Fiona McCann
Université de Lille, France | Published: 17 March, 2024
ISSUE 19 | Pages: 1-12 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2024-12415

Creative Commons 4.0 2024 by Fiona McCann | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Thin Places (2021) is a piece of work which defies categorization. It is partly a memoir filled with traumatic personal events, partly a reflection on loss in all its manifest forms (physical, familial, linguistic, environmental), and partly an uplifting plea for allowing the exploration of our natural surroundings to function as a meaningful form of care. Kerri ní Dochartaigh uses the materiality of the sentient beings that surround us, and deep care for our ecosystem, as a means of recovery. Earth care as self-care. Ní Dochartaigh is concerned with both the materiality and the immateriality of objects of care and manages to incorporate both through her interest in “the liminal space between things”, to borrow the title of an article by Timothy Morton (2014). The narrator foregrounds her mental health difficulties brought on by a violent and traumatic childhood in Northern Ireland yet also places the focus on the ways in which Ireland’s natural habitat, its material reality and its immaterial Celtic portals, “hold us” (2022: 228) in unsuspected care relationships. In the process, “[a]rt happens […] in the liminal space(s) between things, in conversations between metal and sky, humans and metal, era and era, heaven and earth” (Morton 2014: 270-1). A poignant process of recovery is recounted, highlighting firstly the refusal of care before slowly moving towards co-constituted acts of care: as ní Dochartaigh gradually recovers her lost mother tongue, and pays attention to the beauty of her natural surroundings, as she begins to care for both, she also starts to feel cared for. The sensory experience of loss, gain, and care in Thin Places is predicated upon several ecologies and resonates strongly with Joan Tronto’s definition of care as ultimately “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves (sic.), and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web” (1993: 103; original emphasis). Kerri ní Dochartaigh celebrates, in the most understated manner, the full complexity of this “life-sustaining web” and this article proposes to unpack all of the above elements to show how her very singular aesthetics places the emphasis on the coloniality of loss and the restorative power of stories.

Thin Places (2021) es un texto difícil de categorizar. Es, en parte, una memoria repleta de eventos personales traumáticos, a la vez que una reflexión sobre la pérdida en todas sus manifestaciones (físicas, familiares, lingüísticas, medioambientales), y también una súplica edificante para que nuestros entornos naturales se conviertan en agentes efectivos de cuidados. Kerri ní Dochartaigh usa la materialidad de los seres sentientes que nos rodean y el cuidado de nuestro ecosistema como medios de recuperación. El cuidado de la Tierra como autocuidado. Ní Dochartaigh se ocupa de la materialidad y de la inmaterialidad de los objetos e incorpora ambos a través de su interés en “el espacio liminal entre las cosas”, siguiendo el título de un artículo de Timothy Morton (2014). La narradora muestra sus problemas mentales, ocasionados por una niñez violenta y traumática en el Norte de Irlanda, a la par que se centra en las formas en las que el hábitat natural irlandés, su realidad material y las posibilidades inmateriales celtas “nos sostienen” (2022: 228) en forma de sorpresivas relaciones de cuidado. En este proceso “[e]l arte tiene lugar […] en los espacios liminales entre las cosas, en conversaciones entre el metal y el cielo, los humanos y el metal, una era y otra era, el cielo y la tierra” (Morton 2014: 270-1). Se cuenta un proceso conmovedor de recuperación, enfatizando primero el rechazo del cuidado para poco a poco orientarse hacia la cocreación de escenarios de cuidado: a medida que ní Dochartaigh recupera su lengua materna perdida y presta atención a la belleza de los entornos naturales, y se preocupa por ambos, también ella empieza a sentirse cuidada. La experiencia sensorial de la pérdida, la ganancia y el cuidado en Thin Places se predica en base a diferentes ecologías, evocando la definición de Joan Tronto del cuidado como, en última instancia, “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves (sic.), and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web” (1993: 103; énfasis original). Kerri ní Dochartaigh celebra, en toda su humildad, la complejidad de esta “red que sostiene la vida” y el presente artículo propone estudiar los aspectos mencionados con el fin de demostrar cómo la singular estética de la obra enfatiza la colonialidad de la pérdida y el poder restaurador de las historias.

