Returning

Hobart’s hills are distinct through stripped trees now winter has come. I’m transitioning from Ireland’s long, bold twilight to this soft darkening. Dusk is known as “dayli’ gone” in Ulster-Scots, poet Michael Longley told us at his reading, and back here in Tasmania it’s as if the day has barely awoken before it’s gone.

I feel wistful and somewhere between worlds. This liminal mind lumbers into routine as if for the first time, re-convening roads, time-zones, people, work and radio stations. I miss the Burren and its mauve shadows that are as gesso to everything in the foreground. Vestiges of autumn’s tones and the frosted morning grass remind me of where I am, not in the glow of Ireland’s west coast. As memory fades, longing returns and the prevailing sense of exile drifts again into my orbit. How is home remade?

As I breathe into returning to the hem of the world - and a limping Commonwealth - another election is re-fashioning the UK. Jeremy Corbyn, the much-maligned-by-media candidate is reviving the pitch towards best-for-all while Prime Minister Teresa May falters and will align with the DUP in Northern Ireland to arrest her ship’s tilt. Ulster is so often forgotten in political scrums and now its chance to bolster Britain may revive simmering sectarian fear. Will a United Ireland emerge from the dust or will the motes explode in its face? No-one wants a return to hard borders on the island of Ireland and I’ve read that the border may now move to the Irish sea rather than reappear on the roads. The majority of farmers in the borderlands voted to remain in the EU and although Brexit is now inevitable, and a hung parliament in Westminster complicated, perhaps transitions might become more equitable. Ireland is like the supporting character in a narrative of hope within a spectacular history of survival.

Tasmania’s winter-green tone is not the emerald of so much of Ireland yet its prevailing presence is almost as comforting. The eucalypts, blackwoods and silver wattles along the banks and hillsides are dusky, almost blue-grey, as if reflecting the sombre winter sky.  As I watch the gulls circle across the slopes of kunanyi, Mount Wellington, before they return to the estuary at dusk, I’m reminded of patterns and rhythms in nature and of how they represent so much hope. The winter solstice is one week away and celebrating it is a welcome rite in 40-plus latitudes. David Walsh’s fireside festival has become an institution: not only for transgressions in art but for transmission towards warmth and light. While we farewell the longest night, in Ireland the festivities will bid adieu to the shortest night, with song and dance. We hold hands across the planet.

Australia has its distinctive animal characters that mock and manifest whatever the season. Kookaburras nearly fell off their perch laughing as I jogged past them today. Can laughter be the collective noun? A murder of crows and an ostentation of peacocks made it into the lexicon; a laughter of kookaburras? And what of currawongs, those charcoal ravens that swoop into the city’s fringe as snow-clouds build across the mountain, their falsetto calls screeching as if commanding law and order. Their sound is unique to Tasmania and one I associate with walking through forests or camping near rivers in the mountains. Like the cuckoo in the Burren, the currawong speaks to being where I am and to listening.

Eucalypts in the suburbs

Eucalypts in the suburbs

kunanyi/ Mount Wellington in winter

kunanyi/ Mount Wellington in winter

Dark Mofo Hobart 2017 light show

Dark Mofo Hobart 2017 light show

Ellipsis

The lavender hills. A few days ago I joined a valiant brigade of walkers across a northern part of the Burren. Every Sunday, whatever the weather, they hike the hills. Along the way there were many conversations: living in the Burren, walking the camino, education in Ireland, Syrian refugees in County Clare towns, Irish politics, music, history, Tasmanian devils and Burren geology and botany. We walked up and across the limestone pavement, past several medieval ecclesiastical sites: Corcomroe Abbey (1194), Colman’s holy well, and the Oughtmama churches. Monastic and church sites in the Burren seem almost as profuse as the wildflowers. The stories lying latent are various, many tragic, such as the graves of children who were not baptised and the deaths of teachers of hedge schools caught by the redcoats for delivering illicit education to children (in the seventeenth century).

