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New Essay by Susan April

Susan April sent us a new essay about a time when she was growing up in Lowell in the Highlands neighborhood. I don’t want to give away the turn in the narrative, so I’ll leave it here. Susan is a past contributor to this publication. Her work has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies around the country. A scientist working in the environmental field, Susan lives in Maryland, where she writes poems, stories, and essays, and makes “visual poems” with photographs. We look forward to publishing more of her work. 

Susan April

Foliage

by Susan April

One weekend every October, Dad would pile the family into the station wagon and take one of his “long short cuts” to New Hampshire to see the leaves turn. I didn’t understand that meant leaves changing colors. I thought they’d literally pirouette on their stems, like the ballerina in my jewelry box. Never happened.

When I got the concept of fall foliage, I was sad. Because leaves changed from green to another color meant they were going to die. Except, it didn’t happen to all trees. Some tall and straight ones would keep their green color, even after the snow came. Dad informed us these were called Evergreens. But mom laughed and said, Voyons, Charlie, don’t be so high-mighty. They’re Christmas trees.

I didn’t know the names of trees. Not until my sister and I went on our own fall foliage adventure. Denise was four years older—technically, three years and eight months. Our expedition happened in October 1965. It was close to Halloween, but not exactly. Perhaps, the weekend before. Denise was working on a Cadette Girl Scout merit badge, patch number 9-444, Plant Kingdom, Trees. I was nine, almost ten, and in fifth grade. She was thirteen, turning fourteen the end of March, a freshman in high school.

For the merit badge, she’d have to go out and collect leaves, seeds, acorns, pine cones, etc. and carry them home in something—a paper bag would do nicely—then press the specimens between sheets of wax paper, using a hot iron. I didn’t one hundred percent understand this process: can you iron a pine cone? The activity also involved carrying a notepad, a pencil, and The Golden Guide to Trees. Denise fanned its pages in my direction. I saw tree pictures fly by and along the trailing edge of the last page, two paper rulers.

Hey, can I see that?

See what?

Those rulers in there.

Never mind about that. Do you want to help?

I considered the alternative: I could stay behind in the fenced yard with my brothers, who seemed to live in a tree house which they called a fort. It was stocked with rocks, plums, smashed bits of brick and, most importantly, Dixie cups filled with sand that they lifted from the sandbox after the neighbor cats would—you know—use it as a sandbox. But it wasn’t the sand they pitched at my head. It was the things in the sand.

Or I could walk with my sister whom, let’s be frank, I wished I could be not more like but exactly like, with her curly blonde hair, nonstop girlfriends and boyfriends, that forest green Cadette skirt and matching shoulder sash and its tale of merit badges, silver and gold stars, felt troop numbers, and oval cloisonne pin that spelled the Girl Scout Council name out in letters so small I couldn’t read them, but knew it meant she belonged.

I accepted the job. The gate clanged when I closed it, and my brothers peeked out of their fort. Perhaps, I stuck out my tongue.

Where are we going?

            What will we do?

            Can I carry your book?

            How about that tree?

            What’s wrong with this one?

I prattled and pointed to the trees that lined our Osgood Street sidewalk. Denise didn’t answer; she only walked faster. In my memory, she wore her Cadette skirt, starched white blouse with the three-quarter sleeves, patent leather shoes with medium heels, and that merit badge sash. As this was late October, in Massachusetts, my memory must be wrong, but it’s a good wrong, so I keep it.

Where are we going?

                        Tyler Park.

            How far is it?

                        You’ll find out when we get there.

            Can we walk slower?

                        No.

What’s this street?

                        Pine.

            What’s that school?

                        The Morey.

            Hey, isn’t that Dad’s old—

                        Firehouse? Yes.

Tyler Park, Lowell, Mass.

We waved to the firemen sitting in their tilted back chairs. The firehouse doors were wide open and the hoses had been laid out to dry.

You’re Charlie’s kids, aren’t you? they called, as we approached.

Denise smiled. Nodded. We walked even faster.

I thought: This isn’t much fun. I had imagined we’d walk around the block, poke from yard to yard, ask our neighbors, Mind if we take a few leaves? They’d bring out trays of cookies and apple cider. With Denise in her scouting uniform and me with a pencil behind my ear, a cub reporter, it’d be like trick-or-treating.

