Baked Clay




Amos C. Martin Ltd., Wallenstein, Ontario, Canada, circa 1960. Photo by Clarence Martin



I think of him now the way I saw him last: my grandfather, seated on the edge of his hospital bed with the pale shanks of his legs angled to bare feet on rubber floor. He was thumbing through a Maclean’s when I arrived at dawn. Despite the catheter tube and the IV drip at his side, he wasn’t taking this one lying down—not yet, anyway. On that December morning, his eyes sparkled with unspent energy.

Rather than talk of the afternoon’s biopsy, he peppered me with questions: How is the writing going out there? Are you twiddling your thumbs?

The summer before, I had moved from Chicago to Western Massachusetts, following my wife on a research fellowship. Freed from the chalkboard for the first time in nearly a decade, I was going to finally sit down and write.

But now, five months into that experiment, I had to be honest with him: the autumn months were strangely, unnervingly, quiet. Writing was proving not just lonely but a good bit terrifying, too. As if to compensate, I had taken to making bread, anxious—through my kneading—to make my days feel more productive than they evidently were.

And yet, I told him, I am at least learning to sit with the page each day and follow the nosing trail of the pen. I’m learning that there’s a spirituality to the practice of writing, I said. It begins on a hunch and proceeds by faith. It looks a lot like religious devotion, like prayer. I told him I was not sure yet where all this would lead.

He said most pilgrims don’t know either.



A few days after the funeral, a cousin emails me with a subject line that reads: Have you seen this? There’s a video file attached.

It’s a grainy 8mm film that opens onto the swinging arm of a cable shovel digging up clay soil by the bucketful. Slightly overexposed, the rural sky is a field of white brushed with faintest blue. And then my grandfather’s gentle voice slips into the scene, greeting the viewer with a promise to take us on a journey through the process of making clay drainage tile and burying it back into the ground.

My grandfather, Clarence Martin, took the footage in 1959 at his family’s drainage tile plant in the village of Wallenstein, Ontario. All that cylindrical, four-inch-wide tile was interred, end-to-end, in long, trenched rows beneath wet soil. Water trickled in between the end-gaps and began to flow down the hollow, sloping line, where it spilled out to an open ditch or creek. Buried away under verdant fields, drainage tiling was an infrastructure too easily forgotten, he thought. So, on a preservationist impulse sixty years ago, he shot a reel of film and then set it in a drawer, letting it hibernate for decades. It was my uncle who pulled it back out ten years ago and convinced his father to record the voice-over.

Titled Earth to Earth, the short film documents the labor and method by which these Pennsylvania German Mennonites and Polish and German postwar immigrants mass-produced clay drainage tile, a modest symbol of modern agriculture. Woven together, the two threads of old footage and recent voice reveal what I could never quite visualize.

Now I see the extruded sausage-line of wet clay and the turning wheel of wire slicing one-foot sections of hollow tile. I watch a trio of men loading up four hundred tile on racks and pulling them into the same darkened dryer rooms that sat empty and forlorn when I had the chance to wander them as a child.

Clay drainage tile production line

Clay drainage tile production line, circa 1980. Photo by Ron Martin

Inside the beehive kiln, its architecture as ancient as fired brick, the camera pans the men passing tile over and up to other men like a bucket brigade. It’s all stacked high and exact and end-on-end, like the brickwork of a castle wall towering up to a domed ceiling.

The film then jump-cuts to show two men bricking in the rounded doorway and chinking the gaps with mud. Sudden orange flame ignites in the viewfinder. My grandfather’s voice-over explains the company’s new propane burner system, the hot air blowing up through the floor of the kiln on a fifteen-hour heating curve. Then, slowly, the dampers are opened, letting heat pass into the drying rooms all filled anew with wet tile just off the extruder. Six beehive kilns to fill and to fire each day of the workweek.

On the seventh day, they rested.

The next scene shows the men breaking back into the kiln. They pull the buff-colored tile out by hand, holding several up for the camera’s inspection. In the precise language of the trade, the tile are now vitrified, each clay particle fused into an impervious ceramic that beads water and causes flow.

