Sunday, 25 February 2018

Walks in the woods

My apologies for the lack of posting -- I've had computer problems. 

My four-year-old bounded joyfully down the path, her dress flapping behind her, into the deep forests of the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland. She stopped between the giant trees, put her arms out and twirled around, spinning through shafts of green sunlight from the canopy above. She ran her fingers through the shaggy moss, lifted pieces of wood from the ground and inspected the tiny nightmares underneath, and peeked in the crevices as eagerly as if they were Christmas stockings.

Almost every weekend I brought her to one of these old woods, remnants of the cold rainforest that once covered this island. Here we found mushrooms big as saucers to bring home and cook with dinner from our garden. Here we sat on giant roots that extend like jetties over the river, and watched the fish and tadpoles gather under our toes. Here we fed the greedy mobs of ducks, sparing bits for the shy coots and moorhens hiding in the reeds, and silently watched kingfishers flash like jewels in the trees or grey herons lurk like gargoyles over the water.

In a hollow of these mountains, fifteen centuries ago, Christian monks escaped the collapsing Roman Empire and the savagery of pagan barbarians, and built self-reliant communities of believers that outlasted wave after wave of warlords and empires. In this redoubt generations of unsung heroes copied book after book by hand, saving Western Civilisation -- history, science, law, philosophy, theatre, mathematics, architecture, democracy and the Gospel.

In later days, when foreign soldiers invaded this island, felled its forests and tortured or starved its people, rebels gathered in these mountains to organise a resistance. Most were hunted down and killed, but farmers across the country sang their stories in secret -- until a new generation took up the cause, and another, and another. Each rebellion built on the memory of the ones before, until the final one saw a nation of dirt-poor farmers defeat the world’s greatest empire.    

As my daughter plays at being a pirate or Viking, I wonder if any real pirates or Vikings, not to mention monks and Druids, walked these same paths before us, sat with legs dangling over the water, and watched the ancestors of these herons. In every civilized age we humans left the pressures of civilization for time alone in nature, and “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” as Ishmael says in Moby Dick, we return to nature to restore us – even in this already damp and drizzly country.  

Such places have always made men feel closer to God; no wonder Jesus and John wandered in the wilderness, and the monks sought these valleys to build their refuge. Even now a local priest occasionally says a special Mass under these trees, the congregants gathering in this first and greatest of cathedrals.

In the woods around us our neighbours keep alive other very old rituals. Once a year, the day after Christmas, local men dress up in woodland gear and gather around a statue of a wren, the little songbird that is so frequently heard here and so rarely seen. Then other local men covered in straw costumes --- “straw boys” -- sneak up and steal the wren, running away as all the local children scream in frightened delight. The children chase the straw-boys through the woods, parents trudging up behind them until the wren is retrieved.

It’s a tradition much older than Santa Claus, dating back thousands of years in one form or another to Druid times and rich with ancient symbolism. Ireland has become a modern country now, with televisions replacing sing-a-longs in most pubs and the younger generations learning more from their smart phones than from their elders’ lore -- but a few fragments of its ancient culture survive, like the woodlands themselves. 

For a child these woodland paths are also treacherous, and not just from straw-boys. Stinging nettles line the sides of every Irish path, waving their stalks at passers-by. Their touch leaves a painful welt on the skin, and modern suburbanites now spray poisons to suppress them. The old country men and women around here, though, explained that a bit of dock-leaf cures the sting, and from the time my child was a toddler she knew how to treat a nettle encounter. 

My old neighbours also explained that cooked nettles have no sting, and are both healthy and delicious. A bit of research, online and in the kitchen, proved them right, and soon my daughter and I were making them into soup, tea and wine, and I tried pickling them, adding them to beer, and using their compost in the garden. Instead of trying to spray them with poison, we began to look forward to harvesting them every spring – wearing gloves, of course – and kept secret our favourite nettle patches.

My girl stopped to smell and pet every flower along the path -- oxlips and primroses, meadowsweet and clover. At first I ignored them, but here too my elderly neighbours opened my eyes and showed me I was looking at a salad bar, an herbal tea shop, an emergency medicine chest and the makings of a wine collection. Again I confirmed their folk wisdom with research and personal testing, and soon I was planting some of the same weeds I had once uprooted, making them into tea, dinner and drinks. 

Once everyone here grew up with such knowledge, as did every Druid and caveman before them, going back as long as there have been humans. Only in recent generations, when most humans have lived in cities far from the natural world, has the thread been broken, leaving hungry people surrounded by food.

In these woods my daughter learns that everything has value in its proper place; even as she cringes from spiders, she knows they eat flying insects that pester us. If we didn’t have the spiders, we would be tormented by clouds of pests, so we can thank them for their service. We decided we would name the spiders; this one became Harvey, this one Floyd, and then they weren’t as scary anymore.

We also see that death is not the end, even in this world; a fallen tree feeds a billion creeping things, which feed birds and hedgehogs. Next time we pass here the tree has erupted with mushrooms, and eventually we learned to recognise which ones were edible and poisonous. The fallen tree leaves a gap in the forest, a flood of daylight reaching the forest floor, activating the seeds of thousands of flowers, so a death in the forest brings an explosion of colour.

In a few years a sapling will fill the space, its young leaves sheltered from the winds by its aunts and uncles until it comes of age. On autumn evenings its turning leaves will bathe the woods in an orange light, like a candle against the darkness.  

We see the same pattern with people; here in a small community a death leaves a vacancy in the church pews, an empty stool in the pub, and a tender place in the minds of friends and family. In a community, though, no one dies unremembered. Here funerals are preceded by a wake, a party for the deceased, where all the friends and family drink, tell stories, and share tears of laughter and mourning. The family and friends then carry the coffin to church for the funeral -- sometimes for miles down dark country roads, with the people in front lighting the way. It’s a proper way to go, making your death a celebration of your life.

“Papa, what does it feel like to die?” she asked me once.

I don’t know first-hand, honey, I told her -- I’ve never died.

“Why do we have to die?”

If we didn’t, I said, no new babies could be born.

“I wish it didn’t have to end, though.”

I know. But that’s what gives it value.

Each moment with my daughter flickers by like cars on the road, too swift to observe closely. I want to halt these days -- the walks in the woods and over mountains, the sing-a-longs and adventures, the moments of her sleeping in my lap at the end of a long day-- to trap them as golden moments in amber, a Still Life with Four-year-old. I want to throw a hook into the blur and reel in the moments, pore over them, plead with each of them to stay a little longer: please don’t go. Linger with me. 

But they won’t. I started writing this ten years ago, and my daughter has since become six, and ten, and thirteen, each age with its own heartaches and its own moments of comfort and joy. I was lucky to be able to raise her in this countryside, but the challenges of raising a child are the same anywhere these days -- to help them grow straight in a bent and twisted world. Each year, as she becomes more her own creation and less mine, I can only light the path and hope she takes it, even as the world grows darker around us.

In exchange for my service, she has given me far more than I imagined I could have. I cannot extend my life’s length in this world, but my time with her extends its depth.

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