This place calls out for oaks. The land wanders itself back and forth, calling the name of the old trees. Our township of fifteen houses is called Mín Doire – meaning, level place of the oak grove. Out on the bog where the people cut their turf they expose the elephant skulls of bog oak stumps preserved in the acid waterlog. Our funny old cottage with one bedroom wears the royal name Teach Dhoire an Easa, like a king’s fool who finds the crown after a terrible defeat in battle. The oaks are everywhere and nowhere. Even Derry, the great-hearted city of Ulster. Spit on a cloth and give it a bit of a wipe. There is ‘Doire’ again – the oak wood.
Hidden in a gorge, protected by a waterfall, is the last of them in our townland. Its bony hand clutches as fiercely to the bare rock in the middle of the divided river as does an eagle to a rabbit. The huge jut of bedrock cried out for mercy when the little acorn first lodged there. To no avail. There is no guessing how old the tree may be. Older than I dare imagine. The vertigo of time past flutters in my belly when I think of it.
Last week the river rose in a fury. It was best to leave her to it. We kept the dogs close and listened to the roaring of the waterfall as we lay in bed at night. I worried for the last oak tree, there in the middle of such a torrent of abuse.
Just in time for solstice, for the lowest, still point of the year the intercessions of the mountains and the clouds had calmed her again. The blush of her madness was still on her and she wore it with an unrepentant smile. But the stepping stones at the bottom of the garden were able to raise their heads above water and the dipper resumed where he had left off, tutting and bobbing his neat disapproval.
During the summer I tried to paint on these pages with clear, confident strokes. But it is deep winter now and there was only the faintest smell of an idea, if there was anything at all, mixed in with the decay of fallen leaves when I went down to the waterfall this morning. To see how the oak had fared. It stands there still, all moss and knots. Every morning the old tree clings on with such a determination to live this very day. It will never give up. But it is not trying to live forever. That would be something different entirely. The tree has many beautiful, strong words for ‘today’. It has none for ‘forever’.
And so this morning, again, death resumed its long wait for the last old oak of Mín Doire. I say ‘old oak’ because on the scrap of land that runs down from our house to the river we have begun to plant oaks.