But we didn’t go around the block. Wherever we were heading, it was far and I lost the breath for questions.

After many right and left turns, down streets I didn’t know the names of, I noticed the houses got larger and fancier. They sat on big lots and had wide, wraparound porches and castle-like turrets. Their lawns smelled clean. Pianos played inside. I’m not sure if I heard music, but pretty sure I saw pianos in the parlors behind lace curtains. Dogs sat on the porches and did not bark or jump three steps off in one leap and charge, teeth bared, towards us on the sidewalk. Instead, they yawned. I’d never seen such a place.

I didn’t notice we’d arrived. I’d been running my hand along a tickly hedge of leaves and squishy red berries. When I looked up, I saw my sister standing with hands on hips. Well then, she said. She wasn’t talking to me. She wasn’t even facing me. She was facing a broad lawn with park benches and trees. So many trees. Tyler Park.

Well then.

* *

“We have purchased and set out at Tyler Park six Bass trees or American Linden (Tilia Americana) and a corner bed of Spirea and Hydrangea, along with a Barberry hedge at the upper end.”

— City Documents of the City of Lowell, Massachusetts, for the year 1913-14, Park Commissioner’s Report.

            Designed by Charles Eliot, and constructed by the firm of Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot, Tyler Park at 2.74 acres is the smallest park ever built by Frederick Law Olmsted’s famous landscaping firm. Before the 1880’s, this area was part of Chelmsford and consisted of farms and open fields. In 1884, it was annexed to the City of Lowell and within ten years, the streetcar line was laid up Westford Street. Fashionable, suburban homes in the Queen Anne Style and a few in Richardsonian Shingle Style were built to accommodate Lowell’s growing middle class. Around 1893, Mrs. Samuel Tyler sold a large pasture to William Bent, attorney, for the purpose of a residential neighborhood called Tyler Park Lands Subdivision. Mrs. Tyler and daughter donated 2.74 acres at the heart of it for a public park.

Thank-you, Mrs. Tyler.

At age nine-almost-ten, I knew none of this. Here’s what I did know—or discovered—that afternoon with my sister:

Catalpa leaves look like elephant ears.

Shade can be everywhere even with many leaves gone.

Hawthorns are small trees with thorns.

My sister does not hold my hand.

There may have been birds, but I couldn’t see them.

The granite boulder was a friend.

My sister trusted me to hold The Golden Guide.

The winged things that fall from maple trees are called samara.

My sister is like the granite boulder, but she moves.

The bark of the Juniper is scratchy.

If I pick up too many acorns and put them in the paper bag and jiggle it, my sister will say stop that!

The bubbler was dry.

Someone, somewhere, was burning leaves.

If there were birds, they remained hidden.

Leaves when they rub together sound like applause.

I tasted salt and I didn’t know why.

There’s a tree called Sweet Gum and its seed pods are a big ouch.

I shouldn’t ask can we come back here again too many times.

The bubbler at the other end of the park was also dry.

I can decide to taste leaves, but I won’t like it.

The walking paths led to more walking paths like the game Chutes and Ladders.

When resting on the granite boulder, a thought crossed my mind that no one mowed the park lawn, but at midnight goats and small ponies came off the porches and fed themselves.

Samara of maple tastes not one bit like maple.

Samara of maple is fun to wear on the bridge of your nose.

*  *

In time, we returned home. I don’t remember the route. Seemed shorter going than coming. Denise, at some point, pressed her leaves without me. She wrote, on three-by-five cards, little notes that went with her waxed paper displays. Text taken from the Golden Guide. This is American Basswood, or Linden, a handsome shade tree. She pulled it all together in a scrapbook with a soft red cover. If leather could be velvet, that cover was velvet. She may or may not have gotten her patch. I’m not sure. Something else happened.

A few weeks after our adventure, the Great Northeast Blackout happened and it lasted thirteen hours. But that wasn’t the something.

During the Blackout, Denise sat at the kitchen table with a kerosene lamp doing her Latin homework. I sat across from her and watched. My brothers, I don’t remember where they were or what they were doing. Her hair, which in damp weather got frizzy, was frizzy and weirdly lit. She might have said, Stop staring at me, but I didn’t hear her.