Cuidado; trauma; recuperación; Tierra; entornos; ecologías

“The planet will never come alive for you unless your songs and stories give life to all the beings, seen and unseen, that inhabit a living earth – Gaia”. (Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, 2021: 84)

In his collection of essays entitled The Nutmeg’s Curse, Amitav Ghosh responds to the current biodiversity and climate catastrophe by defiantly making connections between coloniality and Western extractive politics through a history of the nutmeg, linking all these strands to our current terrifying predicament. He focuses, among other aspects, on “terraforming” and the “biopolitical conflicts in which entire populations were subjected to forms of violence that included massive biological and ecological disruptions” (Ghosh 2021: 55). If the colonisation of Ireland can hardly be compared to that of the Americas to which Ghosh is referring in this instance, such is the difference in scale and indeed the violence of that transatlantic colonial pursuit, Britain’s easterly neighbour was nevertheless subjected to similar “ecological disruptions”, not least among which the almost complete eradication of Irish rainforests, with devastating effects on biodiversity (Daltun 2022: 131-44). This carelessness towards and exploitation of the land and all that inhabits it was then pursued after Independence during the course of the twentieth century by successive Irish governments which were concerned with modernising Ireland, by which is meant bringing it into conformity with capitalist logic and marginalising ways of living which were recalcitrant to this logic (Lloyd 2008). Biodiversity loss in Ireland, as in other parts of the world which bore the brunt of rampant settler colonialism, was also accompanied by language loss, as shown by Mariavita Cambria (2014: 23-27), to such an extent that only a fraction of Irish people today speak their native language on a daily basis.[1] Thin Places by Irish writer Kerri ní Dochartaigh engages with these questions, weaving together ecological, linguistic and personal forms of loss and grief and presenting new coordinates of care which might just sketch out a less bleak future.

Thin Places is a piece of work which defies categorisation. It is partly a memoir filled with traumatic personal events, partly a reflection on grief for loss in all its manifest forms (physical, familial, linguistic, environmental), as well as, ultimately, an uplifting plea for allowing the exploration of our natural surroundings to function as a meaningful form of mutual care. As the title of the work suggests, ní Dochartaigh is interested both in the interaction between places and bodies and in the tension between material and intangible things, all of which she considers as central to the process of caring about oneself, the environment, the Earth and all its sentient beings. Thin places, for ní Dochartaigh, are places “which are so thin that you meet yourself in the still point” (2022: xvi), in which “you might experience the material and spiritual worlds coming together” (2022: 12), and where “a veil is lifted away and light streams in, where you see a boundary between worlds disappear right before your eyes, places where you are allowed to cross any borders, where borders and boundaries hold no sway” (2022: 12). These interstitial places, which appear almost spectral in these early descriptions, are nevertheless very much anchored in a material reality and are, for ní Dochartaigh, inextricably linked to care. This is a text which deals with trauma in an innovative manner, far from the disjointed narrative forms which we now associate with trauma fiction (Luckhurst 2008). Ní Dochartaigh uses the materiality of the sentient beings that surround us, and deep care for our ecosystem, as a means of recovery. Earth care as self-care.

