Moya Cannon

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a landscape

The poetic in the work of Tim Robinson

from Unfolding Irish Landscapes, Tim Robinson, Culture and Environment edited by Derek Gladwin and Christine Cusick, Foreword by Robert MacFarlane.

I owe Tim Robinson an enormous debt.  Through his maps and writing he has introduced me, as he has so many others, to intimate corners of the landscapes and sea-edges of the Aran Islands, the Burren and Connemara.

Anyone opening one of Tim’s books or maps cannot but be immediately arrested by the quality of attention manifest there – by the combination of precision and resonance, the access to and obvious delight in a wide variety of academic disciplines and yet the ability to draw these disciplines together within a wonderfully  poetic and frequently playful discourse.  On an early visit to the pier-end house in Roundstone which he shares with his wife Mairead, I found him working on his major cartographical project, the map of Connemara.  He was painstakingly taking small print-outs of names of mountain-ranges and fringing them with a blade so that they could be curved and could thereby follow the contours of sea inlets and mountain ranges as he pasted them onto the master copy of the map.  It is some equivalent practice in relation to language, his painstaking care in the harnessing of words and syntax to faithfully follow reality, which provides so much of the tension and energy of his work.

My first encounter was with the maps.  I came across the map of Árann and was enchanted.  I was already well acquainted with Inis Oirr, the smallest of the Aran Islands, having taught there over several summers and having come to know the sea-bitten limestone pavement, he remains of bronze age settlement, the tiny medieval churches, the wells, the labyrinth of stone walls and the tiny room-sized fields contained within them.   To have every promontory and cove of this small complex territory lovingly charted and named was a great gift, as was the subsequent Burren map.  These were maps brought to a most unusual point of refinement.   In the way in which a musician’s house was marked in as well as a megalithic tomb, they seemed to operate not only on a plane of space but also of time, and to somehow throw a trawl net out to map traces of human culture.   There was a multi-dimensional quality to the maps and, it now seems to me, about the entire body of work, which was exhilarating. — rather like those three dimensional, computer-generated maps of the sea-bed to which we now have access – revealing mountain ranges and gorges where we had previously seen only flat water.   Maps are meant to render the three-dimensional into two dimensions, by virtue of the sleight of hand of contour lines. Nothing, in one sense, could be more two dimensional than the Folding Landscape maps, their austere black and white clarity a testimony to the drawer’s training as both a visual artist and a mathematician, yet, in their fine attention to detail and in their ordering of that detail, in the naming, for instance, of particular rocks on the south coast of Inis Oirr, ‘Dún na Ní,’ ‘Tracht Mhíl’, ‘Carraig an Ime,’ we seem almost to hear, not only the rush and sough and suck of creamy foam over long flat tongues of limestone, but the whispering of pre-famine seaweed gatherers in their graves in the high sand dunes of the medieval churchyard a little further north.

The reading of the maps is, of course, coloured and illuminated at this point by the pleasures of the written work.   Stones of Aran, Vol 1, Pilgrimage, is transgressive of academic boundaries in the quietest of ways.  It is an account of a walk around the periphery of the largest of the Aran Islands, Árann, a fragment of limestone laid down near the south pole some three hundred million years ago and isolated from what is now the mainland of County Clare by one of the many great inundations.   In Pilgrimage, this scrap of the earth’s crust, approximately eight and a half miles long by two and a half miles wide, is viewed through the lenses of oceanography, botany, ornithology, geology, history, sociology, natural history, folklore and several other disciplines.   The narrator passes from one academic discipline to another as nimbly as the Aran Islander in Tim’s description passes from one tiny field to another via an almost invisible stile in the limestone wall.   In spite of the rigour of his research, there is an extraordinary lightness and poetic quality to the work.    Some years after I had first read the volume, I was sitting in Tim and Mairead’s snug library-cum-sitting-room, when, on the shelf behind my chair, I noticed a number of editions of John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice.  I wondered at my dimness in not having made the connection earlier.  The devotion to precision was the same as was the passion for the genius of a particular water-defined place.

