Tapping for more than water

From " The Listener," September, 1977.m I do not know what age I was when I got lost in the pea-drills in a field behind the house, but it is a half-dream to me, and I've heard about it so often that I may even be imagining it. Yet, by now, I imagined it so long and so often that I know what it was like: a green web, caul of veined light, a tangle of rods and pods, stalks and tendrils, full of assuaging earth and leaf smell, a silent, sunlit lair. I'm sitting as if just wakened from a winter sleep and gradually become aware of voices, coming closer, calling my name, and for no reason at all I have begun to weep.

I suppose all children want to creep back into warm corners, to crouch in their secret nests. I loved the fork of a beech tree at the head of our lane, the close thicket of a boxwood hedge in the front of the house, the soft, collapsing pile of hay in back corner of the byre; but especially I spent time in the throat of an old willow tree at the end of the farmyard. It was a hollow tree, with gnarled, spreading roots, a soft, perishing bark and a pithy inside. Its mouth was like the fat and solid opening in a horse's collar, and, once you squeezed in through it, you were at the heart of a different life, looking out on the familiar yard as if it were suddenly behind a pane of strangeness. Above your head, the living tree flourished and breathed, you shouldered the slightly vibrant bole, and if you put your forehead to the rough pith you felt the whole lithe and whispering crown of willow moving in the sky above you. In that tight cleft, you sensed the embrace of light and branches, you were a little Atlas shoulering it all, a little Cerunnos pivoting a world of antlers.

As I grew, so the world grew. It widened to wet places and dry places, bushy places and bare places, sandy places and soggy places. There was what we called the Sandy Loaning, a sanded pathway between old hedges leading, half a mile in off the road, first among fields and then through a small bog, to a remote farmhouse. It was a silky, fragrant world there, and for the first few hundred yards you were safe enough.

The sides of the lane were banks of earth topped with broom and ferns quilted with moss and primroses. Behind the broom in the rich grass, cattle munched reassuringly. Rabbits occasionally broke cover and ran ahead of you in a flurry of dry sand. There were wrens and goldfinches. But gradually, those lush and definite fields gave way to scraggy marshland. Birch trees stood up to their pale shins in swamps. The ferns thickened above you. Scuffles in old leaves made in you nervous, and you dared yourself always to pass the badger's set, a wound a fresh mould in the overgrown ditch, where the old brock went to earth. Around the badger's hole, there hung a field of dangerous force. Here was the realm of bogeys. We'd heard about a mystery man who haunted the fringes of the bog here, we talked about mankeepers and mosscheepers, creatures uncatalogued by any naturalist but nonetheless real for that. What was a mosscheeper, anyway, if not the soft, malicious sound the word itself made, a siren of collapsing sibilants coaxing you out toward bog pools lidded with innocent grass, quicksands, quagmires? They were all there, sure enough, and spread out away over a low, birch screened apron of land towards the shores of Lough Beg, that forbidden ground we called the moss.

Two families lived at the heart of the moss, and one recluse, called Tom Tipping, whom we never saw, but in the morning on the road to school, we watched his smoke rising from a clump of trees, and spoke his name between us, until it was synonymous with mystery man, with unexpected scuttlings in the hedge, or footsteps slushing through long grass . . .

Beyond the moss spread the narrow reaches of Lough Beg, and in the centre of Lough Beg lay Church Island, a spire rising out of its yew trees, a local mecca. St. Patrick, they said, had fasted and prayed there 1,500 years before, and was there not a stone outside the roofless church that bore the impress of his knee? In the cup-shaped hole, rainwater collected. But what finally attracted me to Church Island was again the sense of a green sanctuary. The old graveyard was shoulder-high with meadow sweet and cow parsley, overhung with thick, unmolested yew trees and, somehow, those yews fetched me away to Agincourt and Crecy, where the English archers bows, I knew, were made of yew also. all I could ever manage for my bows were tapering shoots of ash or willow from a hedge along the stackyard, but even so, to have cut a bough from that green silent compound on Church Island would have been a violation too treacherous to contemplate.

But for now, I leave the moss and Church Island for the arable acres of the farm itself; leave the pagusm for the pale, the wet for the dry. If Lough Beg marked one limit of the imagination's nesting ground, Slieve Gallon marked another.

Slieve Gallon is a small mountain that lay in the opposite direction, taking the eye out over grazing and ploughed ground and the distant woods of Moyola Park, out over Grove Hill and Back Park and Castledawson. This side of the country was the peopled, communal side, the land of haycock and corn-stook, of wire fence and wooden gate, milkcans at the end of lanes and auction notices on gate pillars. Dogs barked from farm to farm. Barns stood in the roadside, bulging with fodder. Behind and across it ran the railway, and the noise that hangs over it constantly is the heavy shunting of an engine at Castledawson station.

I have a sense of air, of lift and light, when this comes back to me. Light dancing off the shallows of the moyola River, shifting in eddies on the glaucous whirlpool. Light changing on the mountain itself, that stood like a barometer of moods, now blue and hazy, now green and close up. Light above the spires, away at Magherafelt. Light frothing at your feet among the bluebells of Grove Hill. And the lift of the air is resonant, too, with vigorous musics. A summer evening carries the fervent and melancholy strain of hymm-singing from a gospel hall among the fields, so that the hawthorn blooms and the soft, white patens of the elderflower hang dolorous in the hedges. Or the rattle of Orange drums from Aughrim Hill sets the heart alert and watchful as a hare.

For if this is the country of community, it is also the realm of division. Like the rabbit pads that loop across grazing, and tunnel the soft growths under ripening corn, the lines of sectarian antagonism and affiliation follow the boundaries of the land. In the names of its fields and townlands, in their mixture of Scots and Irish and English etymologies, this side of the country was redolent of the histories of its owners. Broagh, the long rigs, Bell's Hill; Brian's field, the round meadow, the demesne; each name was a kind of oral love made to each acre. And saying the names like this distances the places, turns them into what Wordsworth once called a prospect of the mind. And yet, they lie deep within, like some script indelibly written into the nervous system.

I always remember the pleasure I had in digging the black earth in our garden and finding, a foot below the surface, a pale seam of sand. I remember, too, men coming to sink the shaft of the pump and digging through that seam of sand down into the bronze riches of the gravel, that soon began to puddle with the spring water. That pump I spoke of in the beginning marked an original descent into earth, sand, gravel, water. IT centered and staked the imagination.

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