Ní Dochartaigh is concerned with both the materiality and the immateriality of objects of care and manages to incorporate both through her interest in “the liminal space between things”, to borrow the title of an article by Timothy Morton (2014). The narrator foregrounds her mental health difficulties brought on by a violent and harrowing childhood in the North of Ireland and then proceeds to place the focus on the ways in which Ireland’s natural habitat, its material reality and its immaterial Celtic portals, “hold us” (2014: 228) in unsuspected care relationships. In the process, “[a]rt happens […] in the liminal space(s) between things, in conversations between metal and sky, humans and metal, era and era, heaven and earth” (Morton 2014: 270-1). A poignant process of recovery is recounted, highlighting firstly the narrator’s refusal to care about and take care of herself before slowly moving towards co-constituted acts of care: as ní Dochartaigh gradually recovers her lost mother tongue, and pays attention to the beauty of her natural surroundings, as she begins to care about her environment, she also starts to feel a certain reciprocity where she, in return, feels more cared for and even supported by the various species she notices. The sensory experience of loss and care in Thin Places is predicated upon several ecologies and resonates strongly with Joan Tronto’s definition of care as ultimately “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world include[s] our bodies, our selves (sic.), and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web” (Tronto 1993: 103; original emphasis). Thin Places celebrates, in the most understated manner, the full complexity of this “life-sustaining web” and this article proposes to unpack the specific ways in which this text resonates with Tronto’s call for interpersonal and inter-species care so as to “maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’”. In order to do this, I will begin by discussing the coloniality of loss, in other words, how the various losses ní Dochartaigh is grieving here are linked to the former colonisation of Ireland and its after-effects, before then moving on to an analysis of objects, places and stories of care.

The Coloniality of Loss

Central to ní Dochartaigh’s concerns in this generic anomaly of a text is that of loss and possible extinction. It opens in November 2019 against the backdrop of conflictual negotiations between the UK and the EU over Brexit and, specifically, the Northern Irish question and all the potentialities of loss which could stem from this complex political situation. Quickly, however, this potential calamity becomes bound up in other losses: specifically, loss of biodiversity and of language. Upon reading about the catastrophic decline in insect populations, she is struck by a double loss: “I have no words. […] I am living on my home island, on the soil of my ancestors, and I don’t even have the word for butterfly in my native language” (2022: 20; original emphasis). Loss of language then, and specifically the Irish language which British colonisation and oppression of native Irish inhabitants attempted to eradicate, is likened here to species extinction and is experienced as just as traumatic. The sub-text here is that coloniality and biodiversity catastrophe are two sides of the same coin. This point has also been made by Ashley Dawson in her book on extinction: for her, we cannot “understand extinction without an analysis of the exploitation and violence to which postcolonial nations have been subjected” (Dawson 2016: 12). Colonisation destroyed indigenous biotopes and ecologies as an extractive logic prevailed in which the extreme exploitation of land and bodies, not to mention new forms of pollution, had a negative impact on biodiversity. Removing the capacity to name things is presented as a form of harm and finding that language, those words, is one means of working towards recovery. Ní Dochartaigh’s summary of the double valance of loss (language and biodiversity) also dovetails with Mignolo and Walsh’s explanation of how the Colonial Matrix of Power works. As they put it: “the CMP [colonial matrix of power] emerged at a particular time and place and under particular circumstances that made possible for a particular assembly of living organisms engaged in languaging to tell themselves and to others a story about their manifest destiny to rule, and destroy if necessary, cultures, and civilizations that they invented as dangerous for their own well-being” (Mignolo and Walsh 2018: 220). And as ní Dochartaigh explains, more poetically:

How interconnected, how finely woven every part of it all was. In Ireland, the loss we experienced has had a rippling impact on our sense of self and our place in the world, which has its impact on our ability to speak out, to protect, to name. Our history, our culture, our land, our identity: we have had so much taken away from us. (2022: 20-1)

The fact that this final sentence initially places “history”, “culture”, and “land” as subjects before slipping into a passive formulation (“so much taken away from us”) points towards the effects of coloniality which aims to exploit and extract from land and people, diminishing indigenous agencies in the process. Although some Irish people have indeed been complicit with both colonisation and coloniality perpetrated elsewhere, Ireland, perched on the edge of Europe, is nevertheless scarred by intergenerational trauma caused by land, language and spiritual losses, not to mention the spectre of An Górta Mór, the politically engineered famine that decimated the Irish population in the mid nineteenth century. In Thin Places, ní Dochartaigh herself, but also the land, literally embody these layers of violence which are often conveyed by sets of rhetorical questions weaving together the materiality of the environment and her bodily knowledge of this unspoken past: “The Famine reverberates even still, and I feel, inside my body, the ripples such loss leaves in its wake. […] How to even start to reshape a land that has spent centuries telling a dark story of loss? […] Is this history of loss held in the soil? On the river itself?” (2022: 205).

