Medieval Irish literature provides a unique view of an environmental vision very different from anything found today. This vision runs through its epics, long stories and sequences of stories, lyric poetry, religious literature, and place-name accounts. These last are interesting because a proper toponymy includes the stories behind the names. These were called dinnsenchas, and often involved quite long myths tracing place names to divine intervention. They reveal an intense involvement with, and extreme concern for, places and landscapes, often going back to religious associations of particular places.
For obvious reasons, this chapter must be very different from the others. We have no ethnographic access to medieval Ireland. We depend entirely on textual sources and on archaeology. By far the most useful are the literary sources, since these reflect with an almost unique degree of thoughtfulness and seriousness on people-in-nature. This chapter, then, will confine itself to bringing out literary materials. There is not, so far, sufficient wider evidence to allow us to create the full cosmological and moral story from these materials. Of course, this means we have no clue to how good environmental management was in the early medieval period. We can only recall that the home of modern conservation is the Celtic-Germanic fringe. There is every reason to believe these modern attitudes toward landscape have a long history, but I cannot read it yet from the data.
The sources examined here date from around the ninth century (sometimes earlier) to the thirteenth or fourteenth (Jackson 1935.) The stories they relate are often centuries older. Many of these stories cluster around the time of St. Patrick, in the fifth century C.E. Others go back far earlier, to misty, dateless epic times. There is no way of knowing how faithfully the medieval sources reproduce the writings of that distant past, but in at least a few cases archaic linguistic usage implies that material from as early as the seventh century is being used.
Obviously, some mix of ancient and medieval worldviews occurred. We have no way of factoring out ancient perceptions from later ones; the two, or rather the whole log of changing perceptions over the centuries, are inextricably mixed. Nothing can be done about this, and all one can do is report on what turns out to be an astonishingly consistent, clear, defined, and uniform worldview. Its broad similarities with traditional worldviews all across Eurasia may indicate that it is ancient, though we have it in medieval form. The direct medieval influences appear to be in large part from other Celtic societies, or sometimes from the Anglo-Saxon and Norse world with its rather similar views of nature and humanity. The Celtic contacts reinforced rather than changed the Irish views, since all Celtic societies of the time shared a fascination with the world outside the hall doors. Poetry very similar to the Irish is known from early Wales, and in tiny fragments or late versions from other Celtic societies, as well as neighboring societies like the Anglo-Saxons.
The very different Mediterranean view was well known from Latin sources; formal education came through the Catholic Church, and was thus in Latin. The main effect of this Latin input on classic Irish literature seems to have been to make our scribes and storytellers highly conscious of the fact that they had a distinctive worldview, very different indeed from others’, and worthy of preservation. The Latin view saw nature as something frightening and hostile, to be tamed or eliminated, and saw the city as the place of all good. Even the romantic pastoralism of Ovid and other classical authors involved distancing of the urban poet from the pretty but alien rural landscape. This pastoral literature influenced the fusion literature that developed when Celtic epics met Romance conventions, especially on the medieval French lays and tales (by Marie de France, Chretien de Troyes, and others) derived from Celtic traditions. The medieval Scandinavian and Germanic eddas and epics were part of the same general movement to retell the old stories for sophisticated courts. This literature is fascinating in its own right, but is well described elsewhere and is not really relevant for my purpose here. However, one recalls that it includes many stories of spirit journeys, shape-changing, animal companions, and other themes that clearly go back to shamanistic roots. It served as a bridge from those roots to modern fantasy writing.
Our sources were written down by anonymous scribes, and have usually been recopied since. Many come to us from sixteenth or seventeenth century manuscripts, often in the possession of old Irish families. Most were written in medieval Irish Gaelic, which is close in spelling, but not in pronunciation, to modern Irish. (Irish, like English, has been very conservative in spelling. Irish spelling rules are also, to put it mildly, unique. It is impossible for anyone without a thorough knowledge of the language to sound out a word even approximately.) A few were written in Latin, and these are often particularly interesting. They show the level and type of interaction with Latin literary traditions.
Three sources stand out as particularly important for our purposes. First is the nearest thing the Irish have to a national epic, the Tain Bo Cuailnge (“the cattle raid of Cooley,” pronounced approximately “tan bo cooley”; Kinsella 1969). It records conflicts involving the kingdom of Ulster in some undefined past, considered to be vaguely close to the time of Christ. The hero, Cuchulainn (“coolin”), is a classic mythic superman; he and the heroes of our next source remain major inspirations for the heroes of fantasy literature today. The story takes off from a cattle raid, but the plot quickly becomes so involved and so fantastic that it defies summary; fortunately we need look only at its background assumptions.
The second source is the Acallam na Senórach, “Tales of the Elders” (Dooley and Roe 1999). This weaves some of the countless folktales about the mythic superhero Finn MacCool into a coherent narrative. St. Patrick comes to Ireland and meets a band of ancient, giant, spear-armed men. These are Ceílte and his few followers, the last of the fianna, Finn MacCool’s wandering warrior band. They tower over Patrick, yet he is not intimidated, and proceeds to convert them, driving legions of devils out of them in the process. Ceílte tells the saint the stories of the old times. St. Patrick, being a proper Irish leader, is a willing listener. Many of the stories are in the above-mentioned toponymic form: St. Patrick, on his missionary wanderings, asks how each place got its name, and Ceílte tells him the fianna stories that explain this. In spite of the inevitable loose-jointed quality that this gives to the text, it remains a powerful, unified, and emotionally gripping story. The anonymous writer cast it as the contrast of two worlds, one beautiful, wonderful, harsh, and doomed, the other calm, peaceful, hopeful, and triumphant. He (the writer was certainly male) saw the full glory of the old, but recognized it was fatally trapped in a cycle of war and merciless raid that only Christianity could resolve. As a result, much of the narrative is heartbreaking. The grief of individuals over battle deaths and war losses is magnified, consciously and with brilliance, into a lament for an entire world lost. Yet the narrative keeps resolving back into hope; the old had to die, the new will be better.
The third is perhaps the most interesting of all medieval Celtic manuscripts: Suibhne geilt, “Sweeney mad.” (It has been frequently translated; the scholarly edition is by O’Keeffe, 1913; there is a beautiful modern translation by Seamus Heaney, 1983.) It turns on the same theme, the loss of the ancient world in the face of Christianity. It is a more militantly Christian work, however. The stoutly pagan King Sweeney seizes the psalm-book of St. Rowan, an early missionary, and throws it in the lake. For this he is cursed with madness, and remains in an altered state until finally taken in by the gentler St. Moling. (This counterpoint of vindictive and gentle saints is found elsewhere in medieval Irish stories.) Even there, he remains wild, until an accidental missile-cast by a swineherd (the lowest of the low) fells him, and he dies, finally redeemed and at peace, in the saint’s arms.