To be here in spring is to be surprised by colour at almost every step: in gaps between rocks, under walls, beside pathways. Hawthorn is abundant, festooning fields and roads in white and pink clusters. As May moves towards summer, wildflowers decay on the slopes and valleys yet are still resplendent: spring gentians, orchids, bloody crane’s bill, hawthorn, primrose, dog-rose, wood anenomes, mountain avens, wild strawberry, cowslip, bird’s foot trefoil, dandelion, germander speedwell and many more with wondrous names. Walking and looking has many rewards. After Sunday’s walk I purchased a guidebook to wild plants of the Burren. I’m gradually coming to understand differences with Tasmania’s unique ecology and the need for informed stewardship in both places.

The Burren is a Geopark, one of a network of important Geoparks in Europe. BurrenLIFE, a program funded by the EU, has been nominated for a Green award for its “phenomenal impact on a unique landscape.…[because it has] pioneered a novel approach to farming and conservation…with alternative approaches to sustainable management of high nature value farmland.” Its premise is building a sustainable relationship between agriculture, community and ecology. It is educating farmers and businesses towards bringing into focus the uniqueness and fragility of this environment. BurrenLIFE, in process now for 20 years, works from a simple principle: cattle are taken to limestone uplands in winter to eat down the grasses instead of being fed silage gleaned from fields. Reducing growth on the hills by grazing favours the wildflowers’ appearance in spring when cattle are returned to the lowlands. Farmers are rewarded financially if they support the scheme by not overgrazing, maintaining the stone walls, controlling overgrowth and reducing use of silage.

Grazing in winter on uplands seems counter intuitive and in reverse to other European countries with traditions that transfer cattle to highlands in summer; and in Australia cattle are reported to be totally destructive in fragile alpine reserves. What has been highlighted to me here is that ecology is niche- and place-specific: it needs stewardship that is unique to that land. Wintering of stock in the Burren has seen the return of bio-diversity and a deep pride in land care. Diversity here has a broader meaning than in Tasmania where endemic species are seen as necessary to protection and everything foreign excluded. Here conservation and biodiversity has a broader agenda. Dialogue with those who live there, or who have deep ancestral connections, may take time but is richly rewarded.

The Burren in Bloom festival (for two weeks) and the Burren Marathon (this weekend) offer a plethora of choices for visitors and locals in May. A real joy for me was attending a reading at BCA by Belfast-born poet Michael Longley, contemporary of Seamus Heaney and winner of many poetry awards. He chose poems of place and all referred to flowers, many he had found in the Burren. His gentle and meticulous poems speak to his love for this wild garden as well as to the pain of experiencing the Troubles in Ulster when he lived there. I was deeply moved by this poet’s reading, particularly since my recent trips to Belfast and County Derry have established a vibrant connection through family with Northern Ireland.

The singers in the whiskey bar last night spoke of the sadness so many of us were feeling following the Manchester bombing this week. So many Irish know that city well. Songs from the American songbook of the 70’s and 80’s dominated the visiting singers’ choices. Irish songs, sung by a couple of regulars, men in their 80’s, were of work, love and loss: poignant and memorable. I wondered about singing Lee Marvin’s “I was Born under a Wandering Star” and Don McLean’s “Bye Bye Miss American Pie”, songs that I didn’t rally to when they were popular but last night gave us all opportunities to sing together. The goodwill of the song leader was evident: to raise hope and deflect depression after so much unnecessary loss. Let the flowers bloom: Burren gentians, dandelion, hawthorn and Tasmanian laurel, scoparia and the brilliant fagus leaves.

My time here is closing in. In two days I will be returning to the Southern Hemisphere, to Tasmania’s mild winter. Daylight will diminish. Here light is like an endless festival, birds its constant chorus. I will light a fire, sing and play Bach, improvise inside and outside, marking my return with the sounds and silence trawled from my brief time in Ireland’s arms. My memories of the Burren residency will be of many hues. I’ve taken this place deep into my being and I’m so grateful.