What I did hear, three days after that—I’m guessing the number of days; I have no true accounting, only that what happened happened after the Blackout and before Christmas—was our parents speaking in French. Whenever there were secrets, they spoke French.

It happened like this: a photo was placed on the table. Mom and Dad stood back, examining it from different angles. It was from our summer camping trip in the White Mountains. The campground was Gitche Gumee. The photo was taken in front of the campground sign. In the photo, Denise stood to the left of the sign, I was on the right, Chuck and Joe with their Daisy air rifles, crouched in between. Good old Gitche Gumee. The four us, smiling, hamming it up. Only there was something wrong with the picture, a problem with Denise. One shoulder stood higher than the other. Much higher. My shoulders were even.

Then, Denise and I were told to stand back to back. It was weird. Mom was smoking a cigarette and her ash fell on the kitchen floor. Dad circled around and around with a yardstick, measuring and comparing us. Then I was told to step back. The rest was all about Denise. Her back. The lump on her shoulder. They spoke more French, then left the room and all was as quiet as the night was dark during the Blackout. I don’t remember if anyone cried. All I know is that I wanted to hug Denise’s Latin book. Not hug Denise. Her Latin book.

I’ve felt bad about that all of my life.

Before Christmas, Denise went to the Boston Children’s Hospital to get put in a whole body cast. I never saw her like that, not even in pictures. It was a long drive from Lowell to Boston and kids couldn’t go visit—that’s what our parents said. Puzzling to me why children couldn’t go to a children’s hospital. The theme of my tenth year was me being puzzled. I simply couldn’t understand a thing. When our parents came back from their hospital visits in Boston, they spoke Latin. I guessed Denise was teaching them that language. My brothers spoke a kind of pig Latin, but I just called them silly.

When Denise comes home, you’ll have to move.

My parents told me this and I thought they meant I’d have to leave the house. Stop being their child. I had done something wrong. They wanted me to have been the one in the Gitchee Gummee photo with the lump on her shoulder and not Denise. I cursed my even shoulders. Sometimes, I’d take Denise’s soft leather scrapbook of leaves and go cry.

What my parents meant, which I later discovered, was that I’d have to move out of the bedroom Denise and I shared. She needed a special bed. A room to her own. I don’t know what month it was, perhaps June, when the bedroom set got delivered. It had a full size mattress and boxspring, headboard, tall bureau, mirror and dresser. It was pecan. It was beautiful. It belonged in one of those friendly-dog, piano-parlor houses near Tyler Park. Our twin beds got removed. There wasn’t an extra room in the house for them, or for me—well, there was but it was haunted. That’s another story.

I slept in my brothers’ room for a time. That was hell. Then I wandered around a bit. There was a narrow, unheated, closet-like room next to what used to be Susan and Denise’s bedroom, but would be only hers when she came home from the hospital, that I moved into to try out for awhile. It didn’t have a door, so Dad tacked up a sheet. The headlights of cars driving at night down Osgood bounced off that white sheet and made it spookier than even the haunted room. I gave that room a fail. Not sure where I ended up.

When Denise came home, she wore something called a Milwaukee brace. I was more frightened of it than the sheet. Ten was turning out to be one awful year. But it was more awful for Denise. Only I didn’t see it that way.

I wasn’t perfect.

I should have been better.

She also got a record player to listen to records in her room.

I asked Mom if she could ask Denise if I could have her bike since I didn’t see her using it anytime soon.

I won’t tell you how she responded.

I should talk about the scrapbook which I kind of loved to death. The wax paper unwaxed itself and things began to fall out. I didn’t know how to fix it. The Catalpa was what I was most upset about. I loved those elephant ears. My sister’s perfect penmanship index card read: Catalpa is a handsome tree. The wood is coarse but durable. It has heart-shaped leaves and bean-like seed pods.

But the heart was brown and in pieces; the long, once-straight, seed pod was curled up and had poked a gash in the paper. I tried to Scotch tape repair it. Didn’t work. The Catalpa was a wreck. I was a wreck.

