stands

McMaster English pro­fes­sor Daniel Cole­man writes of his Hamil­ton home start­ing with In­dige­nous in­hab­i­tants

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - JEFF MA­HONEY jma­honey@thes­pec.com 905-526-3306

Daniel Cole­man’s book, Yard­work — as much a con­ver­sa­tion with the land as it is lit­er­a­ture — digs into the soil and reaches up into the sky to find what it means to live in and be­long to a place, in this case, his Hamil­ton neigh­bour­hood and the city of which it’s part. Spec­ta­tor colum­nist Jeff Ma­honey ex­plores the McMaster Uni­ver­sity English pro­fes­sor’s world

A tall pine stands in Daniel Cole­man’s yard, and, when I visit there, we eaves­drop on a fam­ily of rac­coons, oc­cu­py­ing the high branches. Mom herds three kits, bump­ing com­i­cally into each other, to­ward a crotch of the tree where the limbs meet the trunk.

From there, they shimmy adorably down to the ground, bushy­tailed and noses a-twitch.

I love it when life im­i­tates YouTube. In my head they’re singing, on the jour­ney into their day, “Some­where, Over the Dump­ster.”

Did I say Daniel’s yard? His name’s in the land registry but the yard is as much the rac­coons’ and he’d be the first to ad­mit it. The tree’s too.

The tree, its spine split by light­ning ages ago, is part of a rich or­ganic or­ches­tra­tion of an­i­mal, plant life and un­ob­tru­sive hu­man ma­te­ri­als, the yard, which in turns fits into the larger yard, the city, in time and space.

And be­fore the tree, First Peo­ples.

Daniel is one of the things grow­ing here, not so much out of but into the earth, be­com­ing rooted in this place, grounded, like the tree. Un­der­stand­ing by stand­ing un­der.

This ground­ed­ness, a home rel­a­tively per­ma­nent in na­ture, is a new ex­pe­ri­ence for him. Daniel, McMaster U English prof and com­mu­nity nar­ra­tive project founder, was born in Ethiopia, son of Cana­dian mis­sion­ar­ies, moved around, ed­u­cated in board­ing schools.

He and wife Wendy have been in this house 18 years now. They be­long, in this spe­cific “here.” But how does that hap­pen? It’s not just ex­ist­ing in po­si­tion over time and space. It’s im­mer­sion (bap­tismal al­most) in both.

And that’s what Daniel ex­plores in his beau­ti­ful new book, “Yard­work: A Bi­og­ra­phy of an Ur­ban Place,” pub­lished by Wol­sak And Wynn.

“I didn’t want to move here at first,” Daniel says. “But we took a walk through RBG. Wendy said we’d re­gret if we didn’t. Lit­tle did we know how im­por­tant it would be.”

Hamil­ton grew into them, un­der, around them, as a phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion of home.

“I was al­ways aware of my book­ish­ness,” says Daniel. From Bible to school, his par­a­digm for learn­ing was page and words more than place and woods.

One day in his yard, Daniel re­al­ized, “This shade makes me feel good. I didn’t think it, place, had all this rich­ness. With all my book­ish­ness, I thought, can I learn to read this?”

So it be­gan, sev­eral years ago. “Yard­work.”

The book goes ev­ery­where but re­ally starts at the start — the Neu­trals, Six Na­tions, the first peo­ple present on this land. His re­search into the na­tive um­bil­i­cal here and the Hau­denosaunee sto­ries of cre­ation is ex­haus­tive; the dis­til­la­tion of it lyri­cal.

Daniel tells me, “Rick Mon­ture (a Mo­hawk and Daniel’s col­league at Mac) told me this place was called ‘dish with one spoon,’” mean­ing that, by treaty among First Na­tions, what be­longed to one be­longed to all. One spoon meant no knife, no ob­ject of vi­o­lence.

The book is rife with “lo­cal” knowl­edge, pris­matic in its spec­trum of sources, sub­jects and per­spec­tives, and it comes not from books but ob­ser­va­tion, im­mer­sion, “cour­te­ous at­ten­tion,” con­nec­tion, oral shar­ing, “talk­ing” with neigh­bours, who told him about his bro­ken pine, and with peo­ple like Vanessa Watts (aca­demic di­rec­tor of In­dige­nous stud­ies at McMaster).

The “set­tler” his­tory is cov­ered, of course. The lore of the Bink­leys who came up from the Amer­i­can colonies and in­hab­ited the area, is rep­re­sented with live­li­ness and colour. Daniel takes me up to the Bink­ley ceme­tery, an­cient tomb­stones, close to his house.

“Yard­work” puts it­self in the hide of the an­i­mals, the faun and squir­rels; into the feath­ers of the birds, the jun­cos and Carolina wren; into the dip of the ravine and sog of the marsh, into the pores of the chick­weed and coral­bells, and the song of the ci­cada.

The book brims with life, and the fam­ily of life — the sys­tem of liv­ing things which brings the larger city into play. “Yard­work” has in it some of the sacra­men­tal feel, soil sifted through one’s fin­gers, of Thoreau and An­nie Dil­lard.

The book asks humbly, in rushes of beau­ti­ful poetic prose: What is this place “say­ing?” In its re­spect­ful per­sonal at­tempt at an an­swer, it dis­cov­ers Hamil­ton afresh for all of us.

“Yard­work” is avail­able at bookstores in Hamil­ton. For more in­for­ma­tion, call 905-972-9885.

But we took a walk through RBG … Lit­tle did we know how im­por­tant it would be. DANIEL COLE­MAN

PHO­TO­GRAPH BY GARY YOKOYAMA, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

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