In Praise of Geography

Tim and Máiréad Robinson earned a living by making maps. Both passed away in the early wave of COVID last spring. They were in their 80s, but god-damn the eugenicist scum who blithely write off “underlying conditions” as an excuse. (This crowd of filth, the base of a GOP lately heard bleating about how divisive calls for impeachment are, is of the kind that deny that there were victims at Sandy Hook, to the extent of harrying parents of the children killed.)

Tim Robinson wrote books about the Aran Islands, the Burren, and Connemarra, what he called the “ABCs” of western Ireland. His subject was the “web of placelore,” the cultural encrustation of human habitation of the land, which he teased out by walking, for years, over the terrain.

I’ve read Stones of Aran, in which he details his walk around the edge of Arainn, the biggest of the Aran Islands (volume 1, Pilgrimage), and then through the interior (volume 2, Labyrinth). So good. I’m reading the first volume of his Connemara trilogy, Listening to the Wind, now. It’s better.

There’s a chapter in this latter book about remains that encapsulates Robinson’s method. On foot, he explores the depths of human presence in the land, from the pre-historic to what’s remembered by the old fisherman to what he himself sees, hears, smells, all the while paying particular attention to the names on the land: Irish, anglicized Irish, and English. (“Irish placenames dry out when anglicized, like twigs snapped off a tree.”)

The chapter, “The Boneyard,” discuses the prevalence of burial sites for unbaptized babies, not allowed on “consecrated” ground because of the cruelty of the Church; the local use of dog welks to make purple dye (albeit on a smaller scale than with the famed murex of Tyrian purple); the prevalence of tiny forams in the oceans, where they’re major players in the carbon cycle, and on the beaches when they die; and the site of a labyrinth made by a “land artist” in 1971, which the artist did not want pin-pointed on the Robinsons’ map. Robinson points out that the stones, like these other bones, hardly belong to the artist now.

In college, I majored in geography, which of course means “earth writing.” It is good to get back to a master of it.

NYRB Classics published the two-volume Stones of Aran here in the U.S.
Milkweed Editions has published Listening to the Wind, the first volume of the Connemarra trilogy. I’m not clear on whether they’ll do the other two volumes.
Penguin UK has the complete trilogy.

“Individually, none of the names I have mentioned is of much intrinsic interest. But if we think of all the place names that humanity has applied to the surface of this planet as constituting a single vast fingerprint, can we neglect even its most minute particularities in trying to identify ourselves?”

1 Response to “In Praise of Geography”


  1. 1 Chuck McAlexander January 10, 2021 at 9:30 am

    Would that we were but a fingerprint on the face of this planet and not the deep claw marks and wounding gashes and gouges left by the fangs of our limitless hunger for ever growing consumption.


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