The narrator’s body is presented here as indissociable from loss (mentioned three times), trauma (the recurrence of those “ripples” also present in the previous quotation, “a rippling impact”) and the very lie of the land. For her, retrieval of the memory of words and history as well as careful preservation of Ireland’s rich biodiversity are the keys to individual and collective recovery. This is also something Manchán Magan touches on in his recent book Listen to the Land Speak when he underlines that the trauma of the Famine “doesn’t vanish: it festers. Epigenetic study is also revealing how our bodies hold onto the trauma of past generations. The memories are not only in the national consciousness but also in our cellular structure too – in our internal organs and our nervous system”. For Magan, it is “only by coming to terms with the Famine [that we can] finally start to acknowledge, and maybe even address, the deep psychological block within us that prevents us from learning the language and respecting the land” (2022: 289).

Ní Dochartaigh superimposes another, not entirely unrelated, tableau of loss onto the Famine, that of the Troubles, and even that of Brexit. Frequently, the metaphors and similes she uses to describe the suffering she has experienced are related to powerful phenomena in nature, as for example when she writes that “I had grown up in a family and a city that has watched suffering ripple through their lines like an unstoppable wave. […] And so you let the silence deepen, you watch it grow and ricochet across the surface of the land and sea” (2022: 124). The relentlessness of adversity and its attendant anguish is conveyed in the simile, while the singular form (“like an unstoppable wave”) intimates the reckless damage caused by a tsunami of suffering and materialises it as a robust physical and potentially destructive force. In a chapter in which she reflects on the deleterious effects of Brexit on Derry and the North of Ireland more generally, she writes: “I think of roots, I think of belonging, of kinship and community. I think of that community beneath our feet, and of all that their knitted ways could teach us” (2022: 87). Community is a word which is often bandied about in the North, usually to reinforce a Manichean vision of the Troubles – what Glenn Patterson has dubbed “the C-word” (2014) – but the way in which it is deployed here by ní Dochartaigh offers new perspectives, as “roots”, it quickly becomes apparent, are not, as we might have expected, metaphorical or to do with human filiations, but rather refer to the community between human and non-human, as the second sentence makes clear. The fact that this other “community” is underfoot also conveys something of the anthropocentric violence at the heart of our trampling over nature, and yet ní Dochartaigh takes care to point out what other forms of kinship are out there: she is, to quote the sub-title of Haraway’s 2016 book, quite literally “making kin in the Chthulucene”.

Essentially, Thin Places explores the author’s own path to gaining agency as she moves through so many different facets of loss and harm and learns to care for herself, her (lost) mother tongue, for the “broken and breaking” city of Derry, and all those Celtic threshold spaces. Ní Dochartaigh’s relationship to Derry, to Ireland, is not predicated upon nationalism, which, except perhaps in the form of emancipatory nationalism, has always shown its limitations, but it is intensely political and highly decolonial for all that, predicated as it is on vincularidad. As Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh point out:

relationality does not mean simply to include other practices and concepts into our own. Its meaning references […] vincularidad. Vincularidad is the awareness of the integral relation and interdependence amongst all living organisms (in which humans are only a part) with territory or land and the cosmos. It is a relation and interdependence in search of balance and harmony of life in the planet. (Mignolo and Walsh 2018: 1)

The cost of coloniality, which undermines vincularidad, is immense, as ní Dochartaigh shows, and irrevocably disrupts our connection to place, objects, people, and our habitat: “This level of intergenerational trauma takes time, so much time, to leave the gene pool. It surges through bloodlines like an ancient river” (2022: 205). Loss is quite literally embodied by people and by the land, yet Thin Places also celebrates the ways in which materialities of care, linked to place, objects and stories, can offer solace and new perspectives, perhaps even recovery.

Places of Care and Care of Places

Significant parts of Thin Places are devoted to detailed descriptions and embodied experiences of place, whether these are traumatic or healing, creating new forms of what Alexa Weik von Mossner has termed “affective ecologies”: “it is the skillful use of sensory imagery that activates the sensorimotor cortex in readers’ brains and thus ensures vivid imagined perception and, as a result, a distinct affective experience of the evoked environment” (2017: 48).