I stole my sister’s bike.

*  *

The Tyler Park central fountain—a concrete monstrosity with water shooting out of a carp’s mouth—was dismantled in 1906 for the creation of a rockery. Olmsted had always envisioned a rockery for the park, but he died, and Eliott designed a fountain instead. When Eliott died, John-Charles Olmsted resurrected his father’s idea and installed a rockery. Olmsted Senior’s most famous rockery was built in North Easton Center, Massachusetts. Called The Rockery, it stands today on its granite outcropping and rises organically into the landscape with long arms of English Ivy and other plantings surmounting. It survives, but apparently requires a lot of maintenance. Because rocks fall down.

The granite boulder at Tyler Park is all that remains of the Tyler Park rockery. The single rock is about ten feet long and four feet wide. It has a hollowed out scoop in the middle shaped like a hammock. Two smaller rocks on one side of the boulder make a natural stairway. Everyone who rides past the boulder on a blue Columbia, fixed-gear bike with metal wire basket and blue, yellow, and white plastic streamers streaming out of the handlebar grips has to stop, lean their bike down, and climb up on the bed-boulder to rest.

It’s home. A place all your own from which you can watch trees leaf out and measure the cloud-piercing height of spruces, or daydream that the spruces are rocket ships and you are sitting in a catcher’s mitt. It’s where you belong.

Denise showed me Tyler Park. Her bike brought me home. Denise’s arc of life no longer seemed to have a place for me. I had to find my own.

I stole The Golden Book as well. Wasn’t it a perfect day to lay on a boulder and read? To learn that “seeing” means knowing when to look, where to look, how to look, and what to see? That trees belong to the same plant family as many herbs, flowers, and shrubs. That the palm and lily families include over a dozen unusual trees. That over eight hundred species of native and naturalized trees grow wild in the United States, including broadleafs and conifers. That roots anchor trees to the soil. That within each seed are the tiny beginnings of a tree. That trees do not grow in an entirely haphazard fashion. That trees are with us all year long.

I didn’t keep the bike forever.

In summer, the bubblers ran.

In summer, there were sugar ants.

Elephant ears taste better as a pastry.

Crows cawed, even if I couldn’t yet hear them.

Denise had her own life and I loved her.

A box of Pine Brothers Glycerine Cough Drops will keep you from starving.

Samara of maple can taste like maple sometimes.

Sassafras leaves are a mitten.

Certain trees have crooked trunks, but it’s not their fault.

Some prefer sun, some prefer shade.

November came.

I turned eleven.

Nature Comes to Lowell

For weeks I had noted the increasing height of the plants shooting up from the untended compost pile in the corner of our backyard. With 20-plus years of accumulated organic matter, there was no telling what was growing. One recent morning when I let our 12-year old Yellow Lab Ivy out to stretch her legs before I headed to work, I wandered over for a closer look.

A half dozen tall pink stalks were growing from a single root in the center of the pile. Each was the width of the handle of a 32-ounce baseball bat. This sturdiness was needed because the plants were weighted down by big clusters of purplish-black berries that glistened in the morning sunshine. 

Had it been earlier in the morning, I might have snapped off a bunch and brought them inside to add to my morning cereal. Whatever these were, they looked much tastier than the antiseptic blueberries that came to us in a clear plastic container from someplace far away. But I had already eaten breakfast and it was time to go to work. Maybe later.

Before heading into the house, I remembered a great new app I had just installed on my phone. Google Lens is image recognition software. You take a picture of something and Google’s vast network of servers identifies what is depicted in that image and returns confirmatory images and an encyclopedia’s worth of information about the thing you photographed. I opened the app, pointed my phone at the big plant, and pressed the shutter-button. The app worked its magic in seconds. 

Pokeweed. That didn’t sound very appetizing. “Phytolacca americana, also known as American pokeweed, is a poisonous, herbaceous perennial plant growing up to 8 feet in height with red or purplish stems and purple to almost black berries.” Poisonous? How poisonous? “Symptoms of poisoning include a burning sensation in the mouth, salivation, gastrointestinal cramps, and vomiting and bloody diarrhea, and depending upon the amount consumed, anemia, altered heart rate and respiration, convulsions and death from respiratory failure.”

