Stream of light

I am a connoisseur of mountain streams. Anyone who grew up within striking distance of County Wicklow had a privileged childhood, and mine was no exception. I spent a lot of time clambering among rocks amid scenes of impossible wonder; so that, in my imagination, all the mountain streams I ever encountered became fused, in some dim way, into one: the archetype, or Platonic ideal, of a stream. It was something to do with a source, an origin, a purity. Something which, once found, could never be lost again - a stairway there.

There was a stream in Glendalough, the ancient monastic settlement in the depth of Wicklow, which I thought came near to the ideal. In my mind's eye I built it up until I could almost see, beyond the trickling waters, the ferns and hanging trees, a glint of heaven itself. But when I went back years later I could not find the stream, and, bitterly disappointed, wondered if I had imagined the whole thing.

And then I did find it: not in Glendalough, nor in Ireland at all - but 3,000 miles away, in Maine. It was a perfect stream, progressing in winding stages for miles, appropriately called Step Falls. There, others and I wandered and bathed and dazzled ourselves in the sun of a perfect day. Sprawled on a sloping rock with my feet in the stream, I thought that if there was one place in this world that intersected with infinity, this was it.

I only went there once. The next time I tried it the car in which I rode, perhaps in a fit of pique at being so far from its home in Boston, stalled repeatedly, refusing to go near the place. But on reflection, perhaps it was as well. It was overcast in New England that day, and paradise is never quite so paradisal without the sun. And it is seldom the same the second time around. Or so I have found.

But not always. For I found my Wicklow paradise again, and strangely (but perhaps not) in the company of the friend I had vainly tried to bring to its counterpart in Maine. (There is, perhaps, only one stream.) And it was another perfect day, though in an Irish, not an American, way. For one thing, there was no sun; the clouds hung in curtains over the two lakes from which Glendalough draws its name. We passed the round tower where the monks of ancient times were wont to barricade themselves with their precious manuscripts for protection from marauding Vikings. (Glendalough was one of Europe's foremost seats of learning during the so-called Dark Ages.) Then we went out in a boat past St. Kevin's Bed , a cave high in the rock face.

There is nowhere in the world that I am aware of to beat Ireland for cloudscapes, for those occasional glaring rays that intersect the density, all the brighter for that murky backdrop. It is possible to imagine, gazing over that clouded lake, stream-fed, fringed with reeds, that heaven is perhaps two, or at most five, miles beyond it.

We had driven from Dublin that day literally through the clouds, along a high plateau called Callary Bog, which, if not the roof of the world, is at least the roof of Wicklow. My friends were, I knew, disappointed at seeing so little of the countryside they passed, having come from America to see it; but I knew that they were experiencing it more deeply than any picture-post-card-brilliance could match. I knew that - in a way they would perhaps not be aware of for years - the mist that surrounded us would enter their souls and haunt them forever.

And as I recall clambering in childish delight among the rocks of my refound stream that day, it strikes me that, though there is but one stream, it may appear in diverse ways. The primary sense of harmony and light is one aspect of the stream. But is there not another, more oblique way in which it may appear? For there can, perhaps, be too much light: so that, taking the stairway for the goal, we sprawl thereon, imagining we have reached our destination when in fact we have barely begun.

It is difficult to be comfortable in Ireland: there are always clouds, the hint or threat of rain. It can be oppressive, living here. Yet I am not sure which is the greater danger - the moroseness that can assail one unexpectedly in this ancient land - or the brash comfort of unclouded American days, where the very ease and joy of living can be a snare. There are no clouds obscuring that one stream for which I have always searched, or its source. What its light is I cannot say; but it comes not from any sun that can be known while we cling to the earth.

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