Bog Cotton by Mike Cavanagh
Sheep’s Head. Or Muntervary. A headland in county Cork, south west Ireland. No place I’d ever been before, or to the best of my knowledge had any of my ancestors. But with a name like Michael Joseph Cavanagh (a ‘Micky-Jo’ as one Irishman happily exclaimed) there might be some slim chance at least someone related had been there over the past 10,000 years or so. Dunno. Genealogy is my older sister’s thing, not mine.
Cool wind in from the Atlantic, pushed up over the sea cliffs away over there somewhere as we traipse across the monotonous bog cotton fields. Spatters of raindrops nip intermittently against my face. The fluffy white heads of the tall grass jig and jag in the twirling winds. Ahead a lighthouse two hundred metres on, and, not yet visible, the renowned cliffs arching ever steeper down to the dark grey sea. Supposedly. Sky covered in an homogenous sheeting of high, flat grey clouds. A day photo-shoped in low brightness and little contrast.
In 1993 I’d come overseas to the UK and Ireland with Katie, my partner at that time. I had no desires to search out my roots, or find long lost connections. Pretty much all that seemed like fuddy-duddy gobbledegook to me anyway. But I loved the landscapes. The variegated swatches of greens under arching steel-grey and washed-blue skies. The rains, drizzling, pouring, and anything in between. Especially the winds though, torn free from the long rolling Atlantic, stripping bare any semblance of cherished, protective warmth from the pretence of immortality. A man would die out here unprotected; quickly.
My foot squelches into an even wetter, boggier patch. The ooze slithers over my boots and insinuates itself between my flesh and now thoroughly wet socks. Excellent. These bleedin’ sea cliffs had really better be worth it. I extract my foot, and peruse the non-existent trail ahead. Katie seems to be making much easier progress. But she is a light lass; so fair play to her, as they say around here.
Two innocuous steps further on I stop, overwhelmed. An unseen tide courses swirling through my being; physical, emotional, spiritual. Air, earth, and water sweep together, up from the landscape around me, and encompass me, draw me close, tight, warm. My lungs devoid of air do not seek to breathe. My eyes widen seeing all yet nothing. Unbidden tears now on my cheeks. A mother’s breast, a father’s reassuring embrace, a belonging to here so all-encompassing I am lost in the complete sublimation of any thought and in a total transcendence of raw sensation. An alien yet deeply recognized sense of ‘being’.
Then it is gone. I gasp a single, wrenching breath. Shake my head free of the tears. Clear my sight, hear the wind again, the sting of the isolated driven rain drops. My skin rises in bumps, not from the cold, but from this one clear knowing: I am home.
I don’t know what to make of this. I walk on. I catch up with Katie, waving my hands about as I struggle to convey to her what has happened. Already I’m pushing the seeming truth down. Home? What stupid notion is this? Miles from bleedin’ anywhere more like it. But the emotions still linger. Raw. Real.
I determine to keep this experience to myself. Other than Katie, I will tell no-one. While still speaking to her, already I regret it. I am in truth embarrassed by this ‘event’. Clearly I’d had some mental episode that made me believe something objectively, tangibly real had occurred. Obviously poppycock. Mis-firing neurones and wacky brain biochemistry is all.
Eighteen months later. Christmas. Back at work for the Heritage Commission in Canberra, Australia. Christmas work lunch out in the rose garden outside old Parliament House. Sunny, hot, but under the shade of trees. Homemade sushi, more than a couple of bottles of champagne, good work mates and tall tales. Perfect Ozzie public servant’s Chrissy.
After much feasting and sky-larking, I’m sitting on a bench seat rolling a now third-time empty champagne glass between my palms. Sitting next to me is Charmaine, a young Aboriginal co-worker and all round good person. We’re sitting a little apart from the others. No reason, just happened. I’m talking. Startled I realise what I’m talking about. The thing I had hidden. That I would never discuss. The strange, clearly aberrant event from a world away in so many ways. I stop myself abruptly.
“Oh God, Charmaine. I’m sorry. This is all so much drivel!”
I turn to look at her, and the wry, self-deprecating smile on my face wilts. Charmaine reaches over to me and puts her arm over my shoulder. Tears welling, then trickling down her cheeks. She hugs me. Firm. Warming. She leans back, releases me, but still her hand on my shoulder, she looks into my eyes.
“Michael. You have no idea what it means to me to hear someone else say this, who understands what connection to land is like. Thank you!” Her hand moves to her heart.
Tears now in my eyes as well, we hug again. For a second time I sense it. Always known. Always felt.
A world away. And indelibly here.
Perhaps one day I will go back.
But, of course, I never really left.