BurrenLIFE:

https://www.teagasc.ie/environment/biodiversity--countryside/research/completed-projects/burren-life/

http://burrenprogramme.com/the-burren/

Fern on the uplands limestone

Fern on the uplands limestone

Hawthorn near the ruin of churches

Hawthorn near the ruin of churches

Gentian

Gentian

close relations

The weather here is like an old coat: familiar. But I’m weary of its chill. Today the cold wind is a broom, endlessly sweeping. Several days of sunshine warranted celebration until the absence of rain began to feel empty. And so there has been rain at last, as pundits predicted. The grass in the paddock I walk through to the studio is blistered with damp. Walking on wet limestone on the hills is treacherous: it’s very slippery and so I measure my tread or wait until the rocks have thoroughly dried before gaining altitude.

Daylight extends past 10 pm and I love watching people walking about in the evenings, popping into the bars in the village. There’s one supermarket and four pubs. The crowd gathers at O’Loćlain’s whiskey bar from 9 and music often starts around 10, but you can never be sure. Last week, word got out that two musicians from Dublin were coming. By 10.30 songs were bouncing off the walls of the small space and I didn’t get out of it lightly. I was instructed to sing something Australian and the only nationalistic song I could think of was Waltzing Matilda (the alternative version). Patrons were welcoming and generous and the visiting song-leader more of a stand-up comedienne than a singer. Folk from Clare (also known as Banner country) will sing ten verses of a ballad without reserve. It’s a practised art.

I tarry in my large, bright studio overlooking the courtyard and round tower house. I’m writing, composing, painting, playing Bach; I’m privileged to be old enough, young enough, rich enough and able enough to be here. Each day is like good coffee or a fine book: endings are a disappointment. There are groups of visiting artists hovering in studios alongside the gallery at the college, taking classes on looking at the Burren. Their teachers are painters and BCA lecturers, past and present, who know this remarkable landscape and have exhibited internationally. The two other artists-in-residence head to their studios each day to probe their imaginations towards production: one in sound, the other paint. We hover in conversations outside the café, on weekend breaks from “work” and in our dwellings.

Swallows swirl past the windows looking for nesting potential. They’ve moved away from the tower at the request of Robert the concierge. The Burren is a sanctuary for birds. although many are in decline due to loss of habitat. Last week, and again today, I heard the first cuckoo in spring, moaning for a mate. Now I understand why Frederick Delius wrote his tone poem On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. It’s like a call to attention. Mary, the college president, told me that by the end of summer the cuckoo’s moan becomes a raspy, feeble drone. Does that signify cohabitation? They remain hidden from view so who can verify relationships? I’ve purchased a pocket book on European birds to try and identify a mysterious call I heard on the hill behind the college yesterday. I thought it was a machine: two loud, low tones of the same pitch and five minutes between calls. Too industrial-sounding for a cuckoo; similar to a lyrebird in mimic. But the book has not so far enlightened me. Tonight I’ll be attending a talk on trees by a Burren arborist…he may know the bird call.

I’m reading American-Irish writer Rebecca Solnit’s A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland, her journal of walks, talks and history in the west and south coast.  It’s a wonderful read. Rebecca and I have each acquired Irish passports thanks to a grandparent who lived here and the generosity of the Republic. (To now obtain a passport in Britain your father has to have been born in the UK: a misogynist development?). Ireland, the country that claims us, invites exploration, to muse on what Solnit calls “mythologies of blood, heritage, and emigration”. It’s hard to know which of those three mythologies (and historiographies) figure most in this land. There’s a continuum of movement and stability here that’s hard to define or understand. Almost everyone I meet has either lived in the USA or has relatives there. Many have family in the UK, Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There are very few with dark skin. I plunge into reverie, thinking on whiteness and the assumed privilege of the western world and on the obstacles for refugees to gain entry into USA, Europe or Australia. When my grandmother emigrated to New York from Ulster before the First World War - a (white) poverty refugee - she required no visa or passport. How would she go now? Irish immigrants are treated well now, compared to post-Famine when they were often locked out of employment or given the lowliest of jobs, as were so many with dark skins. Many Irish immigrants kept strong ties with Ireland and the Irish language (and continue to do so); it was partly due to the American-Irish sporting club (GAA) financially supporting homelands that Ireland gained independence in 1922. Ulster of course remains an anomaly of Europe (soon to be in exit with Brexit). Is a United Ireland immanent? And will skin colour become less homogeneous?

