The Silent Witness of Evergreens

If you have ever driven across rural south-west Manitoba, you might have noticed the odd clumps of evergreen trees punctuating the landscape. Depending on how ecologically aware you are, you may or may not realize that these trees do not really belong here. This part of the world is mostly covered with scrubby trees like poplar, oak, willow, and Manitoba maple. These occasional splotches of towering green are a sign, for those with eyes to see, that yards, and possibly people, are nearby.

Of course, these days if you get close to these clumps of trees, you are about as likely to find the ruined remains of a yard as you are of finding anybody actually living there. Yet for those of us who are familiar with these landscapes, these clumps of trees still recall the names and lives of the people that are attached to them. To the north of my parents’ farm is the Jervis place – who, or what, a Jervis is, I have never known, but, according to my dad, they had a good toy cupboard. To the east is Oliver Lowe’s, a neighbour who died years ago; I think somebody else lives there, but we do not know who. Finally, to the south-west is Barretts’, though they moved to town over a decade ago. Each clump of trees continues to bear the presence of those who have long since been absented from the land.

The evergreens that mark where Ryan’s great-grandparents’ remains rest.

My parents’ farm, though still a working farm (and, during coronavirus, once again home to my entire family), is itself haunted by the presence of those long since departed. I am the fifth generation of Turnbulls to call this place home, and, if you pay close attention, there are traces of my absent ancestors all over. A clearing in a maple bush marks the place where my grandfather wintered cattle; some old fruit trees mark where my grandparents’ and parents’ garden used to be. A pair of evergreen trees marks the spot where my great-grandparents cremated remains rest. A stone cairn at the end of our lane marks the names and dates of the generations, going back, husband and wife, to my great-great-grandfather’s homesteading in 1883.

Walking around my family’s farm, I can’t help but echo the words of Jayber Crow in the eponymous novel by Wendell Berry, “I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead. The world as it is would always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come.” For Berry’s character, Jayber, the land is full of traces of the membership of the community. Fidelity to theses presences and absences is essential for the well-being of the entire place.

The presence of absences crowds the landscape of the Western Manitoba prairies. Once again seeing these trees and remembering these names leaves me with a profound sense of grief for the communities and stories that have long since died or moved to the city. Where have they gone? In the wide expanse of the memories I have inherited from my family, these vacant bunches of trees are homes, lives, and stories.

But they are also something else. These trees are the silent witnesses of and against settler society, bringing with them the intentional silence of those countless untold bodies that were forcibly absented from the landscape. Where have they gone? Where are the buffalo? Where are the wagons of Red River Metis that once followed them? Where are the Cree and Ojibway nations that once roamed these lands? Insofar as these trees vividly bring the presence of my absent settler community to mind, they also absent the presence of all those who stewarded the land for countless generations before. Those bodies that grew up with and fit this land have been replaced by neat rows of trees that do not.

In recent years, it has become fashionable to begin public events with a land-acknowledgement ceremony. I have sat through many of these, some rote, some quite thoughtful, and some that were a mockery of the exercise as part of some corporate virtue-signalling strategy. But at their best, land acknowledgements are a chance for us to remember where we are in order to understand who we are and to whom we belong. If Berry is right – that the world that is, is always in a relationship with the membership of the world that was and the world that is to come – then we have a responsibility to acknowledge to whom we owe this world, the dead that precede us and those children who are yet to come.

Fundamentally, land acknowledgements are an exercise in training our memories to love. In acknowledging where we are, we declare our membership in a web of relations that extends beyond ourselves in ways that exposes connections we may have missed. St. Augustine discovered long ago that learning to remember rightly was key to knowing God. In his Confessions, Augustine remembers his life, discovering along the way those whose love held him and shaped him. Along the way, he realizes that his membership in their love is a function of the love God has for all of God’s creatures. As Jeffrey Bilbro says in “The Ecology of Memory,” “Augustine believes that humans can gain a foretaste of the final restoration of creation. Thus, for Augustine, the highest use of the faculty of memory is prayer: Confessions is his life remembered as a prayer of repentance and restoration.”

It seems to me that, for us, well-done land acknowledgements can be prayers of repentance and restoration. Every time they are done, we remember our membership in the web of creaturely relationships that constitute the places in which we live and move and have our being. Fidelity to the membership is long work, patiently undertaken. Elders often say that it took seven generations to arrive at where we are today, and it will take seven generations to undo the harms that were done. Acknowledging the land and its various presences and absences is the first step in committing ourselves in loving fidelity to all fourteen of those generations in the hope that here, in the land the Creator has given as pure gift, we might just discover a foretaste of a restored creation, one where clumps of evergreen trees point to the presence of all peoples in God’s beloved creation.

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.

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