STONES OF ARAN: Labyrinth by Tim Robinson

STONES OF ARAN: Labyrinth by Tim Robinson

Stones of Aran
.
By Ray Greenblatt
.
I took the ferry beneath a gray sky through a choppy sea to Aran. When I arrived in the small harbor surrounded by a scattering of buildings, I thought the island was almost all stone. Stones of Aran by Tim Robinson taught me that I had to stay awhile and really look at what was around me.
.
Robinson and his wife arrived in 1972. He was a British artist but was soon to fall in love with Aran and become a self-taught cartographer of the island. His writing shows that he also had a highly competent prose style and a poetic sensibility.
.
He wrote Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage in 1986. The second and final volume, Stones of Aran: Labyrinth, was finished in 1995. Since my trip there was made in 1996 and both books are similar, I will focus on the latter. In the course of Stones of Aran, Robinson explores the geology, the history, and the life-styles of the islanders. First we will meet the man who dedicated those many years to an island no more than nine miles by two miles in area.
.
I – The Author
.
Tim Robinson loves to write and nature often inspires him: “Somehow this is not so bad on winter days, with the rain splattering on the window and the oil-heater singeing my shins, but on a still, hot afternoon it is sometimes unbearable. The intensely alert silence of the garden, the white emptiness of the road going by the gate, the wide amnesia of the world toward me—and then the sudden fidget of a blackbird in the shadow under a bush, exactly ‘the sound of the clapping of one hand’. Turns of words cunningly composed to disorientate the mind reveal their banality.” (297)
.
He also shows great imagination, sentence control, and use of word play: “The last of the daylight, sodden with porter, eased itself out of the door, but the creature of sticks and crumpled brown paper behind the bar showed no inclination to replace it with the cheer of a lantern. Three or four elderly islanders on a wooden bench along one wall looked down as if observing the occasional involuntary shiftings of their boots on the concrete floor, glanced from under their brows at the stranger on the bench opposite, looked down again, left the silence to thicken, broke it with a brief sardonic interchange about the old sack that had been thrown over the vomit left in the corner from the previous night, let their eyes stray across the stranger again.” (141)
.
His wife and he fixed up their humble cottage: “The bedroom has become our secret retreat too, from both nature and society. With the wooden shutters on the inside of the window closed and a blanket stuffed into the crack between them, our Tilly-lamp can tell no one we are at home, and even when the wind gets one fist down the chimney and the other somehow into the wall-cupboard, it cannot buffet us here, while the oil heater toasts the dampness into a cosy fug and we lie on the floor examining with voluptuous lingerings a newly arrived parcel of books.” (295)
.
Sometimes he was able to “read” the land: “I used to browse from field to field here as if leafing through a well-loved anthology, or find myself caught wordless in the middle of a page by the disappearance of a question-mark, a lizard’s tail, into the margin. If the text frequently held me up with obscurities, long practice gave me great fluency in its grammar, though perhaps memory flatters in showing me drifting across this terrain as little impeded by stones and thorns as a cloud-shadow.” (236)
.
From his writing but especially his map-making, Robinson establishes himself in this close-knit community. He is also able to objectify and laugh at himself: “Yes, we all have our ad-hucksterish ways of living off the stones of Aran, and it is a good thing we have the daily bread of nature’s beauty to supplement them . . .they give us identities too, they validate our going up and down the hill in the eyes of society . . .But now I have an island nickname . . .I am Fear na Mapai, the man of the maps, and that is why I am on this hill.” (178)
II – The Stones
.
The island of Aran is composed of limestone. In the stones are many fossils: “A nautiloid, a cephalopod mollusk related to the modern octopuses and squids, and to the extinct belemnites whose conical shells are to be found here and there in the Aran rocks. Many species of nautiloids, some with straight or curved shells, others with coiled shells like this specimen, inhabited the waters from which the limestone was deposited. Their shells were divided by thin partitions into a number of compartments, the outer of which was occupied by the animal itself while those farther back were full of gas and functioned as buoyancy-chambers.” (339)
.
