In October of last year, and after almost six years of writing, and editing, and rewriting, The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone was released to the world. In a process that was long and fulfilling, and rewarding, and circuitous, and frustrating and torturous, and (choose your superlative), I had finally cut the knot and cast it adrift.
I’d begun writing in the latter months of my stay in the Peruvian rainforest. I’d been living there for almost two years, alongside my wife, Ursula, who had been the inaugural manager of Refugio Amazonas. In fact, only weeks after we married we moved to this remote building site, that required a half hour journey by road and three and half hours by boat from the nearest town of Puerto Maldonado. We were to live in a shack, with no running water or facilities, but with a team of workers, researchers, a host of laptops and a satellite dish! Washing was done with a bucket of cold water, or with a dip in the Rio Tambopata. This was the beginning, our Eden.
Of life in the rainforest, one of the luxuries was the trails. The land we’d moved into had been a farmers land, the space where the lodge was to be built, surrounded by the forests in which the community had hunted for many, many years. Long thin trails to oxbow lakes and colpas were already cut, and with constant walking and an easily wielded machete they were kept clear of undergrowth. Once for hunting, they were now the viewing galleries of the forest, along which guides would lead visitors or which researchers would slowly saunter.
Being a forester by education, I had first visited the rainforest as a volunteer for a research project. Returning to the rainforest, but with no purpose in hand had provided me with a challenge. Whilst most seek a sighting of birds and mammals, my joy is for the plants, the trees, the eco-physiological processes, the geography of the landscape, the dynamics of water and how it influences the forest structure, and how those birds and mammals, so prized, interact and shape that same forest. That’s not to say I didn’t seek or get a thrill upon seeing a tapir, or upon stumbling into the incredible gnashing, grunting, grinding sound, (and that’s not to forget the stench), of a herd of white lipped peccaries. But the one thing I wasn’t looking at was the influence of the forest on me.
Falling asleep at night, with your window an open space to the forest, is to fall asleep to a cacophony of sounds and songs, and calls and whistles, so that it seems that the forest themes with life. And so it does. Yet, upon walking a trail, the only sound would often be that of alarm. You are seen, the caller is not. The forest is filled full of creatures whose primary defense is invisibility. A potoo could stand on a snag but a short distance away, and be virtually indistinguishable from its perch. A sloth has perfected the art of stillness to such a degree, that it is almost as immobile as the tree in which it lives. A praying mantis can look like just another leaf in a sea of leaves. They can be so difficult to detect that even when an experienced guide, or a local resident, points to the potoo or sloth or mantis, my first thought would sometimes be, “Are my eyes deceiving me?”
We come – or at least most do – from cities, or even large towns. We come from road networks and highways, from a world of televisions and computers, from pressurized environments, be they work or home. We move with speed, chasing life, opportunities. Our senses are constantly gratified with ever changing stimuli. Don’t like this program; change the channel. Got nothing to do; turn on the gamebox. There’s no-one around; quick, check your phone. This is the world of the screen; the world of instant communication, instant information, instant relief from boredom, for the one rule of this world, is don’t be bored. Don’t ever be bored! But the rainforest is not of this modern world. The rainforest is primeval.
It’s only when you’ve been bored for a while that you begin to see. Eyes may look out at the world, but its stillness that brings life to you. All about the world is being written, waiting to be read. It’s the book eschewed in favour of the soap, a kaleidoscope unseen for the melodrama of the mind is blinding.
I grew up surrounded by books. They were my own. I was an Enid Blyton nut when I was a kid. I loved The Famous Five, and The Secret Seven. I read Roald Dahl, Tom McGaughran and oh so many others. My mother was wonderful. Not a reader herself, she would bring me to the library, or buy what I chose whenever a book fair was on in school. When a teenager, I became enthralled in fantasy. Upon entering my twenties, religious and philosophical wanderings grabbed my attention, popular science, poetry, Yeats, Walden, Emerson. I wanted to write. I scribbled. I wrote a large part of a fantasy novel – that is never to grace the light of day.
My mother was also a keen gardener. Oh, she loved her garden! A friends father would bring us to Wicklow, the rolling slopes that lie south of Dublin with their majestic landscapes and wooded glens and ancient monasteries. And so, in my twenties, when I figured I had to do something with myself, I began with horticulture, and moved on to forestry. And one day, my professor, upon a field trip, after hitting one or two of us on the head with a thin, leaved branch (he had a playful way of making his point), told us to start reading. But he didn’t mean books. He meant the land. He meant the soil. It carries stories. It can tell you what it is, what has passed, what can be, if only it is read.
