In Barbara Gates’s quest to get to know her home place, she takes daily walks through her neighborhood. At some point it occurs to her that it is with the pavement itself, both on the street and in the mind, that she must become intimate. As she walks through parking lots and courtyards and learns about an asphalt plant that sends potentially toxic emissions into the area, she confronts her own resistance to exploring fully what she sees.

A landscaper friend of mine is working with a crew, taking turns using a jackhammer to shatter pavement, to open up the original soil and grow a garden. I ask my friend if I can take a detour on my walk to join him at the site, a way station of sorts for an adventurer such as myself—up against the pavement. Standing in the center of a courtyard, beneath a Chinese maple tree, my friend grips the triggers of the jackhammer and bears down into the concrete. His arms and torso vibrate, but his legs remain stable. I notice his feet, vulnerable in cloth sneakers.

He offers me the jackhammer to give it a try. Since the jackhammer is heavy, awkward to maneuver, and potentially dangerous, I take this on with some trepidation. From the fat yellow body of the machine extends a pointed bit that hammers in and out with a piston action. The power of the movement shudders through my body. With my friend’s help, I locate the beginning fracture and then make holes along that crack. While I work the jackhammer, one of the workers breaks out pieces of pavement with a crowbar and a pick, levering up the slabs so that the sheer weight—the force of gravity—helps with the cracking. As the crew pries up broken concrete, the massive roots of the maple, extending in all directions, are uncovered. A tiny crack, hair-thin, seems to open inside me. A shiver of home. Imagination moist with wild mint and cattails, with the surge of Strawberry Creek, and my awareness open, I continue to walk. I notice the street around me, notice my arms swinging free. I notice my back seizing up. How much it hurts. For years I’ve tightened my shoulders against their own hurt; I’ve walked the streets of this neighborhood without feeling through the rawness underneath. When something is neglected long enough, it doesn’t even seem to hurt. That’s paved over. We need to know our hurts. They confront us with carelessness, teach us to take care.

Getting under pavement, beneath the pretense of permanence, can be scary, can hurt, but it can also open up possibilities. Beneath pavement is mind-process, earth-process, fire-process, creek-process. As creek water nourishes vegetation, the roots of creekside willow and cottonwood stabilize the banks against erosion. Sparked by energy from the sun, fed by water and minerals from the earth, streamside plants provide food for water striders and caddis flies, which, in turn, provide food for stickleback and squawfish. These feed streamside predators, from egrets to herons to wildcats. In the life that comes up from underneath the pavement, everything continuously feeds and recreates everything else.

From Already Home: A Topography of Spirit and Place, © 2003 by Barbara Gates. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc.