by Eamonn Wall
In William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth—his deepmap of Chase County, Kansas—I encountered Barry Lopez’s quotation that supports his belief that maps and mapmaking are more complex than we are led to believe. It is from Desert Notes:
View Larger Google Map.
Galway Bay, including the Aran Islands, the Burren,
and Connemara, the deepmap places of Tim Robinson.
Both Least Heat-Moon and Lopez are advocates for a new type of cartography, one that includes not just the intersecting lines and discrete shadings we are so familiar with from school and road volumes, but one that includes, or at least makes gestures toward, all of lived/living experience—from the most ancient past to the present.
Probing deeper, we learn that maps originated in ancient China and were designed for military use. In Ireland, where I grew up, the 19th century Ordnance Survey was not just an army map but also a kind of imperial stocktaking enabling the conquerors to estimate what they had acquired. The Gaelic Irish, who maintained a kind of loose control of Ireland until the Elizabethan conquest, did not make maps; instead, they relied on “tracing” to connect people to one another and to the locations that defined them.
A key term for the Irish, and one that is much used nowadays by people interested in environmental issues, is dinnseanchas. Translated into English, the terms means “lore of place,” and it encompasses the whole history of a place. The individual is formed by interaction with his/her place, is part of a large story, and is not privileged by virtue of being human. Central to dinnseanchas is story and how story engages the whole story/history of a place. Place is a wonder in its own right to behold, and it is also a teacher. It does not need us. Dinnseanchas is rooted in both Pagan and Christian beliefs which remain intertwined in the Irish psyche.
Over the past decade, while writing a book on contemporary writers from the West of Ireland (Writing the Irish West: Ecologies and Traditions), and in my own way, tracing their connections to their American counterparts, I spent a great deal of time learning about how contemporary writers, working from various environmental and independent perspectives, have begun the process of remaking/remarking maps, of transforming military maps into deepmaps. Always a walker, my reading for the book allowed me to bring together my own head-clearing, all-weather exercise on the streets of St. Louis County with library research, particularly when I came to study the work of Tim Robinson.
Robinson, born and raised in Yorkshire, arrived in Ireland in 1972 and has lived there since: first on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, and now in Roundstone, Connemara, County Galway. Trained as an artist and mathematician, he was persuaded by a local postmistress to draw a map of Inishmore that would help tourists navigate its byways. Of course, like Least Heat-Moon and Lopez, Robinson soon understood that traditional maps, though useful, concealed and erased more of the environment than they revealed. Robinson set out to deepmap Inishmore, an island the size of Manhattan, and did so in two volumes: Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986) and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (1995). In the former volume, he explores the coast, in the latter, the interior.
Tim Robinson and his map of Connemara.
Photo courtesy Chet Raymo and Science Musings.
Of course, to provide a deepmap of a place the cartographer must know everything about it. For the task, Robinson was initially ill-prepared. He had to learn Irish and master the various subjects needed to understand the island: its literary, scientific, and historical contexts, etc. Given that he was eventually given a place in Aosdána, the Irish academy of writers and artists, and that his work has been so widely praised, it is clear that Robison succeeded in his objectives. An enormous undertaking, Stones of Aran is considered a most important artistic achievement. Arguably, it is Ireland’s greatest non-fiction prose work of recent times.
She goes on to point out that “one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete—for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.” In writing his books, Robinson was indeed trespassing on others’ fields—from the anthropologists’ to the zoologists’—and walking made this possible. The walker moves slowly, honestly, and without presumption and he/she will not seek to overwhelm what lies ahead; instead, the walker must take into account and respect all that is encountered along the way. This is exactly what Robinson did, and he aligned his walking with his writing:
The foot on the ground is likened to the pen on paper, the prose is connected to the foot, the foot is a measure used in literary composition, and the step is integral to walking and dance. A keen observer, a writer of enormous talent, Robinson navigated slowly and he moved with the land as he deepmaped it and not against it. Also, walking literally grounded Robinson and made him less likely to be drawn to the extremes of subjectivity/objectivity.
Máméan, the pass of the birds in English, Maumturk
Mountains, Connemara, Co. Galway.
Photo by Eamonn Wall.
In addition to the foot and learning acquired from books, Robinson’s cartography, as is clear from this passage, is also guided by the eye (do reir sultomhuis, as it is known in Irish) which was an essential tool used in ancient Gaelic appraisals. Robinson’s methodology mixes the ancient and modern without even seeming old fashioned.
As he looks back on the Stones of Aran volumes, Robinson, in hindsight, realizes that this method of discovery through walking is not just as aspect of his cartography but it is also an indicator of how we all should live in the world:
Indeed, the step does provide a sense of freedom though one, as Robinson reminds us, that must be used in a responsible manner. As I was writing my own book, I allowed myself to be guided by this notion that I should use my freedom to ramble in a careful manner. Robinson himself is most respectful while walking paths that others have trod before him. In one moving scene, he follows an ancient pilgrimage path in the same careful manner as pilgrims had done, even though he himself is not a believer:
The terrain of Inishmore is varied, inconsistent, endlessly changing. Also, the weather is moody and this will alter constantly the walker’s conception of what he/she sees. The clouds are moving quickly overhead and the air is so full of moisture that in a blink of an eye the aspect is changed. This is the magic of the West of Ireland. Walking, and how it orders the body and mind, helps the author accommodate these shifting landscapes and focuses as Solnit reveals in her discussion of Rousseau:
Living in the former harbor master’s house in Roundstone, Robinson continues his working life as a writer and cartographer. With his partner Mairead, he operates from his home Folding Landscapes, a small press that publishes his maps and some of his books.
Last year, Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom, the third volume of his Connemara trilogy, was published to great acclaim and Robinson was honored by the Moore Institute of NUI-Galway with a symposium celebrating his achievements as a writer, and marking his 70th birthday. Like Stones of Aran, the trilogy is an accounting of and homage to the lore of place, its dinnseanchas; this time of Connemara, the region of County Galway to the North and West of Galway City. Connemara, as revealed by the map Robinson provides to accompany the text, has as its northern boundary the great fjord of Killary Harbour while Lochs Mask and Corrib serve as its eastern barriers. However, just as language is fluid in Connemara, moving and mixing English and Gaelic, so too are borders which are “fictive moments,” to borrow the phrase Robinson uses to describe a book’s preface.
The Connemara Trilogy is just as detailed as the two Stones of Aran volumes but, given the larger landscape, is longer. At the outset of Connemara: Listening to the Wind, the first part of the trilogy, Robinson, neatly and simply frames his objectives: “I concentrate on just three factors whose influences permeate the structures of everyday life here: the sound of the past, the language we breathe, and our frontage onto the natural world.” These words are so simple and profound that I just want to bottle them. Robinson is arguing, quietly, for the measures of attentiveness, sanctity, and modesty that should govern our interactions with our world.
Many would argue that James Joyce’s Ulysses is Ireland’s greatest prose work. It is my view that Stones of Aran and the Connemara Trilogy, because of their ambition and imaginative reach, are the equals of Joyce’s masterpiece. We might say that Joyce’s novels are the urban bookends of Irish prose while Robinson’s are its rural, and equal, equivalents.
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