Labyrinths force us to walk deliberately and contemplatively. Form and function follow one another so that as the paths fold around one other, so attention is deeply layered and dense. There are no clear ways ahead and sometimes lines curve but there is an onward search that hovers between stillness and quest.
Writing out of time
The cottage table, Reagh
I came to Ireland to begin a new novel. I had a character who appeared from nowhere at the end of a recent trilogy and presented herself as a new subject. Her mother had appeared earlier in the trilogy and this placed her in Ireland. Then, one of those fascinating synchronicities: while we were in Budapest on a writing break last November, we followed a lead from the site of a writer we knew to a website that included their family cottage.
I’d imagined my character, Saoirse, would be from Galway, growing up by the sea, but this place was far inland, remote and basic. Looking at the pictures, which included an old cricket pavilion used as an artists’ studio, I know I’d found my place. What I hadn’t bargained with was just how magical a cottage with no ‘modern comforts’ bar hot and cold water, could be.
The peat fires, the studio to do yoga and write in, the womb-like living room with foot-thick walls and only one tiny window so that it came into its own on long evenings reading, definitely helped. The large and complex yew and hawthorn maze with its own hazel of knowledge at the centre was a big factor. The three acres of ground with streams, an old formal garden now genteelly rambling, a Druid grove and the faery fort, a ring of trees including more hazel and lots of mature holly, around a raised area of grass, were even bigger factors.
There are no clear ways ahead and sometimes lines curve but there is an onward search that hovers between stillness and quest.
Time had no meaning there. We slept long through ink dark nights, cooked simple meals, read several books each in the week, journalled copious amounts and wrote and wrote.
I’d planned to get a flavour of Saoirse’s background during the week, perhaps make some notes. I had three characters and one inciting event but no story or structure beyond that. I’d been incubating the ideas for about six months but my novels are generally slow burns at such an early stage and I believe in long germination periods.
But in this extraordinary environment, blessed with warm sun every day, the calls of insects and birds as the constant voice of the place and a pair of swifts who flew in and out of the studio to check on our progress, I simply wrote.
The novel appeared to be writing itself, perhaps the combination of an incubation period and the fortuitousness of being in this enchanted place.
What seemed especially magical was not only that the writing flowed but that each time I sat down I had no idea what the next scene would be or where the narrative arc was taking me, Saoirse, and the other two main characters, Sarah and Faolán. The novel appeared to be writing itself, perhaps the combination of an incubation period and the fortuitousness of being in this enchanted place.
The character of a maze
Through the Reagh Maze 1, © Adam Craig
One thing I did know ahead was that the maze had to feature in the story. Our lovely hosts had warned us that we should leave several hours if we wanted to get to the centre. They also advised taking in a phone to call one of them if we got lost and not to panic and try to break through the deep yew and prickly hawthorn.
I decided to take a leaf from Ariadne’s book and and went in with a large ball of string tied to an outside post. I had to double back several times, especially in the early stages when the central hazel tree is tantalisingly close but every approach is a blind alley. Finally, I ran out of string. By this time I knew I was very close and picked some hawthorn flowers to mark the final corners so that I could get back to the string. And there it was: the hazel of knowledge.
The true hazels of knowledge are nine trees around a pool at the source of the Boyne, where the salmon of knowledge reputedly swims. They drop their purple nuts into the well, which is a gate to the Otherworld. But all hazels are goddess trees. Two lines from Yeats ran through my mind:
I went out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head.
When I next started to write, the maze was no longer a ‘thing’ to appear in the book, an obstacle for the characters to negotiate, but a character in its own right.
One of the books I brought along to read in the evenings was Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert McFarlane. In one chapter he talks about the Wood Wide Web, the only dimly understood mycorrhizal networks of underground fungi by which trees move resources, information, even genetic material, between one another.
The ‘understorey’ in ecology refers to every thing from the forest floor to the tree canopy, but this understorey also has an ‘understory’, all the ways in which the trees are connected underground. This mutualism is ancient, around 450 million years and it raises
profound questions: about where species begin and end, about whether a forest might be imagined as a super-organism.
a connectedness in which there are more varieties of awareness than are commonly dreamed of in our everyday philosophy.
McFarlane points out that fungi challenge our models of space, time and species. A challenge that seemed eminently sensible in this out of time landscape in the centre of Ireland. He goes on:
Fungi thwart our vivid sense of what is whole and singular, of what defines an organism and of what decent or inheritance means. They do strange things to time because it is not easy to say where a fungus begins or ends, when it is born and when it dies … orthodox ‘Western’ view of nature feels inadequate to the kinds of world-making that fungi perform … Nature […] seems increasingly better understood in fungal terms … as an assemblage of entanglements of which we are messily part … our bodies as habitats for hundreds of species of which Homo sapiens is only one …
… we are beginning to encounter ourselves — as multi-species beings already partaking in timescales that are fabulously more complex than the onward-driving version of history many of us still imagine we inhabit …
Seeing ourselves as compound organisms sharing collaborative lives is a scientific version of traditional animisms, it is a connectedness in which there are more varieties of awareness than are commonly dreamed of in our everyday philosophy.
To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its own voice as well as its own feature.
So wrote Thomas Hardy in Under the Greenwood Tree. McFarlane quoted this in a passage I read the day after I’d given the yew, hawthorn and hazel voices with which to challenge and interact with Saoirse in a passage in which she is trapped in the maze.
In Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Word for World is Forest, there is this same sense of deep interconnectivity, mutualism, awareness and collaborative organisms. On the planet of Athshe, the minds of the inhabiting primates and the trees, are interconnected. My novel, Saoirse’s Crossing, is more concerned with myth and the stories we tell, than with alternative realities, but this sense of deep connection is key.
