At the confluence of colonialism and a “Big Two-Hearted River”: a congruent path to recovery

Posted on January 29, 2017


Ernest HemingwayIn “Big Two-Hearted River”, a story by Ernest Hemingway, Nick Adams hikes to a remote and isolated river and fishes it. The hike, the work to set up his camp, and the time spent fishing the river seems to restore him. The story ends on a positive note. There is work to be done on his path to recovery, but Adams seems to think he will manage it.

I recently reread Hemingway’s first forty-nine short stories and his novel Farewell to Arms. I was struck by the utter bleakness of these stories, a bleakness that was foreign to my memory of them.

I was also similarly struck by the shattered nature of his characters. These are men and women broken by their experience of war and, perhaps, the experience of modernity itself. Their stories are fragments of fragmented lives, and a hopeless resignation imbues all of them. Life, living, and its few pleasures are fragile, fleeting, and sure to end in desolation.

The notable exception to all of this is Adams in “Big Two-Hearted River.” By returning to the land, by reconnecting with nature, Adams seems to find a path to healing. The story also seems to imply that he faces no obstacle to a full recovery so long as he is living close to the land.  

Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, a Kanien’kehaka Professor of Indigenous Governance and Political Science at the University of Victoria, proposes for the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island a path to recovery that is strikingly similar to Adam’s fictional experience. Because Alfred thinks colonialism is fundamentally about the dispossession and disconnection of indigenous peoples from their land, he thinks the path to recovery for them is to reconnect with the land and to develop a relationship with it that is spiritually, culturally, and economically sustainable. It seems to me that Adams, in his own way, is doing exactly what Alfred recommends.

The congruence of Adams’ fictional experience and Alfred’s well-considered recommendation, of course, may be coincidental. The notion that a person or community can be healed by returning to the land is hardly novel. It may be as old as urbanity itself.

The congruence might also have its roots in overlapping personal histories. It is evident from the Nick Adams stories that Hemingway spent an important part of his formative years living in close association with indigenous peoples. Perhaps, Hemingway is drawing from the same cultural well as Alfred when he proposes that a renewed relationship with the land is the key to indigenous renewal.

Or, as I want to suggest, the congruence might be an indications that settlers and the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island have a congruent path to recovery. It is easy to forget, thanks to our colonial histories, that the vast majority of peoples used to displace and dispossess the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island were themselves displaced and dispossessed of their own lands. This fact does not excuse them of their culpability in the colonization of these lands, but it may explain why they too easily embraced genocide as a means to material well being. Displaced and dispossessed peoples all too often retreat into hopeless and destructive behaviour.

Settlers will, of course, need to develop their own relationships with the land, distinct from the relationships pursued by indigenous peoples. They also have a duty to honour the treaties their ancestors signed on their behalf. In fact, it is probably true that settlers will only be able to honour those treaties, if and when they develop a relationship with the land that is, in its own way, spiritually, culturally, and economically sustainable. The settler relationship to the land need not be identical to those developed by indigenous peoples, but it must be congruent, if a just coexistence based on honesty, peace and friendship is going to be possible.

What am I suggesting here is that dispossession and disconnection from the land is an ailment we all share, thanks to colonialism, capitalism, and the will to domination at the root of both. It may also explain why, despite living off the fat of other peoples’ lands for centuries, settler society is empty, shattered, and on the edge of ecological disaster. To honour their historical obligations and to survive, settlers will need to rethink and renew their relationship to the land. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

Just ask Nick Adams.

Posted in: Colonialism