A piece of bog. Flat and small. Dull brown. So flat that your eye can’t resist putting a spirit level to it. Just to check. Perhaps a little lower to the south? But no. The most unremarkable piece of ground. Sub-map. Nothing to offer a map. A few hundred yards of ‘nothing to report’. It is the brief dry season, the last two weeks of September. If there were bones or bedrock buried here they would be showing through by now, gawking at a surface which lies crumbling like desiccated fur on a well dead fox. There are no bones.
I cross this patch every day, casting off from the last of the bog roads to nowhere, the turf-cutter’s tracks, the boreens that subvert the whole genre of thoroughfare by stopping. Seemingly at random. Just there. Where the spade fell and a cigarette was lit. A system of bronchi splitting and pushing finer and finer into the bog but only to provide access, never to supply a destination. Dead ends. Giving out.
We push on into the wetlands anyway, ill-advised, my familiars and I. The dogs on out ahead. A poem running out ahead. A poem that starts up every day with its little starter motor, this phrase: ‘with the dogs on out ahead’. A glimpse and a guess at how it will be to die and to walk on like a fading echo into the endless bog. With the dogs, as now, on out ahead, their noses down busy and their tails up, glancing back. But the poem, unlike the dogs, will not come to heel if I call. It stays on out ahead and almost never glances back.
Soon I am lost. Everything around me says I am found. Those are the recognised faces of the mountains over there, in clear visibility, in definite alignments. Across the valley is the familiar outcrop stone on which a rowan seedling has set its hopes. And over there, incontrovertibly, are visible the tops of trees behind which lies my home. But my feet will not be swayed. They protest that they are lost.
Until a minute ago we had been on a path of sorts, my feet and I. Barely a path; a few deer prints and a broken twig of stunted heather, the day-before-yesterday’s boot-fall. A direction of sorts, a sequence. Past the three stems of bog asphodel, now gone over, where a purple-black beetle had once hesitated to bask in yellow, and so I had hesitated too. This bag of criomagan* constituted a foundness.
Yes, I am certain. We had been on a path before a pipit got up in front of us. Just a pipit. The least remarkable of species. But from this penny-bird sprang a richness of consequences. At the instant of its springing upwards and away from the empty snap-trap of my peripheral vision a phrase sprang out with it; the bird ‘got up’. Such humble linguistic ingredients; ‘got’ and ‘up’. But if I tell you that a bird ‘got up’ I am conveying a sudden manifestation of bird, a firework, close by, almost under your feet, giddying as your attention bifurcates and you try to follow the bird and also to go backwards to where it materialised. A brief runkle in the timeline as you find yourself both with the bird in flight and searching the ground for the exact place of its absence. There are two of you now, looking to one another and shrugging, palms open. Neither has the answer, it has slipped away.
Fast in pursuit of the bird itself flew a hook-beaked sadness. The sadness, unlike the pipit, was not easy to identify. Looking through my bird-books and field guides now, after dusk, I think I know what it was. The language of this bog is Gaeilge. If I am diligent and respectful I may eventually come to speak with the bog and its people in their own words. I may even one day learn to reproduce the way they say that a bird ‘got up’ in front of them. I might say this little phrase so well that I conjure the spell for them and their eyes will flick away for an instant to follow a bird they saw once, long ago. But I fear that there is not to be time in all the world for the same spell to work on me. The birds of my childhood ‘got up’ in front of me and that is how they must be remembered. There are gates through which we pass and which close behind us.
What with the bird getting up and time stopping and starting, then the sadness, my feet had been left to their own devices for several seconds. Initially they had set off from the path to find the place where the bird might have originated – the faintly visible hollow of softness where it had rested. But finding nothing there they simply continued on in the same direction, neither counting nor estimating. I hurried to catch up with them and we found ourselves in a new place.
A place? How could there be a new place within this tiny thumbprint of bog without a name. There are no bushes or walls or relief to delineate a place, to shelter it from the imperial ambitions of mountains and maps, to protect it from annexation by streams and tracks. And hadn’t I walked this small flatness of bog so many times that I had long back strung it all together into just one place, unified under my memories, crystallised by my distances and directions? Yet here, just beyond the ends of my toes, was a tiny pool of water I had never seen before. Bottomless black and fringed with the sharp, yellowy greens that openly advertise the danger. Only a dog’s jump across by day, at night your horse would flounder. A calf would die.
As a tatter of cloud passed overhead the little pond winked. I smiled back, grateful to find myself lost.
*criomagan is a Gaelic word for fragments, crumbs, bits and pieces.