The Aran islands are famous for their stone walls dividing and subdividing their fields. Three islands, Inishmore, Inishman, and Inisheer, or big Inis, middle Inis and little Inis to the locals, who call themselves Ishies, running northwest to southeast along Ireland's Western shore.
The mainland's barely a boat ride away, you can see houses there clearly on a good day.
There's even an airport here which must be the aeronautical equivalent of tossing a stone across a pond if you're only flying back to Galway. Up to speed, up, apex and down again. At least when the weather's good. If not it must be the equivalent of tossing your heart up into your throat.
Everybody here lives on the inland or leeward side of their island. If you lived on the windward side you'd probably go mad. On the two smaller islands the land slides down toward the sea like the back of a wave. The people hide their towns under the face on the eastern side.
On Inishmore most of the land doesn't slide down to a Western beach. It rides straight out, dropping slightly and then snaps off into the ocean. Cliffs 200 feet high get hit by rollers that have travelled 3000 miles. When you look down the line of the coast it's hard to read the scale of the landscape. Waves hit the stone and ride up almost to the crest of the lower grazing lands- it takes awhile to add up that those lands are 90 feet off the water. You can perch on the edge or 100 yards from the edge and the concussion of the waves is like some mammoth drum being struck. It comes up into your feet. You can feel it tap on your breastbone. Oddly enough it's calming. I find it calming. I almost fell asleep lying in the thick grass of a clearing of a bronze age fort. Anyone who knows me knows I don't nap much nor do I do it in public in a field but for some reason….
well there's basically no one here. And there's almost none of that commercial culture which springs up around vacation spots or ex-art colonies. You'd imagine these islands would be lousy with writers and painters and "craftsmen" but they're not. Nobody's out painting in the fields. There's no main drag with galleries selling faux indigenous drawings. There's no yoga retreat. Only the big island has an espresso machine.
There's just a pack of locals and their bars where they like to stay up late and drink, and make music and money off the tourists who ride around in buses and drink. Otherwise, it's you and the livestock and the walls.
It's the only place I've ever been where I feel like you move too quickly when you ride a bike. I rented one and pretty often I just propped it up against one of the walls and headed out on foot. The place was made for feet and the way your eyes read a landscape when you walk. It reads stone by stone. Inlet by magical inlet.
Almost everyone's seen a photo of the Aran walls- think back to the academic parents of your most thinky friend in high school, his dad's study maybe had one framed in metal above a desk. A coffee shop in the 90s, the office of a dentist who liked to travel but got his prints done at Rite-Aid. You'd know them.
They look good photographed, they're easy to photograph, hell I've taken 50 so far of the same damn arrangement but they don't work that way. You don't see the Aran walls. You experience them, you move through them, you -like the islanders and the cattle and the horses- you use them. They're things and they're art and like a Christo you have to be in them, go to them, to "get it". And really they're more "things" than they are art but in some way the act of moving through them gets your mind rolling and you say to yourself ….sure it's the simplest way to build a wall but …is that it?
I just don't buy it that the guys laying and tilting and tapping these stones 600 years ago didn't step back once every 40 or 50 feet and say, "Damn Seamus, that's a good one."
Wandering the fields is endlessly compelling and at the same time maddening - you're staring at a piece of "modern art" every step you take and then you find yourself being passed by a farmer in his tractor and you're just staring at his wall. Sean Scully, a painter I like, was obsessed with this place - he said the entire landscape was drawn. The earth was picked up and used to mark the air. Not sculpture but vertical drawing that people try to decode, to read.
"Should art be useless and only ever that?" he writes, "So that its intensity is unfettered?"
Stone, the elemental representative of form. Each stone a letter or a digit or a figure….what we've all done since childhood, "This stone is special, this must have been made this way on purpose, this meant something."
So two things happen here: there's practically nothing but stone which shoves one's thinking toward the declaration, it's just a series of piles, it's meaningless, and then comes the realization that no matter how much stone is piled, how much evidence there is of the commonality of the stuff the arranging never ceases to fascinate or trigger meaning.