Most of the account consists of Sweeney’s adventures and songs during his madness. The equation of madness with pagandom does not stop the writer from portraying Sweeney sympathetically. More to the point, Sweeney’s “madness” is unmistakably not insanity at all, but rather a “pagan” spiritual discipline very much like shamanism. Sweeney does not rave, fear incoherent visions, or otherwise act schizophrenic or mentally ill. Instead, he flies or leaps lightly over treetops, he changes shape, he talks with birds, he lives on cold water and water-cress, he sings to tree-spirits, and he calls on the powers of nature to pity him. In all these ways he acts as Eurasian shamans classically do (Eliade 1964; Humphrey 1996).
In the course of his madness, Sweeney sings some of the most agonizingly beautiful nature poems in all world literature. (They do not translate well, since much of the beauty is in the rhyme and alliteration. Many a phrase that puzzles the English-language reader by its irrelevance to the rest of the verse turns out to fit the sound-system of the medieval Gaelic too perfectly to be sacrificed for mere consistency of meaning. Celtic bards regarded such consistency as dispensable when a good rhyme is at hand. See Jackson 1935.)
From these and from many short lyrics, scattered stories, and other materials, we can reconstruct something of the old Irish view of people in environments.
The first and most striking perception is a total lack of separation of “people” from “nature.” People live with deer, salmon, trees, wolves, waters, mountains, and birds, sometimes talking with them, often interacting as social equals in a single social sphere. Sometimes they even change into them. Sweeney’s total absorption in the realm of trees and birds is admittedly extreme, but the same sort of incorporation is clear in the other texts. People eat deer, wolves eat deer and people, birds foretell the future, people care for birds.
The actual backdrop for the stories, as revealed by archaeology, is a world that was far wilder than the “civilized” Celtic world of Caesar’s Gaul (on which see Green 1996; Green [ed.] 1995; 1995, Webster 1995; for Ireland, see Harbison 1994 for the earliest part of our period; O’Croinin 1995 for the later parts). The old Irish lived by herding, fishing, hunting, gathering, and a small bit of agriculture. One gathers the last was as much for beer as for anything else. Fields were tiny and transient. Wealth was cattle, herded in great numbers in natural meadows or artificial clearings. Swine abounded, but seem to have largely gotten their own living from mast: “root hog or die.” People lived in tiny huts or in great wooden halls—capacious but roughly built, easily burned or disassembled, easily rebuilt. Ireland was covered almost entirely with huge, dense, dark oak woodland. This was the original “derry down” later immortalized in folksong: Irish deiri dun, “dark oak wood.” None of it survives except one tiny old-growth stand of oaks in the far southwest. People as well as swine lived on acorns and hazelnuts much of the time.
Ireland lacked the sophisticated, intensive grain-based agriculture of Celtic Gaul (on which see Reynolds 1995), and had no need of the carefully managed woodlots that the Continental Celts had to maintain to provide timbers for great feast-halls (Reynolds 1995:194-202). Ireland had its sacred groves, but they were not closely and carefully managed. Ireland stayed forested until the English conquerors in the 16th and 17th centuries deliberately deforested it for military reasons (Anderson ms; Kiernan 2007).
Agriculture graded into management of wild food resources. One can probably assume that, for instance, wild hazelnuts were coppiced to make them grow better (as was done in historic times). Unfortunately, we have no idea of how the nature poetry might have fed into management strategies. Archaeology and history provide little help, partly because there was not much dramatic change of the landscape, partly because the ravages of time and harsh climate have erased the evidence for what there was.
Social organization is misrepresented by modern translations of ri, “chief,” as “king. ” The overtranslation is due to its cognation with Latin rex as well as the institutional development of ri into true kingship in the early middle ages. The ri’s society was a typical “chiefdom” in the sense of Julian Steward (1955). He was the head of a leading descent group. He led followers in raids and wars, but had little other real authority. Dozens of these petty ri competed in a land with only about half a million inhabitants. There were a few powerful leaders of whole districts, but as many as 150 ri may have existed at one time (Byrne 2001.) Each held his or her position—there were women leaders—on sufferance; if he or she failed to bring in booty and distribute it lavishly to warriors, they drifted off to form their own bands or to follow some other, more lavish chief.
A chief had to keep running to stay in the same place. No war, no booty; no booty, no lavish generosity; no generosity, no followers; no followers, certain ruin at the hands of a more generous rival. Succession was often not by designated heirship, but by tanistry; after a chief’s death, the followers picked a sucessor from among his heirs. This inevitably led to fighting among or over rival candidates, leading Shakespeare to call it “bloody tanistry.” All this was the merciless driver of the endless cycle of war and raid, and this was what Christianity—bringing with it more formal legal and state institutions—could eventually end. Before it did, Christian missionaries tended to live as hermits or in tiny monastic communities. They often lived by hunting and gathering and a little gardening. For a long time, before modern states emerged, they modeled a totally different lifestyle: one committed to peace and simplicity. Christian poems from this world reflect—quite strikingly, and rather surprisingly—the full pre-Christian devotion to what we would now call nature.
A good ri or a devout saint could bring about fertility and productiveness in the land; the praise-poem below is not an isolated instance. Nut trees bore better, soil yielded more grain, animals reproduced more successfully, if the land was well regulated. Part of this is common sense: people work harder and their products are safer under such circumstances. But there was also a belief, universal in early Indo-European societies and found in one or another form almost worldwide, that the chief or king actually influences the natural fertility of the land. This was a powerful driver to the sort of deep, caring involvement in nature that we observe in the poetry.
Bards—the word is Celtic—made a good living singing the heroism and generosity of their chiefs. They too stayed only as long as the generosity lasted. The fate of a less than lavish chief is clear from the fact that every Irish schoolchild still learns a medieval taunt by one less-than-well-served bard:
he won’t give horses for poems.
He gives what his style allows:
Nothing is known of this king’s subsequent fate, but one has the uncomfortable feeling that he did not long survive. The bard’s next employer probably took care of that.
One can find almost the same institution today in West Africa, where local leaders go in healthy fear of the griots, professional singers who can praise or devastate. Today, they sometimes have international audiences. We have progressed since old Irish times; with modern media, a stingy leader can be infamous overnight on three or four continents.
The chief’s other followers would include at least one blacksmith, to make tools and weapons; many warriors; and a large, but not very large, number of ordinary people, to farm, herd, bake, brew, weave, fish, chop wood, build halls, and otherwise keep the system viable. The staple economy did not permit either dense populations or much in the way of specialized fine crafts. Superb gold jewellery and other fine craft items are known, but were rare before medieval times, and were certainly not made in ordinary chiefdoms. A few trading towns, like Dublin (largely a Viking foundation), arose, as contact with the outside world increased, and quality goods were made in such places or in other specialized centers of trade. Rare fairs provided distribution. The spectacular Irish art represented by the Book of Kells and countless fine metal items came late in our period, with the rise of true states, but it was based on design elements that flourished in the ancient times.
