The past returns on the names of trees. Reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim on Tinker Creek, I was reminded of the sycamore that grew outside the door of the garage annex I inhabited for a year in the Burren, about 15 years ago. Broad-leaved, it clattered on windy days and I’d greet it as if it was a friend as I passed it on my way to the small beach that was so close I could walk to it with my eyes closed.
Sometimes I’d leave the door open and, with the sycamore for an audience, read aloud from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Simarillion from the kitchen table, feeling the grand and ornate syntax all the more for the place I had arrived in, a place so different from the city streets I had known in California, all countryside and limestone hills, the windblown setting for prehistoric deadhouses and ruined Norman tower houses and B&Bs, so that time seemed to ripple as I walked its green roads and small main streets, modernity and the ancient intermingling.
After a year we moved to a bungalow across the road, furnished with salmon pink sofas, old decrepit dressers, and cupboards full of sherry glasses and mismatched porcelain teacups. There were too many rooms, and I’d move from room to room with my notebook, unable to find a spot where I’d feel comfortable in. I favoured the yard: it was large, bordered with nettles I’d make into soup, and featured a mature ash tree. On my days off from the cafe in the village, I’d read or draw under the swinging arms of that ash tree while pheasants called in the field beyond the stone wall. That was the field in which I had lost a Claddagh ring, which J had bought from a shop catering to Irish expats on Clement St. in San Francisco.
It didn’t behoove Jim when I lost it. Nor did I care too much. Already our marriage was fraying fast: his moods and alcoholism, my inability to cope. More difficult years followed, on which I will draw a curtain. Think a room where hope has been half-strangled and beaten, bloodied and blue. What saved me in that time, I suppose, was nature. I like Dillard’s phrase “the canary that sings on the skull”. Cast your eye outward: there, the ash, the sycamore, upright and stalwart. Dillard writes, “The present of our life looks different under trees… We run around these obelisk-creatures, teetering on our soft, small feet.”