There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.
Six years after the First World War Ernest Hemingway wrote his short story Big Two-Hearted River.
In 1918, on his first day posted in the village of Fossalta in northern Italy as an ambulance driver, the 19-year-old Hemingway found himself combing a field for body parts, following a munitions factory explosion.
Days later he was seriously injured when a mortar shell exploded close to him. He was hospitalised for six months in Milan and left Italy on his discharge in early 1919.
What he witnessed in his brief time in northern Italy provides a context to a number of the writer’s early works.
It’s perhaps most explicit in Big-Two Hearted River, written in 1925. The story documents a hunting trip in Northern Michigan, undertaken by newly-discharged narrator Nick Adams.
It is is read as a parable for the rejuvenating powers of nature, as Nick leaves the burnt-out town of Seney behind to hike and hunt into the uplands, to locate a place where “nothing could touch him”.
It also introduces a trope that would recur in Hemingway’s later writing: the juxtaposition of mountain against the plain, one representing purity, healing and principle, the other baseness, danger or corruption.
Last Sunday my wife and I left the city and travelled to Howth, a coastal village 15km north of Dublin’s centre. It had been a long time since we’d hiked. Weeks of the day-to-day had led us both to simultaneously suggest the trip.
Leaving behind the crowds of visiting students, strolling families and traffic we hiked out and above the village to a coastal trail which winds along the cliffs overlooking the Irish Sea.
An hour in, walking the cliff path, we turned a corner and hiked into Nick Adams’ Seney.
The hillside all around was scorched and blackened and the sea air smelt liked cinders.
Days or weeks earlier a fire had been set, burning the grass under the gorse off the ground and much of the gorse itself, with the exception of some golden leaves above the fire line.
All that remained below were burned-up beer cans and glass, and an expanse of dusty black earth.
We walked on, up and out through the desolation to where we turned and there, from a height and in the distance and the clearing air, was the sight of Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.
We had reached our destination, a hillside washed green by recent rains. The sun shone on the water, the Dublin mountains framed the bay, nothing could touch us.
Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned. He knew that…
Two hundred yards down the hillside the fire line stopped. Then it was sweet fern, growing ankle high, to walk through, and clumps of jack pines; a long undulating country with frequent rises and descents, sandy underfoot and the country alive again.
*The excerpts above from ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ are from The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Editon (Scribner, 1987)