Strong individualism—the idea that individuals are unique, fully life-sized, and important just from being who they are—runs through all this literature. One may wonder if there is any connection between the Celtic attitude toward nature and the strong individualism seen in Celtic literature. The epics mentioned above, and the Celtic ballads most famously preserved in Scotland, show an uncompromising focus on individuals—heroes, madmen, tragic lovers, religious figures, or ordinary people, often alone against the world or against enemies. People are never the faceless masses they often are in other literatures (and, most extremely, in modern movies, where mass murders occur routinely and without remark). Admittedly, the same could be said of epics and ballads everywhere. But Celtic individualism seems extreme even in comparison to other such literature. Modern individualism, worldwide, is very much a product of ancient Greece and of the Celtic and Germanic fringe. However, without much further research on the actual wellsprings of modern individualism, and still more on the relationship thereof to nature views, one can only speculate on the possibility of linkages between views of nature and views of persons.
Religious life in pre-Christian Ireland is notably obscure. The situation is not helped by the obsession of historians with “Druids” (Rose 1995). These were a sort of priesthood among the Gauls of France and neighboring areas; they are briefly and badly described by Caesar and Tacitus, who projected Roman ideas of proper priesthood on Celts whose institutions were quite un-Roman. The British Celts and the Irish had some sort of druids—the name does occur in the medieval texts—but the Irish ones (at least) were more individual and free, less like an organized priesthood, than anything described by the Roman writers. Nothing in any Irish poems, religious texts, or other contemporary material describes anything like an organized Druidic priesthood (except for some late texts influenced by reading Caesar and Tacitus). What we have instead are references to inspired individuals who prophesy, generate gnomic poems of mysterious significance, and see hidden things. The poems imply that these were ordinary individuals with special gifts, not specialized religious practitioners. Many were poets—bards. Others had healing powers, but we have no knowledge of specialized doctors; healers were simply individuals who had that gift. They might be kings, bards, or ordinary commoners. Other individuals, otherwise undistinguished, might be able to drink incredible quantities, or kill with every stroke, or hear things from miles off. (A glorious medieval parody of stories about such gifted individuals is found in Jackson 1971:202-204.)
In early times, the inspired bards, healers, and even chiefs with magical powers were very similar to the shamans of eastern Eurasia and northwestern Native America (see e.g. Aldhouse-Green and Aldhouse-Green 2005). One obvious similarity of great importance is that the early Irish believed song had real power, and that specially gifted singers could accomplish almost anything through proper songs. Some such power songs were spells and incantations; some were inspired individual creations. Below we shall consider the king and poet Sweeney, called “mad” in the late text about him, but clearly in a shaman-like state rather than an insane one. He could foretell the future. He and another “madman” meet at one point in the story and sing their futures to each other, then go their way.
Finn MacCool in youth had to cook the Salmon of Wisdom for his elders; burning his thumb on the fish, he stuck it in his mouth, and thus got some of the knowledge the elders were supposed to get. He thus could prophesy and see things at distance. Exceptional knowledge or skill of any sort was seen as deeply valuable gifts from the spirit world, as it was in other shamanic cultures.
One Irish romantic (a redundant phrase, surely) has likened this world of transformation, shape and identity shifting, and “multi-faceted reality” to “modern physics, where ghostly interlacings are inferred at the sub-atomic level” (Dames 1992). Supposedly some of the ideas of modern physics were inspired by Hindu thought (Martin Orans, pers. comm.). Apparently the early Irish and other traditional peoples had a more accurate view of the cosmos than did the Enlightenment sages who thought they could reduce it to a few simple, clear rules.
Another altered mind-state was the battle-frenzy of warriors, which was similar to (indeed, probably the same institution as) the idea of berserk (lit. “bear shirt”) in Scandinavia. Battle-frenzy involved a physical transformation. Cuchulainn’s was the most extreme. Warriors (not all of whom were male, by the way) used grease to make their hair stand up in spikes, because this was considered terrifying. Supposedly a bushel of apples dumped over Cuchulainn’s head would never hit the ground; the apples would all be caught on the spikes.
Yet another religious belief that reminds us of shamanism is the geis or geasa, the prohibition. Any warrior or leader of note knew of certain things that would magically bring him misfortune. He, or she, knew the end was at hand when a situation arose that forced him or her to violate a geis.
The fairy-folk or Sí, later so important as supernatural beings in Ireland, seem not to have been supernatural in early texts. They are described matter-of-factly as ordinary people who fight with, intermarry with, and trade with the Irish. They were described in terms relating to gods, but also described more matter-of-factly as a previous wave of migrants into Ireland (the Celts clearly preserved memories of their own immigrant status, having come quite late, somewhere in the 1000-500 BC range.) The sí had some magical powers, but so did almost every Irish individual of note or station. It seems likely that the euhemerist school of British folklorists was right: the fairy-folk were originally a different ethnic group, probably the megalith-builders, who shared Ireland with the Celts until they were assimilated. Significantly, the sí lived in megalithic tomb mounds; possibly this shows the Celts understood that these mounds were indeed the abodes of the dead of earlier times. The transfer from “abode of the dead” to “actual living places of those now dead” would have been easy.
Animal transformation and shape-shifting were universal and important. In the Irish version of the widespread “swan maiden” tale, the swan maiden is a shape-shifting daughter of a sí chief, and she marries the hero (Oisin, who is part supernatural himself) in a perfectly conventional way—but only after both she and Oisin have taken swan form for a while (Jackson 1971:93-97; see Snyder 1979). Being able to turn oneself into a swan may seem a mark of supernaturality today, but in old Eurasia shifting into bird form was a property of shamans and even some ordinary people. Anybody could do it, if they had the right songs. Bird-skin costumes were used all over ancient Europe for magical and shaman-like pursuits (Aldhouse-Green and Aldhouse-Green 2005). Were-seals abounded, and did until well into the 20th (if not 21st) century, as the legend of Scattery Island and the ballad of the great silkie (seal) of Sule Skerry remind us.
Magical animals abounded. Especially common were the ones most necessary in everyday life: pigs, dogs, deer, seals. They were often red, or white, or—most magical of all—white with red ears (as in the Welsh Mabinogion). There is a ballad known all over Europe in which a jilted lover kills herself and her ghost then appears to her betrayer in a dream, thus magically killing him; in one British Isles version he reports “I dreamed my bower was full of red swine, My bride-bed full of blood” (“The Ballad of Margaret and William” as sung by A. L. Lloyd).
