Searching for my soul among my abandoned saplings

Getting back to nature in search of my better nature


I don’t use the word soul anymore; at least not in public. But privately it’s what I worry about. For the past two years I had a sense that my soul was sour, or rotting.

My core, that which cannot be examined, or its existence proven, but which leads me through the forest, had begun to decay. The hidden architect of all my actions, the wise man at the back of the cave, had gone blind.

Which is why I am putting bird boxes on the trees. It’s not to lure tits into domestic bliss. It’s to entice the ghosts of previous lives to inhabit the woods again and to re-awaken my soul.

I know that sounds crazy in a secular world. Soul is a thing not spoken of nowadays. But in time everything withers, and still I cling to my soul, my inner self, and it is unpleasant to think that it might have gone sour.

Because without my soul I am a monster. I see a person with my face, brushing teeth as he grins in the mirror but I know he is a sham, a fake and an empty shell.

I am afraid to go inside him, to visit his unspeakable dark, to make raids on the land below his silence for fear that I might find something rotten. So I cling to the surface, and complain about the Government or generally share the collective unease that vibrates off radios, televisions and computer screens.

Seven years ago I went in search of the modern world and I left all my trees behind me in Leitrim. That was a mistake, because the trees were a kind of sanctuary for my soul. Not that I could have taken them with me on the back of a truck since I was heading off to live in an urban apartment.

But when I finally returned home I couldn’t bear to go into the garden. I felt guilty because I had planted those trees as young saplings and then abandoned them. They grew tall without me and I was alienated from them.

I was once curate to a priest in Florida who took his trees around in a truck. The previous pastor in the parish had been interested in nothing but church organs, so the parochial house, a modern bungalow on its own land, looked like a fortress in a parched desert. The ground was as bare as a chicken run, without grass or hedge. But the new priest, a monsignor from Chicago, brought fresh turf and stitched a green carpet of grass around the bungalow and then a truck arrived with 20ft-high oak trees and after a few days the place resembled a little wood.

I suppose that was when clerics could still drink bourbon from cut glasses full of ice on the verandas of Hernando County and think themselves happy.

A woman in Tesco’s car park asked me last week was I happy. She was putting groceries into the back of her navy blue Almera. “Are you happy now?” she shouted as I passed, though I didn’t even know her.

“Oh don’t mind me,” she added. “I saw you on television a few weeks ago. You said you crashed, and that you’re well again, but I don’t believe it for a minute. As far as I’m concerned when you crash, you crash forever. It’s like marriage.”

“Are you married?” I wondered.

“Do I look single?” she asked. She looked overweight so I said nothing.

“It’s the husband ruined me,” she said. “When we were young it was drink. Then it was coke. It’s always something.”

“Goodness!” I cried, astonished, “is your husband addicted to cocaine?”

I imagined a long-haired drop-out snorting up the devil’s dandruff from a tabletop in some Leitrim kitchen.

“No,” she said, “it wasn’t the drugs. It was the stuff in bottles. He couldn’t stop drinking it – that and crisps. Until he was so fat that he got blood pressure and now he’s useless, if you know what I mean.”

She slammed the boot shut and got into the car and drove away without looking at me again.

When I got home I went to the garden and planted a wild rose as an act of contrition. I stood beneath my big oaks and alders, still feeling ashamed that I had abandoned them for so long.

The wind was whispering in the bird boxes, and I was still wondering why a woman would say so much to a stranger in a car park.