Walking in Ireland, August 2017

Look north from the central spine of the Dingle Peninsula, in Co. Kerry, and you can see the obvious marks of glaciation: the u-shaped valleys and the circular corries at their head. With lowering cloud above and drifts of grey mist wafting in from the west, it is easy for the landscape to take on a forbidding aspect. There is evidence of human settlement and progress (the car is only a mile or two below on a well-metalled road and there are glimpses of coastal villages, ringing the wide bays to north and south) but the formation of this land tells a story dating back more than 20,000 years. Then, the whole of northern Europe was buried beneath an ice-cap. The scouring effect of that ice reshaped the surface of the planet with unimaginable force. Any marks that human beings might leave behind are puny in comparison.

Sometimes, this can be an extremely reassuring thought. When humankind behaves badly, it is salutary to put the whole species into some geological perspective. We may be the dominant creature on the earth but we are recent arrivals and our antics are ridiculously insignificant when set against the extraordinary changes that have made the world as it is.

The purple mudstone beneath the turf on which I am standing was laid down millions and millions of years ago when ‘Ireland’ was still south of the equator. Since then continents have been formed and drifted apart. The earth’s crust has been subjected to seismic forces so strong rocks have rippled. Relentless erosion, over aeons, has worn away softer strata and exposed the resilient. Landscapes of breath-taking beauty have been produced…

And I am back with humanity again because the concept of beauty and anything which is breath-taking is meaningless to anything other than human beings. We alone are capable of regarding our environment and applying such value-terms. Of course, fashions have changed over the centuries and one civilisation does not necessarily prize the same things as another. (It is interesting to note, however, that many Roman villas are situated to get a stunning view. Presumably, after a hundred years of settlement they did not have to worry unduly about fortification. A view could take precedence over an easily defendable site.) At the same time, therefore, as recognising the insignificance of homo sapiens in geological and cosmic terms, we have to recognise that we alone are the intelligent creatures which can make sense of the world. Of course, we are only making sense of it for ourselves. The land will never revel in our proclamation of its awesomeness; the pattern of fields, plotted and pieced, on the slope of a hillside will never quiver with delight because someone finds them appealing. ‘Sense’ is a human thing but we have our physical senses to make it. And it seems to me that, if we are worth anything, it is this: to do that which we alone of all creatures can do. We must observe and comment; and then we must heed what others say and refine the way we think so that ‘sense’ is shared and values endorsed. Is not that what marks the progress of civilisation? And civilisation, for what it is worth, is all we can aspire to.

I continue to walk the hills. As is often the case when the going is tough and the path steep, I focus on where I am walking, and find myself studying the ground beneath my feet. All I see is texture: the thatch of grasses, blown sideways by the prevailing wind; the speckling of bright yellow flowers; the starry mesh of mosses collecting in the wet depressions; the maps of lichen blotching the stone; the patterns of shadow emphasising the angular shapes of loose scree. I lose all perspective and imagine the world contracted to this: a microcosm, stretching no further than it takes to stride a step or two but no less wonderful for that. It is a tapestry of textures with no apparent point of focus. But the closer I look, the more I am drawn into the detail of the colour, the shapes and the play of light and shade. I feel as though I could peer ever closer at its intricacy.

So I am left with a strange cocktail of emotions. This place dwarfs me and I am humbled by the whole scale of the planet and the ages it has taken to bring it to this habitable state. I know that the process is not complete, will never be complete: the pressures that wrestled our continents from Gondwana are not dormant and there may be other terrestrial land-masses for our descendants to people in the distant future. That cuts one down to size. I stand here, shod with heavy boots and thick socks and zipped into a cagoule against the slanting wind, and know the elements could reduce me to helplessness. The plants beneath my feet, which have had millenia to adapt to this climate and this landscape, are eminently more suited to this environment than I am. And yet, at the same time, I exalt in this space, the expansive views that spin from it and the detail of its construction. This is a place which delights me and it is a place where I can revel in the very concept of delight. It is good to be inspired by landscape. It is marvellous to apprehend beauty.

“Glory be to God for dappled things…” said Gerard Manley Hopkins but I would turn that slightly and rejoice as well in the very faculty which lifts humankind to heights where we can be struck with awe and pierced by glory. Dwarfed we may be but that does not mean we are not also created  magnificent. It is through our senses alone that this place called Earth may be perceived as good and proclaimed so.

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