The Exile: Learning the True Nature of Mother Nature Part One

To the people who make promotional videos for Irish tourism, Ireland is a beautiful and tranquil land. Sheep, picturesque rural taverns, leprechauns, poets, ramblers and quaint monasteries abound, all seamlessly interwoven into the cloth of the natural environment. For me, it is something different. I do love my country of origin, although the words which follow may paint a contrary picture. I long for something which was taken from me. That something is the capacity for emotional and artistic engagement with the landscape of my childhood.

You flung a ditch on my vision
Of beauty, love and truth.
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
You burgled my bank of youth!

Patrick Kavanagh

I’m not from Monaghan but I get what Paddy was talking about. I have been asked to write a personal essay about landscapes. Presumably, as it is a personal essay, I can write with an honesty that is not afforded to us in academia. However, I get the impression that it would be better to sound off about the beauty and aesthetic value of the landscape of my formative years. This seems to be the done thing in regards to personal essays on nature, landscapes, scenery etc. F%ck that. I’m going to write an honest reflection here and submit something of a lie. If you can’t beat ’em – join ’em. Or, if you can’t beat the system – blog about it.

A brief aside – Ger, you are going to loath and detest this or any related post. County Wicklow bashing aside, it’s full of emotions. Read at your peril. Perhaps you would be better served by preparing for tonights tennis lesson (pardon the pun).

With that in mind here is a genuine reflection from a self imposed exile:

Landscapes, Journeys, Cities and Exile: A personal essay by a Bankrupt Student.

Edward Said speaks of exile as an overwhelming sadness which ‘can never be surmounted’ (Said, 2000, 173). I agree wholeheartedly. However, the sadness of which I will write about is a sadness of a different order to the traditional exile. I am neither refugee, expatriate nor economic migrant. I am something else. I am an exile of the mind. For me, the unbearable sadness comes from an inability to engage, on any level, with the natural and manmade landscapes of my childhood and youth. Writing a personal essay is a taxing task for one such as me. I would find it impossible to write with any honesty about my situation without speaking of the personal experiences which have led me to my current state of self imposed exile. If it seems a thoroughly pessimistic outlook, then I must apologise. However, it is an honest assessment of a man (read overgrown child) who is alienated from his experiences of landscape, journeys and cityscapes.

The natural landscape:

My first landscape consisted of a semi-council estate which was built on land reclaimed from the swamp that runs along the banks of the River Dargle in Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland. In the grand tradition of Irish property development, it had been green lit on the basis of backhanders and bribes. It was situated where no housing estate should be situated. My home was equidistant from the two major landmarks which bordered the estate: the slaughter house and the sewerage treatment facility. The fact of it being a new housing development meant that I was afforded plenty of interaction with a natural landscape (albeit one in the process of being cultivated by man).

“Taking a close look at what is around us, there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.” (Herzog, 1982).

The great director, Werner Herzog, was speaking about the natural landscape of the amazonian rainforest. When you are six years old, any and all nature can take on the dimensions of grandure he describes. I would come to share his views on untamed nature. It is a Hobbesian nightmare. Murder, betrayal and death are par for the course: a never ending brutish symphony. 

I played with the girl next door growing up. It was a tale of two gardens. Dickensian in every sense. My father liked to keep up appearances, though mostly at my mothers behest. So, our garden was trimmed and fenced like the others in the estate. All except for my neighbors. The girl was aptly named Catriona (like the hurricane) given what was to become of our landscsape. It was not lost on me that she would frequently emerge from her house with fresh bruises. She lived alone with her father who was a brutish man. We would play in her garden which offered more excitement in the hiding places afforded to us by the wilderness. Hiding was something she was particularly fond of. One day Catriona and her father disappeared. Later I found out that her father had been arrested and she had been taken into custody. Though at the time I couldn’t fully understand it, I was already aware that our boundaried and ordered garden was somehow shielding me from a brutality that my parents spared me from.

Venturing further afield I began to play on the mud banks of the river Dargle. It was here that I first encountered death. One of the older boys had climed the banks to reclaim a football. The mud gave away and washed him out to sea. For me, the landscape had swallowed him whole: a beast who would not be placated until she had devoured us all. 

My final experience of that natural landscape came in 1986. Perhaps a hurricane was a fiiting end to my stint in Bray? Was Catriona returning in the guise of Hurricane Charlie to punish all those who knew her plight but did nothing to end her suffering? The hurricane swelled the Dargle and she burst her banks – engulfing my whole estate in mud. The damage was cataclysmic to many of the working class families who occupied the houses in Sea Point Court. By a happy coincidence, my parents were rising in academic circles and we decided to leave the estate as soon as possible. We moved to suburban Dublin. The wildness of nature was replaced by comfortable middleclass football pitches and recreational parks. I took pleasure in the safety of my new environment. I would never again engage with the wild natural landscape of my formative years. I would not and I could not pretend to see beauty in mother nature. That landscape became alien to me. I was an exile.

The journey:

“It’s like ten minute dreams

In a passenger seat

While the world keeps flying bye.

I haven’t been gone very long,

But it feels like a lifetime” (Conor Oberst)

My family beliefs are best described as a la carte Catholicism. I was baptised and confirmed but had no real sense of God in my life. We only attended church for weddings and funerals. Another significant landscape in my life was the journey we would make, several times a year, to visit my devout Grandmother in the religiously divided North of Ireland. I enjoyed her doting on me but felt out of place. Sacred Hearts and Children of Prague were everywhere in her house.They seemed to watch my every move. My grandmother constantly palmed rosary beads. She was bent over from age or perhaps it was the weight of the crucifix around her neck. The only sound in the house was the ticking of a grandfather clock. Little wonder then that this journey would take on something of the dimensions of a pilgrimage: a passage from my semi-catholic-semi-secular habitus into a forgotten world of the strictest religious dogma imaginable. The four hour car journey showed me the landscape of rural Ireland. I grew fond of that journey. That is until the night I saw my father cry for the first and only time.

It was on one of those picturesque rural Irish back roads where my world changed forever. Driving home from the North, a van flashed its lights and my father pulled the car over. He assured my mother that everything would be fine. I had no concept of politics but I was aware from my mother’s expression that everything was far from fine. Upon his return, my mother took the wheel and my father came to sit with me in the back seat. He cradled me in his arms and wept for what seemed a very long time. He has never spoken of it with me. My mother says that he was held at gunpoint. Mankind is capable of such brutality. I had seen the violence in nature first hand. However, man’s inhumanity to man was a new experience to me. Just as the natural landscape of Bray had been exposed as murderous, now the tranquillity of the rural journey and its natural vistas seemed betrayed by the violence and cruelty in our nature. We stopped going North for a long time. My father didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral but I did. Rural Ireland speaks only to me of tribalism, violence, competition and conflict – those most masculine of traits. I do not contemplate it aesthetically and I cannot see any beauty in the landscape. I have no longing to revisit that pilgrimage through rural space and time. Again, I am an exile.

To be continued…

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