Thin Places.

24 Sep 2019

In the summer time, I walk the narrow farm boreen with its bikini wax strip of grass growing down the middle and cow parsley and Queen Anne’s lace crowded hedge, once, maybe twice a day. Massive tree boughs join to meet each other high up in the sky and form a sort of canopy shelter along the way; the wind whistles through barley, maize or whole wheat depending on the season, and shiny marble cow’s eyes gaze into yours with curiosity as you say hello and count them up.  

On both the left and right hand side you’ll find fairy forts from ancient times surrounded by the glowing security of golden prickly gorse; while in the autumn, thorny brambles and bushes heaving with berries, rosehips and haws are on display. Sometimes it is so quiet, all you can hear is mother nature whispering sweet nothings into your ear. 

As resplendent as that sounds, many would say that there is actually nothing too remarkable about this boreen. It is essentially a 3-in-1 tool for walking our dogs, checking crops and cattle. There are a million lanes like this in Ireland, all of which look absolutely identical to this one.  

Still, for me, it is special. 

It might even be a Thin Place.

I mean, how many boreens have a creaking ash tree that sounds like a newborn baby banshee when the wind rattles it? Or, a robust family of pheasants and hares who team up, side-by-side to peak out of the ditch and rile up my girls whenever we walk by? Who knows, could be pishoguery at play, which makes it even more spectacular.  

Surely not every boreen shows daily evidence of rogue shrews or the odd hedgehog whom seem to have unfortunately met their maker while crossing from one side of the road to the other? Oh, what about the time an angry ghost dog in the corn field with a bellowing bone-shivering phantom bark made me run like the dickens only to realize he was merely a lost foxhound who strayed from his pack and was more scared than I?

Which reminds me, we can’t forget the time when the red coat hunters came cantering along causing a major traffic jam which I detailed in my national column and almost got fired from my post. Yeah, me and this boreen got history.  

One winter, Ireland was blessed with a powdery winter snowfall so substantial that the entire boreen was a whiteout that made our two black dogs stand out like a die-cut print greeting card. Etched in my mind. Sometimes the early morning dawn chorus of local birdsong cuts through the headiness of lashing rain and gives Hozier a run for its money. You just can’t beat the theatre of it all. 

Okay, entertaining. But, Thin Place, really?

When you walk this boreen, contemplation comes easy.  In fact, it invites all sorts of feelings to flood in. There is a rawness of reality here where you feel cracked open like a walnut with all those cradles and cavities that you pick at to get to the fruit within. Feelings. Sorrow. Regret. Jubilee, Joy. But most of all, a deep clarity of knowing ones place in this universe. And, despite the magnitude and gravity of that sort of clarity, you still feel swathed in safety. 

According to this article in the New York Times, “Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter….Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic…” 

Hmmmmmmmm. Thin Places. Sounds familiar.

When I was 11, I went horseback riding for the first time. Oddly, there was a riding school and stables just on the edge of my hometown, still within city limits and literally across the street from my elementary school. You could pay a few dollars and ride a pony with a guide around a meadow which overlooked the East Twin river.

After taking “Petey the Pony” out for several goes around this field, I felt I was ready for a larger model. I was, after all, 11 years old and well able for a grown up horse. The gumption. I persuaded the owner to throw caution to the wind and allow me take Stormy, a regal yet subdued white and grey Appaloosa, out onto the proper riding trail.

Initially, the route was quite narrow and rough; glacier-age rocks and rubble partially covered in verdant green moss and ivy form low walls on the thoroughfare, and fat old oak trees on either side moulded the most beautiful fairytale leafy roof overhead. Not an entirely ideal landscape for the sport of horseback riding, but so picturesque it made me feel cavalier and free.

As we trotted further along through a pastiche of grassy knolls, I remember feeling dumbfounded that this striking and pristine pastoral setting was right near my home and yet I had never been aware of it. It was like I had stumbled upon some sort of parallel universe, stepping into the scene of a Thomas Cole painting or a Tarsem storyboard.

I will never forget the otherwordly feeling of being there that day; nuanced and surreal.

Thin. Place. 

Suddenly Stormy stopped. At 15 minutes into our ride, she just would not budge. I pulled the reins and gripped her hind legs with my legs, pushing my hips into the saddle and clicking my tongue against my cheek to communicate for her to go. I tried every possible maneuver to get her to carry on, but she just stood there defiantly. In my mind, I had no other choice but to dismount and go behind her and give her a little nudge. I reasoned that maybe she felt stuck on the bumpy surface and needed to be freed. But, the minute my fingers lightly touched her back side, she forcefully bucked both legs out, kicking me in the thighs and winging me straight up into the air.

I landed about 4 ft away, where I laid crying in pain until I nodded off and awoke on our sofa at home to my brother Jeffrey’s unhappy face hovering over my head. He told me I was in BIG trouble. Apparently, I survived. Stormy had galloped back to the stables and I was transported home in a Meals on Wheels station wagon (don’t ask). The bruising was extensive and so was my grounding.

Fast forward to the Irish countryside, and the first day that I stepped foot on the boreen. I instantly felt that I had been there before. Sort of like but sort of not like déjà vu. Remember, I was not one who ever pined for Ireland, it was not on my radar. Intense memories of my pre-teen horse riding day enveloped me. Is it the landscape? The green? The tree canopy? Just the terrain? I couldn’t put my finger on what was provoking such an emotional recollection. It felt transcendental, a bit like I was disassociated from my body and back on that riding path back home. I wondered, am I dead or alive? Awake or dreaming? I might add that I am not particularly pious, though spiritually inclined.

All I know is that this happened. Still happens. It is profound and puzzling, and Thin Places or not–I find solace in it.

Have you ever been to a Thin Place?

Slan Abhaile,

Imen x

PS. Two autumn recipes and stories that I love : An Irish Apple Tart + Curried Parsnip and Apple Soup

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