Posted by: jeanne | October 27, 2010

wildlife in the back of beyond

in the ballinskelligs area of kerry there is much wildlife, including peripatetic nuns.  up on bolus head there is less wildlife because there’s less growing.  around the bay there are huge tropical bushes, trees of all kinds, plantations of conifers, fields and hedges, creeks, beaches, estuaries, and lots of front and back gardens of the 600 or so houses in the area.  it’s very lush.

up on the mountain, however, the lushness is different.  not many trees because of the wind.  more bog than level ground, more rock than bog.  ferns, rushes, grasses, mosses, lichens.  gorse and heather, willow, fuscia.  crocosmia, foxglove, blackberries.  huge fucking spider webs stretched between clumps of rushes and in doorways.

the bird life is limited, too.  mostly birds that nest in rocks live up on the mountain.  black crowlike choughs (pronounced chuffs) that hang out in raucous groups and talk to each other all day,

huge gray crows that eat wee sheepies,

and in the meadow, little willie wagtails that sing so sweet.

it’s windy most of the time up there on the mountain, and it really doesn’t matter if the wind is from north or south, east or west.  mostly it brings clouds and rain with it, tho while i was there it was only soft thank god.  however, i hear that right after i left there set up such a rainy period that the fellows never finished thatching the cottage above me, and they’d gotten fully halfway the week before i left, so sunny it was…

you have to get a lift to cahirciveen to get groceries because it’s 15 kilometers one way.  it’s a three mile hike down the road to ballinskelligs and dun geagan for milk, a pint, or to post a letter, which because of planning i never had to do.  (there’s bikes in the shed, but since half your trip is pushing it in front of you up the hill, why would you bother?)  it’s two miles and more up to the end of bolus head where the signs warn you’re on private property.  in between there are a few houses, including what used to be a national school and overlooks the early xian ruins that show up on the ridge you can see from the artist village.  and if you hike up the hill to the standing stones or the megalithic fort above the village, you can see everything around you as if there were no people, just you, the birds, and the wee sheepies.  just you and the clouds and the sea and the islands and the wind.  just you and the whole entire earth spread out in front of you.

it’s a very remote place.

they talk of runners at this art residence.  runners occur at every establishment, whether we’re talking about 5-star hotels or bed and breakfasts where the guests leave their stuff and never come back from the pub.  runners happen every beginning of the school year at all educational establishments.  they happen in doctors’ waiting rooms, they happen at first days on the job, they happen at prisons and army induction centers.

as for myself, i once had to cancel a residence at the last minute, which got me off the welcome list, and that’s too bad because it was way in the back of beyond in canada during iceberg season and i would have loved the chance to go back.  but i’m talking about runners, rather than last minute shit that happens.  a runner gets to a place and finds they can’t stand it.  and they don’t get used to the place, and they continue to hate it, and then they leave.  they run screaming.

most people get to a place, see that it’s different than they’d thought it would be, decide to give it a couple of days, and find that once they’ve settled in, they hardly notice the difference.

but runners just can’t stand to be there.  the place itself, or the quietness, or the differentness, something gets inside where there is no protection and starts to really rattle the person.

i’ve seen the process.  i was behind rabun gap in the north georgia mountains, on a nice little isolated farm given over to artists and their pursuits.  this one resident couldn’t stand the noise.  there were no car sounds, no planes, no trains, no sirens.  she didn’t feel like she was surrounded by people.  she felt alone, and didn’t like that.  and there were crickets and tree frogs and snuffling raccoons at night.  she thought she was going to die.  we told her to drink a bottle of wine before retiring at night.  she finally came to terms with it, but not without a visit back to the big city to calm her nerves.

they were telling me in kerry about some of the runners they’ve had in the past.  they get out to the back of beyond after a 6 hour drive down from dublin, possibly with jetlag and no sleep, having looked at the map and thought they’d get there in three or four easy hours of breathtaking scenery hahahahahahahaahha.

they’d have had nothing to eat because they wouldn’t have stopped because they’d have figured there’d be a store right around the corner and they could just run out later.  but the sun would be going down, they would have been making the grand ‘i’m lost’ tour of ballinskelligs and beyond in the evening gloom with their stomachs growling, and they’d end up on this waves-crashing, windy, gravelly place of gray stone and nothing else in a scruffy little empty cottage, all by themselves, the light from inside the cottage the only visible thing in the rain, with the wind  howling and – once the refrigerator quits gurgling – no other noise at all.  like you’re in a lighthouse on cape fear.

