I reached into my pants pocket today and pulled out a small, hard chunk of earth flecked with grass. The pants had just been washed but the pocket was still filled with crumbles of grittiness. I think I remember putting them there while Neil and Ed and I walked an empty misty path on a heather filled hill along the shores of Lough Beagh in County Donegal. Or maybe it was the day we walked a boardwalk path talking ecology and botany with a park ranger at Ceide Fields (pronounded Kay-jah), a vast 6000 year old neolithic settlement in County Mayo. I do know with certainty that they were in my pants when I got on the airplane because at one of the three security checks in the Dublin airport, the officer asked what was in my pocket. Having forgotten, I reached in and pulled out what was left of a chunk of peat that had mixed with pocket lint, “Just dirt,” I said. The TSA officer looked at me oddly and let me go.
It is said that when Irish immigrants left Ireland they brought a piece of peat with them to remind them of where they came from. The fudge-colored coarse soil was crumbled over coffins or buried with the dead so they left this earth buried under the soil of their heart-home. Today, Irish entrepreneurs sell bags of “authentic peat” to nostalgic Americans for $20 a bag and wealthy Irish immigrants buy it by the ton to fill their graves or build their US homes on. When I packed to leave, I hid in my suitcase a gallon sized ziplock bag filled with peat bricks I’d lifted from a bag oddly labeled “Bull Nuts” next to the fireplace in Conor’s cozy living room in Falcarragh, County Donegal. His small home overlooked a white sand beach and the azure waters of the North Atlantic, the bay exactly matching the color of the wool I’d bought to knit a scarf. I don’t think Conor will mind the small theft of his heating fuel, in fact, I think it would make him smile. He would tell me it is more evidence I need to return. He understands the need to have the land close.
I’ve been back for a couple of weeks now and there has been much to think about. I loved every moment of the trip, my traveling companions were more fun than I’d guessed and the weather was unusually good. The people of Ireland were warm and genuine and were fascinated by why a traveler from the US would want to visit tiny, out-of-the-way villages and remote country roads. Until we said we were there to see the land. This they understood completely.
There is a lot of land to see. Ireland is a nation of 4.5 million, 1.5 million of whom live in the metropolitan ares of Dublin and Belfast. The remaining three million people are spread thinly over 32,000 square miles. Compare that to the Seattle metropolitan area of 3 million people living in a little less than 6,000 square miles. It is crowded here at home and I feel it.
I grew up only 15 miles or so from where I live now, a lucky girl whose parents took her into the woods or onto the water every weekend. The Cascade Mountains, protected within the Goat Rocks, Mount Rainier, Alpine Lakes, Henry M Jackson, Mount Baker/Snoqualmie and Glacier Peak Wilderness Areas (just some of the 31 set aside ares in Washington), provide spectacular scenery and breathtaking remote recreation areas easily accessible from Seattle Metro. It is a beautiful place where I can ski or boat or hike an hour or so in nearly any direction and sometimes in all the same day. The mountains are craggy and dramatic, with towering Douglas firs and powerful rivers that grow and shrink with the mood of the weather. I live on a major earthquake fault and next to sleeping volcanoes that could rumble to life at any moment. There is a sense here of grumbling life deep in the ground—it is like living with a benevolent troll who could get cranky any moment.
While easily accessible wilderness provides a positive save-the-earth nature experience for city-dwellers, for those of us seeking serenity it can be hard to come by. Trails are often within earshot of major highways. Commercial planes and military jets overhead are the norm in all but Mount Rainier National Park air space. Rarely have I ever been on a trail without seeing at least a dozen people. My quarter acre backyard garden is never without the sounds of the road or stereos or people yelling. Even on the ski hill, the snow-hushed sounds of wind and chairlift and laughter are accented by horns and air breaks from the highway below.
But Ireland has a sense of space that is like taking a deep breath after having had on a bra that is too tight. Or bad case of asthma. Or coming out of a crowded elevator. There is an expansiveness in the landscape that is soothing despite its austerity. It is uncomplicated to the eye, the gorse and heather that grows in abundance rolls with the curve of the land, the stones have soft edges, the colors are muted lavender, mauve, gold and green. The mountains fall into valleys and layer upon each other with such depth it is like something out of a Disney fairyland.
Even “highways” are softened and lacking in the vast asphalt invasiveness I was used to.
They sometimes had a strip of grass growing down the center of the lane where a lack of traffic left it to flourish. They were often one lane, or what passed for a narrow two. It was not unusual to have to back down to a wider place to let a car go by. We looked the driver of the passing car in the eye as they slid by with a wave and a nod, only a handbreadth away. Hedges of red bush fuchsia kept cars tucked onto the narrow, elevated passes, providing brief opening to views of the sea or rolling hills.