First thing Saturday  morning I suited up in “working-with-poison-ivy” levels of protective clothing, grabbed a shovel, and proceeded to hack and dig the pokeweed plant until it was disconnected from the earth. I’ll let the cut stems erode over the winter and follow through on my plans to replace the compost pile with a patch of grass come spring.

My close  encounter with pokeweed brought to mind “Into the Wild,” the 2007 film based on a Jon Krakauer book about a young man who ventures into the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land. Wracked by hunger, he resorts to eating roots and berries until he misidentifies a poisonous plant for an edible one with tragic results. 

Instead of me going into the wild, the wild was coming into my backyard, not just the flora, but also fauna. Except for living away at college and during my U.S. Army years, I’ve lived in the same corner of the same neighborhood since 1970. In all that time I never remember encountering so much wildlife in close proximity.

From Facebook, a neighbor’s photo of the moose

Perhaps the most startling episode occurred last spring. It was early on a work-from-home day when Roxane, in the midst of a Zoom call, blurted out, “A horse just ran down my street” and scrambled to the living room picture window for a better look. The horse turned out to be a young moose but it was indeed trotting down the middle of our residential road. (The moose made a wide loop through the Highlands and Middlesex Village and was eventually and safely subdued and relocated when it went for a cooling dip in the Merrimack River).

From Facebook, a neighbor’s photo of the coyote

Just two weeks ago as Ivy and I were returning from our pre-dawn walk, the silhouette of an animal emerged from some bushes 30 yards in front of us. The sleek profile and pointy ears suggested a fox, but it was bigger than that, and I immediately thought of the coyote said to be lurking in the neighborhood all summer. I coughed to alert him to our presence. As Ivy pulled at the leash, anxious to investigate this new thing, the animal traversed its head in our direction, noted our presence, then turned down the street and trotted ahead as if it was leading us back to our house. Eventually he turned into a yard and disappeared, much to my relief.

Turkeys

Then there are the ever-present turkeys. The only turkeys I ever encountered growing up came on a platter at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But now there’s a flock that’s taken up residence in our neighborhood. Usually they’re grazing in the front yard, but they can turn up in strange places, like standing atop our six-foot high backyard fence. And they do fly, not gracefully, but enough to get up into a tree and away from danger.

The moose, the coyote, and the turkeys have made the most lasting impressions but for sheer numbers, more familiar creatures are the dominant species. Daytime is dominated by gray squirrels who expend great effort digging small holes in our backyard. I once read that to preserve their winter food supply, squirrels will bury acorns in one place, then go back and retrieve the acorns but leave the cache looking like the food is still there, a kind of disinformation campaign to deceive their food-competitors. 

The rabbit’s dilemma: stay in the tan foliage and by invisible or venture out into the tasty green grass and be seen.

At dawn and dusk, Team Rabbit takes over. My aspiration for a lawn is something that is green so the backyard provides an exotic buffet not found amidst the homogeneous fescue and rye tended by neighbors. For rabbits, there’s good eating in this yard, but not without some risk. Our rabbits haven’t yet made the connection between the spotlight coming on and the dog coming out. While Ivy would love to chase them, her arthritic knees wouldn’t tolerate such broken field running, so she gets led out on a leash whenever a rabbit is present. By freezing in place, I suppose the rabbits hope their natural camouflage protects them, but that doesn’t work with a tan coat on a green grass background. As the frantic but still-leashed dog draws closer, the rabbits suddenly sprint for the fence and one of their escape tunnels underneath it. 

Maybe it’s because of memories of Chip ‘n Dale, the 77-year old Disney cartoon characters, but I find chipmunks to be the most amusing of creatures in my world. One moment they’re posing on a rock, nibbling on something held in their small hands, the next moment they’re zipping across the ground like a rocket car on the Bonneville Salt Flats. My affection for chipmunks is tempered by a slightly twisted ankle suffered when some brick patio pavers I stepped on out back caved into the quarters our tenants had constructed underneath. 