In Tasmania narratives of black and white relations are mostly of white domination but there are courageous stories of indigenous activism and hope that continue. When French explorer Marion Dufresne came to Tasmania’s east coast in 1772, contact is reputed to have been initially friendly. I imagine a new story: Aboriginal landowners reaching out a hand of welcome. From what little I know of the encounter, visiting French sailors and the residents of Cape Frederick Henry Bay had conversations and exchanged gifts; but sadly, violence to the Aborigines then ensued. And what then? The British, in 1788, decided on a penal colony in Van Dieman’s Land to pre-empt French settlement. How different Australia would be had the indigenous residents set the rules for entry, engagement and citizenship. The significance of the fight to protect takayna/the Tarkine on the west coast of Tasmania is a call to justice and collaboration for a land embedded with stories and land-marks of the people who lived there a very long time.

There’s a sense of return here on the west coast of Ireland: each day the number of tour buses seems to increase as days lengthen and warm up. I hear American accents and wonder how many of these visitors are curious about ancestral homes like I am. Place is a flexible state of mind; or discreetly obscure, like the cuckoo’s.

The garden at the Perfumery, Burren uplands

The garden at the Perfumery, Burren uplands

Ballyvaughan, looking along the Atlantic Way towards Black Head and Fanore

Ballyvaughan, looking along the Atlantic Way towards Black Head and Fanore

Islands

It hasn’t rained since I came to County Clare. There’s a fire in Connemara, across Galway Bay. I’ve come to Inis Oírr on the Aran islands, near the Cliffs of Moher. A weaver, who has lived here all her life, shows us her loom in the front room of her white-washed cottage in the village. She weaves variations on the same piece every day, like a dedication. It’s a miniature tapestry of her vista across the bay she tells us, as she points to the scene that today is indistinct and grey from smoke. It’s dry! she says. Water restrictions are in place. At the hotel next door, the publican, who is from Australia, says it’s only level one restrictions and that’s nothing compared to…last winter he lived through five months of continuous rain. He wants another ten degrees of warmth and plans on returning to work on the Great Barrier Reef once his missus, who grew up on Inis Oírr, receives an Australian visa. He remembers how to make a flat white (but it’s washed out, bleached, like the Barrier Reef, I decide). The fire in Connemara is threatening the National Park and hundreds of hectares of forest have been destroyed. Farmers, attempting to wipe out gorse without permits, started the fires, so a local man in Ballyvaughan tells me when I return from the islands.

My companion and I walk on, as far as the road goes, through a grid of rock walls, past a food van and a shipwreck, an incongruous juxtaposition on this remote Aran island coast. The kelp washes in and out against the limestone shore. I remember the kelp in Tasmania and wonder if this kelp too will die as water temperatures rise. We hesitate near ruins of a castle then circle back towards the harbour, passing cyclists, tourists like us. Most of the houses appear to be empty. Are they summer houses? We pass a playground cheerful with children near a building we assume to be a school and walk towards a group of young girls who ignore us. In a steep field two women are rolling a large pallet towards the road. A dray pulled by a draught horse swings past us and the driver asks us if we want a ride. We decline, as we have to other offers. Viewing the island from a horse and cart is a quaint idea but I can feel my resistance to tourist-cliché rising. We order coffee at the tea house. It’s good strong coffee and the woman serving it has a wide encouraging smile. Suddenly I hear Irish being spoken nearby. All the signs in the village are in Irish and I noticed an na Gaeltacht sign near the wharf. I want to protect this place from the extremities of tourism but I’m guilty as charged: I’m an outsider looking in, making comparisons. On the way back to Ballyvaughan after the ferry, we stop for craic in the Fitzpatrick pub in Doolin, reputed to be the music centre of the west coast. I yawn through renditions of Neil Young and the Carpenters by a guy who plays as if he's forgotten vigour. After he packs up three young traditional musicians set up; two arrive late to cheers from the full house. The uilleann pipes, wooden flute and guitar take flight from the bards that play them. This is good craic. I'm revived.

