Silenced by cancer, I opened my eyes to nature’s power

A life-threatening illness drew writer and film-maker Alan Gilsenan back to Wicklow hills

‘I knew Glencree well, had walked and run those hills. Had made a home there. But my treatment forced me to consider everything differently, more closely’

‘I knew Glencree well, had walked and run those hills. Had made a home there. But my treatment forced me to consider everything differently, more closely’

 

It is 5am. Outside, in the Wicklow hills, a southwesterly gale blows up the Glencree valley and billows around the house.

I am restless. Despite the early hour, life is stirring once again in my emaciated limbs. In the garden, small bulbs – planted in the dead of winter – are emerging. I, too, am awakening from my winter of dying, my days of fading away. Those days consumed by silence. When I felt frozen to the bone.

But now I feel an impulse to get up, to venture out and sniff the air. Walk the roads.

Although it is still dark, I rise and go outside. Walking up our steep drive to the road, I can see the outline of St Patrick’s Church, Curtlestown a little beyond. I stand for a moment. Listening. Thinking about the dead souls beyond. Feeling the wind, less blustery now than it seemed inside.

Film-maker Alan Gilsenan. File photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Film-maker Alan Gilsenan. File photograph: Matt Kavanagh

For some months, I had been having treatment for throat cancer. After extensive surgery, I was undergoing a debilitating regime of radiation and chemotherapy. Unable to eat, I had lost almost two-thirds of my body weight. I fed myself through a milky tube into my stomach, a tedious and messy business.

In recent weeks, I was unable to speak. Rendered mute. Even though I continued to work somewhat, I was mostly forced to slow down. Even stop. I took a strange, masochistic satisfaction in this ascetic life.

My treatment forced me to consider everything differently, more closely

This temporary period of almost monastic enclosure drew me unsurprisingly inward. By my bed and heaped upon my desk lay piles of unread books – probably research for an abandoned film project – many of them wonderfully written by what could loosely be called nature writers: Barry Lopez, Philip Hoare, Rebecca Solnit, Tim Robinson, Thiago de Mello, Edward Thomas, John Lewis-Stempel, Alice Oswald, Robert Lloyd Praeger, Rory Stewart, John Moriarty and others.

These authors – now that I had the time to read them closely – seemed like guides. Elucidating the natural world around us, transforming our ways of seeing.

After a time, this period of seclusion and these books beckoned me back into the natural world of the glacial valley that leads to Glencree. Gleann Crí, from the older Gleann Críothach, which loosely translates as the Valley of the Shaking Bog. I knew it well, had walked and run those hills. Had made a home there. But my treatment forced me to consider everything differently, more closely.

These books had opened my eyes in differing ways. Now I walked slower, more consciously. At the start of his inspiring book The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane quotes the great Nan Shepherd: “My eyes were in my feet . . .”

You may know the valley. Have driven up the hill from Enniskerry towards the Sally Gap. Granted, the valley has a weekend beauty to it. But it appears strangely empty somehow to outsiders’ eyes, belying the truth of it.

Much of Wicklow is like that. A sense that the tide of history was against the county. The memory of harsh winters. Of hiding out in the hills beyond the great walls of the city below.

For centuries, most of the valley was part of the huge Powerscourt Estate, which dates back to the Norman invasion.

The deer, who still inhabit these hills in such multitudes, are also unseen, ghostlike presences. Night shadows, they emerge in the half-light and make their way quietly down the old deer paths towards the river.

Sometimes, driving home late, you might turn a corner and confront a magisterial stag standing in the middle of the road. The beast would pause a moment, holding its ground, challenging you somehow, before slowly moving off into the trees. At night, it seems, the landscape is returned to the wild and we are merely trespassers here.

Illicit deer hunters also populate this darkness. At night, I can sometimes hear a strange whistle, the call and response of the deer hunters. Shotgun blasts too. And bloody carcasses being hauled into the back of pick-ups.

There are other ghosts too. If you look closely, you can discern the tracings of pilgrim paths and famine roads and Mass paths.

A very practical older neighbour once confided in me that she had seen a leprechaun when she was a child. She showed me the very place me where she had grasped hold of his sinewy little leg. She can still feel it to this day and you’d be a foolish man not to believe her.

John Millington Synge did. He took his time. He tramped the land, listened to it and to the language of its inhabitants. Today, in Oak Glen, you can see his words inscribed on a large piece of granite:

“My arms are around you, and I lean

Against you, while the lark

Sings over us, and golden lights, and green

Shadows are on your bark.”

In his Travels in Wicklow, he remarks on the loneliness of the valley but also notes that the place attracts tramps and vagrants such as himself. It still does to this day – illicit lovers and lost souls, the deranged and despairing – who leave the urban world behind and go in search of what the poet and ecologist Wendell Berry called “the peace of wild things”.

You can spot them parked up uneasily in cars, or walking bedraggled in their city shoes. Lonely pilgrims with no clear destination but nature itself. In the early mornings, the forest car-parks are littered with used condoms, the hastily discarded residue of another kind of loneliness.

We live in uncertain times. The planet on which we all exist is under threat. We know this and, still, don’t fully appreciate its gravity. The consolations of nature are many but they are not infinite.

Reciprocal

Close to the end of his classic Arctic Dreams, Lopez writes that for our relationship with the natural world to be sustainable, it must be reciprocal and infused with integrity: “the things in the land fit together perfectly, even though they are always changing. I wish the order of my life to be arranged in the same way I find the light, the slight movement of the wind, the voice of a bird, the heading of a seed pod I see before me.”

These days, however, I am well again, largely thanks to the care of good people at the Mater hospital. My voice eventually returned and, with it, my appetite and sense of taste (this was not guaranteed). My weight was slower returning but now I feel strong again.

This morning at dawn, I ran along the Glencree river with my dogs. Its beauty is a constant source of wonder and solace. My running pace falls into rhythm with my easy breath. But there is a slight dryness at the back of my throat that wasn’t there before. No one gets through cancer treatment completely unscathed.

Overhead, a heron soars across the sky. On a rare morning, you might even spot an elusive otter. All is well with the world again. For the moment. And, after all, the moment is all that we have.

The inaugural Shaking Bog festival of nature writing will take place in the Glencree Valley, Co Wicklow, on the weekend of June 22nd and 23rd. The festival will celebrate the natural world through literature. www.shakingbog.ie

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