The English writer and cartographer Tim Robinson, who died from Covid-19 in April at the age of eighty-five, dedicated more than forty years of his life to an intensive study of the region that many conceive as Ireland’s heart. Connemara is a small district on the country’s west coast, home to 32,000 people, mostly native Irish speakers. Fringing the Atlantic Ocean, this wild littoral moves inland from interlocking inlets and islands to a maze of lakes, peat bogs, and stark mountains.
Robinson was perhaps the foremost pioneer of the “deep mapping” that seeks to evoke a comparatively small region not only in its formal topography, but through a range of disciplines from geology, archaeology, and botany to the imaginings of faith and folklore. Others drawn to evoking small regions in depth—Robert Macfarlane and William Least Heat-Moon come to mind—have diversified more widely. But Robinson went deeper. His intensely focused surveys required long, solitary walking, and readers must slow their pace to his own. His was not the meditative walk of Darwin or Rousseau, but a long attunement to the land, as to “the hearing of a piece of music.” He rejected destination-bound hikes for ones more random and intuitive—“a cross-questioning of an area”—and familiarity only bred increased fascination. He mentions almost casually that he climbed some fifty times the rugged Errisbeg Hill: a 987-foot vantage point near his home, whose gullies, cliffs, and streamlets endlessly absorbed him.
Of his five most substantial books, the first two were studies of the tiny Aran Islands in the Bay of Galway, ten miles south of Connemara.* Then he embarked on Connemara itself, he writes, in the spirit of an old worker he had known, cutting a crooked piece of linoleum to fit with its crooked surroundings: “a properly devious approach to a place that has come to terms of peace with a disrupted history.” Listening to the Wind is the first and most important of his Connemara Trilogy (whose later volumes are The Last Pool of Darkness and A Little Gaelic Kingdom). Originally published in 2006 and recently reissued, it covers a region of barely four hundred square miles, centered on the fishing village of Roundstone, where Robinson settled in 1984 with his wife, Mairéad, in a derelict quayside lace-makers’ workshop that was sometimes invaded by Atlantic tides. From here the pair continued publishing the intricate maps that they had embarked on as early as 1975, returning ancient sites and names to the west Ireland landscape, and Robinson set out again and again on the immersive expeditions from which his writing sprang.
His material might seem meager to a casual or less knowledgeable eye. A small farmhouse, three ruined cottages perhaps, a patch of bogland, a near-vanished holy well: yet he fills such sites with the fruit of intense observation and research, and with recovered history and folklore. His work is reminiscent of that of some early explorers and geographers in its painstaking exactitude. But instead of bringing back the record of a hitherto unknown terrain, he is resurrecting the ignored or forgotten from under our feet. He attends to wildflowers, heathers, pollens, and to phenomena ranging from the cemeteries of unbaptized babies to the mythology of hares. His scientific rigor is suffused by a marveling poetry. The marram grass filters and binds the flying sand; the carnivorous butterworts’ and sundews’ leaves “curl up and close like fists upon midges,” and in the tubular blossoms of a rare heather the chocolate-colored anthers show “like the tips of velvet-gloved fingers.” The presiding mountains of the region, the Twelve Pins—“a pride of tawny beasts slumped together”—are sited and named with a cartographer’s precision.
Robinson’s self-imposed task is a profound labor of retrieval: a monument, above all, to a past threatened by social change. The common soil of the region is peat, a phenomenon that fascinates him (as it fascinated Seamus Heaney). In the acidic waters of the peat bog the years are layered and compressed until a few meters become a vertical map of Earth’s millennial history. “The wreck of time’s grand flow,” for Robinson, is composed less of shaped story than of muffled cries:
History has rhythms, tunes and even harmonies; but the sound of the past is an agonistic multiplicity. Sometimes, rarely, a scrap of a voice can be caught from the universal damage, but it may only be an artefact of the imagination, a confection of rumours. Chance decides what is obliterated and what survives if only to be distorted and misheard.
The urge to save fading memories from oblivion opens him to anyone who crosses his peripatetic path. The Irish language (which he learned as an adult) is preserved in his scrupulous retrievals here, for
Irish placenames dry out when anglicized, like twigs snapped off from a tree. And frequently the places too are degraded, left open to exploitation, for lack of a comprehensible name to point out their natures or recall their histories.
Chance friendships yield up ancient hearsay, shaky recall: “the boundary region between established truth and unstable imaginings…is my preferred territory.” Some of his informants are everyday acquaintances; others are eccentric misfits. Tommy O’Donnell, a local farmer, is a dreadful silhouette of a man, “all height and edges…an apparition from the famine graves he told me of in the bushes behind his cottage.” The raw-faced Beartla, a mild and friendless wanderer, remembers fading place-names and the location of holy wells forgotten by everyone else; Darby Gannon, a poor laborer, left behind a memoir, a life story of decline—Connemara’s and his own—which ended by chance in Robinson’s hands, and which lamented above all that the language was dying.
