The April weather was as fickle as… well, as fickle as springtime-weather in Ireland! Whenever the sun showed her face for a couple of hours, I took Daniella out on one of our local walks. The advantage of walking with a toddler is that she’s happy to stop and look at everything. It takes forever to get anywhere, and this arrangement suits me just fine as it gives me plenty of time to find new plants and flowers to identify. April was a good wildflower-month and after my slow start in March, I was able to identify 32 plant species in April. Fresh green and white were the colours of the month: bird cherry trees, garlic mustard, flowering blackthorn, white bluebells, and the cloudy springtime sky. Uncertainty still loomed over everything and it wasn’t just the erratic weather. The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic kept people walking, rain or sunshine. I came to think of these walks as survival-walks. When everything is closed or off-limits, shops, restaurants, workplaces, and even family- and friends’ homes, people walk to keep going. They walk to survive this in-between time. I know I do. Some of my more determined neighbours walk three to four times a day! We do what we must to stay sane…
The young aspens on our local walk grow in thick hedges, forming bushes of bright green leaves that fuel the imagination. Aspens are native to Ireland and their round leaves come alive as they rustle, flutter, and shake in the slightest breeze. And with the weather we’ve been having, not a day goes by that they don’t talk and chatter. The ancient Celts believed aspens were sacred and the quivering leaves aided communication with their ancestors. Crowns of aspen leaves have been found in ancient burial grounds and were thought to aid the dead on their path to rebirth. They also believed these whispering trees brought gifts of inspiration and poetry.* Perhaps I should spend some time underneath a whispering aspen so that it can impart some creative inspiration. Even though I’m trying to write every day, it feels a little stale. Words on a page, inspiration-run-dry. What I’m doing is desperate writing, writing to keep going, survival-writing. I suppose survival feels so central to our lives because we literally hope to make it through this inert period so that, one day, we can resume our lives. I think more and more people are realising there is no ‘resuming your life’, not really. We need to adjust and be flexible to this new life that’s both strange and familiar. But I’m not alone in this liminal state. I’ve noticed how many people are writing to process their thoughts and to make peace with what’s been lost. Henry Sussman wrote in Idylls of the Wanderer: “The state of writing makes us outsiders to our own existences, toward which we peer back in bemused strangeness.” This critical distance often offers a new perspective, especially when strong emotions cloud the mind. I turned to poetry to process a loss when my grandmother’s sister passed away unexpectedly. I felt the loss keenly because I knew the heartache my family must be experiencing. In times of grief, the distance between Ireland and South Africa feels vast. Incomprehensible. When togetherness seems like the most natural thing it’s almost unbearable being far from your loved ones. You only have words of comfort to offer in the absence of your physical presence and words are stale things. They can only say so much. When loved ones are fragmented across the world, all we have left is our words. And memories. And whispering trees.
I tried to process the news, but it stirred the embers of an emotion I’ve tried to manage carefully throughout the pandemic. It was a sadness born from the lost sense of ‘togetherness’ after we moved to Ireland. This loss is more acute during the pandemic because it’s laced with uncertainty. We have no idea when we’ll be able to see our family and friends again. So, I did two things. I poured myself a whiskey and drank to the memory of tannie Anet. I sat at the kitchen table and watched the golden sunlight disappear from our garden. Insects – I’m not sure what they were – were twirling together in the final rays. Mosquitoes, I thought, but Ireland doesn’t have mosquitoes, or not very many. Not midges, I know them well enough by now. They seemed like little memory phantoms. The image sparked memories of laeveld mosquitoes dancing in the light, and of my grandmother and her sisters living in beautiful Mpumalanga. So, I picked up a pen and wrote a poem; it was an ode to tannie Anet and to the phantom mosquitoes that brought me some comfort that evening.
As April progressed, the weather seemed to turn into a stubborn willful deity who lured us in with sunny spells, only to strike with hailstorms, frost, and winds that shook the trees and our bones. The days were grey more often than not and, let’s be honest, it was cold. The forget-me-nots did their bit to brighten our walks with their sky-blue flowers. My thoughts and eyes kept wandering back to the aspen trees. One of my earliest observations of the Irish landscape was that this felt like a place that had many trees once. I knew very little about Ireland’s history when I first moved here, but I noticed how dense the trees grew in ‘protected’ areas, or rather, areas not used for agriculture. When I brought this up in a conversation some years ago, our Irish friends gave me a quick history lesson about colonisation and the various reasons for the generally treeless state of the landscape. This loss still seemed raw even though the memories of these forests could not be their own. Ireland’s forests and woodlands have been lost for many generations. Tim Wenzell writes:
‘One of the early names for Ireland was Inis-na-ffidbadh, or “The Isle of Woods.” But the process of deforestation is longstanding… In some cases, the vanished forests remain only in surnames: MacCuill (son of hazel), MacCarthin (son of rowan), Maclbair (son of yew) and MacCuilin (son of holly), among others. In “Ireland’s Lost Glory,” published in Birds and All Nature in 1900, the anonymous author makes the observation that many placenames in Ireland were derived from the presence of forests, shrubs, groves, and species of trees, most notably the oak.’
He also attributes the lost forests to colonialism and imperialism, with the aim ‘to increase the amount of arable land,’ in other words, the amount of profitable land.** Placenames and surnames are memories too, I think. A name that whispers ‘forget-me-not’, that echoes through the young aspen trees, that echoes across the page. Words and trees. They capture our imaginations and our memories. They help us remember what we have lost and how to move forward.
Cowslip, Sowbread, Common Dog Violet, American Skunk Cabbage, Ivy Leaved Toadflax, Aspen Tree, Sun Spurge, Bird Cherry Tree, Japanese Flowering Apricot, Bluebells, Garlic Mustard, Early Dog Violet, Field Forget-Me-Not, Horse Chestnut Tree, Dutch Crocus, Spring Crocus, Alder Tree, Meadow Buttercup, Primrose, Cow Parsley, Crab Apple Tree, Black Thorn, Hawthorn, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Cuckooflower, Bush Vetch, Gorse, Daisy, Hogweed, White Clover, Honesty, Rowan Tree
**Ecocriticism, Early Irish Nature Writing, and the Irish Landscape Today, by Tim Wenzell, 2009
Keep walking and stay safe,