As for my Indigenous paternal family, the roots of connection to land had been seared and cauterized in so many joints. You can see it in the thickened waist, that telltale stress-marker of starvation and trauma, passed down into phenotype.
Grandma wore it gloriously, the bear’s body and round face. I have her crescent moon eyes, hear her low laugh in my sister’s. And I keep a picture of her and her sister in the garden, popping up among hollyhocks, grown women laughing among the mill-town houses of Sault Ste. Marie, pre-Bill C-31, when Grandpa’s death and her subsequent remarriage meant she had to live off-reserve. She, too, had to come to Canada, an exile in her own land.
Morbidly heavy, Grandma’s ankles remained trim and elegant, her feet high-arched, like her son, who could carry his three hundred plus pounds across a wooden floor soundlessly in glide.
In the garden, he glided after Mom, a bear with a hoe making holes for potatoes. I wonder if he ever thought about these Turtle Island roots, potatoes – potatl – evidence of trade routes intercontinental. Potato histories, and the naming of the three sisters – corn, beans, squash – were women’s knowledge, though. In our garden, my mother’s lineages ran, yes, to potatoes – kartofle – but also to onion, carrot, bean, pea, and beet. Dad didn’t have Anishinabek garden lore, but he passed on how to walk with respect, treading light upon Earth.
Like many indigenous men, he came to Canada in service, in the army, and through that, traveled far.
My own first, biggest journey, from farm to city, came in the spring of 1985. I took the bus. My dad took the air ambulance, and died in hospital on my first day of work. Go to university, he’d said. So, the land of the Mighty Peace behind me, I needed to ground myself in Edmonton. Here, I’d go to university, seeking to prove it would be the gate connecting me to the world tugging at my dreams.
In my first autumn, walking to class, I’d pass through the legislature grounds, where the German groundskeeper would always greet me, and happily spend a few minutes talking about all the amazing things in this biggest ornamental garden I’d ever seen.
One day, he was putting the flowerbeds down for winter. Do you want these geraniums? They are still good, they can overwinter inside, you know. Though I could not find enough light in my basement apartment for that flower to survive, neither could I refuse his gift of recognition, claiming me.
It was gardeners who sustained me in those first seasons, whether that German master giving me roots, and complaining about the folly of trying to force indigenous trees into European shapes, or the Italians in their downtown yards, greeting me as I walked by.
My first job was hot-walking race horses at Northlands, and I didn’t know I should be frightened of walking through the inner city to get to the track. Those men who slowed down, or offered me rides, were no more than bewildering creeps, irrelevant. To me, the walk was full of gardens, and of steady, kind people at their work.
After that summer, it would be fifteen years before I returned to central Edmonton, this time to make a family home of my own in an old house with a rubble filled back yard.
I looked at that yard, and thought of my grandmothers.
We are still coming to Canada.
I bring long roots, much transplanted, many times starved by drought and shrivelled by frost, beaten, cut and hammered, squeezed by the power-plays of forces far beyond them, these roots remain, and they are in my garden now.
Gete Okosomin is in my garden, gift of deep friends who were given the seeds at a feast. This squash, only lately named, and for a while given a Fairy Tale origin, has been grown on Turtle Island for a millennium, quietly, without fanfare.
Another old staple, Askipaw, grows in my garden too. I planted Jerusalem Artichokes before I knew they are Indigenous. I know what to call them now because I asked another neighbour, a Cree Elder and scholar of the oldest stories.
In my garden, these ones remind me that Indigenous people, cultures, ways of being, like all good things, have proven incredibly resilient.
These ones grow easily, grow strong.
So do saskatoon, raspberry, ode’imini, valiant grapes, queen peonies, nanking cherries, and the scion of a plum another Cree neighbour quietly coaxed into magnificence across the street. In my garden, indigenous and immigrant plants all burl along together.
I have walking onions, and over-achieving chives. Yet another Cree neighbour gave me horseradish root, and every fall, I harvest it thinking of Japan.
In Japan, I haunted temple grounds, my home too small and lightless for plants; and I leapt at a volunteer weekend harvesting imo-mountain potatoes. A stranger on the dragon’s back edge of the farthest east, I felt myself connected to my new friends through work my grandmother and her grandmothers would recognize, laughing together in the fields, bringing in the harvest, food and song around an evening fire.
Horseradish is not wasabi, but it is perfectly content to shoulder up through the worst remaining patch of yard, and it, too, challenges the palate.
Across the yard, lilac, the sweetness I always wanted, now grows, a mother’s day present from my husband and child, and she is every bit as beautiful as I always knew her to be. I had to travel around the world before I found my husband and home; and it was here in Edmonton, as I read a poem about dandelions, that I first met him.
So we embrace dandelions, both for that memory and for their powerful gifts. They’re overbold and profligate, yes; but eat their flowers, crowns and roots and you come to see their worth. As they are willing to be here, let us find ways to work with them. That’s a gardener’s truth.
It was my mother most of all who taught me to look in the garden for truths. Also for slugs.
She came to live with us when she broke her hip, revealing the deadly cancer in her bones. She was no city person, but Edmonton was her necessary home for a while. I am forever grateful to have had the means to help care for her. Most of all, I am grateful that my garden could be there for her, and that it has known her care.
Most people saw her as gentle, but I know my mother was fierce. Even broken, she took it upon herself to fight for me and mine. In the early summer mornings, she would make her way down through the garden, setting, checking and emptying the tin cans of beer, with which she (a lifetime teetotaller) waged war on the slugs.
Now she has gone to her rest, and after thirty years, I am becoming one of the old Edmonton gardeners who smile and wave at youth.
This summer, our new Syrian neighbours knocked at my back gate, asking in their limited English, if I could spare some grape leaves. This garden has made me wealthy.
Sharing it brings more riches; Fatima makes the best stuffed grape leaves, and we recognize each other. She has traveled a long distance, coming to Canada, carrying stories she may never tell me.
Where language lacks, the garden speaks; what we tend will grow.
This essay in its entirety was commissioned for a Canada 150 project sponsored by Edmonton Community Foundation, Eighteen Bridges Magazine and Edmonton Litfest, and first published in Eighteen Bridges, whose editor retitled it “The Truth is in the Dirt.”
The image above is from Pixabay.com, a great source of Creative Commons images.