Although born and raised in a place famous throughout the world for its beauty, I had never ventured off the main roads. The less accessible routes that afford the spectacular views, the sounds only of nature and the expanse of sky overhead escaped me; the mountains, wrinkled, brooding masses in the distance. I was concerned only with acquiring skills for survival in the ‘real’ world. But age has brought a shift and each day, each month and each year has become a pageant, even small minutiae worth recording.
A flying visit from my youngest son was a pleasant start to this year. He and his partner spent a couple of days having the ‘mountain treatment’ that usually involves little other than sleeping, eating and taking short walks, to clear minds and refresh spirits. After they left, I returned to the depths of a basement archive – housing a former employer’s life’s work – searching, identifying and cataloguing. After a twenty-five year time-lapse, unearthing projects and correspondence bearing my name, déjà vu experience. A documentary script for another former employer took up evenings and weekends and a partially finished commissioned painting sat on an easel in the corner that is my ‘studio’.
An invitation to tackle a friend’s ‘back yard’ turned out to be a much-needed exercise and my first glimpse of the mountains – from the top of one. Squelching through bog and brittle, brown, knee-high heather in the company of two friends, I was introduced to a new ‘addiction’ – hill-walking. But as the light slowly grew by the proverbial ‘cock-step’ each day, my walking was confined to the valley. An icing sugar coating of snow graced the peaks and the walkways were still quiet and nature still slept and one photograph would inspire a later painting.
In February, a chance meeting with my nephew-in-law, Ciarán and three of his children resulted in a long catch-up over dinner at The Wicklow Heather Restaurant and a few quick snaps for posterity. Each day, the light crept over the mountain-tops, wakening forest floors.
By mid-March, bright sunshine showered the valley in silver light and the tourist season had begun. An archivist from the other side of the Atlantic worked with me over three days in the underground archive that was beginning to inch towards completion.
By now, two art commissions hovered at the idea stage, necessitating snatched trips ‘abroad’ in the countryside to take some photographs, in preparation for the execution of the commissioned works. My hill-walking friend took the lead on one, and on a bright, balmy day in April, I found myself having my first ‘Brockagh experience’, crawling to the top of Brockagh Mountain, in an effort to find the vantage point for the composition of the commissioned paintings. Then, there was the small matter of my niece’s wedding, bringing more visitors from overseas, this time both sons, and much joy, celebration and laughter, amid the fun-loving ‘rent-a-crowd’ that is my extended family, friends – and their friends.
It is now May and from a point on the Green Road there is a junction. From here it is 1.4 kilometres to the upper lake. If I take the boardwalk, it is 1.6 kilometres. I’m in training for another hike up Brockagh, and I decide to continue along through the relative shelter of the sloping woodland. A thin drizzle has hung over the day, interrupted by one blast of bright sunshine that lasts for about forty minutes. The top of Spinc sports a barely floating flotilla of watery clouds and the trees are dripping after a recent shower. Swollen mountain streams rumble down towards the lakes and into the river and a veil of gossamer mist vaporises in the changing light. And at the upper lake I find the ducks in playful mood, larking about, happy to show off their skills, urging me to follow them as they glide in the shallows and waddle ashore so that I can photograph their underwater propulsion assets, against a backdrop of a myriad reflections. The boardwalk takes me back by the lower lake where three young deer are resting. The drizzle has intensified and my ‘waterproof’ jacket is ‘proofing’ nothing; damp shoulders hurry my step. Just then, a bunch of noisy teenagers approaches, and the deer rise and stretch and begin to ramble off.
A lot of central European tourists are about. They are engrossed in each other’s company. I feast my eyes on the freshening landscape and the brightness that is everywhere. Back at the towers, a couple of members of a camera club make the best of the light.
Another misty and drizzly morning brings a visit from a friend from Dublin, ‘itching’ for a guided walk, and we ‘do’ the usual circle around the lower lake, followed by a detour into the neighbouring Glendasan Valley.
After years of self-neglect and the exertions of the last three months, I am in need of some sort of treatment. Elena is nearby and, on a glowing recommendation, I book a long overdue massage. Inside a converted stable, that is Elena’s sanctuary, the atmosphere is perfumed with restorative aromas from her array of natural applications. The massage brings my awareness to the accumulated lumps, and bumps. I consciously breathe deeply in an attempt to ease the minor discomfort. Towards the end of Elena’s wonderful work, nerve-endings are soothed, neck and shoulders de-knotted, limbs gently manipulated, jaw unclenched – and I’m ready for the world again.
Congratulating myself on completion of the archive and the completion of a painting, I celebrate by another evening ramble up the ‘back yard’ close to my friend’s house, and the next day, a walk in the valley, as the summer solstice signals the mid-point of the year.
