You come to touch the skin of this planet like you touch a lover.
There’s a tenuousness at first that equals the desire you feel, a quickening in the blood, a stirring of unrecollected parts of you. And there’s a vague fear that trembles your hand.
It’s the uncertainty of parting the veil of unknown boundaries, reaching blind into territories that amaze you with the texture of their being, simplicity and whole, expansive panoramas in one palm.
Each turning of the trowel carries you further, deeper. The parting of the skin of her makes this Earth more real, the Great Mystery as blatant as her grit upon your hands.
The soil takes you in. You can smell the fecund richness of her, the life of her, the whole erotic, exotic snake of her fertility, her being, like the scent of loving.
But you’re a hunter-gatherer, you say and this turning of ground is foreign and benign. Still, there’s no denying the joining you feel, this union of skin and heart and ground.
The Ojibway in you celebrates the split of earth and this planting, this arranging of life around your home becomes a ceremony, vibrant and compelling.
When I was 14 I was given chores to do. My job was to take care of the grounds of our home. I mowed the lawn twice a week, weeded flowerbeds, edged them, watered plants and raked and hoed and shoveled whenever it was ordered.
There was always something to do and it seemed to me then that the land was a problem that needed to be solved.
Everything I did was judged. When the edging wasn’t straight and plumb and perfect I was made to do it over until it was. If there were tiny heads of new weeds pushing though between the marigolds and begonias I was scolded and called lazy and irresponsible.
The flowerbeds all needed to be raked smooth, the chunks and clods of earth battered with a hoe until they lay like beds of sand. If they weren’t, I earned no right to play.
I never took to that job. I couldn’t. The judgments rinsed all the joy away. To my adopted parents, work was how you showed your worthiness and if a job worth doing was worth doing right as they said, then right meant perfect, and it was the regimen of perfection that stole the joy of working with the land away.
Oh, when I left that home I travelled and laboured at a handful of jobs that called me to the land, but I never picked up a hoe or shovel and turned a bed of earth.
I felt better in the cutting, sawing, trundling and carting kinds of work out on the land. It was messy work by nature and there were no ghosts of perfection lingering at the edges. I could labour with the best of them and something in me found a joy in the detritus and spillage of workingman things.
In all the places I called home through the years the most I did was cut the lawn if one existed. Sure, there were houseplants and I tended those but there was nothing in the maintenance of small pots and planters that equaled the resentment and hurt I carried from the lawns and flowerbeds of my youth.
Then we came here.
When we first saw this place it didn’t seem like much. Just a simple house in the trees overlooking a lake with a mountain humped up behind it like an overseer. There were obvious repairs to make, a hundred chores arranged before us, but it called to us and we found a way to make it ours.
Both of us had spent a lifetime searching for home. Both of us had started out the same, orphaned by circumstance, fostered away to those who didn’t, couldn’t understand the split, the cleft that happens in your soul when you’re swept away from love. Both of us had struggled mightily to heal that rift and until we found each other, the wound remained.
But here we had a chance to settle and focus.
At first we did the simple, easy things and then graduated to building a set of steps and latticework onto the deck.
We renovated the living room our second summer. We tore out the old carpeting and laid down flooring, then painted and felt the place become an extension of ourselves, brighter, more ebullient somehow.
The soil in the flowerbed had been left untended for years. There were twitches of grass and weeds and leftover bulbs that shot up leaves but never flowered.
It was dusty and dry and in the flat, arid heat that prevails in the summers here, had the feel of desert almost. In the hands it was hard and unpromising. We cleared it some but never got around to trying to work with it until this year.
We weeded it then turned the shovel in it for the first time and watched the spume of dust when the lump of earth landed. But as we added nutrient and raked and smoothed it with our hands, we could feel it come alive again.
We bent to work. We planted impatiens and begonias and ferns. When I plunged my fingers into the earth to scoop the hole for planting and felt the soft, cool richness of it, I felt the richness in myself too.
We did up pots of geraniums. We planted juniper and when we stood side by side, hand in hand, to survey our work there was a satisfaction unparalleled in my life.
This woman and I had taken to the land again, held it in our hands, nurtured, smoothed and sculpted it to hold and sustain life again.
And in the blood of us, in the warm skin to skin joining, there was a knowing, rich and soft and perfect, that we were one with it, that it had become us and we it, at home, settled, belonging. Rooted.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.