The first time that I met Tim was by the Ballinahinch river.  I was visiting another extraordinary man, John Moriarty, whom I had met a short time previously. I do not think that they knew each other well at this point but, over the next twenty years, until John’s death from cancer in 2,007, a deep and unusual friendship developed between them.  I have never known two people, Tim and John, so different to each other, who held each other in such high regard.   In their philosophies they appeared to agree about nothing – Tim being defiantly materialistic and John, whose knowledge of literature, mythology, philosophy and religions was as encyclopaedic as Tim’s in other areas, barely admitting that the material existed except as a manifestation of the spirit.    It was as if one existed and was planted in that magnificent corner of south Connemara as a foil and an intellectual sparring partner for the other. They shared a deep love of, and understanding of, the landscape of Connemara and of ecology generally, a respect for and dedication to intellectual endeavour and a profound human decency.  I do not know whether, over the years of their friendship, either succeeded in eroding the position of the other even a fraction of a millimetre.  I do know that Tim and his wife Mairead were immensely supportive of John in his last years. Tim dedicated his fiction ‘Orion the Hunter’ to John, and it can be read as Tim’s own engagement with and ultimate dismissal of a mythological interpretation of reality, a dismissal which is not without a tinge of regret.  The story is a discussion between a mythological and a scientific world view, through the device of focusing on the constellation of Orion.  The narrator is reading in bed, researching the name of Chios, when his little terrier whines to be let out into the garden.  He gets up to oblige, lets her out, follows her into the garden and is star-struck.

Above, spanning the perfect blackness, hung a huge empty framework of stars.  My breath caught in my throat, as always when I am confronted – Orion the Hunter, a mile high, a thousand miles wide.

The narrator/Tim describes that most familiar but enduringly magnificent of our constellations, points out, with characteristic Robinsonian precision and lyricism, a slight upward curve in Orion’s belt ‘like the sequent notes of a scale, a hunting horn’s bright echoing challenge.’  He focuses on a perfect Pythagorean triangle which his father had pointed out to him as a child, identifying it as Orion’s bow, although later reading suggested that it might be a club.  His father had also pointed out Sirius, the Dog Star, who kept faithfully near the heel of Orion.   The narrator then returns indoors, picks out a number of reference books on his way back to bed and proceeds to research the various myths associated with Orion and Sirius.  It transpires that Sirius does not belong to Orion at all, that the name ‘Orion’ means ‘Dweller in the Mountains’ and that the myths associated with him are complex and violent.  Casting about for some relief from this brutality, he remembers a painting once seen in the Metropolitan art gallery in New York – Poussin’s ‘Landscape with Orion’ , which presents a much more palatable version of the legend.   The story then shifts mode, as the door, which he had left open for his little dog to return, opens a little further and a figure slips inside

Every instinct in my body cried out that it was an animal – its scent immediately filled the room, as complicated as a thicket, with flowers and bitter berries and foxy dung beneath – but I could see that it was human: a slight, ragged, dark-visaged male.  My breath stopped in my throat, but he immediately showed he meant no harm by turning to leave his stick propped in a corner…he was old, he might have been newly delivered out of the ages like a corpse given up by a glacier…I could make nothing of him.  Incomprehensibility was engrained in him like a darkness.

The narrator recovers from his shock and proceeds to fling his thoughts at Orion, in a consideration of the absolute immensity of the space between us and the stars, a consideration less timorous but scarcely less awe-struck than Pascal’s famous statement  ‘The immense silences of the infinite spaces terrify me’.   He quotes Whitman ‘I hold a leaf of grass to be the journeywork of the stars. .. and the mouse is a miracle to confound a quadrillion atheists.’ And then he poses the question ‘What is the relationship of the leaf to the star?’  He asks Orion ‘Do you know anything of stars?’ as he might interrogate a snowman about the nature of snow.  Focusing initially on Orion’s eastern shoulder, the red giant Betelgeuse, which, though ten thousand times a luminous as our sun, is a mere dot to us, being two hundred and seventy light years away, he then observes that this distance is as nothing compared to the size of the galaxy, ‘a hundred billion light years across, built of a hundred billion stars.’   The galaxy, in turn, is tiny in the context of the universe. He then returns to the theme of ‘The journeywork of the stars’.

He shifts from the macroscopic to the microscopic and asks Orion to consider the origin of life , the formation of molecules and amino acids in space, life which will fall with meteors onto a hospitable planet like ours ‘and in no time at all, amoebae, birds of paradise, pyramids, computers.’  He moves on to deconstruct Orion, telling him that the distances form earth to Orion’s several stars vary considerably, that Orion’s splendid outline is merely a trick of perspective, that

‘viewed from the Pole Star, for instance, you do not exist. ‘Constellation’ is the name of an act, the quintessential human act of joining up the dots, leaping over the dark, stringing events into stories, stories into persons, persons into history.  Before we came, stars unnamed bloomed and seeded and blew away like dandelion fluff’. 