From the kiln, the men wheel small loads of tile out and restack it on a trailer bed, which is soon hauled off by truck. The final scene is shot from a nearby farm. Along a chute off the side of a wagon, the farmer’s kids string tile out in long lines like ribbed veins on the skin of the earth. A diesel-powered trencher wheel digs its way slowly along, cupping and conveying a small waterfall of earth off the side. The operator monitors the fall of the drainage line, while another man walks along behind, hooking tile into the trench and shoveling dirt overtop.

They’re “burying the product,” my grandfather’s voice states with slow finality.


This is how you make and remake North American farming through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, how you increase yields and bring marginal lands under cultivation, draining wetland soil, siphoning away standing water, minimizing surface runoff and topsoil loss. Of course, drainage tile doesn’t lessen the water, just moves it downstream, where the towns begin building dams and filtration systems.

But before all that beaded sweat and kiln flame and field trenching, the clay is first worked through by water and machine. It’s these shots I love most, the long takes of clay soil and silt dropping under the churn of metal knives, then crushed and falling, chunked like torn cake, into the pug mill, while the camera’s lens vibrates from the pulse of the auger machine: working, mixing, wetting, kneading. Like dough, I think aloud my first time through the film.

Which is when my grandfather says, “It’s like kneading dough, making dough, making bread.”



I turned the engine off after following two wheel ruts out the back lane of the old tile factory to a grassy turnaround. In what was, as it turned out, the last August of my grandfather’s life, we rolled the car windows down to country silence, which is a different kind of noise: a rustling of wind through goldenrod and wild wheat, speckles of birdsong, the muted rush of traffic from Line 86. On the dashboard, I placed a voice recorder between us.

As we sat looking out across the lot, he began describing the surface clay deposit that here made possible his father’s tile yard. It was pure clay, he said. Free of stones, a texture that was easy to extrude—burned nicely, too. Just pure clay, he emphasized with a touch of wonder.

In 1920, when his father, an Old Order Mennonite, bought the small, disused brick plant next to the home farm, the clay deposit was fifteen feet deep by the road. The open pits where the digging began eventually became mudded ponds. As his father turned earthen clay into tile product, he needed to keep buying a bit more land from the neighboring farm. He and his sons, now partners, would move the fence-line back and dig for more.

Clarence Martin

Clarence Martin, north of Toronto, 1954. Photographer unknown

The deposit, however, turned out to be pond-shaped, the clay becoming shallower with each decade’s digging. It turned up more stones, too, which popped in the kiln, causing fissures in the business model. By the 1970s, they were trucking in clay from elsewhere.

And then, a decade later, perforated plastic tubing arrived en masse, its 4,000-foot tail spun up on a single spool and then rolled out and buried by the brute force of a plow. It slowly ground the economies of clay tile to a halt.

For a time, it ground my grandfather down too. His body grew so stressed that he could hardly stand. Through a fog of vertigo, he braced himself along the walls of his house, stumbling for weeks from his bed to the bathroom and back. He and his brothers had doubled down on clay. They’d poured more money into the plant and managed to squeeze out greater efficiencies, but it was, fundamentally, a bad bet. Within a year, they were selling off assets and clearing their debts with the sale of the company.

My grandfather admitted that, for a long while, he was angry. Broken is the word my uncle uses. It was partly the insult of being bested by such an inferior plastic product, one that would surely degrade more easily and be crushed by soil compaction. There was at least craft in clay tile, as he saw it. The labor of handwork.

I was a toddler then and had no idea. I grew up knowing only the man repaired, the one who spoke so earnestly of his soul saved by grace, of trusting where God leads. I saw only the third act.

That’s why, I think, I’m finding this history so revealing to look back through. Clay tile made the world into which I was born but then, before I even had a bearing on the alphabet, was utterly gone. Hidden in plain sight. It took me over three decades to begin to know even what questions to ask.

All that clay is what I can’t quite fathom. All those millions of tile turned out each year, those million man-hours strung out in drainage lines sixty feet apart on farm fields all over Ontario: fields that still produce food, fields that became housing tract, fields that are now paved into Toronto sprawl.

This lot below the hilltop crossroads of Wallenstein is being made over, too. It’s been a brick plant, a telephone pole company, a farm auction site. A large trucking warehouse now stands in the northeast field, wrapped by a moat of black pavement. My brother-in-law’s landscape design company just put up a large steel-frame shop, too. New value is being wrung from this old place even though the deposit has been spent down.



