A Review of Daniel Coleman's Yardwork: A Biography of an Urban Place
Review by Angie Abdou
Daniel Coleman is a professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. His 2003 memoir, The Scent of Eucalyptus, is an autoethnographic account of growing up in Ethiopia as a child of missionaries. During his childhood, he never had a place to think of as home. None of the houses he lived in was a permanent resting place, and though his parents called Canada “home,” he and his siblings only ever visited the country as outsiders. Daniel Coleman belonged nowhere. He moved to Canada as an adult and completed a Ph.D. in Canadian Literature at the University of Alberta. Academic jobs, of course, were scarce so when McMaster University offered him a faculty position, he had no choice but to accept, despite having no ties to Hamilton.
Yardwork: A Biography of an Urban Place is, in part, Coleman’s attempt to find belonging, to put down roots, in his new home of Hamilton, Ontario. He aims to connect to the particular “thisness” of his own backyard. Repeatedly, Coleman emphasizes that belonging involves listening as much as it does speaking, and this book results from his own intensive act of listening. His approach has similarities to Geertzian “thick description,” and Coleman explores all of the details of this specific, narrowly defined space: its soil, its water, its history, its stories, its deer, its transient species, its everything.
At points, the language is beautiful. Coleman’s opening description of “the magic of morning in the back yard” is writing to be savored. So too is his description of water, its typical shyness (seeping off to hide underground) offset against its occasional dramatic displays (like the nearby Niagara Falls). In the book’s most poetic moments, Yardwork reads like a love letter from Coleman to his backyard.
Fortunately, his love is matched by his labour. The book is meticulously researched, particularly in its study of Hamilton’s First Peoples and their stories. Questions as simple as “Who was here first?” turn out to be not at all simple, but Coleman embraces the complexity. He walks readers through the most complicated of histories in surprisingly accessible prose.
Despite the book’s beautiful writing and extensive research, I did sometimes find myself asking: Who cares? By which I mean: What will bring people to this book? What will make them stay? Who is Yardwork’s audience?
The most obvious readers for Yardwork are Coleman’s fellow Hamiltonians – people who should care as much as Coleman does about this specific corner of the world, in all its minute details, seen and unseen. Perhaps readers less interested in Hamilton can use Yardwork as a guidebook on how to begin to think deeply about the specific “thisness” of the places that matter most to them. In Coleman’s work, paying close attention to the ground we stand on becomes a spiritual act. He reminds readers too that the more we focus in on a small space, the bigger it grows – and the more it can tell us about the larger world, the global network of which the one small place and all of its inhabitants are a part. The book will encourage all readers to engage in this kind of intensive “Place Thought” as a way to connect with the natural world to which they belong.
Angie Abdou has a Ph.D. from University of Calgary and is a professor of Creative Writing at Athabasca University. She has published four works of fiction, including The Bone Cage (a CBC Canada Reads finalist in 2011). Her nonfiction has appeared in various magazines and newspapers, including National Post and Elle Magazine.