View From Kiltumper


-Niall Williams

I woke early and with sudden purpose went up across the hill fields of Kiltumper. I carried spade, slash hook, bushman saw, and crossed the Big Meadow with Huck trailing a little in my wake. A Retriever, more cream than golden, he was thirteen now, more willing than able, and I stopped sometimes to give him pause. The moment I did he lay panting on the grass and the unreal quiet and stillness we live in here assembled about us. It took only a moment. A man in a five-acre field is a small thing, and when I stood in the soft rise and fall of the ground, the stippling of rushes, the patches of gleam where puddles hold some sky, I was struck by a sense of placedness. By this I mean the thought of my place in this place.

When I was growing up in Dublin it never occurred to me that I might one day own any land, that I might one day have fields. Nor did I have any idea what that might entail. The country is another country, I probably thought. But this year I have lived in Clare longer than anywhere else, on fifty-eight rumpled acres in Kiltumper. The thought of this had struck me recently after the funeral of Johnno Finucane down in the village. Johnno was one of those remarkable Claremen who had an innate gentleness, and, it seemed to me, wisdom. By wisdom I mean not only sense and knowledge—for he knew the farming, the land and the animals, and coupled this with a keen interest in the wider world, was curious, engaged—‘Is that so?’—as able to talk about the trouble with a cow as about American politics or the news of water on Mars—but that in some way he knew the place of things, and his place in them. And that evening, when Martin Keane, our friend and steady night-caller, stopped by this subject was drawn down in the conversation. Johnno was like Martin’s own father J.J. who had died some years previously, and I said I wondered if their kind was vanishing now from the county.

‘They were connected in a way that seems impossible now,’ I said. ‘”Connected” is not quite right either, but…’

‘Grounded,’ Martin said.

‘Yes, in every sense.’

‘I suppose what you’re getting at is how hard it is now to actually inhabit the place you are in.’

Inhabit the place you are in. The phrase landed in me with a thump.

‘That’s exactly right.’

Martin smiled and leaned forward to take a biscuit. ‘Of course it is,’ he said.

And this was in my head this morning as I went out across the Big Meadow. The meadow lies at the base of the hill fields, Upper and Lower Tumper, and so gathers all the water that flows down them. Across it runs a wide field drain that this morning was flooded out over the grass. So here, early on this Friday morning, I set to work.

It’s an inexact business freeing a drain: prodding with the slash hook, dragging up mawls of sopping weed, perching on the down-slope and letting the spade down into the blind mud water, lifting a weighty nothing as the mud resolves and slides off.  It’s an action of loosening, freeing, and while you’re at it you feel there is some essential necessity to it.  It’s as though the act, old as time, has greater meaning attached to it. Huck gave the brown water the brief moments of his attention, then, with no clear idea what I was at, only the profound trust of dogs for masters, lay with head on forepaws to watch. The blocked drain was deeper than my wellingtons. (What clogs a drain? How can an open and wide drain with a large pipe running under the place where a tractor can cross and where no man or animal has been for over a year, how can this become blocked? But it does. It blocks with time. The muddy earth of west Clare cannot stand up to the rain. There is constant surrender. A sludging gloop of stuff keeps miring and massing. And in me too, I thought.)

I decided that perhaps if I could feel the blockage I could free it, and so in the easy breezes of morning I took off my shirt and began to reach down into the brown water. It was startlingly cold. I lay on the bank, face to the earth, arm gone deep to my shoulder, trying to feel in the blind underwater for some obstruction. The world is different when it is stopped. The cold smell of the land, the mud-kiss on my pressed cheek, the coming and going whispering of wind in the grass, steady leak of water at eye-level, constant from the hill fields above and out small natural channels onto the stagnant weed canal, all these entered me as my fingers gingerly sought the opening of the pipe.

So how does a novelist inhabit the place he is in? All the time you are working you are trying to do just the opposite. I had just spent two years sitting in the front room of the cottage trying each day to inhabit the Greek island of Patmos towards the end of the first century. And while the rain that pelted down in west Clare frequently found its way to fall in Patmos two thousand years earlier, and while sometimes the cold winter waves at Doonbeg also broke on the Greek shore, it seemed I had spent more time in the imagined place than the real.

And so it had been. The place comes out of the page even as I go in towards it. And like anything else the longer you do it the more it becomes a habit. I inhabit the place I am in, but it’s not the place I live.

That’s what I thought after Martin went and left the phrase with me. Inhabit the place you’re in. And that’s why when I woke I headed out to the drain that I knew was blocked for some weeks now.

Now I lay there, my arm fishing in the water below. Then my fingers found a stone, haired with weed, and blocking the channel. I could finger only the top of it and so leaned lower still, cheek to the water, and then I had it. There was a sudden glugging, a mouth-watering, a rush as the drain freed and announced itself in the spring morning. Startled, Huck started to get up—when he was younger he would have torn around—but now he is like an aged couple rising from chairs, front legs and rear in separate motions, each uncertain the other will have made it.  I pulled my arm out and lay there, watching the curve and eddy, the swift movement in the water, and felt the place coming right. I lay there and was suddenly aware of birdsong. It was as if someone has literally turned up the birds. Perhaps it was a trick of the acoustics, the hollow drain catching the sound and the drain water amplifying it. Or more fancifully, it was because the birds had forgotten me. I had become a still piece of the five acre field. Either way, suddenly there was such trilling that it seemed I was eavesdropping on the place itself. Hearing it as it was when I was not here.

And that in turn became my entrance into it. I imagined the bird’s eye view of the shirtless man in the five acre field. I imagined my own place, and by the time I rose and took shovel and slash hook and headed back across the meadow with Huck, I was already thinking of a new story, already feeling my imagination inhabit the place I am in.