The Burren arrived by post this morning. A beautiful graphical representation of a timeless place scoured, smoothed and littered by passing glaciers. Driving out to the Black Head Lighthouse for a late summer sunset has more than once rewarded me with memories as permanent as the photos I could have taken. Following the road to the south, the bare escarpment to the left might be rendered pink by the dying light. Grey limestone enlivened by photons and water droplets can shimmer rose-pink-rose-pink-rose-pink. Light that left the sun some eight minutes earlier persists in the mind decades later.
‘Lovely map – sadly its maker met Covid-19’ wrote my benefactor on a card that accompanied this most generous gift. ‘Hear you are planning an Atlantic Walk’.
The coincidence is remarkable. I had decided last evening that today’s journal would involve Tim Robinson. I had remembered the seed of my post from Connemara; an absence of landscape. And then the envelope arrived and I had a completely different perspective. So I won’t dwell on learning that I’m not the only one who stands on mountain tops knowing I’m only there because of the missing overburdens of kilometres of eroded rock and relatively recently melted glacial ice.
The coincidence was born of my rereading Connemara: Listening to the Wind when I heard Robinson had died at the beginning of this month. My plans for a journey to Rome had been replaced with a plan to walk The Wild Atlantic Way through Connemara and The Burren sometime soon. So I’d just been reacquainted with the ‘Sligo solicitors of immortal name, Argue and Phibbs’. Robinson had the eyes and ears of a soaring eagle and unlike the dispassionate predator, he had an empathy for the creatures that inhabit the landscape. An inspiration to any walker.
No relation I know of, our Frank fathers were very different people.
The fascination the Yorkshireman Robinson had with the Irish countryside and his importance as a feature in it seemed to be captured by Manchán Magan who tweeted ‘The loss of Tim Robinson and his wonderful wife Máiread is ameliorated by the words he’s left us, such as,“Irish placenames dry out when anglicised, like twigs snapped off from the tree.”’
I opened the map of northern Clare for which léarscáil might sound better. We spread it out on the kitchen table. Lia remarked ‘I thought Corkscrew Hill was closer to the coast’. I found the scale bar. One inch to 1.8 miles. What?
The beauty of the map includes its delicate tracery as hints of the contours he dropped in favour of a decluttered style. I perceive that he approves of the use of large patches of once famine-wasted land as commercial woodlands in his inclusion of the species names of the trees. He noted that they’re growing mostly on the shales, clearly seen in the stipple patterns he used for surface geology. This is not an ordnance survey map. So it’s not 1:25,000 not 1:50,000 but more like 1:28,000. His preference forces a reorientation that serves to remove a spatial component from our interpretation of the map. It redirects the viewer to consider the temporal and social features of a lived-in rather than a passed-through landscape. Much like his writing. He writes ‘This map is organised by the sense of sight; I cannot see Time …’ And yet he preserves time beautifully.
Whereas I think that photography halts time, such as when the shutter freezes nature’s ripples, or smoke, or clouds, or birds in flight, or falling leaves; it can even freeze glaciers. I pass through landscapes with this in mind. He takes a different path. His visit to Tobar Feichín, St Fechin’s holy well is an enduring experience, timelessly relatable, unlike a static camera image from which you must build your own familiars:
At the water’s edge the path divides; to the left it continues around the shoreline, to the right a narrow footbridge carries it across the river where it flows out of the lake. Taking the second alternative, following the path for a few paces into the shade of ancient twisty lichen-festooned trees, and peering down to the right into the twilight of the understorey of the wood, one makes out a little recess holding a gleam of water, a spring well with two or three steps leading down to it from an opening in the low dry-stone wall enclosing it, all so mossy and ferny it is hard to distinguish among the hollows and hummocks of the forest floor.
Robinson was once a mathematician so I think he well understood the challenge of defending space (landscape) and time (history). As in quantum mechanics, I think he knew there are some things you cannot grasp without damaging others.
With my naturalist’s cap on, I think forgotten things often re-emerge from hiding, as if having flowed from lofty corries, cyms and cirques much like Ötzi, the Iceman who reappeared from a glacier in 1991, who defeated many cognitive biases in reshaping history after an absence of five millennia. He became mankind’s coldest case, a murdered Stone Age man found with a history changing copper axe.
I’m not religious and I appreciate the irony that my rational view is of a landscape preserved by superstition. Tombs, graves, cairns and dolmens are scattered throughout Ireland. Wells and springs are among the features that have been spiritualised and preserved for millennia, shared in evolving yet differing guises of ever-morphing religious persuasions.
Susan Connolly wrote ‘Knowth’ as published in the Race to the Sea Collection in 1999. It’s a poem about a place where we Irish were busy building passage graves when Ötzi was being hidden in an Alpine glacier. Or around the time the club-footed Tutankhamun was being entombed in an Egyptian pyramid with his two girls, a blunt force trauma apparent on his skull. And what of our imperfections after the intervening 12,000 human generations? This lyrical short poem suggests we still aspire to find words that are afraid of no one.
Knowth The little wren shadowed us, flitting from stone to sunlit stone. So tame he made us smile. He reminded me of words buried deep within. I wanted them to be like him. Afraid of no one.
I didn’t mention Robinson when I was having a dig at colonialism while streaming some consciousness about toponymy back in March. He wrote that ’hundreds of other place names whose memory is not mediated by map or deed are still known by Irish names’. Names can be ‘afraid of no one’ in an oral tradition.
I’m convinced that when we reach into our past, we’ll find Robinson’s words there, still guiding us across the landscape. Observing, mapping and otherwise helpfully preserving the ancient landscapes together with their folklore, fables, history and meaning, the platforms from which we launch into our futures. I want to say ‘his watch has ended’ knowing it’s an unbecoming cliché, and an association with escapism that may do injustice to the memory of a realist. And yet ‘watch’ feels like the right word. Others have been inspired to carry on his monumental watch. The planet needs more like him.
Beautiful writing – really enjoyed this journey of reminiscences. Here’s hoping I have a good bottle of Pernod or Berger Blanc at the back of the drinks’ cupboard for your next visit !
“Santé !” 😉