Jun 9, 2007
So the second part of my paganism and feminism post is taking a little longer than I thought it would (that's always the way, isn't it; the rant comes easy, but the thinky bit is hard) and then I also realized that I had read Patricia Monaghan's The Red-Haired Girl From the Bog ages ago and never properly wrote a review of it like I intended to.

It's a hard book to classify; part travelogue, part memoir, part mythology and folklore. It's very much a book about Ireland, but at the same time, she covers a lot about how we relate to our world and how people live their lives and their religion in general. It was also hugely moving; I only have notes on the first half of it, because by the second half I was so wrapped up in the stories she was telling and the images she was invoking that I just completely forgot. (I had to stop reading it at work because I hate crying in front of people.)

Monaghan divides the book into five sections, one for each of Ireland's provinces, and digs into the local mythology, history, politics, and people in each one. A couple of months later, many of the details of the stories are escaping me, but I remember two very vividly -- her chapter on Brigid and the Brigidine Sisters of Kildare, with the story of how Brigid's Flame was accidentally relighted at a Candlemas ceremony, and the mention of this stone in Loughcrew Cemetary.

That stone right there -- the pointy one in the middle foreground. The memory of the afternoon we spent at Loughcrew came back with a really shocking vividness at her one-sentence description. I could pick out the stone she mentioned immediately; I remember sitting next to it to take pictures of the cairn. (I also have a picture of a Goth girl standing in that stone circle that's one of my favorites from that trip, just for what it represents.) I remembered hiking up the long hill path, observed by uninterested sheep. I remember looking out over the countryside, modern farms on one side and old stone fences on the other, trying to spot the Hill of Tara. I more than remembered it, it was like a gut-punch, a flood of emotions and a sense of connection -- we had touched that same stone, she and I, and wondered about the people who put it there. This must be what the big deal is all about, I thought.

The main focus of The Red-Haired Girl From the Bog is locality -- what it means to be from a particular place, to know it intimately enough to recognize that particular stone from one sentence on a page and a year's distance in time, and not just that stone, but every stone and tree and hill. In Ireland, Monoghan describes, everything has a name. That bend in the road, that tree on the hill, that stone circle, that well, that grassy spot that doesn't look like much of anything to outsiders. It makes the landscape...not bigger, but more. It gives it depth and shape in directions that storyless landscape doesn't have.

I've never really felt that way about a place. Oh, I get a little thrill of recognition when people mention my hometown, and for a week I told everybody about the Harlan Ellison story where he mentions the town I went to college in, but it never really meant anything to me. I think that's why I've always been a little blah about this talk of connection to the land that crops up so often in Paganism. I understand it intellectually, but it doesn't have a lot of emotional resonance for me.

Except, apparently, for Loughcrew Cemetary.

Monoghan actually confronts that issue reasonably well; she talks about how Americans -- or rather, all non-Native-Americans -- have a tough time relating to land in that way because we don't always feel like we really belong here. We don't know the stories about every nook and cranny of land, because they've never been told to us, and even if they were, they would be slightly alien, because stories that old come from a culture that is not ours. She skips a point that makes me feel uncomfortable about both her book and my reaction to that Loughcrew stone, though. Modern Irish culture is, quite possibly, just as alien to me as pre-colonial Native-American culture. To say that I "naturally" have a stronger connection to the Irish landscape because my great-great-grandfather emigrated from there is nonsense. I know more about it, and I know it in a way that makes sense to me, but that's all.

Besides, I'm not so sure a lack of that kind of deep connection to the land is an inherently bad thing anyway, or a thing that is lacking in spirituality. There is something to be said for abstraction, too. No, not abstraction -- I'm looking for a word that isn't liminality, but it's such a good word, you'll have to keep it. :) A state of not-belonging, of not-knowing, of being questionable and questioning and having one's relationship with the Universe being constantly negotiable. When Victor Turner first coined the term he didn't think it was possible to exist in a liminal state for long periods of time, but he's been shown to be wrong. (Maybe the time frame is off and we're looking at a society in a liminal period?) But I have that kind of emotional connection to liminality that so many people seem to have to land and place and locality. I can't articulate it, but it makes me happy, and it makes the world seem like a bigger place, in much the same way Monoghan describes that kind of locality doing for land-based people.

1 comment:

cathy said...

Being of a certain place is more than growing up in a location. Immigrant (and refugee) families keep the memory of a place alive through stories and shared memories. There's an article on today's BBCnews website about a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan that discusses this topic.

Even though I'm 4th generation American, I still consider myself Irish and Canadian because that's where all my grandparents' stories are from. When I went to Ireland I did feel a connection- not a deep one, but a connection nonetheless. For one thing, it was comfortable to be in a place where everyone looked like me. Mostly, though it was great to see the places of my family's stories become real. We don't know the exact villages of the Irish ancestors, but we do know where the Canadian ones came from. I hope to be able to travel there, too.

I know that if I ever have children, I will tell them stories about Massachusetts, so that they'll feel a connection to my bit of land, no matter where we're living.

It's interesting that you feel that deep a connection to liminal states. I'm fascinated by them, I love reading about them, but I can't deal being in them.