The rocks just about killed us. Granite, limestone, quartz, the gifts of the Canadian Shield. We’d haul them from fields, from creeks where the glinting stone caught my mother’s eye. We’d duly dig them out, to be examined from all sides, before the decision was made.
“But it’s not going to look this nice when it’s dry.”
“Bring it anyway.”
My brother and I would pile them in the back of the Rambler – in the trunk and on the floor of the back seat, where they’d bang and smash together during the long drive back to Toronto.
My mother may not have been able to bring home the shimmering lakes, the scented forests, the crunch of pine needles underfoot, but she could bring rocks back to our inner-city apartment. On the windowsill. Displayed on shelves. Haphazardly scattered. While she now says that she was interested in the geology, it’s also true that to her they represented the north, her childhood.
She grew up in a place called Sultan, about 200 kilometres northwest of Sudbury. When I visited relatives in the area as a child, which we did a few times, it was a revelation to me. I’d been to the Kawarthas, but the north is a different beast. What struck me even then was the tenacity of the people who settled in that wilderness. Blasting through rock to create highways bordered with the sheer cliffs that still showed the marks of dynamite blasts.
I remember hearing stories of when my mother and her brothers and sisters were kids. My grandfather worked in the lumber mills in the summer and as a trapper in the winter. He’d lay his lines and catch muskrat, otter, beaver, rabbits. In the summer sometimes he’d shoot bear.
There’s a picture I have of my mother when she was a young girl. She and her brother are dressed in their First Communion finest – high fashion in early 1940s northern Ontario. I always loved that picture of them in a fenced back yard.It seemed to me that, in the middle of the wilderness, this was a way of wresting some control, a bit of civilization carved from the landscape of rocks and forests that hovered outside the camera’s view.
The geography I grew up with was a stark contrast.
A city kid who lived in apartment buildings, I also came of age in a landscape that was hard – but composed of grey concrete. My horizon was interrupted not by towering trees, but towering apartment buildings. Yet everywhere in the city there are homages to the wilderness that lies just north of us.
In Yorkville, we clamber on the huge rock that was brought from the Canadian Shield – a sign of the lengths to which city dwellers will go for a taste of wilderness. In countless hidden gardens and landscaped public spaces are similar reminders that this urban landscape does not define Canada.
Once, I went up to Sudbury and visited my grandmother in a nursing home. She, too, had once lived in Toronto but moved back north.
“Jesu,” she said to me in her broken English (French was her first language), “he was in a hurry to get to heaven. Me, when I go, I’m going back to the rock.” She nodded over her shoulder in the general direction of the mines, where she had once worked.
Ashes to ashes, rock to rock.
When my husband and I bought our current house in the city, the previous owners obviously wanted an urban feel for their backyard – they poured about a foot of concrete over the whole garden, leaving room for just a small border of plants. In summer, the heat coming off the west-facing lot was stifling.
What I really wanted, I realized, was to carve out a little bit of wilderness. So we rented a jackhammer and smashed that cement into smithereens, replacing it with cool, green grass, a cedar walkway, a tree and lots of plants.
But something was missing.
Now, peeking out from behind the hostas, from under the junipers, from the herb garden, are solid chunks of granite, limestone, quartz. They assure me that, just a drive north, I can still find the gifts of the Canadian Shield, and a reminder of where I come from.