Earlier this year I wrote a reflection for this publication on the evergreens on my family’s farm and what they might mean for remembering the land through land acknowledgement statements. This summer, I bought a new house hundreds of kilometres away from that farm here in the City, and as I settled in, I felt excited about the possibility of establishing some roots somewhere for the first time as an adult, but also a bit nostalgic for that farm life that seems to keep getting further and further away. As I unpacked boxes, I discovered a book of poetry that my great-grandfather Norman had written. Reading through it I found the following poem:
Give me the western prairies before the white man came
Rolling into the sunset, God’s immense domain.
Give me the poplar wildwood, the plains astrew with flowers
The crocus and the lilies, God’s balm in leisure hours.
Give me the creeks and rivers, winding to lake or the sea
The darting fish and the drinking deer, God’s wildlife to pleasure me.
Give me the sunrise and sunset, the hues and colors rare,
The lengthening shadows spreading, God’s restful night from care.
Give me the gift of vision, that is the best of all;
That I may ever upward look, God’s strength for a growing soul.
These are the gifts I’d ask had I to live here over again;
Now I pass them on to the children: God, thanks for each wonderful thing.
What this poem reminds me is that, despite our best intentions, remembering can be tricky business. For as we see in Norman’s poem, an act of re-membering that gives a future to his children can also simultaneously be an act of dis-membering insofar as it erases indigeneity in the image of the pre-settler prairie wilderness as God’s abode.
Haunting the Membership
Insofar as this settler memory can fail, allow me to turn to a brief discussion of hauntology and the promises and limits of haunting as component piece of a more radical remembering. ‘Hauntology,’ as a term, was coined by Jacques Derrida in his book Spectres of Marx. ‘Hauntology’ is a portmanteau combining ‘haunt’ and ‘ontology’ to indicate the absent presence of a time out of joint. Derrida’s concept has proven to be especially prescient of our contemporary cultural moment, as pop-culture continues to serve up nostalgic reinterpretations of late 20th century pop-culture. One of the best live performances I have ever attended was by Canadian electric-powwow group, A Tribe Called Red, at the 2018 Winnipeg Folk Festival. A major theme of their performance was the idea of the “Halluci Nation.” In one of their songs, they repeat the line, “We are the Halluci Nation” over and over as the back screen is flooded with images lifted from settler media of caricatured depictions of Indigeneity. In front of this screen, hip-hop and traditional dancers blend their dress and steps as if to say, ‘we are here, we are not a hallucination, and we definitely do not fit inside your stereotypes.’ Through this performance, A Tribe Called Red asserts the creative genius of Indigenous artists, and, situated as they are within EDM, make use of the hauntological edge of the genre, not merely by repeating the sounds of settler pop-music, but by resurrecting the powwow drum and the traditional singing that has long echoed across these lands. Ultimately, A Tribe Called Red’s performance works to resurrect the presence of a time ‘out of joint,’ and leaves me asking these questions: Is radical remembering possible? And what would be required to actually perform this kind of remembering?
Reconciling the Membership – Remembering All Hallows
Here I turn to the agrarian memory of Wendell Berry in hopes that it can be conceived as a radical remembering that can overcome the limitations of my great-grandfather’s agrarian remembering. Perhaps the agrarian nostalgia that characterizes both Berry’s imagination, and in a rather cruder way, my great-grandfather’s, can be reconceived as a true re-membering and not just another instantiation of settler attempts at erasure. However, in using Berry in this way, I must admit limits to his usefulness as a guide. Berry’s deployment of ‘radical remembering’ has been most explicitly turned in the direction of race and racism in his book The Hidden Wound and in his short story “Not a Tear.” In The Hidden Wound, Berry is responding to the civil rights movement by reflecting on his heritage as a White Southerner and one who is shaped by the reality of segregation. Berry is highly cognizant of the damage that racism has wrought, in differing degrees and modes to both oppressed and oppressor, and illustrates this through an intimate reflection on his relationship with two Black people from his childhood, ‘Uncle’ Nick and ‘Aunt’ Georgie. This appeal to friends of colour can be a problematic move by White folks to move to innocence via their friendships. Yet, I find myself in agreement with bell hooks who argues in her book, Belonging, A Culture of Place, that one of the most powerful ideas presented in The Hidden Wound, is the acknowledgement that inter-racial living, even in flawed structures of racial hierarchy, produces a concrete reality base of knowing and potential community that will simply be there when all that white and black folks know of one another is what they find in the media which is usually a set of stereotypical representations of both races.
Berry acknowledges that, in some of his earlier fiction, his depiction of Georgie ran the risk of imposing upon her an “an imaginative stability at the cost of oversimplifying them.” So, in The Hidden Wound, Berry foregoes fiction, attempting to tell the truth about his memory of these irreducible people from his past while acknowledging that this is “to resign oneself to enacting a small fragment of an endless process. Their truth is inexhaustible both in their lives as they were, and in my life as I think they were.” Yet, in a more recent collection of stories, Berry again tries his hand at fictionalizing these relations, recounting the fictionalized story of Nick’s funeral in the short story “Not a Tear.” Berry, speaking through the voice of Andy Catlett, recalls the funeral of ‘Dick Watson,’ not as he had experienced, but as it had been experienced by his father and grandpa who had attended. It was odd, Berry notes, for his White ancestors to have attended a Black funeral in the time of Jim Crow segregation, for
…everybody there belonged to the old division of the races we came to call “segregation.” They had been born in it, had lived in it, partly at least had been made as they were by it. And yet that formal and legal division, applied after all to people who were neighbors, made within itself exceptions to itself.
It’s this ‘exception’ to segregation that occurs within the lived, on the ground realities of community, that hooks thinks is so important to Berry’s practice of ‘radical remembering.’ What Berry accomplishes, from within the ‘hidden wounds’ of settler agrarianism, is a training of his imagination and memory to see the hope-filled possibilities exercised through fidelity to a place and all the members of that place.
Berry’s deployment of memory has limits, and they are characteristic of the patterns of the settler agrarianism that are seen, in varying degrees, in the poetry of my family and in settler society more broadly. Nevertheless, there is an impulse of love in Berry’s ‘radical remembering’ that leaves open the possibility of being haunted by the presence of those bodies who have been refused membership.
Berry’s own vision may be limited, as is the vision of all those who bear the hidden wounds of settler colonialism. But perhaps, through a renewed fidelity to place and the bodies and languages in discrete places, there is a way, even for settler agrarians, to begin re-membering all the presences that make up the membership, and to be reminded that it is not the hallucinatory memories of settlers that ever determined who belonged to begin with.
Having grown up on a cattle ranch in western Manitoba, Ryan Turnbull has a deep interest in the intersection of theology, ecology, place, and friendship. He is currently pursuing a PhD in theology at the University of Birmingham in Birmingham, U.K., focusing on Christian theologies of place.