It was in the rainforest that I began to read literature. Reading, it is often said, is dying out. Its the nature of the modern world that attention spans are shortened. It’s a boring activity. It takes too much time! Time, however, was what I had in abundance; time to walk, time to think, and time to read. My only limitation was that English language books were none too easy to find in Peru, so, for the most part, I relied on what kind hearted guests left behind. One such treasure was One Hundred Years of Solitude. And like many erstwhile writers before me, upon reading this masterpiece, I immediately picked up the pen.
If books are born from books, then writing is born from reading, and literature wise, I had little to go by. I was in for an education. There are so many masterpieces in the world, works of outstanding value abound. My particular bent is for the poetic. I love well crafted prose. But equally, I love the originality of thought. And if I was looking for insight, the forest was my first muse. And yet, I didn’t write about the forest. I wrote about my home country. I created a tale about a fictional town, about Poulnabrone.
I’ve been asked many times over the past few years about living in The Jungle. The surprising thing about it is the normalcy of it. It’s easy to pass this off as, “Sure, you can get used to living anywhere”, but whilst that is, for the most part, true, there is something else to the observation. One of the works I came across in my early twenties concerned a famous hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson. It took me some time to internalize it, but one of the basic techniques the practitioner had was to listen to the language of his patient. Everyday discourse is filled with pearls of observation. Language is rich. Layers and layers of meaning exist in even the most innocuous of expressions. We’re always speaking the truth.
When I arrived in Peru, my home country was booming. And as in so many boom towns the language of finance and economics predominates. It is akin to a frenzy. News programs speak of house prices and the citizen gets replaced by the consumer. I was keenly attuned to this fact. The boom, is to say the least, now over, and the modern world is in a state of flux. This is one of those periods when the rate of change is so fast it has become chaotic. An economic order that is little short of plutocracy has developed. We are witnessing a quiet coup, but the boom, as with the bust was just a part of this process. The coup is an ongoing project. And it is a coup that has brought it’s own idioms.
We have been here before. Upton Sinclair in writing of the meat industry in Chicago in the late 1800’s called his work, The Jungle. I had yet to read The Jungle at the time, but I was reading of ecological theories of community succession, and then later walking on a trail, not far from the lodge, when that phrase, the economic jungle, leapt to mind. Words used in economic theory suddenly gained a significance that they had not before. We call factories, plants. We speak of liquidity. Savings are called deposits. We speak of market porosity and depth as though they are soils. These words sprang at me from the page. I realised that economics is nothing but human ecology. It is the means through which we order our societies. Equally, however, it is a construct of the mind and a set of power relations.
As the name suggests water is the predominant force in the rainforest. It is the medium of life. Living near a river bank not far from the Andes allowed me to see a river like I never had before. It is dramatic. Shallow streams in the dry season that run down through gravel beds can become immense bodies of water in the wet season. The rivers swell and rise and rise, and run over the floodplain, that riparian stretch of forest so diverse in species of plants and animals. It seeps into the soils which soak it up like a sponge. And then the water subsides. Until I had witnessed such an event I thought the river carved the forest, but that is not how it works at all. It bites at it, grips it at the roots and tears it away as it is leaving. It eats the soil in this manner. The trees fall shortly after.
I didn’t see it then, but the time was coming when we would leave. Times were changing there as much as they were in my home country, and my eye had been turned to Ireland. I was in the forest, thinking of my home country. I knew the bust was coming. That it was crazy. A river of money flowing through shallow soils. It seemed absurd to me, that it wasn’t obvious to so many.
I left the rainforest with all these thoughts in mind. I had the opening pages, which would in time be changed or turned into another part of the story, but more importantly I knew what it was I wanted to write and why. The how is why six years passed before I placed it in print. To be any good at anything requires doing. I needed to read, as much as to write. I needed to learn.
Since I arrived back in Dublin, the bust has happened, and five more years have passed. Yet beneath it all, nothing much has changed. Same order, but with the water subsiding. Same old shenanigans, but with a whole new layer of spin and gloss. I live here now with my wife and daughter in this town I love. I read about it in foreign papers. Ireland is the poster child for the new economic order. A lot of truth and garbage passes for analysis. I find blogs are a better place to turn to if you want to know what’s really going on.
I’d begun writing this with the intention of stating some sort of principles. What was the aim or even point of starting a blog, but well, leaving Eden proved far more interesting and what I wished to explore. This is what I will write. What comes to me. And right now that’s enough. So I’ll leave it at that…