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A Blessing (an essay)
About 10 in the morning I parked the car down a small lane, and set off towards a wood at the foot of the south-eastern face of the Comeragh Mountains. It was a warm day in early June, leaves on the beech trees soft and fresh, the cliff-faces way above them ancient and inviting. The path runs alongside the wood, walled with scented broom and flowering rhododendron – the latter an invasive curse, but, it has to said, beautiful when massed in flower. The path was lit with tormentil and heath speedwell.
Solitude is easily found in this relatively small range. I had seen someone camping alone in this wood in February, during a period of intense cold. Quite a few have been drawn to live or hide out here. There was, in the eighteenth century, a General Blakeney, ‘who loved not man nor woman either’. He spent his life in a rough residence high in the hills, alone apart from a single male attendant. He was buried there, at his own request, with his dog and his gun. William Crotty, a highwayman, lived in a cave above the lake which now bears his name. The IRA’s West Waterford Flying Column hid out and planned operations here during the early 1900s. There was Lackendarra Jim, a local man who joined the British Army in 1914 and subsequently fought in some of the bloodiest battles in Mesopotamia. When he returned in 1918, suffering severe shellshock, he found himself unable to settle, and eventually came to inhabit a cave on the slopes of Kilclooney, near Coumshingaun Lake. He used sheep’s wool to fashion a mattress, mud to soften the rock walls. Every fortnight he’d collect his army pension and spend it on food and on a few bottles in Flynn’s pub in the village of Clonea. He lived in his cave for almost 40 years, until his death.
At the top of the wood you cross a stone wall and wire fence onto open ground grazed flat by sheep. Five or six hawthorns, as if arrested in flight, reach to the south, in beseechment or in sudden recoil. Stilled perhaps by the sudden descent of blossom onto lichened limbs.
Now you can see and hear Iska Solas, River of Light or Brightness. It has cut itself a deep gorge on its way down from the plateau – irresistible to walk towards. Soon you can see how it has carved out a series of steep-sided gulleys, through which it drops, gathers its wits in a pool, slides forward, races to a poise then falls again. There are 15 to 20 of these gullies, making a rough staircase up the mountain.
With Waterford photographer Paddy Dwan, I was planning to make a book about the Comeraghs, an 8-mile crumpled range of red sandstone, never more than 792 metres high, notable for its ice-gouged coums, 18 in all, 15 with lakes. I knew the mountains quite well: for the book I planned to walk as much as possible on my own. Mountains are not easy to write about, one’s response so often being appropriate silence. Eye and tongue are wiped clean. On my own, I wanted to be fully absorbed, as in Issa’a great haiku:
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!
Perhaps words would emerge, in time.
I had been very busy with various projects, looking forward to this day, my first long walk on my own, the first real day of the book I thought. Where the river begins to level after its fall I walked beside it, to witness the way of the water, its countless variations. Stillness of mountain and noisy, irrepressible water, leaping strings of light and sound. Water blossoming on rock like flower on hawthorn.
The Comeraghs are a great rain-basin, 8 large rivers rise here, their beginnings like the tiny twigs at the top of a giant oak. The ground is always wet, always more slippery than you think.
I took some photos with my small camera, to remind me and to show Paddy what might deserve a better picture. At some point, as I was beginning to climb higher ground, my lens shutter jammed. I put the camera carefully away. Maybe I was distracted by this. I was quite tired after the long period of work. I began to wonder where to stop for lunch, but I couldn’t resist going into one more gully, to listen, to look at another of the chambers water had made for itself. I was holding my walking pole in my right hand, and once or twice I noticed that I was pushing the point down on the upslope to my right, instead of the downslope to my left, where it would have supported me.
Walking out of one gully, up a steep sheep-path, I slipped, probably on wet grass. I fell sideways but I didn’t hit the ground because there was no ground beneath me. I rolled over completely through the air a couple of times, faster each time it seemed. I had time to think This is it, but after that I can’t remember, though I knew I was being bumped from rock to rock. I might have fallen some 40 feet, I’m
not sure. At last I came to a standstill, on grass beside the river. I hadn’t lost consciousness, though I realize I must have been in a kind of stupor. A bawling was coming from my mouth, an expression as I now think not so much of pain or anger, but of a kind of triumph: Still here! Still here!
I found I was covered in blood, with sharp and specific pains all over. I sat up, but couldn’t stand up, couldn’t get off my knees, as if an invisible ceiling prevented me. I assumed I had hurt my shoulders in some way. I would find that I had in fact broken my neck, 2 vertebrae: C6 and C7 as doctors briskly refer to them. It never occurred to me that this might be the case. I would have been far more frightened had I known.