Finally, there are the skunks. They’re early risers too so there is always the risk of a nasty encounter on pre-dawn walks. There seem to be fewer this year, or perhaps our schedules don’t yet match. I venture out when my alarm goes off; they venture out just before the sky lightens. Like the broken clock that’s right twice a day, our schedules overlap once in the spring and again in the fall. But perhaps the naturalistic gentrification of the neighborhood has forced the skunks to move elsewhere. 

Is there more wildlife this year than ever before in my lifetime? Or am I just home more often, sometimes working from home, rarely leaving the yard on weekends and evenings? Maybe I’m just being more observant. But I would have remembered a moose, or a coyote, or wild turkeys, so something is going on. 

A backyard bear in the Berkshires

I’ll close with a reminder that everything is relative. On the day I encountered the coyote, I had a work-related telephone conversation with a western Massachusetts colleague. Excitement over the coyote caused me to mention that encounter but my enthusiasm was deflated by her matter-of-fact mention of dodging bears when walking near her home. 

Bears. I haven’t yet seen one of them in my neighborhood but as we always say in another context, “Wait ‘till next year.”  

Cartoons by Nicholas Whitmore

“Losers” by Nicholas Whitmore

“Supreme Court Nominee” by Nicholas Whitmore

“Breonna Taylor” by Nicholas Whitmore

“Honest Journalism” by Nicholas Whitmore

“Towards a Wild Ecology of Being” by Clare Mulvany

Located primarily in the northwest of County Clare, the Burren, is one of the world’s most unique landscapes. It means “great rock” in Irish (Boireann), and is dominated by thick successions of sedimentary rocks, often compared to a lunar landscape. In the following essay and series of photographs, Clare Mulvany take readers to this otherworldly place, to a land that, as she puts it, “reads like a sacred text.”

 

“TOWARDS A WILD ECOLOGY OF BEING,” by Clare Mulvany

Each step is a careful one, and a miraculous one. At foot level, wild orchids, the Spring gentians in pink and lighter pink, like dreams rising from a dreaming land, are dotted across the Burren landscape in effervescent rarity. From deep crevasses cut through the limestone, ferns and alpine avens are scattered between the slabs of rock; which at first and distance glance appear barren, but upon closer inspection yield a tapestry of yet more wild and soft bloom.

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths/ Enwrought with golden and silver light…”

A W.B Yeats poem comes to my lips. “…Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.” The cuckoos’ calls reverberate from the mountain face, a pied wagtail bounces by; then a pair of swallows dip and dive, cavorting above the limestone karran. This is a word I have just come to know, a word to name an ancient thing: the network of tunnels and grooves, markings and erosions on the limestone. Karran. The rock itself was laid down some 340 million years ago. Here I am being astonished by wind-song, and rocks older than I can think. “We are walking in a dreamscape,” I say to myself, and I feel the dream stir.

The ecology of the Burren is both ancient and fragile. Alongside the spring fauna, 6000 year old dolmens reside; mere babies on the timeline of their context. Standing “erratics”- glacially deposited stones-  are rising from the rock, in prayer or supplication. I do not know. Their presence tells of an older ecology from a time when the ice retreated and left them stranded. The rock itself is comprised of the compressed skeletal bodies of the marine life, from a time when the sea held this space. The waves of time have passed, leaving a fossilized quilt of memory. The land reads like a sacred text. “Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.”

In ancient places we are all young bodies. May our footsteps be light.

A friend has been visiting from the US. We have been on walkabout. Across meadows, under electric fences, through hazel woods and dense bracken, mud on our faces, mud under nails. An orchid, small and powerful, shares its glory with us. It beckons my tears. A few fall onto the rock, looking like rain or offerings. Among the hills there is nothing but astonishment.

We avoid a bull in another field and a herd in the next. We are trekking across fields in search of a holy well. I have an image of anointment and absolution. The well is to be the place from which newness can rise in me, or at least this is what I hope for. Another orchid, devastatingly beautiful, is tipping at my toes. I step aside, a whisper in my feet, to take another route. Each step here is a matter of life or death, and each step counts.

