Reimagining Borders, Redefining Place: A Review of Thin Places
by Kerri ní Dochartaigh

By Jessica Gigot

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Thin Places: A Natural History of Healing and Home
Milkweed Editions | 2022 | 240 pages

 
Thin Places: A Natural History of Healing and Home, by Kerri Ní DochartaighIn Thin Places, Kerri ní Dochartaigh invites the reader into her homeland, home being both Northern Ireland and the human body—how they carry trauma, hold the past in hard to find places, how they gently guide us to our edge. This spiraling eco-memoir presents both the geopolitical history of a place alongside personal story and reflection, and it successfully documents the somatic impacts of long-term political conflict while acknowledging the natural world as a potential source of healing: “We are the landscape, and it is us. We made our past, and it made us.” For Dochartaigh, simultaneously knowing and feeling history is an important lesson that unfolds throughout the book.

“The Troubles” were a period of intense conflict over political identity and nationalism in Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the 1990s. Dochartaigh recalls her complicated childhood enmeshed in violence (including the petrol bombing of her family home) and summons the Irish language to cultivate meaning in the present. “Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. They are places that make us feel something larger than ourselves, as though we are held in a place between worlds, beyond experience.” After moving away from Ireland in her young adult life, Dochartaigh feels called back to Derry and other thin places in the natural world that straddle a border between light and dark, the known and the mysterious. Thin places are defined in this book as being “both hollowed and hallowed all in one.” She continues, “The places watch as we lose our way, as we are sent away, as we run away; they wait in stillness for us to find our way back.”

The author visits and revisits events in her life, like her family’s dissolution and the suicide of a close friend. Interspersed in this book are redemptive, awe-inspiring encounters with the natural world, including moths and swans which hold special meaning in Celtic folklore:

Memory is like a white moth in flight. Sometimes she comes so close that we can see the light falling into the hidden parts of ancient markings. On other days we cannot see her but we feel the delicate wing-beat down deep, in beside our bones.

The story, our own, is a shared one of the lines and circles of the land we know, of the sorrow it has known and of our own white moth memory.

On a trip to Iceland, following her grandfather’s passing, she writes, “I gathered pebbles, their wet exterior shocked my fingers every time. The caves around the bay seemed like they were gathering something, too. They scooped up the winds, held them in their hollowed interiors until they decided the time had come to spit them back out into the world.”

Writing about place and self can be complicated and in some of the finest environmental writing, the human element gets forgotten. Our daily compromises get tucked away too tightly into the fold. In Thin Places, Dochartaigh teaches as much as she muses, blurring the line between environmental nonfiction, in the vein of Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez, and elegant memoir. While at times it feels like there is too much telling for Thin Places to be memoir—all 13 chapters are written as first-person, narrative nonfiction and lacking scene or any substantial dialogue—Dochartaigh’s working definition of nature throughout this book, which includes the messy legacy of loss and grief and colonialism, feels complete and original.

Towards the end of the book, Dochartaigh concludes, “I think of borders, of the one that has cut my island in two for the whole of my life. I think of it now with such tenderness. I see the moments dance in front of me—white and willowy. I am remembering joy now, and stillness.” The book does not reach any concrete resolution, but it is clear that what was hidden, dark, and buried has seen some daylight. Unspoken, intergenerational trauma has been shared and contemplated with great care. In our current phase of environmental catastrophe and the troubling global resurgence of fascism, this type of brave honesty is desperately needed across all genres, but especially within the realm of impactful, climate and social justice writing.  The ability to examine faults of the past—how they were seeded and how they rippled beyond borders—and link them to our present day realities is essential to not only avoiding the same mistakes, but finding novel ways of being in the world and caring for each other.

 

   

Jessica GigotJessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, and writing coach. She lives on a little sheep farm in the Skagit Valley in Washington. Her second book of poems, Feeding Hour, won a Nautilus Award and was a finalist for the 2021 Washington State Book Award. Her writing and reviews appear in publications such as The New York TimesOrion, Ecotone, and Poetry Northwest. She is currently a poetry editor for The Hopper and a 2022 Jack Straw Writer. Her first memoir A Little Bit of Land was published by Oregon State University Press in September 2022.

Header photo by congerdesign, courtesy Pixabay.

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