On the other hand, we have no evidence for the specific features of the Eurasian shamanic cult, such as the ability of animals to take human form and found human lineages. Ireland also lacked the mirrors, self-hypnosis, drum dancing, spirit horses, and other features that characterize classic shamanism (Eliade 1964). Ireland partook of an older and wider-flung form of the basic belief system. In eastern Eurasia and in Native North America, the realms were even less separated; animals became humans, humans married animals, animal species were incorporated into social groups along with people, and the world was kin. Ancient Ireland saw no separation between “man” and “nature,” but not a complete union either.
Sources are silent on much of the old belief system, no doubt because it was “pagan.” We have the names of gods, including the Daghdae, a high god (who frequently acted like an ordinary human). Other gods seem typical of Celtic societies everywhere, and thus related to Roman and Greek deities. Apparently the Eurasia-wide belief in a skyworld and an underworld were present, but we know little of their structure. The sí could access the underworld through their dwellings, so of ten the tomb-barrows of the pre-Celtic peoples.
It seems possible that many of the beliefs of old Ireland were absorbed from these earlier cultures (whether they were the sí or not). Archaeology reveals that the Celts absorbed earlier peoples. Gaelic itself has a number of unusual features that seem to imply influence from their languages. Also, Barry Cunliffe (2001) pointed out that the Atlantic fringe of Europe had shared ways and adaptations, many of which long predated the Celts and long outlasted them. This makes it possible that Irish traditions include ancient beliefs that are far older and wider-flung than the specifically Irish Celtic material.
All this is necessary prelude to consideration of human interaction with the nonhuman world. The economy was a simple, direct one. In the absence of a sophisticated economy or of much urban life, people lived by working directly with animals and plants, waters and soils. They faced nature in all its moods; the poems are as matter-of-fact about the unbearable difficulties of winter as they are about the peaceful bounty of summer. They had to draw on every conceivable resource, and thus they had to know a great deal about everything in their environment: how to catch fish, what trees could be used for what purpose, what insects might offer something, what to make of the flight of birds.
One of the most famous songs from Sweeney’s madness lists the trees of Ireland. It is closely related to a song about the values for firewood of essentially the same list of trees in almost exactly the same order (O’Faoláin 1968:61-63). Evidently both were versions of a widespread song, presumably used to teach young people about woods. A version of the firewood song, from Wales (but in English), survived into the 20th century (Yeldham 2007:121-122). The extreme importance of firewood, and of knowing what woods burn best, is now forgotten by many city people, but all rural people are aware. Striking here is the number of species mentioned: in Sweeney’s song, 17 (some not trees); in the firewood songs, 16 and 14 respectively.
Many of these trees were sacred in pre-Christian Ireland, and the religious aura carried over into Christian times (see e.g. Delahunty 2007). Most venerated was the oak. Oak groves were sacred, as they were all across the Celtic world; as far as Anatolia, the Galatians—Celtic migrants—established their center at a place they called Drunemeton, “Sacred Oak Grove” (Byrne 2001:27). The Irish Gaelic nemed or fidnemed “sacred grove” is cognate with nemeton.
Hawthorn (whitethorn) was notably holy, and retained a major religious and cultural presence into modern times in Celtic and English folk beliefs. Evergreens—holly, ivy (possibly not native), yew—were venerated for their power to withstand winter. The yew was especially venerated, being both evergreen and productive of extremely hard, tough, serviceable wood. It declined from early abundance—possibly even profiting from early clearing—to eventual restriction to churchyard and ornamental plantings, partly because its foliage is poisonous, and thus a danger to cattle (Delanhunty 2007). Weapon trees—ash for spears, yew for bows—had a special importance because of their use in war. The apple tree was extremely important and visible in poetry, and even provided the Celtic placename Avalon (avallon, place of apples). The hazel is not known to have had much religious significance, but it almost certainly did have, judging from the reverential way it is mentioned in the poems. Also, its value as a food source got it frequent mention, and it was regarded as a model of loveliness. Trees were valued for construction and for firewood. All the above except the whitethorn were listed as highest-class trees in an 8th century law code, and huge fines were levied for damaging them if they were owned (Kelly 1999). Second-class trees included, besides the whitethorn, the willow, elm, alder, rowan, and other important but not vitally important trees. A third class listed rare and fairly useless trees.
Christianity was unkind to sacred trees. In France, missionaries made a point of cutting them. Irish missionaries were gentler,but later English invaders cut down the groves not only to chase out resistance fighters but also to hurt the Irish psychologically (Anderson ms.; Kiernan 2007). The traumatic English invasions in the 16th and 17th centuries, which reduced Ireland to a wretched and burned-over colony of England, essentially deforested the island. We therefore know less than we might about exactly what these trees signified and how they were involved in worship and ritual.
Nevertheless, tree lore survives in Ireland, including many of the ancient beliefs about hazel, oak, apple, and others (MacCoitir 2003).
Herbs attracted less attention. Watercress, wild garlic, and wild cresses were prized foods. Poets appreciated flowers, but less in early texts than in later ones; the flower cult seems to have spread up from the Mediterranean world in later medieval times. Grass was valued food for livestock, and meadows were a relief from the endless dark forests. The forested landscape had few herbs and flowers to show, and trees naturally attracted most of the attention of the poets.
All the major animals feature in poetry. Domestic ones, especially cattle, are the most important, but deer, foxes, and wolves are about equally significant poetically. Dogs are sometimes symbols of contempt, but hunting hounds—necessary for life, since deer were vital to the economy—were loved, well-treated, and respected. (Cuchulainn got his name from killing the monster dog of the tribe’s blacksmith Chulainn, and promising to fill the guardian role himself, thus becoming the “dog”—cu—of Chulainn.) Badgers, seals, otters, and other smaller animals appear frequently in the texts. Bees made honey, the only sweetener and the source of mead; bees also seem to have had some of the religious significance they had in mainland Europe, judging from their abundance in religious poetry. (Modern Scottish folklore stresses animals greatly, but is more like modern European animal lore in general, valuing some, devaluing others, and preserving much but far from all of the Celtic vision; see Low 2007.)
One striking parallel with the Northwest Coast are the importance of salmon (recall Finn’s adventure, above). One myth of a hero’s birth tells that his mother first bore a pure-white lamb, then a flawless silver salmon, then the hero himself (Byrne 2001:98; history does not relate how the woman felt about this). Pairing the hallmark symbol of Christianity with the salmon indicates strongly that the salmon had extremely high significance in the old pagan system. A heroine reuniting with her lover almost died of joy, and, as the story puts it, “It was little but that the salmon of her life fled through her mouth with joy” (Joyce 1907:200).
