Boreen. Such a delicious word, lingering in the mouth with a hint of yearning, almost a keening; full-bodied for sure, bursting with abundant flavours of wildflower, turf and tree. From the Irish boíthrín, ‘little road’. A narrow lane, often unpaved. In this river valley which widens out to the north from the foot of Errigal they criss-cross the bog like a fractured web, the threads never quite meeting, each of them striding through its own segment of the landscape and then casting itself off in the extremity of its own unique and secret place.
Each morning at first light, while the land is quiet and the sheep are still sleeping in the fields, the dogs and I set out to walk the bog roads. There is rarely a plan, just an easy setting of feet one in front of the other, and a turn to the left or to the right on a sudden whim. Some mornings I am called down the path to the ford; some mornings An Eachla Beag beckons, and I follow the long winding track which ends at a turf stack close to its base.
Turf; always the turf. For this is working bog, and these tracks which pass through it have been carved out and maintained down all the generations by families who have inhabited this land, for the sole purpose of cutting and bringing home the turf. From late autumn to early spring, the silence deep in the bog seems absolute – save for the trickle of a fast-flowing stream, or the call of a passing crow. But in the months between it teems with cutters and stackers, gatherers and baggers, till finally the black gold is taken home by peat warriors who have made their sacrifices to the god of cleggs, and who bear the scars inflicted by hordes of blood-sucking midges.
I have no turbary rights over this bog; my purpose here is different. Every morning, I engage in the process of walking myself into this land. Literally. Feet pounding the tracks, eyes and ears open, sporting rain-drenched hair or sun-drenched skin. Every inch of this old, old country where my ancestors wandered sings of story. The stories of rocks, and streams and trees; the stories of fox and hare and sparrowhawk. The stories of the countless generations of inhabitants of this land whose heritage lies in bog. The bog is a symbol of the Irish psyche, Seamus Heaney wrote: it creates its own mindscape. Bog is both an archetypal and a geological memory-bank, a ‘dark casket where we have found many of the clues to our past and to our cultural identity’.
An entire cultural memory-bank forms around bog, for sure. Anne Campbell, an artist from the Isle of Lewis where we used to live, recently compiled a booklet entitled Rathad an Isein: The Bird’s Road – a Lewis Moorland Glossary. The specificity of the linguistic terms within it us tells us everything we need to know about the mindscape of the bog. A’ ghrian a’ leum air na cnuic: ‘shadows of clouds seen moving across moorland on a sunny day when there are white, fast-moving clouds in the sky’. Clach èit nam beann: quartz stones ‘put in moorland streams so that they would seem light in moonlight (to attract the salmon)’. Such terms tell of a deep-rooted culture and heritage which is unique in its umbilical connection to this land.
As I walk, out of nothing my own newer stories begin to take shape and merge with stories past. We give birth each morning, the world and I, along these old bog roads. I set out as one creature and may return home another. Walking the lines across the bog. Songlines, storylines, mythlines. Plugged straight into the mains, my head to my feet to the earth. I set out in the early morning Otherworld and may return home transformed. My dreams are filled with hares in the bedroom, foxes in the kitchen. The river whispers the names of things and the falling leaves paint a pattern that I am learning to decode.
If you walk the land with an open heart, it will speak to you.
Such stories it will tell.