The word for world is forest
Hawthorn © Adam Craig
It’s key, in fact, not only to story, but our survival on this planet. The plant scientist, Merlin Sheldrake, tells McFarlane
Trees make meaning as well as oxygen.
And the reply comes back:
What we need to understand the forests, is a new language, our present grammar militates against animacy … we need to speak in spore.
a shift away from the kind of anthropocentrism that is killing the world.
This is not romanticisation. Both Sheldrake and McFarlane agree that talking about trees and fungi as socialist carers is no better than applying the language of exchange and transaction, as though trees had prefigured modern capitalist free-trade theory millions of years ago. Rather it is a call to look seriously at our language as part of a shift away from the kind of anthropocentrism that is killing the world.
The scientist, Albrecht, for instance, suggests that we stop calling our current epoch the Anthropocene and enter the Symbiocene. In this epoch what is stressed is social organisation
by human intelligence that replicates the symbiotic life-reproducing forms and processes found in living systems … such as the wood wide web.
Words matter. They shape how we organise and how we see. McFarlane cites the Native American language of Potawatomi, 70% of the words are verbs. Nouns are seen as dead things. ‘An ocean’ is dead, but ‘being ocean’ is a whole way of life and interaction.
It reminds me of A N Whitehead’s process theology in which even divinity is in process of becoming, never a static story. Whilst the theological version has sometimes tended to be overly teleological with a hierarchy towards which life and consciousness is heading, it has possibilities in terms of stories of change and verb. After all, when Moses encounters what he takes for God in the Biblical account of the Burning Bush the presence refuses to be pinned down or given a noun but instead insists. ‘I will be who I will be.’
Perhaps the word for world in the Symbiocene is ‘to forest’.
sunset over the maze, Reagh
Which chimes with another book I read while in Ireland, Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Unsheltered. Set in two timelines with duagonists inhabiting the same falling-down house almost 150 years apart, there is an ongoing debate in the contemporary timeline about how our search for security has masqueraded as a demand for more and more consumption under global capitalist economics.
In a poignant heart to heart between a mother, who has spent her life chasing security, not noticing that she has robbed her now adult children of stability and community as she dragged them around the country from one job promotion to the next, and a daughter who has spent several years in Cuba, observing how people adapt and have a true understanding of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ in the face of an embargo preventing goods entering the country, the daughter comments that we should ‘lower our expectations’, an idea that appalls her mother, who has raised her children to have big expectations of life.
But there’s a fundamental misunderstanding here. The mother is in grief at the notion that unlike previous capitalist generations, she cannot promise her children a ‘better’ life than her own. But her daughter understands that ‘better’ and ‘more’ are not synonymous. She is convinced, like the journalist Naomi Klein in her recent book, This Changes Everything, that we don’t have endless resources to keep using and using. We need to lower our expectations of consumption, but not of life. We need to move away from fossil fuels and stop expecting technology to save us, but that doesn’t mean we need to be joyless.
Mutualism, collaboration, adaptability, living as verbs not nouns, living in connectedness, living as if the word for world is ‘to forest’ are life-affirming and optimistic ways forward.
Through the Reagh Maze 2, © Adam Craig
Finding my way through a maze that has become a character with three voices in the novel I’m now working on has been one of the many acts of magic this place has worked on me in one short week that seemed to last an aeon.
The deeper learning comes when I take this place and what I’ve learnt here home with me. I’ve got more writing time coming up in Italy and France, but then it will be back to home and the rhythms of that place, including running a busy independent press and being part of a busy family. I will go on working on the novel and stay open to its surprises and new ways of letting story emerge, but I also want to stay enchanted. I want to constantly be working on a quest towards the hazel of knowledge, that we have to find not once, but over and over.
Finding delight isn’t only for the days we spend in out of time places. Writers know that the stories we tell and the stories we live by change lives. Enchantment and delight are for every day that we live by the stories of mutualism, collaboration, adaptability, living as verbs not nouns.
Delight is for every day that we put relationships or the slow pleasures of a simple meal above chasing some hollow consumerist distraction. Enchantment is for every day when, even just for a few moments, we savour our connection with all life so that to view the planet as an inanimate resource is anathema. It is for everyday when we live out values of kindness (including to ourselves), courage, generosity and attention.
There are no clear ways ahead and sometimes lines curve but there is an onward search that hovers between stillness and quest.
Becoming a different story
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Thank you for this wonderful, inspiring post 🙂
I always look forward to your blog posts and this time I am in a place of deep listening and understanding, which allowed me to be transported with you to the centre of the maze where the hazel of knowledge, of wisdom, is.
Your reflections inspire me to cultivate my own writing and set up a daily practice.
Keep up the good work, I tell you — and myself.
Paul McDermott says
[quote] “Time had no meaning there …” [end quote]
Your own (blog) words, Jan!
I warned you BEFORE you went that you could dispense with your WATCH and keep one eye on the Calendar. As you also discovered (and mentioned in your blog) “Time has no meaning there …”
If I wasn’t going ‘Home’ (literally!) myself next month (Roscommon) I could easily be a little jealous of the inspiration and Power you experienced on your trip. Hope your writing flows as free and as easymas the Guinness …….
Linda Visman says
This is a wonderful piece, Jan, in many ways.
Magical, thoughtful, nature-centred, compassionate and inspiring.
Thanks for taking us to the living, communicating maze. 🙂
Daphne Williamson (Gloag) says
Thank you for all this, Jan. There’ much here that speaks to me and I want to take on -board – eg stillness and quest, enchantment for everyday, finding one’s magic; and I’ve ordered ‘Underland’. Let’s hope I can make something of it for myself.