This article was originally published at Caught by the River, in 2016, when I lived in Donegal.
I am a lover of bogs. There: I’ve said it. I’m a bog-woman through and through. I can lose myself on the long, pale edges of a sandy island shore; I can enchant myself in the shadows and twists of an old-growth forest – but in a bog I come back to the centre of myself again and again. ‘The wet centre is bottomless’, Seamus Heaney wrote in ‘Bogland’, and in a bog it seems to me that my centre is bottomless too, that there are no limits on my fecund, dark heart.
To Heaney, bogs are female, fertile. ‘It is as if I am betrothed to them,’ he once wrote, ‘and I believe my betrothal happened one summer evening, thirty years ago, when another boy and myself stripped to the whit and bathed in a moss-hole, treading the liver-thick mud, unsettling a smoky muck off the bottom and coming out smeared and weedy and darkened. We dressed again and went home in our wet clothes … somehow initiated.’ Somehow initiated. Christened with the sticky black blood that pools in the hollowed-out fonts of the Earth. What finer initiation could there be, there in the secret places of the world?
A bog doesn’t give up its secrets easily, but it calls you to uncover them nevertheless. The lure of a bog-pool, which beckons you over to look down on its bright mirrored surface, the perfect blue of the sky an antidote to the relentless black of the peat. But when you stand over it (if you make it that far) all reflections disappear; there is only you, and the dark. Reach down with your fingers if you dare. Who knows what you might touch? Who knows what mysteries you might uncover? To love a bog is to love all that lies buried beneath the surface, buried in its rich, ripe flesh.
My first bog-love was in Connemara, where I lived in the 1990s; my second was on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, where I lived in the early 2000s – and still I can’t seem to give them up: here I am now in Donegal, in the green hollow of a sheltered river valley which cuts through a large area of blanket bog. This bog sprawls out towards the fertile coastal lowlands to the north and west, and ranges up the mountains to the south and east. The Seven Sisters, the Derryveagh Mountains, are the guardian spirits of this place. They gather round the fringes of the bog like a semicircle of elders, enclosing and protecting the land as it stretches across to the sea. An Earagail, or Errigal, the oratory; Mac Uchta, son of the mountain-breast; An Eachla Mhór, the great horse; Ard Loch na mBreac Beadaí, the heights of the loch of the canny trout; An Eachla Bheag, the little horse; Cnoc na Leargacha, hill of the Larkagh, and old sow-mother An Mhucais, or Muckish, the pig’s back. Every name tells its own story, whispered down the scree slopes and sinking into the bog below.
On the formidable Atlantic fringes of these lands, the stories that have risen up out of the bogs and travelled on through the centuries are mostly cautionary tales. Like all of the western islands, the lochs of the Lewis peatlands were known to be haunted by the Each Uisge. This canny water-horse, given half a chance, would carry off any unwary young woman who failed to see through his disguise, as he shape-shifted into the form of a handsome young man.He’d have her sure enough, if he could, and drag her down to the dark bottom of the loch to be his wife. In all the versions of the story that I’ve ever heard, the girl works it out in the end; the waterweed strewn through his glossy black hair is a careless touch, a dead giveaway. She deceives the Each Uisge in turn, and runs away while he sleeps. A lucky escape, the Trickster girl is told, back in the safety of the village – and yet, staring out into the bottomless lochs scattered through the peatlands of my own heart, I have sometimes wondered whether, lonely in the shielings and with only the cattle for company, she wouldn’t want, somewhere in the undisclosed depths of her wildest yearnings, to fall for the stories of the Each Uisge. To close her eyes, and just this once, to let herself fall. Wouldn’t she long to know the secrets that might lie in the darkest waters of the world?
But then I am a lover of bogs, and to love a bog is to love secrets. To know the places where the bodies are buried. To know the best place to pick bogbean, and make the perfect herbal tonic to see you through a long Hebridean winter. To know where to find the thickest bog asphodel, to dye your homespun yarn a delicate, pale yellow. To know where the lapwing nests, where the snipe hides, where the otter bathes. To know, as your sheep know when you let them out onto the vast summer grazings that circle your croft for miles, where to find the sweetest, softest grass.
I have been as hefted to my bog as our feisty little flock of black Hebridean sheep, defining and then firmly occupying their patch. I’ve been hefted to the bog and to its stories, for stories heft you to a place as nothing else can. All of the bogs I have loved were populated by stories of the Cailleach: the Old Woman of the World, the maker and shaper of the land in the old Gaelic mythology. She’s a hard one, for sure: haunter of the rocky heights, dancing on the hilltops with her winter-wielding staff and her herds of wild deer for milking. In the oldest stories of these Celtic lands in which I am so firmly hefted, to love a bog is to love to dance.
But choose your steps carefully, for out in the black wet heart of the bog, if you step off the track, you may sink in it up to your knees. If you live in the bog, you learn to recognise the firmer land; you come quickly to know it by the texture of the grass, its colour, the particular way in which it grows. If you live in the bog, understanding the land on which you live is a necessity. ‘Deceptive’, people may call it – but the truth is that this is land which requires to be fully known. Like a lover, it will settle for nothing less. Pay attention, the bog says. Where exactly will you put your feet? What is holding you now? In a bog you must learn to look down, to examine and evaluate the land before you step onto it. This is the lesson of the bog, and I can tell you only this for sure: to love a bog is, above all, to learn to love uncertainty.