Michael Viney: West of Eden

The arrival of a new book by much-loved ‘Irish Times’ nature columnist Michael Viney is a ‘momentous cultural event’

The name Viney sings in my soul with the sandpiper’s peep from marram grass, or the ravens’ overhead conversation, or the curlew’s chirpling beside the lake at evening.

The name Viney sings in my soul with the sandpiper’s peep from marram grass, or the ravens’ overhead conversation, or the curlew’s chirpling beside the lake at evening.

 
Way back in the 1970s when I was first falling under the Mayo spell, a mutual friend led me to believe that Michael Viney preferred to be left alone. He in turn was under the impression that I must never be disturbed amid the silence of Carrigskeewaun. So, for some time, we circled each other nervously, eager to avoid desecrating one another’s creative solitude. 
Eventually I called at his house to buy some home-made cheese. The rapport was instantaneous, profound and lasting.
 
To begin with, we are inspired by the same landscape. In 1977 Michael and his wife and daughter moved from Dublin to “one thorn-edged acre” in Thallabawn on the Mayo coast. 
A holidaying city-dweller, I visit the neighbouring townland of Carrigskeewaun, whenever I can. 
 
We have walked together along the great yellow strand to Allaran Point to look for otter tracks, or up the hill to a big tarn called Lough Cunnel, or around Mweelrea to the deserted village of Derry, or through fences to the ferny, lichen-draped oak woods at Old Head or Brackloon below Croagh Patrick. I have stood with Michael and watched the sun rolling down the side of the Reek, a ball of fire.
 
But usually I just follow in his footsteps, a student of his marvellous communiqués from the west. I am one of many thousands of Irish Times readers around the world who every Saturday turn to his column for news of his tiny smallholding and the windy world beyond its snug maze of fuchsia hedges.
 
Michael’s gaze reaches from his compost heap to the Milky Way, from his own lovingly tended potato crop to the overgrown lazy-beds and the Famine ghosts across the ridge. His writing is devout in its precision and sustained by a subtle verbal melody. 
 
It’s also sustained by its intellectual backbone: that is, by his ecological thinking and by the environmental politics in which he has educated Irish Times readers for decades.
 
Michael has taught us about the worms under the grass, about beetle tracks in sand, about microscopic snails, about the nearly invisible tiny flower petalwort, about hedgehog fleas, about the peregrine falcon and the clouds beyond, about beachcombing after a storm and fishing with a spillet at dawn. It is only when Michael’s weekly columns are gathered together, as in this new collection Reflections on Another Life, that the depth of his achievement and artistry becomes fully apparent. A Year’s Turning, the quintessence of his writing up until its publication in 1996, is considered by many a classic. 
 
The best way to convey the feathery lightness of this author’s sentences is to quote his own description of that magical chronicle. It is, he says: “the study of the year’s calendar – the dates of first bud-bursts and flowerings, emergence of bumblebees and butterflies, arrivals and departures of migratory birds, first cuckoo calls.”
 
Scintillating accounts of subsistence on a smallholding – vegetable gardening, potato-spraying, laying a hawthorn hedge, milking a goat, duck-rearing, bee-keeping, boating, turf-harvesting – punctuate the calendar. 
Michael’s vocabulary seems to have been born out of the locale itself: “cool fleeces of dead-nettle and jostling chickweed” – that’s a line of poetry. Indeed, his finest passages give me the same sort of pleasure as poetry does: “The house breathes gently, all doors and windows open to whatever breeze there is. Raised up on the hillside, we seem besieged by light.” 
 
Phrases abound that any poet would envy (the corncrake’s “ratchety mantras”; “mist hanging to the mountain like fungus”; “the tattle of the stream”; “an inky rim of cloud”). 
His sentences often read like a line of poetry: “the swing of a scythe must follow the curve of the earth”. 
 
He describes starlings “weaving and swirling within the flock to the patterns of a dark kaleidoscope”. To the thorny-backed skate he attributes a “mouth underslung and fitted with the lips of a brutal baby.” This is writing of the utmost distinction, wild and wonderful. And he always manages to avoid the pitfalls of that pernicious hybrid ‘poetic prose’. In other words, he enjoys perfect pitch.
Now in their 80s, Michael and Ethna conserve their energies. 
 
These days Michael has retired as the baker of a reliable crusty rustic loaf, and Ethna no longer brews her fragrant home-made wines. They have given up climbing the hill to save turf, and now burn wood in a cosy Scandinavian stove. They don’t get up at dawn any more to beat the gulls to spillet-hooked fish. Báinín the Connemara pony has found a friendly home elsewhere. Hens and ducks are happy memories. It doesn’t look as though Meg I and Meg II, tubby, busy, brown-eyed mongrels, are going to be replaced.
 
But life is as abundant as ever, each day overflowing. With his headphones tuned to Lyric FM, Michael continues to perform horticultural miracles in the polytunnel – corn on the cob, courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, peas, cabbage, broad beans, raspberries, strawberries and the tastiest spuds in western Europe, dug up that day for a starring role in one of Ethna’s superb dinners. 
All year I look forward to healthy guzzling at their table, and to gossip and philosophy. They are sparkling hosts.
 
Their book-lined livingroom with its pot plants and windowsill flotsam, its views of Clew Bay and Clare Island and Inishturk, its comfortable rugs and Michael’s marvellous paintings and drawings (his “dark kaleidoscope”), is for me the loveliest room I know. I feel completely happy there. 
 
The name Viney sings in my soul with the sandpiper’s peep from marram grass, or the ravens’ overhead conversation, or the curlew’s chirpling beside the lake at evening. 
Reflections on Another Life celebrates the fortitude and deep affection of a long marriage, as it chronicles this couple’s unique adventure on the Mayo coast.
 
Michael Viney has shared his locale with the world while accommodating the marvels of the earrth. He has made a major contribution to the tradition of ‘nature writing’: one of those rare naturalists who, as Edward Thomas said of WH Hudson, ‘reconcile poetry and science’. This publication is a momentous cultural event.
 
Reflections on Another Life, by Michael Viney, is published by Irish Times Books. It is available from irishtimes.com/offers at the price of €14.99, and from bookshops 
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