 It was humanity who gave meaning to the universe, and, he then reflects, we may not always be here to keep up the pretence of meaning.  If and when we destroy ourselves, which is very likely, there may or may not, he muses, be a few bewildered survivors. Or, in the absence of human consciousness, he describes the ever expanding universe as ‘the distracted clockwork bits of heaven ratcheting away, to no end, world without end.  He asks Orion if he can provide any better vision of the future.  Travelling perhaps at, perhaps beyond, the speed of light, has he any insight to share with us?  Has he a privileged access to the future?

Under this bombardment of scientific information and questioning, Orion has retreated into himself.  All the wild visual, tangible, olfactory sensations which he had triggered had withdrawn into him ‘and the room was left an empty geometry’.    He sat silently for a very long time, then as the narrator’s little dog barked sharply from the garden, he appeared to respond to it as to a signal.

‘The hunter stood, and stretched and yawned, took up his stick – it was a little bow….with a knotted thong for a string – and stepped out into the glow of dawn.  Very soon the room was emptied of strangeness, as if he were drawing after him long dim tatters, glittering streamers, billowy, starry banners.’

 The story concludes with the little dog hopping into her basket and the narrator stretching out his hand to his sleeping companion, as domesticity re-asserts itself after this strange starry incursion.

The storying of the heavens must have occurred very early in our own human story, sometime very shortly after that most mysterious of evolutionary leaps, (if it was a leap) the birth of meaning.  It is a storying with continues today, employing our most advanced and dizzylingly powerful technological skills and resources.   As mentioned above, this story was dedicated to John Moriarty and the author, in a footnote, says that John ‘used to come in at the door described and hold forth at the foot of our bed’.   John, on his way home from his weekly grocery shopping, used waste no time on small talk but used head straight into ‘the abyss’.  It is perhaps his ability to entertain a world view not only at variance to, but opposed to his own scientific, rational prisms are what give Tim Robinson’s work its plenitude and its poetic quality.  One of the characteristics of poetry, of any art, is the bringing together of disparate elements and of arranging them into a harmonious whole.   This usually involves entertaining contradiction.  As Yeats famously put it ‘out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric, out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.’  This is one of the reasons why poetry can so often calm us where nothing else can,  reflecting, as it does, the way in which each human life entertains enormous contradictions.

There is possibly a certain give and take here with relation to the maps.  The place names of the Aran Islands, Connemara and the Burren are frequently literal and descriptive but many of them can be understood only in relation to the stories associated with them.  Tim and Mairead’s early encounter with the Aran Islands was an encounter with a deeply storied landscape.   I have said that ‘Stones of Arran’ was a walk around the island viewed through several scientific prisms but also viewed through its myths and stories.  Though Tim Robinson’s luminous prose reflects his belief in science and rationality, it is also characterized by a deep courtesy towards and hospitality to myth and folklore, world views at odds with his own vision.  The Orion story expresses in microcosm what his writings on the Aran Islands and Connemara do on a larger scale.

I have said that I owe Tim Robinson a great debt.   I think that the country also owes him a debt.  The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz writes in his poem ‘On bypassing Rue Descartes’ of revisiting Paris as an older man and remembering a youthful visit to that capital of world culture.   The older man comes to the conclusion  –

‘There is no capital of the world, neither here nor anywhere else,
And the abolished customs are restored to their small fame
And now I know that the time of human generations is not like the time of the earth.’

Tim Robinson has restored to many customs and places in his chosen landscapes ‘their small fame’.  He has frequently done so in collaboration with Irish scholars and with country people who have conserved the stories of their own places.  He has given us the deepest of maps, the richest of ‘readings’ of landscapes and seascapes.  He is one of the great restorers, one of the quiet unravellers of imperium.  However, his vision is conservationist rather than conservative.  He and Mairead have involved themselves again and again in environmental issues, most particularly in opposing the building of an airport on the environmentally sensitive Roundstone Bog and the inappropriate siting of windmills on the south of Inis Meain, in the Aran Islands.

His writings are in some ways reminiscent of the work of Barry Lopez in the Arctic, of John McPhee in his deep storying of the US, of RobertMcFarlane in his tracing of old paths in England and Scotland or of Nan Shepherd in her wonderfully poetic and rigorous account of the Cairngorms   However, his background as a mathematician and as a visual artist, in addition to his scientific interests, give his work ever new and unexpected dimensions and perspectives, making it utterly unique.   The Aran Islands and Connemara are indeed fortunate to have such a chronicler.