One of the very best books I've read this year is Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh, a volume born from the edgelands between nature writing and memoir, but also well rooted in folklore, myth, and history.
At the core of the text is Ní Dochartaigh's account of growing up in Northern Ireland during the violent years of the Troubles, of her subsequent flight from the land of her birth, and of her eventual return. Although the story is necessarily dark, the telling is made luminous by the author's exquisite prose, shot through with flashes of bright connection to the twinned worlds of myth and nature.
Here's a taste of Thin Places:
"What does it mean to come from a hollowed-out place? From a place that is neck-deep in the saga of loss? ... What effect does where you come from, and what that land has been through, have on the map of your self? How deeply can a person feel the fault lines of their home running through their own veins?
"In Celtic lands it is not unusual to use the landscape as a mnemonic map. Geographical features hold a particular importance for our history, beliefs and culture -- places make up the lines of our very being. There is an understanding that we are part of and not separate from the land we inhabit. Celtic legends place the natural world at the very heart of story, maybe even inside its bones. In such stories things in the natural world can possess a spirit and presence of their own; mountains, rocks, trees, rivers -- all things of the land and the sea -- sing their own lament. Locations can be associated with a particular warrior, hero or deity. Places are tied to stories by threads that uncoil themselves back beyond known history, passed on through oral tradition, only some of which have been written down.
"Amongst these geographical features, whether manmade -- such as ancient mounds and standing stones -- or naturally created features, it is not unusual for some to be associated with the worship of pre-Christian deities. The aos sí (or aes sídhe) is an Irish term for a race that is other than human, that exists in Irish, Scottish and Manx mythologies, inhabiting an invisible world that sits in a kind of mirroring with our own. They belong to the Otherworld, Aos Sí -- a world reached through mist, hills, lakes, ponds, springs, loughs, wetland areas, caves, ancient burial sites, cairns and mounds. The island from which I come had no choice, really, than to find a name for these dancing, beating, healing places where the veil between so very many things is thin, where it has been known to lift, right before our humble, grateful eyes.
"The folklore of almost every culture holds room for these liminal spaces -- those in-between spaces -- those unnameable places, not to be found on any map. Are these thin places spaces where we can more easily hear the land, the earth, talking to us? Or are they places in which we are able to feel more freely our own inner selves? Do such places as these therefore hold power?
"We have built up a narrative over many years -- decades, centuries? -- of 'nature' as 'other'. There is so much separation in the language we use with each other; we seek to divide humanity from its own self again and again, and this has naturally bled into how we view the land and water that we share with one another -- and with other species. What do we mean when we talk about 'nature'? About 'place'? I want to know what it all means. I need to try to understand. When we are in a place where the manmade constructs of the world seem as though they have crumbled, where time feels like it no longer exists, that feeling of separation fades away. We are reminded, in the deepest, rawest parts of our being, that we are nature. It is in us and of us. We are not superior or inferior, separate or removed; our breathing, breaking, ageing, bleeding, making and dying are the things of this earth. We are made up of the materials we see in the places around us, and we cannot undo the blood and bone that forms us.
"In thin places people often say they experience being taken 'out of themselves', or 'nearer to god'. The places I return to over and over -- both physically, and in my memory -- certainly do hold the power to make me feel light and hopeful, as though I am not quite of this world. Of much more power, though, is the way in which these places leave me feeling rooted -- as utterly and completely in the landscape as I ever feel, as much a part of it as the bones and excrement that lie beneath my feet, as the salt and silt that course through the water. For me, it is in this that the absolute and unrivalled beauty of thin places lie."
Thin Places is one of those books that I long to buy multiple copies of and gift to everyone I know. It's a beautiful book, and a timely one. I urge you to seek it out.
For another slant on "thin places," have a listen to Philip Marsden on Scotland Outdoors (BBC Sounds) discussing The Summer Isles, his book about the wild western coasts of Ireland and Scotland. Go here for the interview, and start at the 29:50 mark.
The glorious stained glass art today is by Tamsin Abbott, based in rural east Herefordshire. Tamsin received a first class degree in English literature from Stirling University (where she specialised in the medieval period); she then returned to school to study art at Gloucester College of Art and Technology, and trained in stained glass at Hereford College of Art and Design. Her work has been featured in Country Living, on Country File, and is sold in galleries and shops across the UK.
"I have always been influenced (and almost obsessed) by nature," she says, "but most specifically animals, continuously drawing and painting them; for a long time I dreamed of speaking with them, and of being absorbed into their world in a way that seemed more natural to me than this human community. I don’t think I am alone in this as I find that this animal ‘spirit’ speaks directly to others too. However, I am also inherently inspired by the idea of myth and legend as well as fairytale and medieval romances, and the sense that our ancestors, who inhabited this land, have left an imprint on it throughout the ages. I also love the idea of the timelessness of the cosmos that overarches everything now as it would have done since time before humanity. It is the intermeshing of all these things that contribute towards my internal universe which I hope manifests in my work.
"Behind all this inspiration the underlying sense of what I am trying to portray is how much life goes on around us constantly but outside our awareness. Be it a shrew foraging for its young in the hedgerow as we walk by, or a giant spirit dragon that soars above us in the night sky. Conversely, I also wish to capture a sense of the magic of the everyday in my work; the sacred washing line, the reverential bonfire, the glory of a scrap of garden."
The passage quoted above is from Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh (Canongate, 2021); all rights reserved by the author. The stained glass art is by Tamsin Abbott; all rights reserved by the artist.