We never stop ordering, making patterns, arranging. And before writing and color theory and meter and rhyme there was all this stuff lying around us. So we moved it with our hands. And we still do. Sure there's a very practical reason for tearing all the stones out of what little arable land you have to survive on and stacking them so the mad winds of the North Atlantic don't knock them down each day and scour the entire island, but it's more than that. Or it's become more than that. The walls aren't art. They don't lean toward modern painting or aesthetic formulae any more than the sea does. But Art, any art, works to be something like these walls. The way Mamet describes theater trying to be like a wedding ceremony or a funeral. In our dreams, the wooden puppet or the stuffed rabbit trying to be alive.
Aran's walls are, oddly enough for hard mute stone….alive….they're animated every time someone walks by them and thinks, and knows, each of those stones was placed in its place by a human hand. A person stood there and made that hunk of rock rise up and defy gravity. Choices were made, time passed, sweat stained them, from right to left or left to right, point by point of the compass, they were cobbled together into that simplest of human constructions. A line. 4000 years and practicality became virtuosity.
- Okay. Pause. News flash. I've been writing and rewriting (re. erasing) these walls notes for days so today I had to go somewhere where there were no walls to clear my head and that place is called The Sea so I hopped on a boat, nominally traveling to the other islands, where there are more walls - (and each Island has its own subtle wall style but I won't get into that)- but really I just wanted to stare at a liquid moving surface that if you tried to mark it would only laugh and then probably kill you.
But. Upon landing at Inisheer I looked down into the harbor and there was a woman swimming with a dolphin.
Yep. Woman. Wild dolphin. 55 degree water. All three together.
Very quickly my interest in bronze age ruins and early christian burial sites and the hermeneutics of wall making went right out the window.
I'm simple that way. If you want to get me out of my head, or knock me off my autistic art appreciation track, show me a kitten. Or a horse. Or a woman in water that would kill most people after 20 minutes swimming next to a wild 12 foot dolphin.
She's from Dusseldorf. She lives part of the year there. But she and her husband come to Ireland 7 months out of the year where she ….well…swims in a couple harbors with this dolphin she met 12 years ago.
IT COMES TO FIND HER EVERY TIME.
IN THREE DIFFERENT HARBOR SITES 7 MILES APART.
SHE STAYS IN THE WATER FOR HOURS.
THIS SHOULDN'T BE POSSIBLE.
I went into the local bar where a pack of Boston firemen and their wives were communing with their ancestors while watching the Red Sox and checking their Facebook accounts and I said to the bartender, "You know there's a woman swimming with a dolphin in your harbor? This isn't possible." Nice girl, finally with some dark hair, "Oh yes with the dolphin, she's been doin it forever, every day she is."
I downed a bad bloody mary and some crisps and went back down to the shore and there they were husband and wife sitting on the jetty, she wrapped in towels leaning over and I thought damn she must be freezing poor thing. I got a little closer and I realized they weren't freezing they were praying. Kind of nodding, kind of davening to the water in a Dusseldorfy sort of way, and the dolphin no where to be seen.
Walls in the Arans. Slag heaps in Pittsburgh.
The major physical by-product of steel making, well the major one you can see, is this grey gravel called slag. It's what gets scraped off the top of a ladle of molten steel as it cooks, like pond scum or the meringue on a pie. The landscape of Pittsburgh is literally walled in by heaps of the stuff that became grassy mounds and cliffs and hillsides people think were always there. Dig into them and the slag reveals itself, comes crumbling out in handfuls of little digits. Looking like pieces of bone or clay that was squeezed in a hand and then fired.
It's not the most romantic material.
We don't give the workers of the industrial age much authority. And in that word lays a clue. The author. Authorship. Somehow when a thing doesn't have somebody's name written on it it's not worth as much. The walls of Aran have no names inscribed but their very shape calls to mind the movement of individuals. But is that simply a prejudice of how well or what languages we can read? How subtle are the movements of the plasterer or the wall painter or the steel worker? How circumscribed?
I know that when a good "cook" was made as the furnace boys called it, when they'd made an especially difficult alloyed soup out of molten metals and then rolled it into steel, afterwards they'd go up and sign the cooled ingots. Not just to mark them and tell the loaders what batch was what but just to say, we did this.
When I'm scrambling over the slag heaps in my hometown trying to get to a bike path or down to some hidden patch on the rivers I look at the miserable crap and sometimes it looks to me like typeface, or some kind of language that got broken off a wall and ground into gravel.
And the sea around Aran today looks like metal. Adios.