My grandfather and I had driven out to the edge of the yard that day to talk not just of clay but of John Little, who once farmed this back pocket of land with his wife, Eliza, after having fled their enslavement in Tennessee. Over our last several years together, my grandfather and I were trying to stand square to the inheritance of history. I had only recently learned of the Littles and was full of questions about this place called the Queen’s Bush Settlement, back before one of its villages became Wallenstein.

As it turns out, in 1855, the Littles had stood on these fields and told their stories to a New England abolitionist named Benjamin Drew, who came seeking first-person accounts of freedom- found. Following a daring escape north across the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois, the Littles found passage from Chicago to Detroit, then across the Detroit River into Canada. They eventually made their way by foot to the Queen’s Bush Settlement, a burgeoning community that, at its peak, comprised some fifteen hundred to two thousand black men, women, and children. They came seeking a place apart, individually and collectively, their own ground beneath their feet. And they set about making homes and farms for themselves and building churches and roads throughout the Queen’s Bush, a section of clergy reserve land held for the future support of the Anglican Church of Canada.


Linda Brown-Kubisch, The Queen’s Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers 1839-1865, (Dundurn Press Limited, 2004) adapted from a map in Daniel Hill’s, The Freedom-Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada, 65.

Seventy years earlier, the colonial government of Upper Canada had purchased a vast tract of land from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. Covering nearly all of the Niagara Peninsula between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, the British and the Anishinaabe Mississauga called it the Between the Lakes Treaty. It was followed by a half dozen more—treaty lands that now tile together Ontario’s horseshoe of conurbation, linking St. Catharines-Hamilton-Burlington to Mississauga-Etobicoke-Toronto.

In the wake of the American Revolutionary War, the British needed to acquire legal title to the Upper Canada lands being settled by increasing numbers of people, loyalists and refugees-of-war alike. The British were also compelled to find new territory for the Haudenosaunee, their longtime national ally, whose ancestral lands in present-day upstate New York the British had wrongly surrendered to the Americans in the Treaty of Paris. The Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, for their part, thought they were sharing land with the Haudenosaunee and allowing for several British settlements along Lake Ontario, the small payment a form of rent.

The British, however, were maneuvering for the full surrender of three million acres. They partially compensated the Haudenosaunee with a 550,000-acre ribbon of land stretching north on either side of the Grand River. This new Confederacy land of the Six Nations of the Grand River essentially split the region secured by the Between the Lakes Treaty: majority-white settlement continued apace along Lake Ontario, and the Haudenosaunee relocated throughout the lower Grand. Meanwhile, the vast “Queen’s Bush,” beginning in the upper corner of the treaty territory and stretching northwest through unceded land all the way to Lake Huron, remained unsurveyed and difficult to reach.

Over the ensuing thirty years, white settlers poured into Upper Canada. Seeking to secure annuities for his people, Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) sold four large blocks of land along the upper Grand. He and subsequent Haudenosaunee leaders focused instead on protecting their lands along the lower Grand from continuous encroachment. (Even so, by the 1840s, their territory had been reduced by ninety-five percent, to the present-day boundaries of the Six Nations Indian Reserve No. 40, a corner of which abuts the one remaining reserve belonging to the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.)

Into this north country, throughout the first half of the 1800s, my Pennsylvania German Mennonite ancestors moved, clearing farmland and helping form the townships of Waterloo and Woolwich. At the same time, the edge of the Queen’s Bush, just a few miles to the west, became a growing settlement, a kind of maroon community, composed of freeborn men and women along with many freedom runners and their families fleeing slavery and white racial oppression throughout the eastern half of North America. While the Mennonite story of the region has, for a century and a half, been well-rehearsed, accounts of the Queen’s Bush Settlement and these treaty histories have not.

This forgetting—covered over by long-held assumptions of the region as settled historically and primarily by white Europeans—is not innocent. Nor does it stand scrutiny. Call it the Between the Lakes territory or the Queen’s Bush Settlement or the village of Wallenstein, the history of this place, this land, deserves a far richer imagining, a deeper, more complicated public memory.



Part of the original borderline between the Six Nations of the Grand River tract and the Queen’s Bush is paved now into the straightaway between two long S curves on Line 86 heading east out of Wallenstein. It runs along the low hill, overlooking the old tile plant.