No one knew where I was. It was not long after noon, still relatively sunny and clear. I had my basic mobile phone with me. Almost automatically, I rang my partner. I got her voicemail. “I’ve fallen in the mountains, I think I’ve hurt myself badly, I can’t walk.” That was the message I left, which she received when she came out of her yoga class half an hour later. I didn’t even say where I was. I can put it down to shock, to not being prepared for her not to answer, but I will never forgive myself for that message. I then rang 999, and was quickly put through to Mountain Rescue. A man called Liam Mc Cabe spoke to me, clearly and calmly, establishing as far as possible where I was, making me repeat this again and again. I had no GPS on my phone, but I did have a pretty good idea of my whereabouts. Liam told me they’d send the helicopter immediately, and also send a mountain rescue party to walk up, just in case it was too cloudy for the helicopter. He told me to wrap up as warmly as possible, to keep the phone on but not to phone anyone else. I was wearing only a polo shirt, getting another 2 layers out of the rucksack I hadn’t lost was immensely painful, but I managed, and lay back.
Because I knew I would be rescued, and because I didn’t know I had broken my neck, I didn’t feel frightened. All I could do was lie and look and listen. Wrens were threading the heather, pipits making their measured bounds. I could see one bilberry on a nearby bush. The river carried on, falling, calming, racing and sliding over sills, falling. After a while, I reached a kind of strange accommodation, a peculiarly deep sense of being part of things. I think now of the sestet from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, 11.14, particularly the last 3 lines:
If someone were to fall into intimate slumber, and slept
deeply with Things –: how easily he would come
to a different day, out of the mutual depth.
Or perhaps he would stay there; and they would blossom and praise
their newest convert, who now is like one of them,
all those silent companions in the wind of the meadows.
That’s in Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Don Paterson has the last 3 lines as:
or perhaps he’d stay: stay until they weakened
and took him in as one of their own kind,
a meadow-brother, a breath inside the wind.
Or maybe he’ll stay on and praise and bloom,
become a convert in his earthly room
and share his silent sisters’ fields and wind.
I particularly like Paterson’s version, the idea of being taken in as one of their own kind, and his beautiful phrase a meadow-brother.
I also remembered and thought about a ram skeleton we had found recently, stripped completely clean and shining white, heather growing through its ribs. This was not a morbid thought: it came from a sense of being wide open, almost a desire to be so. As open as the ram, or as a daisy, or an anemone, the anemone of Rilke’s Sonnet 11.5, which finds it so hard to close at the end of day. The sonnet ends with a comparison of the flower to the human:
In our violence, we outlive her.
But which new life will see us flower
and face the skies, as true receivers?
For a while I felt like a true receiver, though I knew that consciousness, which makes us aware of things like this, and allows us to feel part of them, must also always separate us from them. The only way I could really be a part of things, a true receiver, would be if I was like the ram, stripped of self-consciousness, but also of life. However, I lay at ease – in the lap of the gods I guess, in the manifold senses of that clichéd phrase.
It was a surprise to hear the helicopter at last. I had almost forgotten about it. When it finally came overhead, I waved as well as I could but it kept on going, out of sight. They told me later they thought they had spotted me, but they couldn’t quite be sure, because I wasn’t wearing anything bright, and they wanted to look around a bit just to make sure there was no more obvious candidate. On the plateau above, they spotted someone asleep under a blanket, which they didn’t seem to find in any way remarkable; then they returned for a closer look at me.
As the helicopter hovered and began to descend, its blades whipped up a storm in the narrow gully. It might have begun to rain, or water was being blown off the stream through the air by the force of the blades. The noise was intense, battering back off the rock. I buried my face in the grass and so never saw the cordman, another Liam, being lowered, until he appeared suddenly beside me, dressed in what seemed like a bright red spacesuit. He asked a lot of questions, checked me carefully all over, then strapped me gently but firmly onto a sled. Standing himself on the runners, we began to ascend. The helicopter moved us out of the gully into more open space, and then lifted us the rest of the way, on what I couldn’t help remarking was an extremely thin cord. It was at this point that my partner arrived in her car on the road below, in time to see me lying there in mid-air. She had contacted Mountain Rescue and been told where I was.
I thought of the biblical story of the man lowered by his friends on a stretcher through a roof, to be healed by Christ. This was the reverse: I was being lifted out of a rocky, roofless room, winched up to a warm, healing cabin in the sky.
