SELECTED PROSE 1971-2001
By Seamus Heaney
FARRAR STRAUS GIROUX
Copyright © 2002 Seamus Heaney.
All rights reserved.
I would begin with the Greek word omphalos, meaning the navel, and hence the stone that marked the centre of the world, and repeat it, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos, until its blunt and falling music becomes the music of somebody pumping water at the pump outside our back door. It is County Derry in the early 1940s. The American bombers groan towards the aerodrome at Toomebridge, the American troops manoeuvre in the fields along the road, but all of that great historical action does not disturb the rhythms of the yard. There the pump stands, a slender, iron idol, snouted, helmeted, dressed down with a sweeping handle, painted a dark green and set on a concrete plinth, marking the centre of another world. Five households drew water from it. Women came and went, came rattling between empty enamel buckets, went evenly away, weighed down by silent water. The horses came home to it in those first lengthening evenings of spring, and in a single draught emptied one bucket and then another as the man pumped and pumped, the plunger slugging up and down, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.
I do not know what age I was when I got lost in the pea-drills in a field behind the house, but it is a half-dream to me, and I've heard about it so often that I may even be imagining it. Yet, by now, I have imagined it so long and so often that I know what it was like: a green web, a caul of veined light, a tangle of rods and pods, stalks and tendrils, full of assuaging earth and leaf smell, a sunlit lair. I'm sitting as if just wakened from a winter sleep and gradually become aware of voices, coming closer, calling my name, and for no reason at all I have begun to weep.
All children want to crouch in their secret nests. I loved the fork of a beech tree at the head of our lane, the close thicket of a boxwood hedge in the front of the house, the soft, collapsing pile of hay in a back corner of the byre; but especially I spent time in the throat of an old willow tree at the end of the farmyard. It was a hollow tree, with gnarled, spreading roots, a soft, perishing bark and a pithy inside. Its mouth was like the fat and solid opening in a horse's collar, and, once you squeezed in through it, you were at the heart of a different life, looking out on the familiar yard as if it were suddenly behind a pane of strangeness. Above your head, the living tree flourished and breathed, you shouldered the slightly vibrant bole, and if you put your forehead to the rough pith you felt the whole lithe and whispering crown of willow moving in the sky above you. In that tight cleft, you sensed the embrace of light and branches, you were a little Atlas shouldering it all, a little Cerunnos pivoting a world of antlers.
The world grew. Mossbawn, the first place, widened. There was what we called the Sandy Loaning, a sanded pathway between old hedges leading in off the road, first among fields and then through a small bog, to a remote farmhouse. It was a silky, fragrant world there, and for the first few hundred yards you were safe enough. The sides of the lane were banks of earth topped with broom and ferns, quilted with moss and primroses. Behind the broom, in the rich grass, cattle munched reassuringly. Rabbits occasionally broke cover and ran ahead of you in a flurry of dry sand. There were wrens and goldfinches. But gradually those lush and definite fields gave way to scraggy marshland. Birch trees stood up to their pale shins in swamps. The ferns thickened above you. Scuffles in old leaves made you nervous and always you dared yourself to pass the badger's sett, a wound of fresh mould in an overgrown ditch where the old brock had gone to earth. Around that badger's hole there hung a field of dangerous force. This was the realm of bogeys. We'd heard about a mystery man who haunted the fringes of the bog here, we talked about mankeepers and mosscheepers, creatures uncatalogued by any naturalist, but none the less real for that. What was a mosscheeper, anyway, if not the soft, malicious sound the word itself made, a siren of collapsing sibilants coaxing you out towards bog pools lidded with innocent grass, quicksands and quagmires? They were all there and spreading out over a low, birch-screened apron of land towards the shores of Lough Beg.
That was the moss, forbidden ground. Two families lived at the heart of it, and a recluse, called Tom Tipping, whom we never saw, but in the morning on the road to school we watched his smoke rising from a clump of trees, and spoke his name between us until it was synonymous with mystery man, with unexpected scuttlings in the hedge, with footsteps slushing through long grass.
To this day, green wet corners, flooded wastes, soft rushy bottoms, any place with the invitation of watery ground and tundra vegetation, even glimpsed from a car or a train, possess an immediate and deeply peaceful attraction. It is as if I am betrothed to them, and I believe my betrothal happened one summer evening, thirty years ago, when another boy and myself stripped to the white country skin 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, smelling of the ground and the standing pool, somehow initiated.
