I see so many lines across the old face of the land. There are fences and roads, administrative boundaries and lines of longitude, power-lines and pipelines. The land wears them with resignation and an eye on the long game, when all these things will come out in the wash. And then again there are lines that persist, leaning towards forever: contours and cliff edges, loch shores and the whispered guess of a line that marks a watershed.
In these early weeks of my life by a river in Donegal I am banished from the low lands and the full greens of the summer trees. I am a stranger here in this intimately inhabited land and I do not yet know how to speak to it without an ear-mangling clatter of cogs and levers, ratcheting my way through mechanical meanings. So it is best that I do not speak at all. It is best that I am sent out to haunt the high smudges of the watershed, up here on the scree and the heather and the bog where the river does not rise – she falls. She falls in torrents from the sky or carefully gathers in the acres and acres of her drizzle skirts. This is the proper place for me to wander my apprentice days as a shadow, a mute, tentatively crossing and re-crossing the intricacy of her watershed with a single step, with sometimes less than a step, with just a glance or a gust in the wind.
Up here, only the river really knows what is for her and what is not. This is a land of small rivers, very neighbourly, sharing out the water that falls on a mountain – ‘yours to the east and north, my friend, mine to the west and south,’ says Abhainn Thulacha Beigile to Abhainn Raithe as they gather their harvest, side by fractal side down the slopes of An Eachla Mhór. The rivers here remain neighbours; no less, no more. Each one has its own makeshift place to meet the sea. They do not join each other at great junction pools before marching their combined forces across flood plains. There is no provision for an estuary in their old age. They are still turning cart-wheels as they reach sea level. The tide reaches up to them where it can, over shallow sands or through pebble banks, as may chance. These rivers, it seems to me, are constantly, wilfully, playfully engaged in the process of not becoming mighty or navigable.
From high up on the slopes of An Earagail I watch a drop of water fall from my fingertip and I see below me the whole of its path to the sea.