The road to the wreck: Innis Oírr

The road to the wreck: Innis Oírr

Kelp on Inis Oírr

Kelp on Inis Oírr

The beauty of the past in the foreground against smoke from the Connemara fire that obscures the Cliffs of Moher (the most visited site in Ireland).

The beauty of the past in the foreground against smoke from the Connemara fire that obscures the Cliffs of Moher (the most visited site in Ireland).

Soundings and roads

The Burren sings. Today, I wandered into the field behind the college and held my viola towards the wind in the silence: an Aeolian harp, faint, but distinct. A flock of ravens interjected, followed by a jet and a moment later cows began bawling in the corner of the paddock and a tourist bus groaned up the hill towards the Cliffs of Moher (30 kms from here). Silence is never total.

If there’s anything I will be unable to eradicate from my memory of Ireland it will be the roads. Historical documents record that during the famine in the 1850’s, and at other times, the English forced the indigenous locals to build walls and roads in the Burren for obsolescence: colonial abuse of course. Walls, where no stock graze (because it’s all stony ground), creep vertically over the limestone hills and roads crosshatch the land like nets holding in the surface of the country.

Unfortunately, in this area, even the major roads are like laneways, with no shoulders for walkers or pull-offs for cars. And they are edged with stone walls. We have been admonished to wear high-viz jackets if we walk into the village and not to walk at night. But a high-viz jacket can’t be seen around corners. Today I leapt over a stone wall into a cow paddock after a near miss with a car and then walked over boggy ground rather than continue my suicidal stroll. To upgrade such a system would be impossible but surely a few footpaths could be considered?

My walk was rewarded by one of the many delightful casual encounters I’ve had here. I poked my head into the Catholic church to see the exquisite stained glass windows and met two Irish women who took me to the village craft market and invited me on a bird watching festival in a fortnight. They’d never heard of improvisation (well, not in my terms anyway) so we talked about that and about their pursuits: one is a glass artist (as is her mother) and the other is preparing a speech for toastmasters/mistresses on “vocalisations”. She is using bird calls as examples. I might never meet these women again…the opportunities for random conversations seem endlessly possible and enjoyable.

I experienced random notes and chatter in unusual circumstances the night before last. I slept on the floor of the gallery at BCA with 40 others, on inflatable mattresses, to listen to electronic music. Steven Stapleton, a big name in industrial music, musique concrete, drone and other related genres, lives in the Burren. Fans, mostly men, came from Belgium, the UK and many places in Ireland just for the gig. The invitation to host one of his sleep concerts was an extension of his first solo exhibition of collages and paintings now on at the gallery. I booked in, expecting to be evacuating early but I slept for probably 5 hours in the soundscape that Steven manipulated on his turntables, all night. Pulsing drones (like heart beats) formed the base of the work and the cross currents included distance speech and synthesised sounds from mixed environments. I was enthralled with the sonorities and impressed that a sound artist can still be luring the faithful after 30 years. The coffee afterwards was good too.

Stained glass Ballyvaughan Catholic Church

Stained glass Ballyvaughan Catholic Church

The local pub: opens at 8 every night of the year. A place for conversations

The local pub: opens at 8 every night of the year. A place for conversations

homing ruminations

Why does travel generate comparisons? Perhaps because we carry within us traces of many places and deep residues of ‘home’. And so we fling our memories of the recently left precious-place into experience of the new-and-strange and mark off the balance sheet. And then there’s imagined space, such as the lingering memory of a childhood beach or farm holiday that re-emerges as a longed-for-place that we might fantasise as potential home. I often imagine, and am delighted when I find it, a long grassy pathway leading to a secluded house surrounded by hedges and fields. My favourite holidays as a child were spent on a farm like that, in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria. The Burren College and its tower have that quiet, reclusive quality made all the more enticing by the narrow hedged lane that takes you there.

These examples are meagre and too generalised; there are many layers and potentials to lived experience of space, place and home. For me, a sense of Home rises like Phoenix whenever I move away from the familiar. I begin to compare and drop quickly into a cauldron of past, present and future: sometimes it’s longing etched with regret; or it might be eagerness for something new that swiftly becomes uncomfortable. Here, in the Burren, I’m in the stir, the stew, the longing: the inevitable intersection of place with time. Already a week has past and I can feel the roots pushing down, only to be dug up in three weeks’ time. Will I feel at home by then? Or lost?