Beyond the moss spread the narrow reaches of Lough Beg, and in the centre of Lough Beg lay Church Island, a spire rising out of its yew trees, a local mecca. St Patrick, they said, had fasted and prayed there fifteen hundred years before. The old graveyard was shoulder-high with meadowsweet and cow parsley, overhung with thick, unmolested yew trees, and, somehow, those yews fetched me away to Agincourt and Crécy, where the English archers' bows, I knew, had been made of yew also. All I could ever manage for my bows were tapering shoots of ash or willow from a hedge along the stackyard, but even so, to have cut a bough from that silent compound on Church Island would have been a violation too treacherous to contemplate.
If Lough Beg marked one limit of the imagination's nesting ground, Slieve Gallon marked another. Slieve Gallon is a small mountain that lies in the opposite direction, taking the eye out over grazing and ploughed ground and the distant woods of Moyola Park, out over Grove Hill and Back Park and Castledawson. This side of the country was the peopled, communal side, the land of haycock and corn-stook, of fence and gate, milk-cans at the end of lanes and auction notices on gate pillars. Dogs barked from farm to farm. Sheds gaped at the roadside, bulging with fodder. Behind and across it went the railway, and the noise that hangs over it constantly is the heavy shunting of an engine at Castledawson station.
I have a sense of air, of lift and light, when this comes back to me. Light dancing off the shallows of the River Moyola, shifting in eddies on the glaucous whirlpool. Light changing on the mountain itself, that stood like a barometer of moods, now blue and hazy, now green and close up. Light above the spires, away at Magherafelt. Light frothing among the bluebells on Grove Hill. And the lift of the air is resonant, too, with vigorous musics. A summer evening carries the fervent and melancholy strain of hymn-singing from a gospel hall among the fields, and the hawthorn blooms and the soft white patens of the elderflower hang dolorous in the hedges. Or the rattle of Orange drums from Aughrim Hill sets the heart alert and watchful as a hare.
For if this was the country of community, it was also the realm of division. Like the rabbit pads that loop across grazing, and tunnel the soft growths under ripening corn, the lines of sectarian antagonism and affiliation followed the boundaries of the land. In the names of its fields and townlands, in their mixture of Scots and Irish and English etymologies, this side of the country was redolent of the histories of its owners. Broagh, the Long Rigs, Bell's Hill; Brian's Field, the Round Meadow, the Demesne; each name was a kind of love made to each acre. And saying the names like this distances the places, turns them into what Wordsworth once called a prospect of the mind. They lie deep, like some script indelibly written into the nervous system.
I always remember the pleasure I had in digging the black earth in our garden and finding, a foot bellow the surface, a pale seam of sand. I remember, too, men coming to sink the shaft of the pump and digging through that seam of sand down into the bronze riches of the gravel that soon began to puddle with the spring water. That pump marked an original descent into earth, sand, gravel, water. It centred and staked the imagination, made its foundation the foundation of the omphalos itself. So I find it altogether appropriate that an old superstition ratifies this hankering for the underground side of things. It is a superstition associated with the Heaney name. In Gaelic times, the family were involved with ecclesiastical affairs in the diocese of Derry, and had some kind of rights to the stewardship of a monastic site at Banagher in the north of the county. There is a St Muredach O'Heney associated with the old church at Banagher; and there is also a belief that sand lifted from the ground at Banagher has beneficent, even magical, propertiesif it is lifted from the site by one of the Heaney family name. Throw sand that a Heaney has lifted after a man going into court, and he will win his case. Throw it after your team as they go out on the pitch, and they will win the game.
When I was learning to read, towards the end of 1945, the most important books in the house were the ration booksthe pink clothes coupons and the green 'points' for sweets and groceries. There wasn't much reading done apart from the deaths column of the Irish Weekly and the auctions page of the Northern Constitution. 'I am instructed by the representatives of the late John James Halferty, Drumanee ...' My father lay on the sofa and rehearsed the acres, roods and perches of arable and meadow land in a formal tone and with a certain enlargement of the spirit.
On a shelf, behind a screen and too high to be reached anyhow, there were four or five mouldering volumes that may have belonged to my Aunt Susan from her days in Orange's Academy, but they remained closed books to me. The first glimpse I have of myself reading on my own is one of those orphaned memories, a moment without context that will always stay with me. It is a book from the school librarya padlocked box that was opened more or less as a favourinvolving explorers in cork helmets and 'savages', with illustrations of war canoes on a jungle river. The oil lamp is lit and a neighbour called Hugh Bates is interrupting me. 'Boys, oh, boys! This Seamus fellow is a great scholar. What book are you in now, son?' And my father is likely wringing what he can from the moment with 'He's as bad as Pat McGuckin this minute.' Pat McGuckin was a notorious bachelor farmera cousin of ourswho was said to burn his scone like King Alfred every time he lifted a book. Years later, when Death of a Naturalist was published, the greatest commendation at home was 'Lord knows Pat would fairly have enjoyed this.'