Despite the hardships of deprivation, discrimination and death which lead to her severe mental health issues, ní Dochartaigh eschews clinical care which, in any case, is not forthcoming, for the power of place to transform, claiming that her recovery has been contingent on the almost tangible pull it exerts over her: “The natural world in the wilderness on both sides of that unseen border dragged me back to the land of the living, and it held me there. […] In adulthood, it has held me just as tightly, as I dealt with the trauma that had rained down on me for decades” (2022:194). The double use of the verb “hold” and the agency attributed to “the wilderness” which is credited here with nothing less than the power of saving her from suicide (“dragged me back”) hints at more than a mere literary personification. The very materiality of the land, despite the metaphysical associations of its thin places, provides a form of care which is akin to therapy:

There are places that are so thin that we see right through it all, through the untruths we have told ourselves about who we are. We see through every last bit of the things that we once thought defined us. We see that, like a landscape that has undergone vast and irreversible shifts, we, too, might be capable of change. (2022: 191)

The move to the first-person plural here and the repetition of the verb “see” accompany a reversal in which it is not the land which is personified but we humans who are compared to it, foregrounding the reciprocity between human and non-human life, and enabling a startling clarity of vision and potential transformation. This reciprocity, in fact inextricability, between humans and our habitat is a central focus of Thin Places: “We are the landscape, and it is us. We made our past, and it made us” (2022: 105). The very syntax here, where subjects and objects are inverted, twice, mirrors this interconnectedness. Ní Dochartaigh is careful, however, to avoid suggesting that places perform a kind of magic or that they can provide a miracle cure for mental ill health:

vvPlaces do not heal us; they do not take the suffering we have known and bury it in their bellies. Places do not gather the broken parts of us up and stitch them back together. Places do not make the light shine on crow-black nights. Places do not take away our sorrow; they do not unearth the words buried under frozen bog-land; they do not call the birds back when they have been long gone from our sky.

vvPlaces do not heal us.

vvPlaces only hold us, they only let us in. (2022: 228)

The anaphoric quality of this passage and the long list of the things that places do not do, cannot do, forcefully and effectively link individual and collective trauma, memory, and ecological breakdown, while the unreasonable expectations placed on specific places to redress wrongs and heal suffering are foregrounded through the use of personification. Ní Dochartaigh gently invites us to step away from claim-staking when it comes to place, and highlights instead, through the evocative image of an embrace, a caring connection to place. By the time we reach the end of Thin Places, we have journeyed through the four stages of Joan Tronto’s ethics of care (Tronto 1993: 102-108), from attentiveness (“caring about”) to responsibility (“caring for”) to competence (“care-giving”) to responsiveness (“care-receiving”), moved by the reciprocity between humans and non-humans of this care ethics and the unusual forms it takes in this text, as a text. The recourse to the second person throughout the narrative, and in a particularly sustained way in the final paragraphs, involves the reader in an “affective ecology” where sky, wind, water, moths, curlews and a human all co-exist in harmonious existence for a moment and forever, making Thin Places one of those places that, temporarily, “hold us” and “let us in”. This fleeting temporality, particularly of thin places, resonates with Morton’s words on “intersecting places, so many scales, so many nonhumans”. Place, he writes, “now has nothing to do with good old reliable constancy. What has dissolved in the idea of constant presence: the myth that something is real insofar as it is consistently ‘there’” (Morton 2016: 10).

Notwithstanding this inconstancy, ní Dochartaigh makes a plea for taking care of the places in which we, however temporarily, find ourselves. Attuned to how “the materialities of care […] are linked with their politico-economic contexts” (Buse et al. 1998: 10), she bridges the gap between “the poverty, fear and trauma hidden in the folds of my small Atlantic rock” and “the larger issues on the table, on our planet as a whole” (2022: 197), from the slow disappearance of the blackbird to that of people or things. Ireland is reduced to a “small rock”, but even the “larger issues” are nevertheless “on the table”, the deployment of the metaphor of domesticity revealing the porousness of the three different spaces of the intimate sphere, the landmass of Ireland, and the world. An invitation to care for all these places is affirmed as a way to heal oneself: “There is still so much left here for us to protect, to nurture, to preserve, to hold dear” (2022: 197). Places of care and caring for places then become inextricable.

