This first chapter details the childhood of the protagonist, Patrick Lewis, in the small, rural logging town of Depot Creek, Ontario, Canada with his silent and hard-working father. He does not have a mother as he grows up. As a young boy, Patrick watches the loggers arrive in town in the winter to work in the mills. The chapter starts with Patrick observing the loggers walking to work in the dawn light, and already we get a sense of his being an outside observer of a group, a theme that will recur throughout his life and in the novel. As the winter ends the loggers leave, a mark of change in Patrick’s boyhood life.
In the summer months, Patrick is still observing life as an outsider, but this time he observes nature closely as it comes to him, in the form of the insects and moths that cling to the screens of the house. He notices details of these life forms, down to the “brown-pink creature who released colored dust on his fingers,” and the “peach-green aphid [who] appear[ed] to be constructed of powder.” Patrick is shown to make keen observations with every one of his bodily senses, even hearing: “When he was nine his father discovered him lying on the ground, his ear against the hard shell of cow shit inside which he could hear several bugs flapping and knocking.”
The omniscient narrator tells us that Patrick and his father do not own land, but the landowner has cattle that his father herds. One day, a cow gets lost from the herd and falls through the ice of the frozen river. Patrick and his father have to go under the freezing water to tie a rope around the cow that is then attached to horses who pull the cow out. The incident is described in Ondaatje’s hallmark style of detailed sensory perception, including how the water freezes inside their ears once they bring their heads out and into the frigid air. Hazen, Patrick’s father, is a quiet man but loving to Patrick. When they come home, Hazen tells Patrick he can sleep in the same bed as Hazen for warmth, like Patrick used to as a child. His dreams that night meld memory and reality.
Patrick's father works as a logger but then teaches himself to make dynamite explosions. He practices on trees and by tracing outlines of Patrick’s body on the plank walls of the shed with chalk, “tacking wires back and forth across the outline as if realigning the veins in his son’s frame.” Then “a fuse smolders up and blows out a section of plane where the head had been.” After teaching himself about dynamite, Hazen gave up cutting timber all day, and he made “the one leap of his life”: He ordered books on blasting caps and fuses, drew diagrams on the shed, learned about detonators and cartridges. Then he rode into town to the Rathburn Timber Company headquarters and demonstrated his talent by exploding a half-ton of shale and moving logs where he said they would go.
Hazen is hired as dynamiter to break free log-jams in the river. This is dangerous work, as after the dynamiter finds the jam in the river and sets his apparatus under water, there could be a “twenty-foot log suddenly leaping out of the water and side-sweeping a man, breaking his chest.” When the logging company closes down a few years later, he works as a dynamiter in the feldspar mines nearby. Patrick observes his father, learns about dynamiting from him and works with him. Patrick is the one who goes underwater to attach a fuse to a log, which he does by “crimp[ing] the blasting cap onto the fuse with his teeth,” in the water, then lighting the powder and swimming out, “a river exploding behind him, the crows leafing up.”
The narrator tells us that “Hazen Lewis did not teach his son anything, no legend, no base of theory.” Patrick observes his father to learn what he can, down to the detail of watching his father wash his clothes each evening to remove remnants of explosives on his apparel, otherwise, as his father demonstrates, if he leans too close to a spark from a campfire, his entire body could go up in flames. His father is a silent man, and seems unemotional. The only time he spoke more than a few words was in square-dance calling, and even then, his “words would slide non-committal over the dance floor.” As distant as his father seemed, we are told in this first chapter that later, Patrick realizes that from his father, “he learned important things, the way children learn from watching how adults angle a hat or approach a strange dog. . . But he absorbed everything from a distance.”
One night, Patrick sees lightning bugs in the fields outside the house, but he is confused because it is winter. He goes outside to the edge of the field to see what is going on, and he hears laughter and sees men, the loggers, skating on the frozen river holding cat-tails that are light on fire like lighting bug sparks. They played a game of tag and “when they collided, sparks fell onto the ice and their dark clothes.” They speak another language that Patrick cannot understand. Patrick longs to be part of their game, but it seems he is too shy or scared to join them: ". . . he did not trust either himself or these strangers of another language enough to be able to step forward and join them."
This chapter is full of intricate sensory detail from Patrick’s point of view, especially his observation of landscape, insects, his father’s silence, and the loggers skating on the lake. This chapter shows him to be innocent, quiet, and not spending his time with other boys or children. Instead he is shown fascinated by the natural world and extremely aware of nature and of the environment around him (down to listening to the bugs inside a hardened cow patty).
The dream-like paragraph at the end of the section after Patrick and his father bring the cow out of the frozen river is an example of Ondaatje’s style of melding memory, dreams and reality and this is the first time we are introduced to a major theme in this novel: the blurring the lines between reality and dreams. Dreams and dream-sequences mixed with reality will recur in the novel for almost every character, who take them as seriously as real events in their lives.
Though Hazen is a minor character in the novel, his traits are keys to recurring motifs in the novel. The square-dance calling, the few sentences that Hazen speaks, recur in the novel. Patrick repeats these calls when he is in prison in the cell across from Caravaggio, and it is these words that bring Caravaggio back to consciousness after he is beaten in his cell and this throat cut; it is these words that save his life. Also, Hazen’s large body and silent ways are repeated in Nicholas Temelcoff, who is also a large quiet man who performs difficult labors that no other man will do. And his self-taught dynamiting that Patrick learns from him becomes the trait and skill that Patrick uses to avenge Alice’s death.
The title of this chapter, on a simple level, refers to the “seeds” that planted Patrick’s personality to grow into what it becomes as an adult, but it also metaphorically refers to the imagery in the last section, where the ice skaters throw sparks from their lit-up cat-tails when they collide. These are the “seeds” or sparks, that draw young Patrick outside in the night. First he thinks they are insects, in keeping with his younger self’s fascination with insects. Then, when he discovers what the sparks really are, we witness his longing to belong to the group of men: “He longed to hold their hands and skate the length of the creek slowing down through cut rock and under bridges and into town with these men.” He also romanticizes their life and their leisure time: “It was not just the pleasure of skating. They could have done that during the day. This was against the night. . . Their lanterns replaced with new rushes which let them go further past boundaries, speed! romance! one man waltzing with fire!”
When Patrick decides not to join the skaters, even though he longs to, Ondaatje shows Patrick’s sadness through his actions: “He turned back through the trees and fields carrying his own lamp. Breaking the crust with each step seemed graceless and slow.” His slowness contrasts with the speed, grace and beauty he sees and feels in the men on the ice. His slow walk depicts sadness, so that Ondaatje does not need to tell us what Patrick is feeling: we can see it in his movements. The last line of the chapter, after Patrick is watching the ice skaters holding their lit-up cat-tails, reads: “So at this stage in his life his mind raced ahead of his body.” This foreshadows what Patrick desires for his adult life and where he will end up. Even though Patrick was born and bred in the land, he will prefer to be with men who are immigrants, who speak another language, just as he does in this scene with the skaters.
Patrick understands these foreign loggers at an emotional level, without having a common language with them, just as he understands his father who is a man of few words. Language, silence, and communication beyond words, is another major theme of the novel that is first introduced here. The significance of this first chapter is to allow the reader to know Patrick’s personality so we can more acutely follow him and understand him through his journey and life among a community of immigrants who help build the city of Toronto in the 1930’s.