Of course, there were always religious magazines like The Far East and the MessengerPudsy Ryan in the children's corner of the former was the grown-ups' idea of a side-splitting turn, but even then I found his misspellings a bit heavy-handed. Far better were the technicolor splendours of Korky the Cat and Big Eggo in The Dandy and The Beano. The front pages of these comics opened like magic casements on Desperate Dan, Lord Snooty, Hungry Horace, Keyhole Kate, Julius Sneezer and Jimmy and his Magic Patch and probably constituted my first sense of the invitations of fiction. They were passed round at school, usually fairly tattered, but every now and again my mother brought a new one from Castledawson, without a fold in it, its primary colours blazing with excitements to come. Occasionally, also, an American comicall colour from beginning to endarrived from the American airbase nearby, with Li'l Abner, Ferdinand and Blondie speaking a language that even Pat McGuckin did not know.
There was a resistance to buying new comics in our house, not out of any educational nicety, but because of a combination of two attitudes: that they were a catch-penny and that somehow they were the thin end of the wedge, that if you let them into the house the next step was The Empire News, Thompson's Weekly, Tit-Bits and The News of the World. Nevertheless, I ended up persuading my mother to place a regular order for The Champion, a higher-class comic altogether, featuring a Biggles-rides-again figure called Rockfist Rogan and Ginger Nutt ('the boy who takes the bis-cake', in South Derry parlance) and Colwyn Dane, the sleuth. With The Champion I entered the barter market for The Rover, The Hotspur, The Wizard and any other pulp the presses of old England could deliver. I skimmed through all those 'ain'ts' and 'cots' and 'yoicks' and 'blimeys', and skimmed away contented.
So what chance had Kitty the Hare against all that? Our Boys appeared regularly, a cultural antidote with official home backing, healthy as a Christian Brother on a winter morning, the first step towards Ireland's Own. Cultural debilitations! I preferred the japes of Ginger Nutt, the wheezes of Smith of the Lower Fourth, the swish of gowns, the mortarboard and the head's study to the homely toils of Murphy among the birettas. It would take Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Kavanagh's The Great Hunger to get over that surrender.
My first literary frisson, however, came on home ground. There was an Irish history lesson at school which was in reality a reading of myths and legends. A textbook with large type and heavy Celticized illustrations dealt with the matter of Ireland from the Tuatha Dé Danaan to the Norman Invasion. I can still see Brian Boru with his sword held like a cross reviewing the troops at Clontarf. But the real imaginative mark was made with a story of the Dagda, a dream of harp music and light, confronting and defeating Balor of the Evil Eye on the dark fortress of Tory Island. Cuchulain and Ferdia also sank deep, those images of wounds bathed on the green rushes and armour clattering in the ford.
Yet all of that yielded to the melodrama of Blind Pew and Billy Bones, Long John and Ben Gunn. Treasure Island we read at school also, and it was a prelude to the first book I remember owning and cherishing: there it was on the table one Christmas morning, Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. I was a Jacobite for life after that day. Instinctively I knew that the world of the penal rock and the redcoatsthat oleograph to the faith of our fatherswas implicit in the scenery of that story. To this day, my heart lifts to the first sentence of it: 'I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father's house ...'
As a boarder at St Columb's College, I did the Maurice Walsh circuitBlackcock's Feather remains with me as an atmosphere, a sense of bogs and woodsbut again it was a course book that stuck its imagery deepest. When I read in Lorna Doone how John Ridd stripped the muscle off Carver Doone's arm like a string of pith off an orange, I was well on the road to epiphanies. Not that I didn't stray into the imperial realms of Biggles or the baloney of the William stories. But it is only those books with a touch of poetry in them that I can rememberall coming to a head when, in my last summer holiday from school, I sat up all night to finish Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native.
I missed Pooh Bear. I can't remember owning a selection of Grimm or Andersen. I read Alice in Wonderland at the university. But what odds? Didn't Vinny Hunter keep me in wonderland with his stories of Tarzan:
Excerpted from FINDERS KEEPERS by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 2002 by Seamus Heaney. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.