Objects of Care

Thin Places is divided into two parts, the first mostly charting past pain and the second the path to recovery. Part one has a chapter devoted to “Lost things” and part two has a corollary chapter, “Found things”, but the cursor is placed in a slightly different place in both, portraying “things” through a different lens. The “things” which the narrator lists as “lost” are destabilising: the family home when they are burnt out, and again when they must move to Edinburgh, a close friend when he is murdered, another close friend who takes her own life, even herself (“I am trying to see myself as a thing worth sticking round for”, 2022: 104). This inclusion of people and homes within the category of “things” is initially surprising and yet it is not reductive or disparaging. Rather, it takes us back to the etymology of the word “thing”, from the Old English þing which means an entity, being or matter, or indeed a meeting between two beings and which therefore reminds us, alongside Morton, of the “uneasy, shifting relative motion between different things” (Morton 2014: 272), whether sentient or not. The “lost things” in this chapter are both entities (people) and meeting places between beings (homes) and ní Dochartaigh deliberately eschews hierarchies, placing all of these on a continuum of loss which produces similar pain. In order to restore care, in the second part of the work, the narrator searches out other, less apparently sentient, “things” as substitute forms of care:

I began to gather more things from the places I sought refuge in, and to bring them to my rented home. My two large windowsills […] filled up with all manner of objects varying in size and texture, depending on where I had found them. I mostly found those things on stretches of sand alongside the sea: shards and fragments, smithereens and bits and bobs, parts and portions of the coastline that was keeping me safe back then. Stones and pebbles, feathers and sea-glass, bones and sticks brought back with me, from one place, to lie in another. […] Did they make me feel a wee bit more embedded – in place in a life I was struggling with every day, in my own body, that was somehow still dragging me through? (2022: 141)

None of the “objects” or “things” which ní Dochartaigh lists here is initially named, presented significantly only as synecdoches to begin with, although the series of sibilant and plosive alliterations nevertheless links them despite their apparent differences. The narrator gradually relinquishes her status as subject of the sentence, until reasserting it again in the final sentence, and the overall impression is one of the objects surrounding her in spite of herself: the windowsills “filled up”, the objects are “brought back”, her active part in this process somewhat elided. Even the rhetorical question at the end of this passage testifies to her uncertainty about the role these objects play in her recovery, yet the semantics of care (“refuge”, “keeping me safe”) make it clear that they hold a significant place in this process.

Moths and vegetation also loom large in Thin Places, not just for their central role in accompanying the narrator on her road to recovery, but also because of the threat of extreme biodiversity loss. They take care and must be cared for and it is in this sense that they are “objects of care”. Ní Dochartaigh’s approach is not that of using non-human nature as an analogous backdrop for what has been lost, nor is it an elegiac “future anticipation” (DeLoughry 2019: 189) for what will have passed. Rather, it is a statement about “a loss of culture that figures as a loss of ‘nature’ or the planet” (DeLoughry 2019: 189), aligning it more with indigenous cultural productions outside of Europe:

all of us in Ireland are living on a land scarred by much that has been lost; and by much that we must learn how to begin to protect. The hedgerows and rivers, the sea and the mountains, the laneways and stone-scattered bog-land: these are part of us. They are part of our past and our identity. The things that live alongside us have names that many of us do not know. (2022: 43)

