Thursday 2 June 2011

Ancient and Modern

Sometimes, something someone has said will stick with you far beyond any recollection of the rest of the conversation.

Last summer, Charlotte blogged about swimming in the sea; she said: "It’s an old working sea, the North Sea..." and that one phrase pinned me, made sense of what I'd always felt about the body of water that I grew up with.  I went to school on Kirkley cliffs in Lowestoft and our playground hummed with the sound of waves and the smell of salt.  In summer, the cries of seagulls accompanied our games; in the winter months, the iron grey of the waves reflected the angry whorl of the sky, and sheets of rain, mixed with salt spray, battered the windows of our classrooms.  We learned the humour of the sea as we learned to read and write.

The North Sea is old; sometimes, sitting on the beach at Lowestoft, Kessingland, Southwold, Dunwich, you can almost feel the presence of the thousands of years of human history that have lain on it.  People have crossed and recrossed the narrow channel of water between us and the continent ever since the wild waves first roared over the land bridge that once connected us to Europe.  Sometimes, living our modern lives, surrounded by our towns and cities, our well-tended gardens and patchwork fields, you can forget the wildness that lies just outside.

Every summer, we travel to Ireland to visit the extended family.  And every summer, I visit the Burren in County Clare, a natural wonder of the world, the memory of a northern ancient glacier, stranded in the soft fertile soil of Ireland.  It feels like a pilgrimage as I walk down to the shoreline, early in the morning before most people are up.  On a soft Irish day, the wind pushes spray into your face, catching your breath as the waves heave and roll against the erratics, boulders strewn on the shoreline, as if thrown by a giant of Celtic myth.  Like the North Sea, the Atlantic feels old too, but more so.  Ancient, yet alive, vibrant, ever changing.  To sit on its shores, in the wildness of the Burren, is to feel its pull; the shush of the waves becomes the sound of your own breathing.  You can feel something that is distinct from the rest of your life; time stands still.

There are certain places in the world where the veil separating the modern day and the past seems so thin.  During the 19th Century, during the Famine, the west coast of Ireland was devastated, denuded of people.  Families died, disappeared, emigrated to escape the mass starvation.  Villages stand deserted, wildflowers filling empty windows, ivy shrouding the places where people slept, softening harsh outlines of stone.  The pain of those years seems etched on the land, even now; under a sullen sky, the land seems to brood.  But in a sudden stab of sunshine, everything lifts and it is once again the most beautiful place on earth.

Its story, along with the story of so many wild places, reminds us how fragile a hold we have on our world.  Despite all the power at our fingertips, we remain guests on this planet, tiny creatures blown about by the wind and waves.  We may save ourselves or destroy ourselves, but ultimately we will become just memories in the wild places of the world.

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