Sometime in the mid-1830s, the Littles walked north from Hamilton to Woolwich, crossed over the western township border into this clay-bottomed piece of land, and staked out a hundred acres for themselves. Over successive winters, they cleared forty acres of tree cover and, through long summers, began harvesting hundreds of bushels of wheat and root vegetables. Within a decade, they had horses and farm animals in pasture and owned the first local harvester.

The abolitionist Drew, through his interviews with the Littles and over a hundred others like them throughout the province of Canada West, was seeking to counterpunch the slew of pro-slavery propaganda circulating in the 1850s. In John Little, he encountered not only an exemplary yeoman farmer but a pitch-perfect narrator. And Little, for his part, jumped for the chance to speak so directly to an audience of white readers, including the various men and women who had once claimed ownership over him.

As Drew took notes, Little declared his own personhood, denied by the system of chattel slavery in the South and undermined by racist policies in the North: “If there is a man in the free states who says the coloured people cannot take care of themselves,” he pronounced, “I want him to come here and see John Little.” He had opened this plot of land, his own square acreage on which to stand and to work. It was—for a quarter century, as it turned out—a home and an escape, a refutation of slavery and a symbol of freedom.

But the Littles’ triumphant story from the Queen’s Bush is locked in at 1856, when Drew published his collection as The Refugee: Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. So is, for that matter, much of the mythos surrounding the Underground Railroad and its north-star “terminus” stations scattered throughout Ontario. The afterlife of freedom-found ended up tasting, in many cases, much more bitter than sweet.

Already, a decade before Drew’s Queen’s Bush interviews, government surveyors had walked the entirety of the Bush with chains and lot stakes. Following several populist rebellions that, among other complaints, demanded access to more land, Upper Canadian officials agreed to open up the clergy reserves for white settlement. By the mid-1840s, they had sectioned out 140,000 acres of the Queen’s Bush and divided it into the townships of Wellesley and Peel (now Mapleton). The grid lots they imposed, however, did not conform to the variant patterns of the several hundred farms that were already nested into this riverine topography. One such lot ended up sectioning in the homes of five different Queen’s Bush families, each with distinct claims to their own farms.

Despite four separate petitions from the majority-black residents pleading for consideration, no land grant was forthcoming. Although they were given the first chance to purchase their own farms, cash was scarce and loans even more rare. Most could not meet the terms of the government’s ten-year installment plan with ten percent interest. Those without options ultimately forfeited their land, meaning that, yet again, many had labored for a time without pay and had to leave empty-handed to start over, someplace else.

But the Littles and several other households held on, for a time. The former Queen’s Bush lands, meanwhile, were becoming predominantly white with the arrival of increasing numbers of Mennonites from neighboring townships as well as the thousands of Irish and British peasants setting out northwest from the immigration piers along Lake Ontario.

This is the slow demographic flip of a place. By the end of the American Civil War, there were fewer than a hundred black residents remaining in the Wallenstein area. Fifty years later, in 1918, the British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church, the primary black congregation in the township, ended services on Sideroad 19, a few miles northwest of John and Eliza’s former farm. And sixty years after that, in 1979, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record ran a full-page spread of stories on Queen’s Bush history, photographing a man named Norman Hisson standing in long grass by the broken stones of the BME cemetery, identifying him—somewhat misleadingly—as “the last surviving descendent” of the Queen’s Bush Settlement still living in the township.



Along the low bowl of hills immediately surrounding us, my grandfather counted out the five barns and nineteenth-century Mennonite farmhouses anchoring each half-lot. They’re still all our relations here, my grandfather’s first cousins—their grandchildren, my third cousins. But a theological and social schism separated us from each other a hundred years ago, when my grandfather’s grandfather, David W. Martin, split from the Old Order and founded a more exacting and separatist sect under his own name. His eldest son, Amos, alone among seven siblings, refused to join. He chose instead to remain with the Old Order and to throw himself into the business of his new drainage tile plant. By the 1950s, he then watched without a word as each of his own children, my grandfather among them, converted to a variety of more modern Mennonite or evangelical churches.