Sometimes in these researches, Robinson says, he feels “like a priest bending his ear to the mouth of a dying man.” He treasures others’ stories as if they were his own. While trying his hand at the old, dwindling practice of turf-cutting—slicing the sods by spade for domestic fuel—he listens to the memories of the men around him, and “the breeze seemed to fill with gossiping shadows.” The older stories are sometimes touched by the supernatural, and full of premature deaths. Their lack of moral messages, to Robinson, suggests a greater authenticity.
The island castle of Ballynahinch, now an overgrown ruin in Connemara’s west, becomes, for Robinson, the medium for a more formal history (sixty vivid pages of the whole). This was perhaps the prime stronghold of the shadowy medieval Conmaicne Mara, who gave Connemara their name, and who were all but wiped from record by the O’Flahertys, builders of the castle’s tower house. Only after the civil feuds and rebellions of the seventeenth century did Connemara pass under English rule. Ballynahinch fell to the Catholic Martin family, dominated for years by the legendary and contradictory Richard Martin, a deadly duelist and animal-lover, and the jailer of farmers who maltreated their cattle. This formidable figure, elected to the Irish, then British Parliament, ran his debt-ridden territories as a sanctuary for Catholic fugitives and as a haven for smugglers. His rough eloquence and passionate advocacy of animal welfare aroused alternating laughter and respect in Westminster, and in 1824 “Humanity Dick” laid the cornerstone of animal rights by cofounding the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Some ten years earlier, he had moved his family seat to another Ballynahinch Castle, which he had turned into a grand country house on a nearby lake, and here Richard’s son and successor, Thomas, continued the tradition of benign despotism and roistering hospitality. Both William Thackeray and Maria Edgeworth visited and left telling descriptions. Edgeworth, in 1833, found the mansion already dilapidated, “with cow-house and pig-stye and dunghill adjoining” and Thomas Martin a big, coarse man whose stooping neck “was the consequence of a shot he received in the Peninsular War.” By now the fortunes of the estate were dropping toward disaster. Thomas Martin died of fever in 1847, the blackest year of the great Potato Famine, after visiting former tenants in the workhouse. A witness to his funeral wrote:
Scarcely anyone followed him to his grave; the peasantry who had revered him were dying by hundreds upon the mountain-sides; the gentlemen of Galway were too intent on measures to save those of their people who still remained alive to have leisure to pay respects to the dead, even the last Squire of Connemara, with whose passing an epoch ended.
Between 1845 and 1852 an estimated one million died and another million emigrated. Robinson comes at this disaster obliquely, through individual tragedy, its stories the more poignant for being locally confined and surviving by chance. There are rumored famine graves in the Roundstone lanes where he goes blackberrying: he senses the “dead whose voices I have promised to hear, but who are so numerous as to have overloaded communal memory and who no longer have names.” The local Keogh family died still dignified, four in their only bed, two on the floor; a woman accused of theft was thrown into an open cart and for twelve hours was driven in bitter cold, perhaps already dead, to prison; a destitute laborer, anxious to claim his day’s rations, buried his still breathing sister in order to avoid another trip to the burial grounds. Soon after the famine’s end a horrified visitor wrote of the ruined cottages whose crashed-in roofs failed to conceal the huddled bones.
Robinson fleetingly imagines rewriting the history of the Great Hunger from the viewpoint of its immediate cause, the blight pathogen Phytophthora infestans: a few strings of genes that take advantage of a vegetable ecology, where they can flourish. He finds a parallel for the progress of this parasite in the laissez-faire doctrine of the contemporary Whig government, callous to the famine suffering, and a righteous glint of anger surfaces:
This “selfish gene” imagery is vicious, whatever the merits of the theory it aims to convey; it blurs the distinction between physical process and cultural behaviour, lending a shred of scientific authority to those who would excuse if not commend self-seeking as a rule of Nature.
As for the Martin estate, it went bankrupt, of course, and splintered through many hands, until its depleted core, the Ballynahinch Castle, was turned into a luxury hotel in the late 1940s.
From time to time the pressure of Robinson’s observations—the eloquence of details—excites him to a geologic timescale. The layered peat bogs compel an account of change in which land bridges between Europe, Britain, and Ireland see post-glacial plants and trees advance like armies: sedge and grasses at first, then Arctic shrub and dwarf willow, then the first forests, followed by bears, wolves, and humans. His prehistory of Ireland itself arises from a ghostly fault-line viewed from Errisbeg Hill, and the telltale emergence of crystalline rocks. Five hundred million years ago, he writes, on either side of the narrowing ocean of Iapetus, two fragments of continental crust collide: “This new conjunction hardly formed an entity as yet, being only a small part of a continent…but another few hundred million years would make it Ireland.”
