|The immensity of sea and sky on the Burren, April 2016|
At my ACW writers' group earlier this year, we were talking about the power of landscape. I shared my visit to the south west coast of Ireland in April 2016, where I’d been deeply affected by seeing a famine cemetery. There was a ruined church on a velvety green hill, looking out over the huge mirror-like expanse of Galway Bay, with the ghost-like silhouettes of the Connemara mountains on the far horizon. The graveyard was neat and intact, with tall limestone headstones. But there were other burial markers scattered about, pitiful little humps of rock which marked the final resting places of the famine dead – the million Irish men, women and children who perished from starvation and disease in the Great Famine. These numb little stones, unnamed, unmarked, looked like accusations to my English soul; I felt the rebuke sharply because British oppression and colonialism had caused so much of the misery. Later that day I visited Poulnabrone Dolmen, a megalithic tomb high up on the limestone plateau of the Burren, and the unearthly wildness of the place sent my spirit reeling. I told the group how I could virtually feel the power thrumming softly through the ancient glacial rocks and stones and in the air all about me. It was if I could feel the very soul and spirit of Ireland.
Another lady in the ACW group then spoke of a similar feeling she’d had at Stonehenge, of power emanating from the ground. Others shared equally haunting experiences of place and atmosphere – at the Delphi Oracle; at Aachen Cathedral; at Bergen-Belsen, where an eerie silence persists and no birds sing even in mid-summer. Because all of us were Christians, none of us were interpreting these experiences in an ‘occult’, or a pantheistic, way. We pick up on atmospheres because we are writers and artists, alive to the beauty of the natural world and sensitive to the story of human pain and struggle which is written on so many places. The human story is reflected in the places and landscapes we inhabit. Places retain memory, especially traumatic memory. How could a famine cemetery or a concentration camp not proclaim silently their past horrors? How could the land itself not react in protest? We see the signature of God in the beauty and immensity of creation, but also pick up on the collective grief of human pain written into the very stones of the land.
Surely it is a writer’s blessing to be alive to beauty and pain. God gave us the gift of words to share with others the beauty and the pain and the suffering so that they might understand and learn and empathise more deeply, so that we can help shine some light on what is indescribable, or anguished, or sublime. For such a gift I am grateful.
Philippa Linton is a Lay Reader in the Anglican church. Her day job is working for the Education & Learning Department of the United Reformed Church. She has many unfinished stories from childhood. She likes Tolkien, Gerard Manley Hopkins, cats, and early 20th century feminism.