It’s a long, forking line of religious and ethnic ancestry, one that trends toward a broader mainstream assimilation. But it’s all still legible on the landscape today: the aesthetic details of a given farmhouse, the kind of machinery at work in the fields, the means of Sunday transport to church. Around Wallenstein, we can read each other from afar.

The Queen’s Bush Settlement, however, is so much harder to see. Which is why I proposed that we drive out to the back of the yard, to the absence that is John Little’s old farm. I asked my grandfather if he knew why the Littles ended up leaving after having held on for so long.

“Apparently, he felt closed in and surrounded,” he told me that his grandfather had told him. David W. grew up in the farmhouse directly to the east, one generation after Little. Each of these neighboring farms had passed through the hands of his grandfather, Jacob G. Martin, in the 1860s and ’70s, so it’s as close to living memory as I can get. And yet, this still doesn’t fully explain to me why the Littles moved away.

A more detailed answer to the why comes from Linda Brown-Kubisch, the author of the one book-length study of the Queen’s Bush Settlement. She finds the Littles listed in a ship’s manifest along with several dozen other black families sailing from New York to Port-au-Prince in late 1861. With the U.S. tearing itself asunder over the institution of slavery, the Haitian government had begun offering free passage, settlement land, and the promise of black nationhood to those who would immigrate to the island.

Word of this new settlement effort traveled through the northern states and Canada West, pushed along by the boosterism of several hired land agents, white men in the employ of Haiti. Frederick Douglass, a longtime critic of return colonization to Africa, very briefly supported the idea of a settlement in Haiti, since at least the migrants there would “still keep within hearing of the wails of our enslaved people in the United States.”

Unfortunately, by the time the Littles would have docked in Port-au-Prince, word was already trickling back in the opposite direction. The settlements had been granted poor farmland. Death and disease had immediately followed the first wave of immigration.

This dramatic move to Haiti was the Littles’ third act, but it largely eludes the archive. Except for Brown-Kubisch’s mention of the shipping manifest, the Littles don’t appear in any accounts of the short-lived settlement that I have read. Initially, I assumed that John Little’s name would be relatively easy to locate. He was, after all, a comparatively prosperous farmer before he left Wallenstein. And money usually creates a paper trail.

But a different story suggested itself when, months later and back in Massachusetts, I pulled the corrugated tab on a Canada Post package from the Wellington County Museum and Archives. Four thick-stapled Queen’s Bush petitions slid out onto my kitchen table along with a Crown Lands Department newspaper proclamation from November 1861. It gave notice, hereby, to anyone who had purchased Crown land in several listed townships, including Peel, that they had three more months to comply with the conditions of that sale.

In early 1862, when the patent on the west half of Lot Twenty, Concession One, was sold, the land was transferred not from John Little, as I had expected, but from the Crown to an Isaac Buchannan, who, later that year, turned and sold it to Jacob G., my grandfather’s great-great-grandfather. Simply put, I think the Littles defaulted on their thirteen-year-old purchase. They seem to have sold off what they could and boarded a ship bound for a new homeland in Haiti.

And if this is the case, it would appear that the Littles did not earn back the value of their two decades’ worth of work, clearing fields and pasture, building house and barn. Their own individual dispossession follows the dissolution of the Queen’s Bush Settlement as a whole—an injustice disguised by the sly maneuverings of capital, the legal fiction of a deed paper, the orderly grid map rolled out on treaty land. This counter-history is something of an irruption in the settlement story of the region. Among the Mennonites, who seek to live quiet in the land, and the surrounding rural community, which largely endeavors to do right by its neighbors both in word and in deed, these are stones that pop in the kiln.


Sitting in the car that day, we stared wordlessly out through the windshield, the rear bumper touching John Little’s ghosted line fence. There was a bustle around each of the businesses by the roadway, but it was quiet in the back acreage.

I asked my grandfather what he made of all the cycles of use this lot has had. He began telling me which buildings he saw where—buildings that are seventy-five years gone, some of them. He pointed at the grade of the earth, noting how it’s ten feet lower now than it once was.

“Oh, right,” I said, acknowledging my surprise. “So what happened to the ponds out front?”

“Those were landfilled,” he remarked matter-of-factly. Debris and burnt clay and the workings of human hands all piled in and packed smooth, graded flat into this yard of industry.

