In 1997 when Daniel Coleman moved to the escarpment city of Hamilton, Ontario - one of the most polluted Canadian cities at the time - he began to ask himself questions: how can he as an outsider put down roots in a new place? How can anyone really belong without awareness of their region's history?
Yardwork: A Biography of an Urban Place (Wolsak & Wynn) is a meditation on those questions and more as Coleman explores the ecological, cultural, and political stories that make Hamilton what it is today, paying careful attention to the perspectives of the Six Nations, to give us an enchanting portrait of Hamilton.
The Niagara Escarpment curls around this city, a mother around her infant. Every single thing about this place is born from her. Stepping down galvanized steel stairs near Rock Chapel Road, you can trace with your fingers the descending ages of her life, from the brick-sized dolostone chunks near the top, past the contours of tropical sea lily crinoids and marine worm tunnels in the smooth wall underneath, all the way down to the cool, red shale twenty metres below. Geologists say four hundred million years ago, the basin of an ancient sea began to tip up in a long ridge that arched from New York State to Wisconsin. Then, erosion, intensified by four distinct ice ages, carved the cliffs and talus slopes that now define this huge, unhurried amphitheatre at the Head of Lake Ontario.
This is a fairly new story. The oldest story I’ve heard about how this place came to be also says the foundation rose from the sea floor. The Hodinöhsö:ni’ say Sky Woman fell from a hole in the world above. Water birds rose from the dark water below to meet her. They bore her on their wings to the dome of the great turtle’s back. She thanked her rescuers, explained that she needed earth to plant seeds in if she were to live on that hard shell. Beaver and otter tried to dive to the seafloor, but it was the humble muskrat who returned with a bit of mud in his paws. So, old or new, the stories say the circling formation that most defines this place rose up from dark waters and gave life to every other living thing.
Everyone came here because of her. Following her spine is the Mohawk Path, where centuries of moccasins showed today’s city buses that it’s easier going up here than navigating in the marshes and inlets below. When you gaze from the edge across the bowl that cradles Hamilton Harbour and Cootes Paradise marsh, you are looking at the Dish With One Spoon, where Huron-Wendat, Attawandaron, and Hodinöhsö:ni’ agreed to bring no knives, so all could gather wild rice, berries, ducks, and salmon without fear of shedding blood. Anywhere along her spine, you stand within five hundred metres of one creek or another, tumbling headlong over the dolostone lip. Ancaster Creek, for example, starts at altitude two hundred and fifty metres and ends at eighty metres when it joins Cootes Paradise below. That means the drop over this ledge is greater than from here to the Atlantic Ocean. The Hamilton-defining smokestacks are here, in essence, because of this amazing plunge. Early settlers harnessed her energy for paper, lumber, grist, and textile mills. These set the groundwork for larger manufactures of railroad ties, elevators, and Studebakers—anything to do with steel.
Quickly, the city climbed up and over the Escarpment’s embrace. Streets, railway lines, six-lane highways sliced through her ravines and widened her faults. The newcomers pumped tonnes of toxins into the sky, e-coli into the creeks, coal tar into the Dish With One Spoon. By the mid-seventies, the marsh and harbour were asphyxiated, the air browned with smog. Steel itself began to suffocate. People lost their jobs. Poverty soared at the Head of the Lake.
Still the Escarpment rises, still she encircles our lives. Five-hundred-year-old white cedars, gnarled with memory, cling to her steep and crumbling cliffsides, protected there from heedless footfalls or chainsaws. Her story is as old as the hills—even older—and it’s still unfolding, layer upon layer all around us.
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Daniel Coleman was born and raised the child of Canadian missionary parents in Ethiopia, an experience he has written about in The Scent of Eucalyptus: A Missionary Childhood in Ethiopia. He moved to the Canadian prairies in the 1980s and completed his PhD in Canadian Literature at the University of Alberta in 1995. He went on to publish scholarly books on Canadian immigrant writing and on how Canada became a white, British place. Since 1997, he has lived in Hamilton, Ontario, where he teaches Canadian Literature at McMaster University
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