In later times, and presumably early, the wren was the king of birds, because his song is so powerful that it can be heard clearly above the roaring of the horrific winter storms (Lawrence 1997; see also Armstrong 1958). The same species is a major power animal to the Native peoples of the northern Northwest Coast of North America, too, and I had independently realized why it was so regarded from personal experience with it on Haida Gwaii. The loud, beautiful cries of cranes, and their strong high flight, made them power beings too, frequently mentioned in poetry. Herons, blackbirds, and other birds are also featured.
Flight was so important in mystic and shaman-like activities that birds associated themselves with “madmen,” magic-workers, poets, and other people in altered states. Birds tell people of the future and otherwise make themselves useful as omens. Humans take bird form, or in “madness” act like birds. The human soul is sometimes birdlike. Evidently, birds were extremely important in pre-Christian religion; spiritual and magical involvement of people and birds was exceptionally close.
The wise and mournful-voiced ravens had a significance rather similar to that they hold on the Northwest Coast of America, also. These coastal cultures also shared a fascination with wolves, eagles, and other predators, but so does every culture within the ranges of those animals. Apples and berries had a special place on both coasts, but this again seems a logical correlate of their economic value. Still, the parallels between northwest Eurasia and northwest America are thought-provoking. The biota are broadly similar, the societies were both warlike chiefdoms where feasting and generosity attracted followers and power, and the cultures of both areas were based on special knowledge, often realized through song. Even some myths—the Swan Maiden story is the clearest example (Snyder 1979)—repeated themselves all the way from Ireland to Canada.
Seagulls are sometimes mentioned, and had a major place in closely related Welsh nature poetry. More important to the late medieval Welsh, but not to earlier Celts, was the nightingale, which migrated up from southern Europe, both literally and in its figurative role as a symbol of song and love. The nightingale thoroughly deserves its reputation as a singer. (I really have never heard anything like it. No other bird I know is even close.) It is also quite tame. Thus it often occupied the secret bowers where lovers trysted in the warm parts of the year. The old Greek and Latin poets had already made the obvious connection, and indeed made it a cliché, but the medieval Celtic poets gave the image new life; the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, who specialized in boasting of his conquests of other men’s girlfriends, seems almost physically incapable of keeping nightingales out of his poems about this dubious activity. However, the nightingale, and that other Mediterranean cultural icon the rose, are singularly absent from the oldest Celtic poetry.
Thus, although the actual religious content of animal and plant lore has thinned considerably by the time our sources are recorded, the poetry shows intense, clear-sighted involvement in the nonhuman world. People are emotionally involved with animals and plants and landscapes as deeply as they are with other humans. Places are familiar, and each has its story, often a heartbreaking one. People communicate with powers of the wild. Christian hermits seem perfectly happy with the company of foxes, birds, and even wild swine. Everything seems washed in magical water that makes it more brilliant, more clear, more vivid, and more intensely beautiful than it is for us today. The sheer loveliness of the scenes breaks men’s hearts and makes women weep, especially if the scene is bound up with their lives, as in the stories that make up the Acallan na Senorach. Again, the “other” Northwest Coast provides insights; there, such tales were not just diversion, but were vitally important social narratives connecting people socially and spiritually to their lands (Cruikshank 1998, 2005).
Michael Dames (1992), ever the true Irish author in that his scholarship may be romantically imaginative but his phrases are inspired, says that the wonderfully and wildly exaggerated Irish stories, “though absurd in detail, are rational in overall effect, in that they integrate human hopes and defeats into a much bigger drama. In this they differ from a modern rationalism, which is so rational in detail, yet unreasonable to the point of madness in its broader consequences. They were involved with war in Nature, as distinct from war on Nature. For all our skill in measuring, we are now frequently surprised by ‘unforeseen side-effects,’ whereas in antiquity there were no side-effects, since everything was presumed to be interconnected” (Dames 1992:161; there were surely many unforeseen interconnections, however).
At this point the texts must be adduced.
Arguably the most revealing is a dialogue between ri Guaire, a brilliant and powerful (if flawed) ruler of the 7th century, and his brother Marbán, who had taken up the hermit’s life. This pairing is a significant one; by this time Christianity and kingship were so linked that a king would often have a leading churchman for a brother, and not infrequently the ri was a church leader himself. This pattern reminds us of the tendency for American Northwest Coast chiefs to have brothers who were shamans—thus consolidating power in both human and nonhuman realms. Hermit or no, Marbán was powerful enough to own a valuable white boar (Byrne 2001:243) and no doubt other property.
In any case, Guaire asks Marbán:
“Hermit Marbán, why do you not sleep upon a bed? More often would you sleep out of doors, with your head, where the tonsure ends, upon the grounds of a fir-grove” (Byrne 2001:240; the translation continues from Jackson 1971:68-70; only the verses that stress nature are quoted here from a very long poem).
“I have a hut in the wood, none knows it but my Lord; an ash tree this side, a hazel on the other, a great tree on a mound encloses it.
“Two heathery door-posts for support, and a lintel of honeysuckle; around its close the wood sheds its nuts upon fat swine.
“The size of my hut, small yet not small, a place of familiar paths; the she-bird in its dress of blackbird colour sings a melodious strain from its gable.
“The stags of Druim Rolach leap out of its stream of trim meadows….
“A tree of apples of great bounty,… a seemly crop from small-nutted branching green hazels, in clusters like a fist.
Excellent fresh springs—a cup of water, splendid to drink—they gush forth abundantly; yew berries, bird-cherries….
“Tame swine lie down around it, goats, young pigs, wild swine, tall deer, does, a badger’s brood….
“Fruits of rowan black sloes of the dark blackthorn; foods of whorts, spare berries….
“Beer with herbs, a patch of strawberries, delicious abundance; haws, yew berries, kernels of nuts.
“A cup of mead from the goodly hazel-bush, quickly served; brown acorns, manes of briar, with fine blackberries.
“In summer with its pleasant, abundant mantle, with good-tasting savour, there are pignuts, wild marjoram, the cresses of the stream—green purity!
“The songs of the bright-breasted ring-doves, a beloved movement, the carol the thrush, pleasant and familiar above my house.
“Swarms of bees, beetles, soft music of the world, a gentle humming; wild geese, barnacle geese, shortly before All Hallows, music of the dark torrent.
“A nimble singer, the combative brown wren from the hazel bough, woodpeckers with their pied hoods in a vast host.
“Fair white birds come, cranes, seagulls, the sea sings to them, no mournful music; brown fowl out of the red heather….
“A beautiful pine makes music to me, it is not hired; through Christ, I fare no worse at any time than you do….”
Note the fondness for bird song, especially the wren, and even the humming of insects here.
