between-our-steps-10-18-17-doubleAs we drove to Ottawa last week, crossing that finger of the Canadian Shield that reaches down toward Kingston, we passed through deep rock cuts. Those who carved the route for the highway opened the rock so we can see the layers of granite. In places, the surface of the bedrock is bare, smooth and round. In others, a thin layer of soil supports grass and small shrubs. Where the bedrock retreats and the soil is deeper, forests of pine and spruce, birch and aspen thrive.

On still pools, a layer of yellow leaves covered the water. On larger lakes where the water is always in motion, those leaves had already been pulled beneath the surface, adding to the layer of muck at the base of the lake. Beneath those leaves, amphibians will soon dig themselves shelter from the cold of winter.

In downtown Ottawa, we found a mix of high-rises and old two and four story buildings. Passing by office towers, the street is surrounded with glass and metal. The surface is a mirror that in daylight reflects nearby buildings, giving no clue to what is inside. After dark, the lights inside open up the view, as if the mirror is pulled away and a window put in its place.

The older buildings are brick or stone with the ornamentation popular at the time they were built. Some have the name of the business carved in a lintel above the door. To build the high-rises, many of these had to be torn down, but in places, the older buildings are incorporated into the new structure. The street level tells the older story while the modern building rises above it.

I was in the city for a writing convention, and in one of the panels about building history into our stories, we talked about the layers of story the land holds. We were talking about speculative fiction and invented worlds, but still insisted that for a story to have texture and depth, the writer had to develop a history for the place. Not everyone needs to provide the kind of back-story Tolkien did, but some pieces of history need to peek through. Otherwise the people seem to exist in a vacuum.

When we forget that we are not the first people to walk this land, we create a vacuum.

It happens that we know descendants of the people who settled our farm, and we hear stories from neighbours about the first settlers. And the land remembers their work. They cleared stones off the fields each time they planted, building up thick rows of rock between the fields. They carefully managed the forest. They built the barn in stages. They built the house in two parts, log first and stone later. The decades they spent farming this place left a story.

But before they came, people had hunted here. Where we live is the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway. Metis crossed through this area, and before them the Huron and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples.

The map of roads settlers created mask their routes. New towns and cities hide the older settlements. Plowed and planted fields cover over hunting grounds. But under the layer of our farms is another story.

And before the human story of this place was a history of forest with trees and plants, birds and deer and small mammals. Fox and wolf hunted here before humans. A few old trees remain where bedrock is near the surface or deep in the woodlots, reminders of a time when these clear spaces were all forest.

We know there was a time before, an age when ice covered this land. We know that granite was pushed from the shield and the shape of the land shifted. The shape of escarpment feels solid, natural, enduring, but there was a different structure here before.

Sometimes, we pick up a stone and find the fossil of an old creature, the remains of a being who lived before that rock was shaped. We can touch the image of a creature who swam or crawled or walked here long ago.

When we look at our face in the mirror, we can trace our story in the lines, the scars, the wrinkles. When we walk the surface of the land, layers of story are there beneath our feet.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister, and writer living near Walters Falls.


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