Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Saturday reprise

While I'm on the subject of trees, I can't resist sharing one of my favorites, this magnificent copper beech that overspreads the nun's cemetery in the grounds of the Presentation Sisters convent in Dingle, Ireland.

The convent now stands empty, and no one knows quite what to do with it. The chapel is magnificent, lit by gorgeous Harry Clarke stained-glass windows that take one's breath away. But no more sisters. In one memorable year decades ago, my two daughters were taught here by nuns, and splendid women they were too. Today, girls in the Dingle primary and secondary schools are taught by lay people. Generations of Presentation sisters lay sleeping among the roots of the beech, and few young women are enlisting to take their places.

But back to the tree -- which seems to have adapted its form to shade the sleeping nuns -- a cultivated ornamental variety of the common beech, Fagus sylvatica. If oaks are the rugged masculine icons of the forest, the beeches, with their elegance and smooth skin, have something decidedly feminine about them. Not the spritely femininity of a young girl, but the stately solemnity of a Queen Mother. Just as when one enters a medieval cathedral one senses the predominant spirit of the Virgin, rather than her God-Son, so when one enters a beech grove one feels the spirit of the ancient Mother-goddess of European forests, here in Ireland called Mor-Rioghna, the earthy feminine counterpart of the Sun-deity.

Yes, I'm anthropomorphizing, but why not? Metaphor is one of the ways we bind the world together, solidify our kinship with other creatures. Without some overlay of metaphor this copper beech in the convent garden is just another pretty tree. But as Mor-Rioghna she spreads her purple-green mantle over her sleeping acolytes, women who gave their lives to the teaching of girls, including -- gratefully -- briefly, my daughters.

(This post originally appeared in June 2007.)