Arguably the most powerful poem in the Acallan na Senorach is Creide’s lament for her lover Cael, who drowned just after she pledged herself to him. The anonymous author makes her lament the a focus of his book and a lament for the whole lost society of old Ireland. Ceílte buries Creide and her lover together, just as he later buried his whole world through conversion to Christianity and through recording his tales for a Christian future. Just as Creide uses her animals as sharers and parts of her own grief, so Ceiíte uses her story to tell his own grief for his lost world. In turn, the anonymous author of the Acallan uses Ceílte’s persona to make his own lament for the past:
“The harbour roars out
over the fierce flow of Rin Dá Bharc.
The hero from Loch Dá Chonn drowned;
the wave mourns it against the shore.
“The heron is crying
in the marsh of Druim Dá Thrén.
She cannot guard her young:
the two-colored fox is stalking them.
“Mournful is the whistle
of the thrush on Druim Caín.
And no less mounrful is the call
of the blackbird on Leitir Laíg.
“Mournful the music
of the stag on Druim Dáa Léis:
The doe of Druim Silenn is dead
and the great stag roars at her loss.
that hero dead, who lay with me,
that woman’s son from Doire Dá Dos
with a cross set at his head.
“My grief that Cael
is fixed by my side in death,
that a wave has drowned his pale flank.
His great beauty drove me wild.
“Mournful is the roar
the ebbing wave makes on the strand.
It has drowned a fine and noble man.
My grief Cael ever went near it.
“Mournful the sound
the wave makes on the northern shore,
rough about the lovely rock,
lamenting Cael who is gone.
“And mournful the fall
of the wave on the southern shore.
As for myself, my time is over,
my face the worse, for all to see.
“There is unnatural music
in the heavy wave of Tulach Léis:
It is tellings its boastful tale
and all my wealth is as nothing.
“Since Crimthann’s son was drowned
I will have no other love.
Many leaders fell at his hand
but his shield on the day of need was silent.
“And the girl stretched out beside Cael and died of grief. The two of them were buried together in one grave. I myself,” said Caílte, “had the stone set up over them where they lie….” (translated by Thomas Kinsella; Kinsella 1989:79-80. The placenames, meaningless to the modern reader, would have been richly evocative to the medieval Irish audience—a major part of the symbolism. Creide’s comment on her face is not self-indulgence; a ravaged face was a mark of spiritual anguish in early Ireland.)
Here is Sweeney’s song of the trees:
“He…made a poem in which he praised aloud all the trees of Ireland…:
The bushy leafy oak tree
is highest in the wood,
the forking shoots of hazel
hide sweet hazel-nuts.
The alder is my darling,
all thornless in the gap,
some milk of human kindness
coursing in its sap.
The blackthorn is a jaggy creel
stippled with dark sloes;
green watercress in thatch on wells
where the drinking blackbird goes.
Sweetest of the leafy stalks,
the vetches strew the pathway;
the oyster-grass is my delight
and the wild strawberry.
Low-set clumps of apple trees
drum down fruit when shaken;
scarlet berries clot like blood
on mountain rowan.
Briars curl in sideways,
arch a stickle back,
draw blood and curl up innocent
to sneak the next attack.
The yew tree in each churchyard
wraps night in its dark hood.
Ivy is a shadowy
genius of the wood.
Holly rears its windbreak,
a door in winter’s face;
life-blood on a spear-shaft
darkens the grain of ash.
Birch tree, smooth and blessed,
delicious to the breeze,
high twigs plait and crown it
the queen of trees.
The aspen pales
and whispers, hesitates:
a thousand frightened scuts
race in its leaves….”
(Translated by Seamus Heaney; Heaney 1983:32-34.)
More revealing of attitudes, though, is Sweeney’s song on finally settling in peace, knowing he was near death. Recalling his “madness,” he again goes beyond self-regard to imply the passing of the whole lost world in the face of Christian peace, and here the anonymous poet breaks out of his Christian shell and gives us an anguished lament worthy of Caílte. Seamus Heaney’s translation captures some of the stark, driving rhythm and ragged, erratic rhyming of the original:
There was a time when I preferred
the turtle-dove’s soft jubilation
as it flitted round a pool
to the murmur of conversation.
There was a time when I preferred
the mountain grouse crying at dawn
to the voice and closeness
of a beautiful woman.
There was a time when I preferred
wolf-pakcs yelping and howling
to the sheepish voice of a cleric
bleating out plainsong.
You are welcome to pledge healths
and carouse in your drinking dens;
I will dip and steal water
from a well with my open palm.
You are welcome to that cloistered hush
of your students’ conversation;
I will sutdy the pure chant
of hounds baying in Glen Bolcain.
You are welcome to your salt meat
and fresh meat in feasting-houses;
I will live content elsewhere
on tufts of green watercress.”
Jackson memorably translates the last two verses:
“Though you think sweet, yonder in your church, the gentle talk of your students, sweeter I think the splendid talking the wolves make in Glenn mBolcáin.
“Though you like the fat and meaat which are eaten in the drinking-halls, I like better to eat a head of clean water-cress in a place without sorrow…” (Jackson 1971:255). The “wolves” are actually “hounds” in the text, as translated by Heaney, but Jackson may be right in assuming that “hounds” here is used, as it is in some other texts, to refer to wolves; Irish lore and literature often refer to wild animals as God’s livestock. Glen Bolcain was Sweeney’s refuge, his wild, lonely, but safe home in his madness.
Here is a totally unrelated poem—a bardic effort in praise of a chief. Like countless other chiefs in praise-poetry worldwide, this chief is so magical and so divinely favored that his presence increases the fertility of his lands, and the bard is eager to provide lush exaggeration accordingly—no doubt for a very large reward. Note also that the bard sticks in a political spike at the end, advocating peace at a time when war was idealized:
“…owing to our chieftain every bright-branched hazel has become red, and the fruits of the pleasant bending sloe-bushes have grown jet black.
“In his time the cattle are like part of the [mythic] Cattle-Tribute; nuts are the hue of coppery gold for the descendant of gentle Mugh; the fruit-flowers in their fresh white tresses have sweetened the cool streams of the tree-blessed shore; green corn grows from the earth close up to the mighty woods, and the bright hazel branches are filled with sap.
“At evening, the flowers of the fair-plaited hazel have cooled the sunny earth, the home of stranger birds; drops of honey and of dew, like dark tears, will keep the fringe of the thin-grassed wood bent down; the saplings around the Boyle are bowed with nuts because the slow soft eye of the descendant of Bron looks down on them.
“Nuts dropping into the white-foamed murmuring Boyle will fall down beside the great trees with twisted boles; the flower of every tree of them, like dark purple, is empurpled for the race of great muirchertach.
“A shower of honey upon slim-formed saplings in the fresh bowed forks of the golden gracefuil wood—this is but another boon from his holding of the peace—and the slow cows with their full udders from the lands of the plain of great Tuam…”
Unique in world literature is the lament of Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh for his wife. Open expression of passionate erotic love is rare in funeral songs, but rarer still—and extremely moving—in a lament for a wife of 20 years who has borne eleven children! What concerns us here, however, is his brilliant and extended metaphorization of his wife as a hazel tree. This, like the above poem, indicates more religious veneration of the hazel than other records attest.