The lexical emphasis on damage (“scarred”, “lost”), the enumeration of different facets of the lay of the land, and the triple assertion of the reciprocity between humans (“us”) and non-human nature all reveal just how important these “things that live alongside us” are, and how their disappearance adds another layer of grief, “eco-grief”, which is “collective, overwhelming, inescapable, unstoppable” (2022: 44) to all the past hurts. There is a crescendo effect here as the number of syllables in these adjectives increases from three, to four, to five, then back to four, echoing the overpoweringly devastating realisation. Yet there are also many moments which attempt to attenuate this grief, such as when the unusual appearance of an Oak Beauty moth incites the narrator to follow it along “her path above broken glass bottles – things that speak of the addiction and poverty that are already here, which looks like it will worsen in the future that lies ahead. Broken things that spoke of our need” (2022: 15). Its presence is intimately connected to the ravages of colonial-capitalist modernity and the sudden juxtaposition of these two very different materialities, one sentient, one object-centred, conveys ní Dochartaigh’s desire to simultaneously foreground psycho-material hardship and another, more healing, path away from it. The “broken things” she observes speak of the fragility of lives in Derry, whether economically, physically or psychologically, but the moth indicates the possibility of beauty and resilience, and while it will not in itself change the lives of those struggling with addiction, its furtive appearance might offer momentary solace in the sheer beauty of its dance (2022: 16).

Objects of care are therefore double in Thin Places. They are “things” (entities) which anchor the narrator in times of hardship, enabling her to draw on their energy and visibility to sustain her and even keep her alive. But they are also “things” which require care from her, and from all humans, if we are to prevent the most potentially destructive layer of grief of all, that of even greater biodiversity loss and mass extinction. Ní Dochartaigh’s keen awareness of human interdependency on nature is predicated upon mutual care of and respect for the materiality of all forms of existence, so that “materialities permeate practices of care in relational and emergent ways, and care permeates materialities in relational and emergent ways too” (Buse et al. 2018: 10). Her very storytelling practices themselves reflect this even further.

Stories of Care

Thin Places is not a story in any immediately recognisable sense of the word, yet it is full of stories. As Donna Haraway has eloquently pointed out, “[i]t matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with […]. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories” (2016: 12). In this respect, the matter which constitutes Ní Dochartaigh’s work is composite and intertwined in complex ways so as to bear witness to multiple stories of loss and, in response to this, multiple manifestations of care. This care dimension is fundamental if one is to avoid the pitfall of what Matt Hooley has called “scalable vulnerability” or “a necropolitical construction of vulnerability” which, despite its noble agenda to uncover the ways in which coloniality has shaped the ecological and climate disaster in material ways, tends to make certain Indigenous people, cultures and habitats “scientifically knowable only in or as disappearance” (Hooley 2017: 187). This involves moving towards what Eve Tuck calls “desire-based frameworks” which “defy the lure to serve as ‘advertisements for power’ by documenting not only the painful elements of social realities but also the wisdom and hope. Such an axiology is intent on depathologising the experiences of dispossessed and disenfranchised communities so that people are seen as more than broken and conquered” (Tuck 2009: 416). By shifting the cursor more towards care than vulnerability, ní Dochartaigh is careful to offer another story, or different matter which we might “use to think other matters with”, so that storytelling itself then becomes a form of care-giving.

Although much of Thin Places describes the narrator’s own experiences of hardship due to the Troubles, it encapsulates a collective story: “The story, our own, is a shared one, of the lines and circles of the land we know, of the sorrow it has known and of our own white moth of memory” (2022: 4). This apparent anchoring of “the story” along the lines of the invisible border which separates the two parts of Ireland is immediately undermined as ní Dochartaigh widens the temporal focus right back to the Ice Age, implying that the story of her own personal journey from mental ill-health to recovery is just a detail in the much longer story of an Earth now in jeopardy both locally and globally.

