Where the tall pine stands
McMaster English professor Daniel Coleman writes of his Hamilton home starting with Indigenous inhabitants
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