“More stones,” I joke with my friend. She laughs. I seem to have this thing with stones. Earlier in her visit we had kneeled at stone circles, and kissed the hag’s stone in Beara, West Cork- a mythical stone rendered magical by virtue of the story attached to it, the one about the petrified spirit of the Calliach, the wise woman of the Celtic lands, who invites us to leave offerings there too. I placed a strand of my hair under her weight, then read her poems under a great expanse of transgressive sky. Over the weeks we’d walked out to more standing stones, and touched burial ones. But now, in the Burren, Co. Clare, we have the story of this holy well to find, and my bones are determined to take the next step.

More cuckoo song. The swoops and forks of swallow wing. The summer migrants are back and giving voice to the wilds, calling us to keep going. We follow. The light is hitting the grey stony hills, sending back beams of amplified glistening.

“A hare,” she says. It was gone before I saw it.

A faerie,” I say, and you’d almost believe it.

The hawthorns- the faerie trees- are putting on a show for us. It’s all cabaret and plumage in their branches; white pops bathe the landscape in May bloom. In Celtic mythology, the hawthorn were considered sacred homes of the underworld folk and portals to the otherworld. A circular stand of them could indicate a consecrated spot. A lone one would not be cut. I scan the horizon looking for a circle of blossom. There are hawthorns everywhere. The land is text and the lore is still luring. I tread softly.  Another bull. Our route needs a detour. But there was no set path in the first place, so our route was always pliant and free. Beyond another stand of trees we spot a glimpse of the monastery and follow its gable as if it’s a prayer flag.

In ancient places, there is honour in the remembrance of ancestry. May the rocks speak well of our walking.

In the corner of the field, a stile. I clamber through and there, after the nettles, most unassumingly, the ruins of the 10th Century monastic site holding themselves in a silent, contemplative reverie. Their presence holds a secret, of this I am sure. My bones exhale.

I let the silence in, but this is no ordinary silence. It is filled with bird chatter and the rustle of blossom and branch. So I sit, and sit some more. Something close to the fragmentation in my being— worry, insignificance, smallness— shifts. A peace which speaks to the perfection of this moment, this landscape, enters. A longing for the well unlocks itself.

We search. Is it here? Or there? I feel a bit hyper or high. More hawthorn and stones. Could this be it? We search. More pink gentians. Some bluebells. More sky chatter. We search, laughing for want of a well.

Another stone presents itself for sitting near the ruin. I fall into the embrace of it, then read a poem about this place, the one David Whyte, the poet, had caught and placed in his books for safe-keeping:

Be taught now, among the trees and rocks,

how the discarded is woven into shelter,

learn the way things hidden and unspoken

slowly proclaim their voice in the world.

Find that far inward symmetry

to all outward appearances, apprentice

yourself to yourself, begin to welcome back

all you sent away, be a new annunciation,

make yourself a door through which

to be hospitable, even to the stranger in you”

We read again. We let some secrets in. Then read again. I can feel the poem enter into the ether of this place, and the place enter into the ether of us. There is nothing but poem now, and my need to find the well is released. The swallow cavort. The sky still dances. I am forever braided into the poetry and place. And the stones rest still.

“Another time,” I say to my friend, knowing we will enter this time out of time through another portal; knowing the door has been opened to welcome ourselves back to ourselves. We have crossed the threshold. The door does not shut.

It is time to return to clock time and to the world which some call real. So we let the shape of the fields and the hint of a bull plot our course back out. The well was just a lure. It was the walk that mattered in the end. It always is.

 

 

 

 

Clare Mulvany is a writer and educator living in West Cork, Ireland. A graduate in International Education from Oxford University, she has been leading transformational learning programmes for over 20 years across the globe, weaving the strands of creative practice, service leadership, spiritual ecology, and social justice. She is the author of “One Wild Life- A Journey to Discover People Who Change the World,” and her writing and documentary photography have appeared in places like On Being and The Irish Times.

A Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Awardee, she was a founding member of the leading education NGO, Suas; a co-founder of the cultural agency, The Trailblazery, and is currently a lecturer in University College Dublin’s Innovation Academy and a member of the wellbeing faculty of The Law Society of Ireland. She is a trained classical hatha yoga instructor, and leads writing workshops and creative retreats online and across the world.

Aside from everything else, the sea and her dog bring her infinite joy.

You can find out more about her writing and upcoming courses on claremulvany.ie

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