The Doc Project

My dad spent 30 years digging up a giant rock

Veronica Simmonds' dad has a strong attachment to a rock in the Canadian Shield. So strong, in fact, that there's only ever been one answer to the question "Where's Dad?" when the family's at the cottage: "Out digging."

Whenever Veronica's family is at the cottage, her dad Colin is out digging, raking or sweeping his rock

Colin MacAdam rests on "Leviathan," the gigantic rock he's spent decades uncovering. (Veronica Simmonds/CBC)
Listen8:26

By Veronica Simmonds

When I think of my father at his happiest I picture him covered in dirt, holding a pick axe and digging; my dad loves to dig.

About 30 years ago my parents bought a little piece of land near Gooderham, Ont., on Tamarack Lake. For years we would spend the summer camping out there on little wooden platforms, fighting away mosquitos, cooking over fires, taking long swims, roughing it. Us kids hated it. So much so we started calling it the "dumb old land" or Dummo for short. But eventually my parents saved up enough money to build a proper building on the land, so they needed a road.

The way my dad tells it, a local guy named Jim Manley came down with a giant bulldozer to flatten a road in to what would be our cottage. The pristine wilderness met this bulldozer, and as Manley was chugging along at one point, the bulldozer teetered. It was stuck on a sort of protrusion. And as the story goes, Manley leaned out of the cab, pointed down and yelled to my dad over the bulldozing noise, "Canada!"

He meant the granite. The Canadian Shield.

Colin's balanced rocks. These have been up for 15 years. (Veronica Simmonds )

My dad says that in this part of Ontario there is more granite than earth. And from the moment Manley struck that rock, something stirred in my dad.

There was something about that protrusion of rock that was calling to him.

"It bothered me," my dad tells me, "just on a sort of aesthetic point of view. It sort of scratched my brain."

I've been interviewing my dad about his digging. I've been trying to unearth a bit of understanding on why he spent 25 years uncovering this massive rock formation. I've been talking to all my family members too, asking them the same question: What did you think he was doing out there?

Colin digging (Joy Simmonds)

My brother says, "It made no sense to me."

My sister says, "I probably assumed it was for a reason."

My mother says, "There's something about digging for him that he loves."

My aunt says, "Colin has always been artistic."

My uncle says, "He was simply determined to get to the bottom."

The more we talk about it, the more I've been thinking about how the worlds inside of us shape the world around us.

There was something inside of my dad that compelled him to take his fireman's axe every day and scrap away at the earth, digging and digging and scrapping away till he revealed that rock. And once revealed he would follow it, letting the rock take him where it wanted him to go.

In the process he moved the earth. So much earth. So much dirt. Decades of dirt. His brothers and sisters actually bought him a monogrammed wheelbarrow for his 40th birthday, specifically for all that dirt.

Those summers we'd all be sitting around playing cards or going for a swim and he would be at his rock out there from sunrise to sunset. He'd come in every once in a while covered in dirt and sweat and blood and then he'd head back out, always humming or singing.

"Only by digging does the hole get deeper," his favourite mantra. It gives him comfort and gives the rest of us something to ponder. My mom made a good point the other day: "Who says the digging needs to be done?"

There was no practical purpose to this project. All this exertion, all this dirt, all his blood and sweat for 25 years. This was not landscaping, this was not for a fountain or a garden or anything of "use." This was not for anything or anyone. It was just my dad and his rock.

It was a process. But the result of that process is breathtaking.

The emerald turtle, or whale, or as Colin calls it "Leviathan" (Veronica Simmonds)

My sister describes it as a sort of enormous emerald turtle. Some call it a whale; my dad calls it the leviathan. The rock he revealed is now massive, and in the process he also found other rocks — some huge, some small. He balances the ones that speak to him or builds little walls. Every rock he encounters he deals with in some way.

Why?

Well, I think my uncle said it best. "The more he revealed of that rock, he revealed more of himself to himself."

Colin leans against his rock, circa 1998. (Joy Simmonds)
He was working something out. He was in therapy at the time and somehow this rock and this digging was part of that digging.

"Life can be very anxious." he tells me.

"When you don't know who you are, where you're going, what you should do, and you wonder if you'll ever get the answers to any of those things, then life can be exhausting and anxious. And I found in the rocks this really wonderful and comforting metaphor. There really is definition and I can find definition in my life because definition actually does exist."

I find it fitting that my dad was seeking definition. In talking to my whole family about him it's clear that part of what we all love so much about him is how undefinable he is.

"There's depths to him that I can't really fathom," my mom says. "I really respect that, even though I don't always understand it."

He's a mystery. A Randy Newman singing, thumbs out dancing, rock digging mystery.

And we love him... and his rock.

Colin out raking his rock

Listen to the documentary "Colin's Rock" by clicking the Listen link at the top of this page. Or download and subscribe to our podcast so you never miss a show.


About the Producer

Producer Veronica Simmonds at the Dummoland (Colin MacAdam)
Veronica Simmonds is a radio experimenter. Her documentaries have aired on CBC, ABC and BBC. She produces Sleepover with Sook-Yin Lee,  Alone: A Love Story and The Doc Project. Her radio art work has aired in a weather observatory in France, a hair dryer in Pittsburgh, and a grain silo in Norway. She was also the host of Braidio, a show where she braided hair live on air.