The power of story is emphasised early on in the text when the narrator describes her grandfather’s storytelling skills. Storytellers “never really tell you anything. […] The words, when they spill quietly out of the mouth of the one who has been entrusted with them, dance in the space, at one with the flames of the fire. It is, as always, up to those who listen to do with them what they will” (2022: 11; original emphasis). Words are materialised here, becoming tangible and intermingling with other material elements present at the moment of storytelling, but they are in no way prescriptive as the final sentence places the onus on the receiver to shape their own responses to these words. This functions somewhat as a metacommentary on Thin Places and on ní Dochartaigh’s humble agenda as she places herself as simply another link in a much longer chain. The materiality of words on a page, in a book, is only imbued with meaning and with the potential to convey a narrative of care if the reader reads those words. The reciprocity highlighted here mirrors the reciprocity noted above between humans and non-human nature, suggesting that the story contained in this book is only partial and should be seen as a small act of care addressed by the author both to herself and to anyone who reads it. Moreover, the multi-layeredness of her story is acknowledged several times: “This story, like all stories of all people and places, has more layers than I may ever fully know, than I could even try to peel back, but I am trying. I will always try to understand this story – my story, our story” (2022: 194). The strong focus here, through repetition, on encapsulating everything (“all stories”; “all people and places”) gradually leads to a more intimate invitation to see the way individual stories interconnect, “my story” becoming “our story” in an act of acknowledgement of the reader, who, on the receiving end, becomes another layer embedded in this process of mutuality.

Sensory awareness of the non-human natural world is, ní Dochartaigh suggests, key to both care-giving and care-receiving. Having accompanied the narrator along her narrative of unbearable hardship towards care and recovery predicated upon unsuspected connections with moths, stones, seas, and trees, the reader is, in the final pages, invited to respond to these words and to “do with [them] what they will” (2022: 11): “the land that you are held by is holding its breath. You and that land are making ready to wait. […] The land that you are being held by breathes out. You breathe out, too, slowly, letting every single part of it go, watching as it all dances in the emptied sky” (2022: 251). The symbiosis between the narrator, the reader, and the land is buttressed by the guided breathing and we are left wondering what the “it” refers to: the land, the past, the multiple stories embedded into the poignant story we have just been reading? For once, it does not “matter” since it is the reader (“you”) who decides what exactly it is they need to let go of, now they have been moved by the emotional charge of ní Dochartaigh’s language.

Going back to the Amitav Ghosh quotation with which I started out, “[t]he planet will never come alive for you unless your songs and stories give life to all the beings, seen and unseen, that inhabit a living earth – Gaia”, I contend that Kerri ní Dochartaigh responds to this, anticipates it in fact, and what is innovative about the way she does this is that traumatic experiences, suffering and vulnerability are placed alongside the vivacity of planet Earth which offers potential healing if relationships of care can be established. Ní Dochartaigh “give[s] life to all the beings, seen and unseen” and presents inter-species connections as a means of counteracting human vulnerability and marginalisation. Seeking out beauty means, in ní Dochartaigh’s words, to keep one’s “eyes open to this turning, aching earth”, seeing “[w]ing-beats above a concrete council estate, snow-light on blossom after violence, moth-light on a red fox after” and “seeking beauty in the murk” (2022: 236). These fragments of beauty in a sometimes-hostile environment constitute the materialities of care in Thin Places in which she not only manages to redeem past personal hardships, but she also “[i]n the face of such an irredeemably rapacious and ultimately impoverishing system, […] insist[s] on the human capacity to dream and to build a more just, more biologically diverse world” (Dawson 2016: 101). This is where care and literature overlap most significantly, when the latter invites us to dream of other, more caring, possibilities for our world. And, having done this, she then offers it to us, rather like the way Bruno Latour does at the end of Down to Earth: “There, I’ve finished. Now, if you wish, it’s your turn to present yourself, tell us a little about where you would like to land and with whom you agree to share a dwelling place” (2018: 106). Stories do not end, and earth care continues to matter. As ní Dochartaigh writes at the end of her recent book, Cacophony of Bone, “to sow/is to scatter light around,/like wee fluttering moths” (2023: 276). Thin Places does precisely this, sowing the seeds of materialities of care.

Notes

[1] See the 2016 census results for more information on this point: “Of the 1,761,420 persons who answered yes to being able to speak Irish, 418,420 indicated they never spoke it, while a further 558,608 indicated they only spoke it within the education system. Of the remaining group, 586,535 persons indicated they spoke Irish less often than weekly, 111,473 spoke weekly while just 73,803 persons spoke Irish daily”. https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-cp10esil/p10esil/ilg/

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| Received: 08-11-2023 | Last Version: 23-02-2024 | Articles, Issue 19