Almost every person I have spoken to since has told me how lucky I was. Lucky to have survived the fall; lucky not to have risked paralysis by trying harder to stand up and so further damaging my neck; lucky to have had my mobile phone with me; lucky to have been able to get reception. I was told later, by one of the helicopter crew, that I had been in a spot where they had never got reception before.
Sometimes people would tell me too quickly how lucky I’d been.
“What happened you?”
“I fell and broke my neck.”
“You were lucky.”
Well, I thought, if that’s my luck you’re welcome to some of it.
Even at the time, I was astonished by the speed at which I fell. This free fall can only have lasted seconds, but such was the speed it was as if I actually felt gravity, felt its force working on me. I sensed, or probably more strictly have thought since, that we don’t ‘fall’: ‘fall’ is only the name for a concept we use. What happens is that, with no ground beneath our feet, we are subject to the full force of this invisible power, awful in its strength.
Gravity seems to have been there pretty much from the start, and is to an nknown extent responsible for the way this universe behaves. We all come through the gate into its field and it keeps us and everything material in place. You can’t call it a Wildness, because it is so ordered. But when we talk about the non- human world, when we theorize about or valorise the concepts of nature or of wildness, we might be inclined to forget this fundamental pressure acting everything. It is rare to be directly aware of it, to feel it actually working on you. Whether I was being pushed from above or pulled from below, I don’t know. Despite realizing there is no such thing as ‘falling’, I had fallen for the oldest trick of all.
I understand we know exactly how gravity operates, but not what it is made of. What might drive it are particles known as Gravitons. According to Wikipedia, “the graviton is a hypothetical elementary particle that mediates the force of gravitation in the framework of quantum field theory. If it exists, the graviton is expected to be massless (because the gravitational force appears to have unlimited range) and must be a spin-2 boson.” It’s remarkable that we still don’t know what it’s made of, since it is so fundamental. Apparently, each day, standing up, gravity compresses us by about an inch; each night, lying down, we stretch slowly back to size. We would not feel this happening, but I wonder how much this force has influenced our ancient, complex mythologies of a Fall, and how much its constant downward pressure has opened our heads to the idea of a Heaven above.
The nearest, or perhaps the nicest, way I have got to ‘seeing’ what happened to me is to think of a cloak of invisible gravitons being thrown over me and snatching me down, or to think of Zeus coming to Danae in the form of golden rain streaming in through the ceiling. Maybe I had made gravity’s day. I had been caught in an enchantment of gravitons like a hawthorn in blossom.
To have survived, yes, of course that was lucky. Had I been lucky in any other way? There are many synonyms for ‘lucky’, two of them perhaps more in Irish than English usage: steeped, and blessed. Steeped would connote fortunate, drenched in good fortune. But, in my case, in a punning sense, steeped also suggests mountained. The mountain had beaten me up: I had been indelibly marked by its steepness. I took this personally. The natural world, the non-human world, which I loved so much, had given me a terrible beating. I knew of course there was no agency in this, I had simply slipped and fallen. But I had, if you’ll forgive another pun, been given a striking lesson in the indifference of this world to any human fate.
Somehow though that lesson has left me feeling closer to the mountains. Paradoxically, we now seem more connected, they are more alive to me. It took a couple of weeks at least to get all the peaty earth out of my hair after the fall. I was always glad when a new bit turned up – glad still to be steeped in this way. I had been taken into the earth, and given back.
I still partly inhabit the strange accommodation I felt when waiting for the helicopter. As if I were still somehow up there. Or as if I haven’t quite got back into a sense of separate existence. Part of me is haunted by the gully I lay open in. Perhaps a part of me haunts the lower slopes, with the shades of General Blakeney, Lackendarra Jim, Crotty the Highwayman.
Again in a mainly Irish usage, I was blessed. The word bless seems to derive from OE bletsian, of which the root meant blood. To mark or consecrate with blood was probably the original meaning of the word according to the OED, which also notes that during the christianizing of Britain the word was changed to render the Latin benedicere, to praise, bend the knee, or worship, which would also be associated with the word ‘bliss’. Still, in Middle English, to bless could mean to injure or to wound. We also have the French blesser, to wound.
I had been both unlucky, and lucky. I had slipped and been seriously injured, and I had felt and in a deeper way understood the force of gravity. I had been blessed, marked for life, by this fundamental force, whose centripetal power has caused the universe to light up. For a brief moment, and it can only ever be for the briefest moment, I had been a meadow brother, a true receiver.