Last night my soul departed,
a pure body, most dear, in the grave,
her stately smooth bosom taken
from me in a linen sheet,
a lovely pale blossom plucked
from a limp downcurving stem,
my heart’s darling bowed low,
heavy branch of yonder house.
I am alone tonight, O God.
It is a crooked, bad world you see.
Lovely the weight of the young flank
I had here last night, my King.
That bed there, my grief,
The lively covers where we swam
–I have seen a fine lively body
and waved hair in your midst, my bed!
One of a gentle countenance
Lay and shared my pillow.
Only the hazel bloom is like
her womanly dark sweet shade.
Maol Mheadha of the dark brows,
my vessel of mead, by my side,
my heart, the shade who has left me,
a precious flower, planted and bowed.
My body is mine no longer.
It has fallen to her share:
a body in two pieces
since she left, fair, lovely and gentle
–one foot of mine, one flank
(her visage like the whitethorn;
nothing hers but it was mine):
one eye of mine, one hand;
half my body, a youthful blaze
(I am hjandled harshly, O King,
and I feel faint as I speak it)
and half of my very soul.
My first love her great slow gaze;
curved, ivory white her breast;
nor did her body, her dear side,
belong to another before me.
Twenty years we were as one
and sweeter our speech each year.
Eleven babies she bore me
–great slender-fingered fresh branch.
I am, but I do not live,
since my round hazel-nut has fallen.
Since my dear love has left me
the dark world is empty and bare.
From the day the smooth shaft was sunk
for my house I have not heard
that a guest has laid a spell
on her youthful brown dark hair.
Do not hinder me, you people.
What crime to hear my grief.
Bare ruin has entered my home
and the bright brown blaze is out.
The King of Hosts and Highways
took her away in His wrath.
Little those branched locks sinne,d
to die on her husband, young and fresh.
That soft hand I cherished,
King of the graves and bells,
that hand never forsworn
–my pain it is not beneath my head!
Finally, no one can resist including the bit of doggerel (it rhymes in Gaelic) that an anonymous medieval monk wrote on the margin of a Christian text he was copying. Probably no poem in the world is more totally revealing of a particular attitude toward nature than this famous bit of marginalia:
A wall of woodland overlooks me.
A blackbird sings me a song (no lie!).
Above my book, with its lines laid out,
the birds in their music sing to me.
The cuckoo sings clear in lovely voice
in his grey cloak from a busy fort.
I swear it now, but God is good!
It is lovely writing out in the wood.
From a much later time period, a classic poem from the 18th century uses a dead bittern as a symbol for the poet, Cathal Buidhe MacElgun. The bittern is more than metaphor; it is a real alter ego. This is no raffish drinking song. The poet is destroying himself by drink and he knows it. He is trapped in grief, for the bittern and for a great deal of unspecified tragedy that the bittern symbolizes, and he drinks in a notably unsuccessful attempt to drown the sorrow. One reason to quote this poem here is that the translator successfully approximates the complex internal rhyme and alliteration of the original, thus giving readers of the present paper a sense of what Irish poetry really sounds like.
The yellow bittern that never broke out
In a drinking-bout, might well have drunk
His bones are thrown on a naked stone
Where he lived alone like a hermit monk.
O yellow bittern! I pity your lot,
Though they say that a sot like myself is curst—
I was sober a while, but I’ll drink and be wise
For fear I should die in the end of thirst.
It’s not for the common birds that I’d mourn,
The blackbird, the corncrake or the crane,
But for the bittern that’s shy and apart
And drinks in the marsh from the lone bog-drain.
Oh! If I had known you were near your death,
While my breath held out I’d have run to you,
Till a splash from the Lake of the Son of the Bird
Your soul would have stirred and waked anew.
My darling told me to drink no more
Or my life would be o’er in a little short while;
But I told her ‘tis drink gives me health and strength,
And will lengthen my road by many a mile.
You see how the bird of the long smooth neck,
Could get his death from the thirst at last-
Come, son of my soul, and drain your cup,
You’ll get no sup when your life is past.
In a wintering island by Constantine’s halls,
A bittern calls from a wineless place,
And tells me that higther he cannot come
Till the summer is here and the sunny days.
When he crosses the stream there and wings o’er the sea,
Then a fear comes to me he may fail in his flight—
Well, the milk and the ale are drunke very drop,
And a dram won’t stop our thirst this night.
(trans. Thomas MacDonagh; Hoagland 1947:235-236.)
The medieval Scots were Irish. In ancient times Scotland was inhabited by the Picts, who spoke a Briton-type Celtic language. The Scoti, an Irish tribe, invaded and took over in the early middle ages. So their early Gaelic poetry was thoroughly Irish in background and quality. This has persisted, in attenuated form, and much folk material demonstrating it has been collected. Notable is Alexander Carmichael’s huge collection of folk charms (1992). Carmichael provides countless charms involving plants, animals, and natural phenomena, and showing close relationships with them. The sun, plants, and the sea are addressed personally (as St. Francis of Assisi did). Carmichael notes that a young man going hunting was consecrated, and instructed not to kill wantonly or unnecessarily, nor “to kill a bird sitting, nor a beat lying down,…the mother of a brood, nor the mother of a suckling,” or young animals in general (Carmichael 1992:601).
Early Welsh poetry known to us is largely battle verse, rather thin on natural images, but in the high middle ages Welsh nature poetry explodes in pyrotechnic variety and virtuosity. Usually, nature is merely a backdrop for light love. However, wisdom literature, teaching texts, passages in long narratives, and sharp images in historical sources all indicate that Wales must not have been very different from Ireland in its early concern with forests and waters. We have several early poems indicating this quite strongly (Jackson 1935).
Strong similarities exist between Celtic and Germanic traditions, and come from three different sources: Common Indo-European heritage, direct borrowing, and absorption of Celtic tribes by Germanic ones. (What are now Germany, Austria, and neighboring German-speaking areas were largely Celtic-speaking until a few centuries B.C., the Germanic peoples being concentrated in Scandinavia and the Baltic region.) Trying to tease out the relative roles of these three processes would be an almost hopeless task. Anglo-Saxon poetry not only has similar nature attitudes to Irish and Welsh, but uses some of the same images, and contact is obvious.
One would also like to know how much the Celtic tradition has influenced subsequent thinking in France, England, and the Low Countries, all of which were thoroughly Celtic in Roman times. In France, northwest Spain, northwest Italy, and Switzerland, the Gauls were conquered by the Romans and subjected to heavy cultural pressure; the areas were then conquered by Germanic tribes. In France, Italy, and Spain, these tribes adopted the late-Latin dialects that evolved into modern Romance languages. The cultural and environmental heritage of these areas has been largely Romance, of course. Significantly, the only consequential legacy of Celtic languages in Spanish has been tree names, such as abedul for birch.