There are, in other words, a hundred thousand shards of broken tile buried here, lying in wait for some future excavation—an archeological dig that will pronounce, inadequately for all that went on: There was a kiln here once.



I came of age at the end of history, or so it seemed. The feeling was palpable through the final decade of the last millennium, beamed in as it was through the rabbit-ear antennae on my family’s box television set. I was six years old when we watched nighttime images of celebrants taking pickaxes to the Berlin Wall, breaking through graffitied slabs of cement into some new culmination.

The itinerant preachers at my family’s church in Wallenstein, meanwhile, urged the congregation not to grow weary in our wait or develop a misplaced hope in human affairs. Be watchful instead for the ancient prophecies being fulfilled at last in our own lifetimes, they said. We were not long for this world.

They were seductive, these sacred and secular assumptions throughout the 1990s that all was on the cusp of being set right: if liberalism didn’t do it (and it certainly wouldn’t, we were warned), the rapture at least offered us, the saved and secured, a divine rescue before righteous judgment—in the form of locusts and global famine and the ravages of war—was loosed upon the world.

I thought I could have it both ways, young man that I was, growing strong into my body, moving forward into my own life. In the privilege of my independence—an individual citizen with an individual faith—I could imagine that my own personal future was secure either way, and that history had little hold on me.

But one day, past the Y2K disaster that wasn’t and the 9/11 disaster that was, I paused in the hallway of my childhood home while brushing my teeth and stared at the family photos hanging in framed collage. Both sets of grandparents stood there rather stiffly in conservative dress, shoulders barely touching, in the black and white prints from their 1950s weddings.

Over my grandfather’s face, I leaned in close. People have often remarked how I look like him or like his oldest daughter, my mother, or like her brothers. But these comparisons are never flattering to the young­—I preferred to look like myself.

Standing there, toothbrush cantilevered from my mouth, I saw with sudden clarity that my twenty-two-year-old grandfather did not simply look like me but was me: same deep-set eyes, same wavy hair we both would lose, same bony-shouldered stance I feel in my heels. It was unnerving, this photo of myself in 1959, twenty-four years before my own birth.

I was carrying him, it was plain to see, in these bones of mine, which he had loaned to my mother to give to me. My eyes too, borrowed retinas through which to see the world. And an imprint of faith I’ll never quite shake from the palms of my hands, the fingers of which I’m now using to write my way home.

The same clay flesh we were, I realized. Which is no great truth, this noticing that I consist within a complex web of relation and obligation to others. But it was a self-discovery at least, a tipping point into maturity.

My grandparents’ conversion, on the cusp of their wedding, away from Mennonite faith to evangelical Christianity, was a dramatic break from the past. This was a new, bare-bones faith, boiled down to a core set of fundamentals. Utterly modern, it told a renewed story of salvation unencumbered by the accumulations of tradition. And it certainly gifted me, two generations later, with a lifetime’s freedom beyond many of the cultural constraints of our conservative lineage.

But freedom, like art, hungers after form. And so, it was back through my grandfather—his own stories, our mutual research into the land history under our feet, my own roundabout return to the doors of a Mennonite church in Chicago—that I began to suture together again a sense of place in historical time. History, not as a moral arc but as a web.

I once believed that, upon death, the elect join in a great cloud of witnesses overhead. But I see now that our ancestors have not merely slipped their mortal bonds, as it were: They live on in the shape of our skin and the frame of our lives.


Disappearance only means that something ceases to be visible—not that it no longer has bearing on earth. The clay in Wallenstein, after all, is no longer underfoot. It’s been formed into tile and trucked to other fields, where it continues to drain the soil. John and Eliza Little left for Haiti over 150 years ago, but their account persists in a variety of ways and archives and in papers not yet found. They make plain some of the social debts I carry. Their reappearance, the story they tell in the name of the Queen’s Bush, refuses a long, intentional forgetting by those of us who have come after. And my grandfather is now no longer living, a loss that is far less real than all of him that remains.

The ground story is this: There’s persistent life, an equal-parts mixture of soil and spirit, in the back fields of Wallenstein, amidst the small graveyard of old REO trucks abandoned there in long grass.