On my next 3-4 kilometre trek, a stiff westerly wind pushed against me and a passing rain cloud overhead lingered to release a shower. But, half-way along the green road, the sun broke through and suddenly, I was enveloped in dappled light and glistening foliage. The torrents of the past couple of days had once more filled the streams and the rivers and the sound of rushing water echoed, in varying cadences, from one side of the valley to the other. At the upper lake, the wind drove the water into churning ‘white horses’ and along the boardwalk, the resident deer now shared their space with a flock of newly-shorn sheep and young lambs in the fresh pasture by the lower lake. I floated to the end of my walk, on a sea of endorphins, reflecting, as I exited through the centuries-old gateway to the monastic city, on the contrasts we enjoy, the seamless transition from the ancient to modern and how the landscape has retained its natural beauty whilst the footprint of human occupation and visitation has ebbed and flowed – since before St. Kevin.
Finally beginning work on another commissioned piece, the largest to date, my outdoor pursuits fall by the wayside. The script and its associated visits to another darkened space – an edit suite – mean that my exercise is limited to the ‘back yard’, where heather is blooming, and the light dissolves from scenes of bright, evening sunshine to a rainbow against a gunmetal sky. A cause for a small celebration comes in the form of news that a story that I wrote last winter has been published and with it, a welcome few Euro – just in time for August’s influx of visitors from across the Irish Sea.
I have been looking forward to these visitors’ arrival for almost a year: a chance to catch up with my lovely friend, Helen and family, accompanied by their friends. Hot on their heels, two of the most cherished people in my life – my grandchildren – finally make it to Ireland, and an opportunity to make precious memories.
With the hours of daylight already waning, time was now of the essence. Weekends were spent glued to the easel, if I was ever going to make a start on the final commissioned piece of the year. A hike to the mountain tops looked unlikely and September comprised a scurry up a nearby lane, stopping for an occasional mouthful of blackberries and a few words with ‘Tilly’, the mare. A gap of a few days and then an afternoon ‘quickstep’ around the valley, where the tourists are beginning to thin out and Jimmy, the jarvey knows that the evenings are closing in and carriage trips between the hotel and the lake are winding down. I am pleasantly surprised when another of my stories makes it to publication.
Glendalough is now dressed in autumn hues. I vary my route, taking in a short, aerobic trip to the church on the hilltop, past the sculpture representing the hand of St. Kevin holding the blackbird and her clutch of newly-laid eggs, depicted in Séamus Heaney’s poem. I pay one more trip to the slopes of Brockagh, in a vain attempt to capture the valley in its entirety and manage just one close-up shot of the hotel, only the roof and upper floor visible above the trees.
Wind and rain dominate early November, but my friend, Mag is an all-weather woman who, like myself, needs a nature-fix. Our trot through the forest is magical, and, as always, we are both refreshed. The painting, commissioned by my niece as a wedding present a year ago has been framed. This always brings a feeling of immense satisfaction, and on a contrasting balmy Friday evening it is finally delivered.
Through the latest story that I wrote for the magazine, I have been ‘found’ by a gentleman who knew my ancestors and, as a child, spent time in their home – the old family homestead – on the far side of the mountains. I have never ventured beyond the laneway leading to the house and I accept his invitation to visit. A poignant and at once exciting and informative journey, passes a grey, November day.
As December progresses towards the winter solstice and the turn of the year and the ‘cock-steps’ of lengthening days, work has begun on the picture of Glendalough that will be the first piece of artwork of 2016. My wish for a life of painting and writing and the exhilaration of sun and the wind on mountain-tops, music in birdsong, the sound of gentle brooks, lake water lapping the shoreline, cascading waterfalls and cathedral silence on forest paths is slowly beginning to manifest.
Many years ago, I overheard a retired pharmacist respond to a woman’s question about trace elements. “Go outside and take a few deep breaths, and you’ll get any amount of trace elements,” he said. Taking it as a rude dismissal, the woman turned and walked away. I, on the other hand, took it on board, thankful for the message that has taken a long time to assimilate.
As I begin my sixty-seventh orbit around the sun, I find something new each time I walk these by-ways. I have encountered wild deer, wild mountain goats, rabbit, hare and birds of prey. I have watched the changes in light, from minute to minute, seen the seasonal changes in the trees, grasses, fern, gorse and heather and felt the earth awaken from frost-encrusted shell and brittle, brown bracken to yielding, moss-sprung suppleness, underfoot. The resulting endorphin-fuelled mood-elevation, has improved joint flexibility, brought sound sleep and joy to my heart. Trace elements in the mix? Hopefully.