Not only are there stone surfaces under foot but many stone walls: “To cross a wall without bruising one’s shins or jolting one’s spine, one should look for stones that run right through the wall and stick out on either side, and step up and over on these as on a stile, refraining from leaning out from the wall or clutching at the topmost stones to lever oneself upright, but keeping one’s centre of gravity as close to the wall and as low over its top as possible.” (13)
.
A closely scanned boulder may teach us things:  “There is something of the classroom or examination-hall about the crag this boulder stands in; everything here is well lit, separated out, reduced to essentials, so that if we cannot understand, it is our fault. The boulder itself, pedagogical on its podium, demands clarity of thought: observe this, comment on that, deduce the other. A few long straight fissures draw elementary geometrical figures on the blackboard-smooth pavement.” (241)
.
Many holy people came to Aran over the centuries, none so famous as St Enda in the fifth century who arrived on a stone boat: “Thinking now of how this invisible tower sings in the winds of history, in a spacious antiphony with those other towers . . . of the monasteries founded by alumni of St Enda’s foundation. I do in imagination what I never did while living in Aran—climb down into that stone drum, lie there among the herbs, looking up at swallows darting through the vanished rooms piled above me, and try to remount the cloudy centuries, from the last known abbot of Aran back to the coming of St Enda himself.” (57)
.
That chapel Robinson imagines might be the remains of this one: “The arch dividing the nave from the chancel is Romanesque, as is the lovely, slim, round-headed lancet window-light in the east gable. The chancel is a little narrower than the nave at ground-level and has been fitted onto the east end of the older building between its antae, but it has projecting parapets along its eaves bringing it out to the full width of the rest, probably added in the fifteenth century. These ragged crenellations give the church a romantic air.” (358)
.
Around these mostly ruined churches are significant slabs with inscriptions: “Despite their great age, such Early Christian cross-inscribed slabs, of which there are about twenty to be seen in and around Aran’s churches, have the freshness of works from the first decade of modern abstract art, and in one or two of them Kandinsky would have recognized a spiritual fervour behind the ingenuous charm of their oddly balanced crosses and circles.” (49) The tombs are classified as: passage, portal, court, and wedge tombs. On Aran are only the wedge: “The Wedge-shaped Gallery Graves have one main chamber, sometimes with a small portico or antechamber and a small closed rear chamber, and usually decreasing in height and width from front to rear.” (231)
.
Robinson wonders what prayer can accomplish beside these ancient holy places: “But how can one pray for a soul of whom one knows so little? Only a believer in a vast essentialist bureaucracy of the hereafter can send up a prayer labeled with a name and a date of decease, and be confident that it will be credited to the right account. The secular equivalent is more difficult.  These people, Sara, John, Patrick and the rest, have gone beyond hearing; they will not answer to our historical echo-soundings, and the pious best we can do—for ourselves, not for them—is to inform ourselves enough to understand something of them and their times, and so, by reflection, of ours.” (33)
.
Dun Aonghasa is by far the most popular tourist attraction; it has been called a citadel, castle, cathedral, even a city. Yet, archaeologists to date debate its antiquity—it could go back to 2500 B.C.– as well as true function.  Robinson tends to agree with Prof. Etienne Rynne who writes: “When visiting Dun Aengus, therefore, . . . the visitor should conjure up an image of druids, ollavs, bards, kings and nobles, all processing formally through the Dun’s impressive entrance, some to perform rituals on the stage-like platform, some to assist in the innermost enclosed area, and others to stand on the surrounding terraced wall chanting incantations or singing sacred songs while viewing the solemn proceedings taking place against the dramatic backdrop of the wild Atlantic ocean whose waves sonorously thunder against the rock-face  far out of sight below.” (395) I was duly impressed by its grandeur hulking on a cliff that plunged three hundred sheer feet!
.
III – Flora, Fauna, Phenomena
.
Robinson is constantly amazed at the variety of plant life on such a small northern island: “The lesser spearwort, and wet tangles of bogbean, the tiny white marsh bedstraw, lady’s smock and marsh pennywort. The water speedwell roots in the muddy bottoms of little holes a foot or so below ground level.” (92) The nearly extinct corncrake bird lives on Aran: “To us the plaintive creaking of the corncrake, repeated as endlessly as the distant whispered thunder of waves falling on the beach, was part of the natural pulse of the night.” (351)
.
