Monday, 3 June 2013

The cathedral city

After we emerged from the cinema, basking in the summer warmth, I sang “Dublin can be Heaven” as we walked along the cobblestones, and she joined in what she knew.

We strolled through Stephen’s Green, switching from one song to the next that we sing together that feature this famous park. We fed swans with their clusters of cygnets, ate fish and chips, visited the Science Gallery and posed for a caricature artist.

Are you exhausted yet? I asked as she skipped over the pavement. 

“No,” she said. Well, let’s work on that, I said.


Finally, we stopped for one of our favourite spots, Dublin’s Natural History Museum, which the locals call the Dead Zoo – hundreds of specimens of the great animals of the world, some a century or two old and of animals no longer with us. We could spend days there, looking at each glass case or drawer with a sense of awe. Irish elk larger than any deer now living, with antlers you could stretch an hammock between. Beautifully spiralled ammonites the size of tyres, once common as fish in the sea. Creatures from the deep, dredged up by Victorian science expeditions and plunged into oils that preserved, for more than a century, the look of shock when they first saw the light of the sun.

Among other things, she gasped to see the skull of a Steller’s sea cow, a peaceful manatee the size of a small whale. "It's amazing!" she said. "Are any of them still around?"

I'm afraid not anymore, I said. That skull is three hundred years old, and the last of them disappeared shortly after.

“Was it killed?” she asked. I’m afraid so, I said – they all were. I didn’t mention that they were exterminated within a few years of being discovered, in an impressive display of how quickly we can undo tens of millions of years.  We did the same with the dodo skeleton, of an animal that did not fear our species as it should have. We did the same with the thylacine, the last of the great marsupial predators, which survived into the age of television. 

"It's terrible what people do," she said. "We destroy so much."

Some of us do, I said -- but others of us kept its bones intact and its memory alive for three centuries, even though they gained nothing from doing so. Just because it's what we ought to do. 

"I suppose," she said. 

Are you exhausted yet? I asked as we skipped over the pavement. 

“No,” she said. Well, let’s work on that, I said.


The entire city is a big museum for her, every statue a story, every sidewalk drawing an interactive art exhibit. She tiptoes warily around the living statues on Grafton Street, skips to the music of street-corner musicians and stares wide-eyed at the trains and trams. I see the vertigo in her eyes as she looks up at stone buildings older than my native country, or down off the Ha'Penny Bridge into the River Liffey as it empties into the sea. She does not truly see the graffiti and the rubbish, the pornography shops, and the unshaven men sleeping under neon night-lights. To her this is a cathedral.

Then she sees something that catches her attention, a pile of construction rubble left over from Ireland’s boom years. Tall plants are now growing out of the bags of brick and stone, their roots perched precariously over the rubble.

“How are they doing that?” she asked.

Dust floats in, and rain falls in, I said, and soon there is enough for plants to live. And their roots break up the stone into dust, and with time the biggest pile of rubble becomes soil.

All of it? The plants can turn every bit of it to soil?” she asked.

That’s where all soil came from, I said. The stuff we run our hands through in the garden used to be mountains, crushed and crumbled into dust by the endless squeezing of a million weeds. Before that it used to be volcanoes, wounds in the skin of the Earth. It used to be dragonflies the size of children, and ferns the size of trees. And before all that it was the belly of a star, blown into dust again.

“How long does it take for things to return to being dust?” she asked.

Longer than we live, I said, but it will happen to everything around us in time.

She spun around slowly, looking at the massive city around her with a new and sober expression, and said nothing for several moments.

Are you exhausted yet? I asked.

Yes, she said. Let’s go home.

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