For Robinson these eons-long natural processes are disrupted only by the evolution of humans—as early as Neolithic farmers—and the fatal “intellect” whose destructive creativity is outstripping the Earth’s capacity to adapt. He knows himself to be part of this process, and breaks into open dismay:
The axe evolves from stone to bronze to iron to steel. Great woods with all their sighs and cries go down into silence; the animals succumb…. Ice Ages were so slow-moving that animals and plants could retreat before them and survive, but intellect is a raging fire.
And now we feel guilty:
Our wastelands are so beautiful and so tender we wonder if we should enter them at all. Should we stand here discussing the origins of the bog, knowing that a footprint in sphagnum moss lasts a year or more, that the tuft of lichen we crush unseeingly has taken decades to grow? Sometimes when a snipe leaps from under my feet and goes panicking up the sky, I am appalled at my own presence in a place so old and slow and long-suffering as Roundstone Bog.
He knows that his own parochial complaints—at the rash of holiday homes or a planned Roundstone marina with concrete walkways and security lamps that blot out the moonlight—can too readily be seen as an outworn aesthetic in the face of an economic good.
In this vast labor of recuperation, some sense of failure is inevitable. He would like to walk forever. He is all too aware of the multiplicity of voices unheard, like the great white spaces on his own maps. He invokes, with a kind of aching irritation, Cuach na Coille, “the cuckoo of the wood,” of whom he has heard from a single source: only that she was a beautiful horsewoman who rode in the nearby Derryclare Wood. She “may stand for all Connemara’s abolished voices,” he writes. But later, near his book’s end, he stumbles upon more earthy details: that she was perhaps the “stout black-eyed wench” in a soiled petticoat, described by Thackeray in 1842. Robinson tries to pursue her enigma to its end and plunges into Derryclare Wood, where he hears no cuckoo but encounters a treasury of rare lichens and trees.
The tremendous archive of his data had already been passing in batches to the National University of Ireland at Galway. Now, with Robinson’s death two weeks after his wife Mairéad’s this past spring, the last of this research will follow, with his sea-worn home itself a planned arts center in the university’s trust.
In the opening pages of Listening to the Wind, Robinson imagines the sound of a storm approaching from far away in a low-pressure zone across the Atlantic. By morning its noises—the echo of waves, the wind gusting over a hill, the tearing of shrubs, the fluting of trapped leaves—are battering against the windowpanes in a sound that defies his dissection:
The ear constructs another wholeness out of the reiterated fragmentation of pitches, and it can be terrible, this wide range of frequencies coalescing into something approaching the auditory chaos and incoherence that sound engineers call white noise.
But to the naturalist Lyall Watson, whose Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind (1984) has also been reissued recently, the wind is the animator and nurse of human life, and of some near-mystical communion beyond. There is little here of Robinson’s obsessed focus on the particular, the common, or the aching elusiveness of the past. Watson, who died in 2008, sweeps self-confidently over a vast range of science and culture, in a survey of the wind that embraces its physics and geography, its part in botany and geology, animal evolution, human history, trade, legend, art, and literature.
The breadth of his ambition is signaled at once. He goes beyond the Earth and engages with the planets, of which the largest are racked by violent winds. The atmosphere on Venus is ninety times heavier than that of Earth, and the winds that crawl on its surface are weighted to near-stillness; yet higher up, Venus, like Jupiter, is swept by gales that orbit it in giant bands. Mars, as it nears the sun, suffers an annual storm that can be tracked from Earth, lifting its sands into a impenetrable hurricane for months; and beneath the ice rings of Saturn the atmosphere is broken by winds that blow at a thousand miles an hour.
Watson packs his book with a mass of scientific data, assembled in a spirit of wonder. (Its appendix contains a dictionary of some four hundred names for wind.) The winds do not flow through empty space, he writes, but traverse and reorder an aerial world teeming with invisible life. In the so-called planetary boundary layer—the fluctuating zone that ascends to some thousand meters above us—a vast community of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and spores is blowing in the wind: about 10,000 microscopic organisms piled above every square centimeter of land surface. Even in a stratosphere far higher, he writes, an aerial life exists resistant to cold and ultraviolet light: “An ecology adapted to the edges of space as a normal habitat.”