And here I go again, comparing Ireland (a ‘could-be’, ‘would-be’ home) to Tasmania (my ‘chosen’ home). Both islands share tragic and reclaimed histories and spectacular and fragile landscapes, and many more differences and similarities of course. What about climate? The weather here on the west coast is changeable and generally cool. Temperatures are lower on average than in Tasmania due to the cold winds off the Atlantic and the relative higher latitude. I haven’t experienced a winter here. I imagine long dark days with frosts in the valleys, snow on the hills and slicing winds. But locals say it was mild this year. And today the spring sun is warm and constant.

So, I’m asking questions about climate change in this part of the planet. What is the impact on Ireland? Will this carpet of green ever be in drought? The water table is so high here that if you walk through fields you have to watch out for karst places, where the limestone has dissolved and sink holes suddenly appear (into which you might disappear). When it doesn’t rain here the weather report is “dry”, like it’s a rare phenomenon. The vendors at the craft market today said it won’t last, this sunny weather, and that the extended “dry” is unusual. I can’t imagine a brown Ireland.

And in Tasmania: we had an autumn almost like summer: no rain and brown. On the east coast, as the water warms, the kelp is rapidly receding, its roots decimated by invading urchins. The hairdresser in Belfast told me that as the temperatures have increased the weather has worsened in Ireland: more changes and cloud cover and frequent rain. On the west coast, in co Clare, the manifestations of a warming world are still a mystery to me but a quick search of scientific articles supports that an increase in pests, higher temperatures and poorer weather in general are all impacting on farming and loss of biodiversity.

It's as if time is reducing to what will keep us alive: hope, action and trees.

looking from the second floor of the tower

looking from the second floor of the tower

Rocking in the Burren

I don’t know much about geology but when I remember the west coast of Tasmania, particularly takayna/the Tarkine so recently visited, and compare it to being here on the west coast of Ireland, it is rock that marks both places in my consciousness. The Burren landscape (from the Irish boireann meaning stony) is pebble beaches, sheer cliffs and grey-blue hills rolling towards the horizon. After a few days here I’m still startled by the absence of trees on these stony mounds. But on my walk up onto the rock slabs beneath the terraces and cliffs, I’m delighted by minutiae in the joints of the limestone: orchids, gentians and other wildflowers classified as rare in a local botanical guide. I look across the wide land, a spectator like so many others who walk up on this high ground. The grassy valleys below are mapped with narrow winding roads, farm buildings, ancient ruins and villages. The green is like a clanging against the muted grey hills.

Takayna’s coastline is wild, dark and remote: black and red boulders border the sand hills where Aboriginal middens, holiday humpies and off-road-vehicle tracks signify human habitation. The rocks are jagged, striated and conglomerate, the remains of centuries of movement. Inland, rainforests of 800 year-old Myrtle trees, rare plants and endangered fauna (like the giant freshwater crayfish) persist in fragile uncertainty. The contrast to the Burren couldn’t be more marked; yet both ecosystems and histories of home need protection. The infiltration of tourism, mining, logging and poor land management reduces both these landscapes to colonisation and consumption.

I’m thinking and reading about space, place, belonging, exile and home in my continuing quest for belonging, whatever that means. As American-Indian writer Carol Bigwood has said: Home is a nomadic place but a place of belonging nevertheless.  Here in Ireland there is genetic knowledge, a sense of connection to place through family history yet I live in exile, on an island on the other side of the world. I would need to live here for years to know it as home but I pretend it is. I’m sitting in a café looking towards the grey hills, surrounded by every shade of green imaginable. I’m feeling like a nomad as I attempt to express any meaning of sense of place in words. The wind off the sea is cold and the Irish voices nearby are animated, pleasant, welcoming yet foreign. On the wall is a large mural of a koala and a kangaroo. I’m aware of contrasts and contiguities everywhere: this village is both parochial and international, like the surprises emerging from the rocks and dales cohabiting. Home is in the mind.

from above Newton Tower, Burren Art College

from above Newton Tower, Burren Art College

takayna/Tarkine coast

takayna/Tarkine coast

West Coast

 

The Burren, County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland, near Galway Bay: rumoured to be inclement and cold yet today is the third day of bright sunshine and clear skies. The Burren hills are vast bald mounds of limestone rock that change hue from grey to purple as the light shifts, creating a sense of impermanence in the Neolithic environment.

