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02/23/2018 12:46 EST | Updated 02/23/2018 12:46 EST

The Importance Of Trusting The Place Where We Live

'Yardwork: A Biography in an Urban Place' urges us to pay attention to the living world, even within a bustling city.

Yardwork is about learning to trust the land where we live. The pioneer story of settler colonial culture, about how our ancestors fought the wilderness to make food, shelter and civilization, taught us to distrust the place where we live. This story taught us the supposedly universal theme that we learned in school — "Man versus Nature." All these years later, we are slowly waking up to the harm that story of fighting against ecology is doing to us and the planet.

Oleksiy Maksymenko via Getty Images
Aerial view of the city of Hamilton, Ont. with steel mills in the background.

Yardwork suggests that if we are to learn to trust the places we have been taught to fear, then we need a different lifestory about them. So, I've written the book as a biography (bios "life" + graphe "scratching down marks") for a small urban backyard in Hamilton, Ont. My backyard, to be exact, though calling it "mine" is missing the mark, since in the end, who can own a web of living things?

You would never believe how cosmopolitan one 60-by-120-foot plot of urban land can be, with most of the garden plants tracing their ancestry back to Europe and Asia, the hummingbirds at the feeder commuting between here and Costa Rica, and the cicadas climbing once every three years from their underground chimneys up these 150-foot trees. You look at a place like this, with its steel mills pouring toxins into the bay for a century, the skies brown with particles from the smelters not just in Hamilton, but also in Detroit and Pittsburgh, and you have every right to wonder: what kind of life makes it here? How might we tell a lifestory of this place that can picture a future for us all?

To answer these questions, consider this particular white pine tree, splintered off in a wind storm before we moved into this house, at the southwest corner of our yard. It must be one of the strangest looking trees, with its big central column sawn off flat, and the surviving branches curving up into the hollow bowl at the top. It looks like a cockeyed satellite dish searching the skies for a signal.

I'm slowly waking up to the human and more-than-human neighbourhood I live in.

In the Great Law, the Constitution that founded the Six Nations Confederacy, white pine is known as the Tree of Peace. Its needles grow in clusters of five, the number of nations that were original members of their Confederation until the Tuscaroras joined in the 1720s. I only learned these things after the land dispute flared up in 2006 in our neighbouring town of Caledonia, just a half hour's drive south of the city. That event woke me up to the anguish Haudenosaunee people feel from seeing the land around here whittled away and exploited over the past 200 years. I once was given a baby white pine at a gathering between professors from McMaster University where I work and educators on the reserve. It was a reminder that we can all be part of growing a culture of peace. As the cellophane and ribbon on the plant pot crinkled in my hand, I couldn't help but think of the broken pine in our yard at home.

Six Nations friends have told me that this part of Ontario, where the Niagara escarpment bends around the Head of the Lake, was once called the Dish with One Spoon. This name signalled an agreement that members of rival tribes could come to this transportation hub, where waterfowl, salmon, lake rice and berries were abundant, and get what they needed. Spoons only, no knives; so you didn't have to fear violence while collecting your food supplies.

With the harbour here today being one of the most polluted places on the Great Lakes, and with our history of outright and legalized land theft, along with the resentment that theft has built up over the years, this place doesn't seem much like the old Dish with One Spoon anymore. But look at this sawed-off pine. It's beat up and truncated, yet it's thriving — thrusting vigorously into the sky with green needles and sap-scented cones. We live in the shelter of the tree of peace, broken and belaboured, but actually pulsing with life.

This yard has a lot of stories like this. Stories about the German-speaking Loyalists who settled here after buying the land from a Mohawk British army officer after the Revolutionary War, and are now buried behind our place; about a toxic cancer bomb that's still ticking in our city's harbour; about bald eagles nesting in the valley here for the first time in 50 years, about how the rising population of urban deer have required our city council to renegotiate a 1701 treaty with Six Nations, and about the nighttime rambles of a raccoon we call Broadbent.

Yardwork is about the work of paying attention to my specific place, but a person could do this kind of work anywhere — in a townhouse, rural acreage, or a downtown high-rise. This book is for anyone interested in figuring out how to live alert to the human and natural ecology where most of us live these days — not in some nuclear fallout zone nor in a fantasized wilderness, but in the city.

I'm not a scientist, an expert in ecosystems, or even an exemplary citizen who cans my own vegetables. Like many people, I'm slowly waking up to the human and more-than-human neighbourhood I live in, and I'm struggling to learn how to pay attention to the living world right here in this city. This book is an effort to belong here. It wants to spark a sense of the sacred in an abused place by paying it close attention. It's a wager that learning the multiple stories that make up a place can help us learn to trust that place — and to trust ourselves and our neighbours in that place.

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