In contrast to truly shamanic societies, old Irish society was not fused totally with the other-than-human world. Animals were not people, though they might show human traits, and though humans might take animal form. Gods were humanoid, not animal powers. In other words, it is meaningful to talk of a “nature,” separate from “culture,” in a way that is not appropriate for the American Northwest or for native Siberia. King Guaire chose people; his brother Marbán’s choice of nature was a clear and conscious one that involved cutting ties with ordinary society.
Yet, Irish writers showed an involvement with nature that goes far beyond the patronizing “pastoralism” of the ancient Mediterranean or the self-conscious romanticism of Europe since 1800. These latter two poetic traditions assume, and depend on, an extreme contrast between the sophisticated urban observer and the wild landscape. The wild is fascinating precisely because it is so daunting and unfamiliar. People out there in the rural landscape are described in patronizing, condescending terms, from Theocritus’ unlettered shepherds to Wordsworth’s pitiful leech-gatherers and herd girls. Clearly, these are not the poet’s own people, or anywhere remotely close to his social equals. Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess did not shovel manure. The German romantic painters did not stay out in those storms they portrayed; unlike Monet (who sometimes painted while snow covered him), they were studio workers, not plein air artists.
By contrast, the Irish writers lived their nature poetry, or, more accurately, wrote their direct experience. The later medieval writers were educated—they too did not have to shovel out the byres—but they at least lived in a rural society and rubbed shoulders daily with hard-working rural people. They had to travel in winter storms and summer heats.
What strikes the modern reader is how far beyond mere familiarity they went. They saw birds, trees, bees, and landscapes in clear and intensely brilliant light. Everything is sharp, clear, beautiful, and distinct, as in the illumination following a storm. Even more significant is the recurrent use of birds, trees, and landscapes as personae for the singers. The poet is the heron, the deer, the river. To be sure, this trope occurs in poetry worldwide, but I know of no other poetry that so systematically, repeatedly, and powefully uses it. There is nothing between the poet and the natural world—no barriers of “civilization” or rhetoric or class. The poet sees without barriers.
This vision of the world survived, progressively attenuated, in the writings of their descendents. Christians would hardly abandon it just because of its identification with pagandom; they simply took it over, as we can see in Marban’s matchless poem above. St. Ciaran of Saighir in the 6th century had a wolf, a badger, and a fox, who helped him with his everday work. When the fox stole Ciaran’s shoes, the other two animals caught him and brought him back. The saint imposed due penance and the fox returned to good behavior (Farmer 2003:107). He was merely a typical Irish saint. (St. Bridget turned her bathwater into beer for the benefit of guests; deponent sayeth not whether she had already bathed in it or not; Farmer 2003:79.) Continental saints, with the stunning exception of Francis of Assisi and his group, virtually never engaged in such things (though the 13th-century French Saint Guinefort was a dog—and his tomb is still revered, in an area where the pre-Christian Celts had ritually buried canines; see Schmitt 1983). In fact, other saints were more apt to cut down sacred groves just to spite the pagans, as St. Boniface did in Germany in the early 8th century (Farmer 2003:66)—a scene I have seen portrayed in sculpture on an early medieval church in Lyon.
It is directly ancestral to one major strand in modern ecological and environmental thought. Irish and Scottish love for and involvement in the natural world provided a very disproportionate amount of environmental thought, from scientists like Hutton to plant explorers like David Douglas. Scottish and Irish conservationists have had a particular version of loving the natural world, a version characterized by deep personal involvement in it and sometimes by distancing from ordinary human society.
It is no surprise that Irish, Scots, and American descendants thereof created so much of the modern conservation literature, from the writings of John Muir and Sally Carrighar to the poetry of William Butler Yeats, Robert Graves, and Robinson Jeffers.
It is worth quoting one more poem, by Jeffers, because he not only reaches the old unbarriered clear sight of the world, he also knows it is something quite different from ordinary experience, and he can describe the difference far better than I can. He is writing of a camping trip in the coast range of northern Monterey County, California:
We stayed the night in the pathless gorge of Ventana Creek, up the east fork.
The rock walls and the mountain ridges hung forest on forest above our heads, maple and redwood,
Laurel, oak, madrone, up to the high and slender Santa Lucian firs that stare up the cataracts
Of slide-rock to the star-color precipices.
We lay on gravel and kept a little camp-fire for warmth.
Past midnight only two or three coals glowed red in the cooling darkness; I laid a clutch of dead bay-leaves
On the ember ends and felted dry sticks across them and lay down again. The revived flame
Lighted myh sleeping son’s face and his companion’s, and the vertical face of the great gorge-wall
Across the stream. Light leaves overhead danced in the fire’s breath, tree-trunks were seen: it was the rock wall
That fascinated my eyes and mind. Nothing strange: light-gray diorite with two or three slanting seams in it,
Smooth-polished by the endless attrition of slides and floods; no fer nor lichen, pure naked rock…as if I were
Seeing rock for the first timde. As if I were seeing through the flame-lit surface into the real and bodily
And living rock. Nothing strange…I cannot
Tell you how strange: the silent passionk the deep nobility and childlike loveliness: this fate going on
Outside our fates. It is here in the mountain like a grave smiling child. I shall die, and my boys
Will live and die, our world will go on through its rapid agonies of change and discovery; this age will die,
And wolves have howled in the snow around a new Bethlehem: this rock will be here, grave, earnest, not passive: the energies
That are its atoms will still be bearing the whole mountain above: and I, many packed centuries ago,
Felt its intense reality with love and wonder, this lonely rock.
This ancient, not-quite-dead vision of the world seems a middle course between very ancient unity and modern (postmodern?) separation.
We of the 21st century probably cannot recover the vision on any large scale, however many hopeful students shamanism now has. Conversely, we can no longer survive cold separation from and indifference to nature. Yet even the environmental movement has drifted far from Muir. Nature is a place to play, usually with the aid of thousands of dollars’ worth of hi-tech equipment from REI or A16, or else nature is a terrifying threat, to be restrained and controlled. It should be obvious that such environmentalism will lead us not to salvation but to the snobbish and NIMBY views that are all too common and obvious in modern environmental rhetoric. The only cure is a return to the clear sight of the natural world that informed the medieval Celtic peoples, and allowed them to produce some of the most powerful and personal literature and art in the long and wonderful history of the human spirit. Michael Dames (our Irish romantic, above) holds that we have no time to wait for rational self-interest to teach us; “Ireland is in a position to offer its mythic, flame-filled peat to a world in need of sacred meaning” (Dames 1992:19).
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