It was the Roman philosopher Lucretius, two thousand years ago, who wondered about the dust motes in the sunlight of a shuttered room (Watson enjoys citing such ancient precedents). In a precocious advance into pathology, Lucretius concluded that parasites in the wind might attack wheat or the lining of a human lung. Watson seems to believe the largely discredited theory that pathogens originate in outer space, but exults in the profusion and variety alive in the atmosphere closer to Earth, and in the restless motion that engrossed the Roman thinker. Watson writes:
At last count there were 50,000 different mushrooms, moulds, rusts and yeasts scavenging their way round the world. Most textbooks call them plants, but none have chlorophyll. They live more like animals, descending on and attacking their food with powerful digestive juices.
It is through turbulent winds, even more than insects, that the vast majority of plants are pollinated, and their means of dispersal—as seeds in a diaphanous haze like thistledown, or on their own tiny wings—are cataloged vividly by Watson. Their range can be huge. Spruce and birch pollen may blow hundreds of miles from their parent tree. Clouds of Scandinavian pine pollen have flown more than seven hundred miles before raining down on Arctic Spitzbergen. Saharan dust has fallen on Barbados.
Stranger still, and less known, are the primitive insects that—against all expectation—inhabit the Earth’s snowline. Jumping spiders have been seen bouncing across the ice on Mount Everest. “The secret of their success,” Watson writes playfully, “is that they have their food sent in…airlifted from the plains.”
A cargo of spores and pollen, deposited by the wind, turn the snowfields bright yellow, red, or green with the action of bacteria and algae, and these attract clouds of insect life:
This living rain goes on continuously through the summer, through all the summers of history, with the result that a whole community of beetles and scavenging flies have come to congregate around the melt point of snowfields and glaciers, waiting for the thaw of deep-frozen meals, some of them kept on ice for centuries.
Stranger even than the migratory flow of butterflies or the onslaught of locusts is the mass levitation of minute spiders observed above Yosemite. These tiny insects, at some arcane cue from the environment, weave themselves a gossamer parachute and ascend in their millions, all on the same day. If the wind rises, “the threads are blown across to other rocks, trees or furrows, weaving together to form a sheet of silk that is almost invisible, unless it is touched by light and dew.”
Each spiderling, it seems, is not truly adrift, but is making purposefully for some destination where it will flourish. Spiders’ mystery has provoked speculation ever since Aristotle noticed them floating over a summer meadow. Darwin found his HMS Beagle coated in red spiders sixty miles beyond the coast of Argentina, and a pioneer study by the US Bureau of Entomology between 1926 and 1931, using biplanes, caught more than forty-five species of these miniature balloonists, which have since been found flying as high as four miles above sea level.
Watson’s cannonade of wonders and statistics sometimes proceeds in almost carnival mood, leading to arbitrary indulgences. His chapters on literature and art feel cursory; he is happier with wind’s science, and its inherent marvel. Even his headlong chapter on history focuses chiefly on the wind’s astonishments. Storms save Japan from Mongol conquest, and wreck the Spanish Armada. A powerful northern wind, he writes, drove forward the Greek fleet against the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, without whose victory the golden age of Greece might never have happened. Such speculation vies with Edward Gibbon’s famous fantasy that without the Christian victory over the Arabs at Tours in 732, the teachings of the Koran might be sounding from the pulpits of Oxford.
Some of Watson’s mentors—Ellsworth Huntington, Fred Hoyle—were controversial even when he first published Heaven’s Breath. The Yale geographer Huntington’s equation of temperate latitudes with higher civilizations had long been disputed, and the British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle had famously derided (and named) the Big Bang theory. But if there is a presiding spirit in the book, it is the Gaia principle of James Lovelock, which posits an organic and self-regulating world. Watson writes:
Gaia is an entity which, like all other symbiotic associations in biology, has collective properties which are far greater than the sum total of its parts. And one of these is the capacity to contrive a unique and dynamic atmospheric security blanket that keeps the system intact.
The threat of climate change arises from his own data. Writing almost forty years ago, he even predicts that the Amazon basin will be cleared of jungle by the year 2000, and notes an increase in carbon dioxide and methane, and the start of the greenhouse effect. “This is bound to affect economic and political stability,” he writes, “and to change our coastlines and our lives, but it could also be the making of a new world—one worth getting excited about all over again.”
Such optimism is hard to come by now. And Watson at last leaves behind his science—along with many of his readers, no doubt—to indulge a mystical instinct in which wind and breath and soul are ineluctably entwined. This is the New Age naturalist who seemed to believe that the air could rain down frogs.
With the wisdom of longer hindsight, in Listening to the Wind Tim Robinson, sadder and more tentative, believes that we have been tumbled into a rate of development “beyond the adaptive capacities of biological evolution.” Yet near his book’s end, he too has faith, with what he calls “the heart’s unreasonableness,” that perhaps we may, after all, “countermand the curses we have laid upon the earth.”