Memory and Imagination Mix and Mingle

It was in a college English course that I first learned of what we called stream-of-consciousness writing. It sounded so easy. You would half close your eyes and put down on paper whatever thoughts came to mind. This must be what poets do, we thought.

The nearest thing to stream-of-consciousness writing that I permit myself now is when my mind wanders and some experience long forgotten is recalled by a smell, a sound, or a picture. I call these experiences memory dreams.

With one whiff of diesel smoke from a passing truck, I am back on a pier in Miami watching the submarine-chasers engines throbbing, their decks heavy with depth charges, making ready to play cat and mouse in the blue waters of the Gulf Stream.

The call of a white-throated sparrow brings me once again to the summit of Mt. Moosilauke, N.H. It is early morning; the valley of the Connecticut River is filled with mist, and the peaks of the Franconia range stand sharp against the northern sky.

Two hundred yards from the summit is a spring from which we bring water. We carry buckets along a path bordered by dwarf spruce, heavy with dew. White-throats greet the day, their melodic whistle so clean, so unforgettable.

A few evenings ago, I watched a television documentary about Irish music in America. It opened with scenes of an Irish village in the mid-19th century at the time of the potato famines, when people were leaving for the New World.

I am transported to the island of Achill in the northwest corner of Ireland where a mountain called Sleevemore, a great cone of green, overlooks the sea. From a distance its slopes appear smooth as a lawn. Climb it and you find rocks, gullies, and scrub growth populated by wandering sheep. Perhaps a third of the way to the top is the deserted village.

Stone houses remain, their wooden roofs and doors long since rotted away. There are chimneys, stone gables, and doorways leading into what once were kitchens, their floors now overgrown with weeds. Perhaps a dozen houses -- once homes -- remain along what was a vibrant street.

What strikes the visitor -- perhaps intruder would be a better word -- is the utter silence. Long ago, this village throbbed with life: shouting children, barking dogs, housewives calling to one another, and over it all was the pungent smell of peat smoke.

Far below, the waters of Creel Bay glisten in the sun. The men who lived in these stone houses overturned their black-tarred currachs on the rocky shore and hung their fishing nets to dry before starting the slow climb to their village.

Today, the wind rustles the gorse bushes, and a raven soars overhead, but the people are gone. What remains is silence.

Such are the dreams aroused by a whiff of smoke, the song of a bird, or the glimpse of a TV screen.

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