just imagine all night cowering in an unfamiliar, cold bed waiting for a dawn that brings only sheep tearing the grass outside the window.  a runner would be in the car headed back to civilization before breakfast, and never notice the way the sun looks on the water, or the way the clouds rush across the bay unloading rain, the majestic glory of the ends of the earth.

to tell the truth, the afternoon my sister left to go back to dublin, i found it so quiet that i felt the need to turn her i-pod on and listen to something i knew.  the quiet was so strong it rang in my ears and gave me a headache.  of course, three weeks into it and i was going for hours at a time with nothing but my heartbeat and breath for sounds.  and they were loud sounds, too.

the thing is, if you like the thought of this residence and want to apply, you’ve got to be comfortable with no support.  no contacts, nothing nearby or convenient you didn’t bring with you, no noises, no distractions, nobody else but you.  if you’re not good at being utterly alone, then you’re not going to make it at cill rialaig.

that’s just true.  if you get really lonely, if you get crazy when you spend too much time by yourself, if you tend to drink when you’re alone, if you’re the type to fall down the stairs when nobody is around, then it’s dangerous for you to be there.  there’s a cliff and violent surf and big holes in the rocks and sucking depths in the bogs and dead sheep up on the mountain that the gray crows picked out their eyes.

it’s not for anyone who likes corporate structure, either.  there are no programs there, no meetings, no traditional nights down at the pub, no nightly dinners, no open studio visits.  no phone, no lights, no motorcars, not a single luxury.   residents often don’t see any signs of there being other residents up there on the mountain.  maybe a trail of smoke from another cottage’s chimney, studio lights shining on the mountain in the night when you come out to look at the stars.

i never saw what most of the other residents did for their art, and never asked.  never saw the insides of their cottages.  some residents i never met the whole time, and one or two i had to go lurk outside their cottage in order to meet them.  one of them turned and walked the other way when i encountered him.

on the other hand, when the veg guy comes up the hill on tuesday everybody tends to come out and at least say hey to each other, talk about the weather.  and the two caretakers are constantly in the village in case somebody needs something, and when the weather’s fine people tend to stand in their doorways in their artist aprons or stretch their legs in the round place across the road, or go for a walk up the road.  and there’s always an artist you hit it off with and go out of your way to visit.

and there are always tourists, people who’ve heard of the place as an art colony, or people who’ve noticed that there’s this little tiny road that goes all the way out to this remote point of land pretty far out into the atlantic that probably has a good view.  the tourists are the reason the residents keep their doors locked and only come out some of the time.  the tourists can be quite a bit like midges – no see-ums – that hover and annoy.  they’ll walk right into your cottage if you don’t keep your door locked, and one group were quite put-out when i wouldn’t let them see the art i was making inside.  they’d probably pay admission, but that’s not the point.  the residents aren’t on display like it was some folk village, even tho it really is.  it’s like a little art factory, where there’s nothing at all to do except make art, walk around, and sleep, so that’s what you do the whole time you’re there.

you’re on your own out in the back of beyond.  this is good.  you’ve got lots of fresh air and lots of exercise if you choose it and lots of concentration on whatever you like.  you’ve got to be able to get around on your own, that’s the whole point.  you have to be good with stairs and other steep and uneven things.  there are some people for whom this residence is a bad idea, and since one of the requirements of an artist is to know yourself, you should know who you are without going to all the trouble of finding out.

anyway, most of the whining seems to come from people who like to be coddled rather than being grateful for a space to do art.  it isn’t a 5-star hotel, but you’re welcomed to pack in your linens and kitchen things.

(i’d illustrate all this from my huge folder of photos but my computer has developed terminal cancer and we’re going to pull the plug as soon as i send jim out for another one, which he’s duly out with his little friend jerry and they’re coming home with something i can plug in and be entirely responsible for, and no more calling on relatives who do computers to come and fuck my system up for me.  yeah.)

to leave it, i’ll just say it’s what you make of it.  that, and you bring all your baggage with you.

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