I look from my studio towards a round tower-house settled on a square buttress: the 16th century Newton Castle. It’s designed so that if rocks were dropped from above they would bounce off the flat walls: a defence strategy contingent on getting rocks up a steep flight of stairs in the first place. Along the staircase are “murder holes” for dropping hot metal onto intruders below. The tower has four “rooms”, stacked one above the other, each of them round with small windows looking north, south, east and west and with low timber doorways that can catch you unawares as you enter.  The ceilings of the rooms are rough: wattle and daub, whitewashed with limestone, except for the top room which has a ceiling that’s a majestic wooden cone re-built twenty years ago from architectural guesswork. It’s a magnificent piece of engineering. The beams soar towards a central point that from the outside looks like a teetering ball and inside, a delicate web.

I’m improvising in each room, beginning with the ground floor. It’s cold in there so I wear an extra coat. Sometimes a swallow or martin chatters at the doorway.

North East towards West

Belfast. Hooray! When I arrive here today from the Dublin airport by car, I’m met by an icy wind, rain, hail. The girl in the café where I shelter until it passes says: “Oh! that’s Belfast. The sun will be shining in a moment.” And she’s right. Blue sky jostles the clouds briefly but the wind is still chilling.

The city has a hybrid quality, perhaps because I’m projecting the sectarian and political past onto my experience of it.  There are many skin colours, languages and accents here. It’s not just a Presbyterian//Catholic village. I’m bemused and confused by the chaotic inner city road junctions as I try to find my hotel. I spin around the CBD for over an hour, occasionally pulling into illegal parking spots to try and get my bearings. Even with the GPS I’m lost, until I stop and ask a woman for directions. In what is such typical Irish fashion, she goes to great lengths to make sure I know where it is I’m heading. “Over there, Dunagall Rd. Near that rusty-looking building. Keep to the left mind as you go around the round-about.”

But I didn’t and had to circle again to get it right. Finally, the hotel emerges in a road I’ve travelled down at least twice already. It was there all the time. The adrenaline subsides. I’ll have a bed for the night, which, with all things jet lag considered, is saying something to be sure.

Leaning west and on to...

What is West? I lean into (or onto) something that summons while it connotes: a paradigm. Can I remain within (or without) those frames? Am I too sensitive to connotation? I am travelling west to experience places so why be caught in the net of cultural and political artefact? Because everything is cultural and political. Even landscape?

The land/scapes of western Tasmania and western Ireland are geographical positions, lands that pause at edges creased by the sea. Rivers flow into the sea, across ecosystems that merge and diverge. Diversity is always present...

Leaning West

Soon I will travel to Ireland’s west coast, to the Burren, to its escarpments, castles, and narrow winding roads. I will enter a landscape unprepared for what it may offer my senses and imagination. For four weeks I will look, listen, smell, taste, and move within its physical and emotional borders.

What is this imaginal space? From here, in south east Tasmania, I imagine a grey sky, a steady cold wind and rain. The grass will be green along the roadsides and in the fields. Rocks will persist, broken by gulfs of gorse and blackberry. I base these assumptions on my experience of Connemara, a short distance north, across Galway Bay, where, in Leitir Mealláin (Lettermullen) last year, I walked on narrow roads between flat grey rocks that rose like over-inflated cushions in neglected fields of weeds. And hearsay: oh only rocks there in the Burren, but unique.

I’m preparing myself for something harsh and damp. Nothing like the dryness of Provence with its limestone cliffs, terracotta homes, heat haze and dominant blue skies. The Burren will be green and grey. Before I muster my energy for the long flight and driving I will head to Tasmania’s west coast, to the Tarkine, a space too of rock, cold winds and green but with forests and sand and very few houses. There I will reflect, revive my senses and take my memories, in my body, to the Burren.