Ireland is a patchwork of green divided by light grey stone walls that run as straight up a hill as if a line had been rigged to build along. Bright green the color of a Crayola crayon. Soft green like the color of moss. Dark green like christmas trees. Iridescent green like the recently fertilized lawn on a dew soaked morning. A landscape of fields so vivid and layered, speckled with bleating white sheep and quaint stone cottages it was like stepping into a renaissance pastoral painting. Each breath was a green-soaked infusion of the warm oiliness of sheep, the faint smokiness of burning peat and the tang of sun warmed (green!) seaweed. Green that was not just a color, but a presence. It was everywhere like I could never have imagined, even growing up in a state called “The Everegreen State” and living near “The Emerald City”. Ireland’s green entered my eyes and nose and rattled around in my brain, clearing out the crusted detritus of life, loosening my despair and soaking deep into my skin. I was at peace there, something I can rarely say about myself for more than moments at a time. And I don’t think it was just because I was on vacation.
The land is so old, and the terrain so plain and without pretense that it is almost as if it says to us to slow down and rest; that no matter what your troubles are, they will pass. There is no extra fuss here. The drama of its vistas and weather and landscape is time-worn and consistent. The land is clearly The Mother; her harshness and gentleness woven together, stern mixed with love, the unforgiving with the generous. The landscape is barren without being empty, stark but infinitely deep and interesting. Knowing that battles large and small have been fought, families raised, gods and goddesses worshipped on every inch of it for thousands of years left me feeling accompanied instead of alone. There is silence there that I have not experienced elsewhere, a companionable lack of noise that is available to be filled with what is needed, but discourages excess. I had space to breathe there – not just clean air, but breathe into who I truly am. In being able to drop my every day protective mechanisms, I felt free.
My doctor believes that fibromyalgia is a disease of overstimulation. His prescription for me is to sleep more, do less, rest often. He wants me to do more yoga, cut my hours, write about things I love, play in the woods and snow. He believes that my everyday life and personal history has me so on guard that I don’t sleep properly and that years of exhaustion and coping have created a pain cycle in my body. (*NOTE* The very real physical trauma of extreme measures taken to cure the cancer that once riddled my right breast also is a major factor).
The last pain I had from fibromyalgia on my trip was just after I left Dublin, the residue of the hustle and jet lag of travel and long days/nights in a big city. It was gone the night I fell asleep in an apartment over a closed-for-the-winter coffee shop, the un-curtained windows open to rolling hills of heather that fell into a full-moon lit sea. The first night of good sleep I had in years. The restful sleep continued, night after night until I got home. I prolonged it for a few days with Tylenol PM and jet lag, relishing the green and mauve soaked dreams of a place that was gradually drifting into the mists. But, back to work with heroin addicts trying to sell me stolen goods in a neighborhood plagued with seven armed robberies in a week, and the grind of a normal 50 hour week on my feet and my back is spasming, two points of pain in my hip make it hard to get out of bed and “rest” is again elusive. I don’t know how to live here in the city, even with my own mountains and green not so very far away.
Reaching into my pocket again, I roll the peat between my fingers. I have already placed a larger chunk in a leather pouch along with a smooth jade-green piece of Connemara marble and a stone from my garden. I keep the pouch in my pocket, though really wearing it close to my heart would be more appropriate.
My struggle with how to live in an urban environment is a more poignant one than before, having seen that it is indeed true that people live without guns, Starbucks, strip malls and mass-produced food without being “poor”. The Irish have a love of their land that is deep and enduring and creates a contended sense of well-being despite all they don’t have in terms of what we see as normal conveniences. Ireland isn’t rich by monetary standards, but it is not “poor” in terms of happiness. Its Happiness Index ranks it number 73 over all out of 151 countries surveyed, and 14th for overall wellbeing. The US is number 105. And this despite Ireland’s median income of just under $24,000(USD) compared to $52,000 in the States. I’ve always known it isn’t money that makes me happy, now I have to figure out how to more of what does. I need more space in my life and less human intervention. More green and a sheep would be nice, but I will settle for fresh air and silence.
Even as I began writing this I was tending my own land, a corner lot less than a block away from a busy highway. I spent a day propping up brussel sprout plants, picking apples and late zucchini, getting my beehive ready for winter and doctoring a chicken who had an unfortunate run in with a rat trap. A squirrel needed help, the wild birds needed feeding and plans for solar paneling on the roof need to be considered. I am trying to find my way towards balance on my 1/4 acre even as I pick up needles and used condoms out of the ditch in my front yard. There is “nature” here, even if I lack the expansive relief of the hills of Erin. In the coming months I will figure out how to add more time for myself outside. I will make more trips to the mountains. I have to consider if I can leave the wilderness as a place I visit or if it is imperative to my health to call it home. I have a stack of books to read about the impact of landscape on our physical and spiritual selves and I plan to write more about connecting with our “place,” wherever it is. And, I will keep my little leather pouch with its bits of Ireland close as I begin planning how to go back….