Friday, August 13, 2010

Invariant ecstasy

I mentioned the other day that our little one-lane road here in the west of Ireland was once called "The Fairies' Road," or at least it was referred to as such by several of the old people of the neighborhood when we bought our plot more than thirty years ago. (The more common name is Bothar a caoine, "the road of the head (of the fields)"; it hugs the hill just where the cultivated fields give way to rough upland pasturage.) A few of our older neighbors expressed surprise that we would want to live -- especially at night! -- in such an enchanted place. They didn't quite believe in fairies, but they didn't quite not believe either.

That's all gone now, gone with that generation. How quickly it happened! For more than a thousand years the fairies were a felt presence in the Irish landscape. In his introduction to W. B. Yeats: The Poems, Daniel Albright writes: "The faeries of peasant superstition were presumably the old pagan gods, dwindled and in retreat from the Christian ethos, but something of the brutal splendour of the gods of the ancient myths remained in them…It was as if, in Ireland, a region of invariant ecstasy were all around, hovering invisibly in certain sacred places." In The Shadowy Waters, Yeats evokes that sense of pervading enchantment:
Is Eden far away, or do you hide
From human thought, as hares and mice and coneys
That run before the reaping-hook and lie
In the last ridge of the barley? Do our woods
And winds and ponds cover more quiet woods,
More shining winds, more star-glimmering ponds?
In Yeats's time, the fairies were still a powerful presence in the rural landscape, if only in "the last ridge of the barley". Today, the reaping hook of scientific rationalism has swept away the last of the fairy ilk, and with them a sense that one messes with the landscape at one's spiritual peril.

And the landscape suffers. The road is paved, the hedgerows grubbed, the fields of barley, oats and hay replaced by mechanically-cultivated monoculture, silage wrapped in plastic, the hares and mice and coneys virtually extinct. What is required is a new enchantment, a new sense of something marvelous and integral that resides in the land, a new compulsion to treat the land with respect, awe, perhaps a little fear. And what might that be? Not a reintroduction of the fairies, certainly, but perhaps the sense of spiritual dependence that gave rise to the ancient gods in the first place, now expressed as an awareness of ecological wholeness.

If we were awake to what is happening in every cell of living matter -- the unceasing shuttlecock of the DNA weaving and unweaving the stuff of life -- and to the geological forces rolling across the eons that make and re-make the surface of the Earth, if we could feel as a tingle in the spine the infinitely subtle entanglements of earth, air, sea and creaturedom that have been woven over billions of years on the loom of natural selection, if we could teach ourselves that Eden is not far away, but here, now, everywhere around us in a world that is marvelous beyond our knowing even as we know more and more, then every insect, every leaf, every hare and mouse and coney, every trickle of ditchwater, every beach pebble, every wood and pond and starry night -- is fairyland.