A couple of years ago I dove into the works of William Faulkner. Some I liked, some I didn’t, but through Faulkner’s unique vision and voice, I did gain some insight into the American south, which was augmented by reading works by Styron and Doctorow and watching Ken Burns’ Civil War series.
One thing that really stuck with me was Faulkner’s sense that the South was twice-cursed: the devastation of indigenous nations, and the introduction of slavery had essentially left a sickness on the land. The obvious victims are those displaced and disenfranchised—the native people and the enslaved Africans—but in Faulkner’s work we see that white southerners also carry a burden of mental, emotional, and social unwellness from which there’s no obvious escape.
Reading Faulkner helped me put words to something I had long intuited with regard to Canada. This place is full of ghosts. Not just the spirits of people who have departed, but the echoes of the devastation wrought by our colonial past and our inequitable present.
There are places where the ghosts are more evident—during my time in Nova Scotia, I sensed a cacophony of voices that haunts me still.
My childhood in the woodlands of Ontario was by contrast, much more peaceful. I’m not sure if I was deaf, or just lucky, or perhaps simply not yet attuned. Or whether different circumstances had left fewer psychic scars for a boy to hear in the woods. There were, after all, relatively intact First Nations all around. Maybe you don’t hear ghosts when you go to school with the people whose history lives on nearby.
I’m musing about all this because the recent election in the US has created a deafening roar among the living and the ghosts. The standoff at Standing Rock and the ongoing struggle of Black Lives Matter personalize the effects of the terrifying tides of history, weathering away at the hopes and dreams of generations in what we now know as America.
In Canada, feeble attempts at reconciliation continue to stumble into the same ruts in the same road we’ve been walking for the entire colonial era. The curses remain on the land. Sickened and dismayed, those of us who hope for a better way find little hope in our politics; still less in the consumer culture that is literally destroying the land, the water and the wildlife we depend upon.
I’ve been nearly overcome by feelings that are intensely familiar. I remember how it felt when the US began bombing Baghdad in 1991. At that time, I was part of a cohort took to the streets in passionate effort to be counted among the voices for peace. It burned many of us out. And I feel again today the sense that things are terribly wrong; the hopelessness of trying to fix them. You can’t fight politics with politics. You can’t fight consumerism with consumption. You can’t fight war with war. And yet you can’t turn away. There’s no bubble you can live within, no island you can escape to where the howling of all history is not audible to anyone alive and at least half-awake.
So what to do, when our humanity itself seems awry? A big part of what we’re collectively feeling right now seems to me to stem from disheartening conclusions about human nature: what if this is what we’re actually like? As if we are doomed by our humanity to be heartless with one another. But I feel ‘human nature’ is much kinder than that, and we humans must turn to nature to find our humanness again.
However distanced we may think we are, we have a role to play in the natural world. Whether we tend gardens, or flocks; whether we are hunters or herb-gatherers, there’s something we, as humans, DO in the world that is part and parcel of the greater scheme and scope of things.
When we do that, we will bring healing to ourselves and to the land, We will find communion and we will create community. This is the way of things. It is how we lift the curse: by going to our source. That is where our humanity dwells, and to find that humanity right now, every one of us, is a fundamental necessity. It is our greatest need.
Put the human back in nature, and the nature back in human, and we all begin to heal.