The farmers develop the knack and rhythm of planting; here they are cutting rye: “And yet every stage of the harvest is visually charming—the area of stubble or bare ground, decorated with the lines of fistfuls, slowly widening through the day as the standing crop dwindles, the sheaves each belted with a twist of straw, the plump stacks of sheaves topped off with an upside-down sheaf like a huge sun-hat, the donkey waiting to carry the stacks one by one to the outhouse.” (18)
.
Their tools are also important; here a farmer is planting potatoes with a spade: “The handle itself was grey, its varnish worn off long ago, and smooth, fed by the copious spittle with which Seamaisin lubricated his hands. The left-hand bottom corner of the blade was worn into a large quarter-circle, and before tackling the second trench he took the spade over to a granite boulder that sparkled in the wall, and sharpened it until its edge gleamed like a scimitar.” (260)
.
The author learned many skills from weaving to ponyriding. He even learns to milk a cow: “I got the knack of it to some degree, and then there were many dawns in which the cow’s overhang sheltered me from the drifting rain while I participated in the ancient insanitary magic of milking a cow in Aran, dipping my finger and thumb into the milk to lubricate her warty teats, cursing her when she suddenly let fall a splatter of dung, dipping into the milk again when I had finished to make the sign of the cross on her haunch.” (252)
.
After a time of proving himself with the islanders, he made many friends. This is a countrywoman who lives nearby:  “She was an ample, soft, welcoming person; remembering her, I think of well-risen bread. In between stuffing a chicken and boiling potatoes and making tea for me and eating biscuits, she would bring me out to the little area at the back of the house, half flagged, half grassy, with hens and kittens and the interesting weeds she wanted me to see, the pair of us bobbing over them like hens.” (411)
.
Robinson is exhilarated by the view from the highest point on the island: “Above and around all the vast circus of the elements one commands from the top of this climb is the protective envelope of sky, the delicate translucent skin of the globe. Its depths are of many intersuffusing layers, visible and invisible; the tenderness of its bending down to and wrapping over the horizon is often clear to the feeling eye. Sometimes dull, bruised by departed gales, sometimes glowingly reminiscent of kind weather.” (182)
.
On Aran the night seems absolute and controlling: “Sometimes in the dark all things reveal the secret we keep from ourselves by daylight and lamplight, that below the skin of what we see of them they are fathomless pools of potential appearances; it is as if other creatures’ deeper vision of them takes priority and forces itself on our own eyes. And we too are objects of those alien visions; our self-recognitions are shaken.” (183)
.
It can be exhilarating when the author bikes home: “If the rain is not blinding us it is an exciting ride. For the first mile, the road takes the outside edge of one of the great steps of the island’s northern flank, and the ground falls away so sharply on the right that it feels as if one were riding the crest of a huge breaker. Often a winter sunset exploded by the last of the gale into ragged purples and oranges comes flying to meet us from the western skyline; we know that our chimney draws well in such winds and a glowing fire will greet us with the proposal of long hours of reading.” (204)
.
“Here one is in intimate contact with a world withdrawn into the past. Seeing it revealed thus in its obsessional, finicky, obsolete way is touching, and at the same time illicitly exciting. If there is haunting here, it is not that some returned frequenter of these fields is peering into our time, but that I myself am trespassing back through gaps in walls of the past.” (193)
.
I missed a lot on my trip to Aran. Since then I have learned to look closely. My Scots-Irish wife and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth pointed out a variety of colors in a seemingly drab autumn landscape after the bright flourish of leaves. In Stones of Aran Tim Robinson has walked me over nearly every square foot of the island in close to one thousand pages: around the coastline in Pilgrimage and down the central spine in Labyrinth. He states what truly applies to himself: “Not everyone is as sure of the necessity of their own life-world as the poet, whose mirror-lined skull brings the reflections of formative years to a focus of definitive brightness.” (410) For his writing I will always be grateful.
 .
.
Ray Greenblatt has recently been published in: Abbey, Apiary, Boston Literary Magazine, Comstock Review, Clarion, and Painters & Poets.  His experimental novel TWENTY YEARS ON GRAYSHEEP BAY, half poetry and half prose, is being republished by Sunstone Press.
.
.