It would be easy to say that I should never have left. It would be easy to tell myself that I should have known better, twenty years ago, than to leave. When a land claims you from the first moment you set foot upon it; when it is the only place you ever felt that your feet were in the right place, that you have ever felt that anything and maybe even everything in this crazy, fucked-up world we have created for ourselves might make sense, what sense can it ever make to go?
But sometimes you have to go, and twenty years ago I went. Now, caught up in some strange homecoming heaven, I cannot imagine how I ever imagined I would survive it. And yet, you can only come home again if in the first place you have left home. Twenty years ago I didn’t know quite what it was that I had; now I know all too well. Now, too, I am bringing something back. Now I know how to speak to this place, and how to listen to what it is saying to me. Now I know about the stories. The power of place, speaking.
And this place knows me. This land remembers me; I am sure of it. I for sure know it, and I have fallen into place in every possible way. My world no longer wobbles around some oddly-tilted axis. Every rock in this place speaks to me. Every loch seems to know my name. I am variously filled with wonder and with terror. The wonder is obvious, but the terror, curiously, comes from understanding physically, viscerally, fully for the first time exactly what it is we have done to ourselves as a species by cutting ourselves off from the power of our places. By separating ourselves from the land, and telling ourselves we are better (cleverer) than its gods.
Here, each day, as Annie Dillard wrote in her essay ‘Paganism’ in Holy is the Firm, is a god.
‘Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading at dawn fast over the mountains split.
I wake in a god. I wake in the arms holding my quilt, holding me as best they can inside my quilt.
Someone is kissing me — already. I wake, I cry “Oh.” I rise from the pillow. Why should I open my eyes?
I open my eyes. The god lifts from the water. His head fills the bay. He is the Puget Sound, the Pacific; his breast rises from pastures; his fingers are firs; islands slide wet down his shoulders. Islands slip blue from his shoulders and glide over the water, the empty, lighted water like a stage.
Today’s god rises, his long legs flecked in clouds. He flings his arms, spreading colors; he arches, cupping sky in his belly; he vaults, vaulting and spread, holding all and spread on me like skin.’
Some days, the god leads us to the woods. Yes, there are woods here too, though they’re the kind of woods at which people often turn up their noses. Plantation forestry – not proper woods, I once heard someone say. But here’s the most remarkable thing about such places: they’re still full of trees. And trees are alive and saturated in magic.
This is old plantation – and a vast swathe of it, stretching over the hills to the east and far beyond. It has never been managed, never been thinned, and it is hard to imagine, beautifully shambolic as it now is, that it ever would be worth the cutting. And these woods are indeed alive. Plantation forests based on single or few coniferous species may be less biodiverse than native old-growth broadleaf woods, but the older they grow (and especially if they are left to their own devices) the wilder they become. Dead and rotting wood provides the perfect conditions for certain invertebrates and fungi to thrive, and for moss and lichen species to take hold. Larger areas of standing and fallen dead wood opens up sections of the forest to the light, allowing new species of tree and plant to find their way in. These spaces, along with the wilder edges of the forest fringe, can provide the ideal habitat for certain nesting birds.
And besides – this is Connemara, and in Connemara, a wood is never simply a wood. Connemara is a water-world; if water is your element, you’ll find few places which tug at you like this one. Here, there is water of every kind. The crashing waves of the wild ocean out to the west, washing up on pale sandy beaches and coral strands. The fractal inlets of our tidal lochs, their salt-encrusted fingers probing deeply into the land. Tiny lakes scattered thickly across the bog like fragments of broken mirror, and the rivers and streams which join them all up – a vast network of interconnected liquid threads, a complex, tangled water-web.
There’s water for sure somewhere in these woods, but this is uncharted territory: there is no path into it other than the path that we make with our own feet.
The path we have forged takes us across a quaking bog. Tread lightly here, for nothing is as it seems. A quaking bog quite literally quakes. It looks like ordinary ground, abundant with spongy lichens and mosses – but walking on the surface causes it to move. And if you jump lightly up and down (choose your spot carefully) the surface of the ground ripples like the disturbed surface of a lake, and the smaller spruces closest to you might even begin to sway. There is little that is quite as surreal as watching the ground shift and tremble beneath your feet. But we are in the woods, and anything might happen in the woods. Here, there are no bears or wolves. But there is quaking bog.
We lay a trail of breadcrumbs, for it is hard to find a good path through a quaking bog. If you are an inveterate bogwoman like me, you will bring to your pathmaking some old bone-knowledge of lichen and moss. It is a guiding sense that does not quite relate to any of the physical senses you were taught to believe in; it tells you that this is the specific mound of moss that will take your weight; this is the seemingly safe green grass on which you might not, probably, want to step.
Everywhere we look, the wood is reinventing itself.
Do we find the water, or does the water find us? A high-level dew-pond in a large clearing offers a fine place on a hot morning to stop for a drink.
A dew-pond is reward enough for the labours of our wayfaring – but then we turn a corner, and all at once the world opens up in front of us like the wildest dream of heaven I could ever have imagined. These are the moments that make you drop to your knees. This is enchantment. Not some made-up, magical airy-fairy idea of pretty things twinkling in a Disney wood. This. Here, now, crashing through all your barriers, utterly present in every sense you know about, and a whole bucketload you never imagined you possessed.
The loch is perfectly still. A cuckoo calls to our right, and two herons fly across the water to our left. On the far side, a small clutch of water-birds that are too far away to identify land on the loch, splashing and calling – a strange, soprano, constantly rising and falling song that I don’t recognise. And then, as quickly as they arrived, they’re gone. The cuckoo moves on; there is nothing now but silence. A space which I briefly fill with my own voice, rising and falling in a series of sharp, two-noted calls; it is echoed back to me from the far side of this shallow basin formed by tree and hill.
Water-lily leaves glisten like shiny pennies at the edges of the loch.
Walk to your left around this loch, and if you forge for yourself another path through the far-off trees, another loch will soon offer itself up to you. On you can go across the hills, lochs strewn across the land like a blue-beaded necklace cast down amongst the trees. Where does it end? We haven’t yet travelled that far.
One day soon, I’ll come alone to these woods. I’ll bring a flask with my morning coffee, and a rubber-backed blanket to sit on among the wet thickets of grass scattered along the edges of the first enchanted loch. I will sit still here in the silence of a Connemara dawn and see what stories we might tell each other, this place and I.
But for now, there is work to do. It’s time to head home.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
(‘Stopping by woods on a snowy evening’, by Robert Frost)