At daybreak in late January, a few weeks after that long Sunday when my family sat in vigil as my grandfather breathed his way down to none, I stood at my butcher-block counter in the old dune hills above the Connecticut River. Five hundred miles from home and unable to write, I opted to bake instead, to put my restless hands to work.

I started by excavating some sourdough starter from its container. Stretching the thick effervescence of it with the maneuvered lever of arm and spatula, I dropped a cup of it into the hopper of my mixing bowl. I threw a small bucket into the bag of flour and hauled out three scoops, then drew off a cup and a half of spring water, clear as cold winter sky. Wooden spoon in hand, I began to stir. Some of the flour blasted into cirrus cloud on my shirt, while water pooled among the scooped and drumlin hills in the bowl. The mix became mash, wet and colloidal. A sponge that sits for hours and bubbles and swells in size.

At noon, I circled back to the cupboard, dug for salt shipped up from the dolomite basin of Lake Huron, and measured out a tablespoon’s worth. Two more cups of flour, and the rest was handwork: sleeves rolled back to knead, palms pressing the clumped edges of grief into dough, fingers working gratitude into gluten chains. I rolled the loss and wonder of him into the shape of bread-in-hand.

Following the first rise in a warm cut of light at the south window, I wheeled it back to the counter, my arms like forks on a pallet jack. I punched down the ball of it, carbon dioxide releasing with a pneumatic hiss. And then the best job on the line: decisive strokes with a long knife while the left hand pulled a thick half of the dough away, dividing it in two. I stretched and reworked each mass of dough, pulled them tight and pressed them into shaping bowls to rise a second time.

As daylight faded to New England night, I fired up the oven. With propane heat blasting over baking stone, I watched the temperature climb, welcoming its warmth. Next, a series of fast, definitive movements: a quick flip of the bread bowls, slashes for expansion, fast brushes of egg white for glossy crust. I slid the baking stone back to rack and dumped ice cubes in for steam, then sealed the door up with a shove of the hip.

What is the essential, daily art of life but this? Bread baked on fired clay for as long as people have bricked up kilns or mudded ovens into shape. Bread that is equal parts earth and spirit, that prompts us to eat and to remember.

Meanwhile, the starter on the counter, fed fresh, began to replenish itself.



Benjamin Drew, The Refugee: Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada (1856), introduction by George Elliott Clarke, Dundurn Press, Toronto, 2008.

Clarence Martin, “Earth to Earth” [1959, 2008], uploaded Dec. 6, 2018,

David A. Martin, “Mennonite Fundamentalism and the Hawkesville Brethren: An Examination of the Origins of the Wallenstein Bible Chapel and Its Impact on the Local Mennonite Community,” Waterloo Historical Society’s Annual Volume, vol. 91, 2004.

Donald B. Smith, Sacred Feathers: The Reverend Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and the Mississauga Indians, 2nd Edition, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2013.

Floyd J. Miller, The Search for a Black Nationality, Black Emigration and Colonization, 1787-1863, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1975.

Gerald Wright, “Descendant of Negro Slaves Still Resides in Peel Township,” Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Section Four, p. 31, July 20, 1979.

G. R. Guillet and I. H. Joyce, “The Clay and Shale Industries of Ontario,” Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 1987.

Linda Brown-Kubisch, The Queen’s Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers 1839–1865, Natural Heritage Books, Toronto, 2004.

Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, “Between the Lakes Treaty No. 3 (1792),” Treaty Lands and Territory, May 28, 2017,

Queen’s Bush Petitions, Archives of Ontario (R. G. 1, C1-1, Vol. 42, Petitions 1827–1856): Petition to James Durand, MP (1842); Petition to Charles Metcalfe, GG (1843); Petition to the Governor General (1847); Petition to Lord Elgin (1850).

Rick Monture, We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River, University of Manitoba Press, Winnipeg, 2014.

Susan M. Hill, The Clay We Are Made Of: Haudenosaunee Land Tenure on the Grand River, University of Manitoba Press, Winnipeg, 2017.


Geoff Martin’s recent work has appeared in Boulevard, Slag Glass City, Ruminate, and The Drum. His essay, “From the Banks of the Grand,” which was shortlisted in The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest, serves as a companion piece to “Baked Clay.” Find him at or on Twitter @gmartin9. He currently lives in San Francisco, California.


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Baked Clay

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