Saturday, August 25, 2007

The surface of things

"Facts! What else is there? What else do we need?" growled Edward Abbey, nature writer and cantankerous champion of the American West . We know where he was coming from. He was tired to the death of idle speculation -- philosophy, theology, government reports. He would have preferred to find a rattlesnake under his bed than a shelf full of Thomas Aquinas, or a cold beer in a crossroads bar with a couple of grizzly desert rats like himself than dinner in the Harvard faculty club with a brace of metaphysicians. Facts! "There is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in the simple fact," he wrote.

The other day I spent six hours in the company of Bernie Goggin and Isabel Bennett visiting some of the more interesting natural and archeological sites of West Kerry. Bernie is our most knowledgeable local naturalist; Isabel is a co-author of the monumental archeological survey of the Dingle Peninsula. Between the two of them they carry around in their heads an astonishing accumulation of facts. Every plant, every stone, every seashell crumbling out of a seaside sandbank had a story to tell. I stumbled along behind as Bernie and Isabel painted the landscape with facts. No idle speculations. No pathways to heaven. Just names, dates, relationships, dimensions. "How do you remember all this stuff?" I asked Bernie. He just smiled from behind his Edward Abbey beard. I had the feeling he wouldn't mind finding a rattlesnake under his bed if it meant he could add one more nugget to his storehouse of facts.

Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian. Shell middens, ring barrows, holy wells, bullauns. Stonecrop, crowfoot, nettle, and spurrey. There is indeed a kind of poetry in the names of things, and more, much more, than "a kind of truth." If truth means anything, it takes its meat and merit from its nearness to simple facts. I came home with wet boots and grass-stained jeans and felt I had been closer to truth than I had ever been in a church or classroom.