Kerri ní Dochartaigh is the author of Thin Places, winner of the Butler Literary Award and shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize. Born in Derry-Londonderry, at the border between the North and South of Ireland, she has written for The Guardian, The Irish Times, BBC, Winter Papers, and others. Her latest book is Cacophony of Bone.
Duri Baek is an artist from South Korea, whose paintings reflect the light in nature. Her work has been exhibited at galleries throughout Seoul and has appeared in publications such as Noema Magazine. Her solo exhibitions include Cheon-yi, A Light Collector, and Photosynthesis.
Welcoming a newborn son into a troubled and uncertain world, Kerri ní Dochartaigh feels her way through an emerging realization of her mammalhood that brings her closer to the living world.
IN THE SECOND TRIMESTER of my first pregnancy, I began to experience my body in the world in ways that unsettled me beyond comprehension. Only in the summer just past—two whole years later—did I begin to try to unravel those feelings. That last sentence is erroneous, in fact. The experiences of which I write were not feelings by any stretch of the imagination. Certainly nothing in the way of what I would catalogue as a feeling in my long-held understanding of the definition. The things I began to experience were visceral—so deep and so not-of-me as to feel ancient, feral.
Animal in the place of human.
I want to tell you that these things—these not feelings—began in a wild, overgrown garden.
A (rec)tangle of grasses and hawthorn; poppies, love-in-a-mist, and cornflowers grown from seed; blankets and (once) brightly colored enamelware—faded by years or decades of love and or (ab)use.
I would love to say it began on a small stretch of land; a place as quiet as any wild place might ever be. A space given back to the critters and winged things; the ones that crawl and creep and hide from view; those that fly and build and remake themselves; those that stay exactly as they are (until one day, quietly, they don’t). A place where a person might feel themselves a part of this whole living, mating, killing, gestating, dying world.
I want to say that it began there, right in the middle of that Irish midland garden; in the second summer of a global pandemic. That it began at the edges: right where—if it was a thing that my lover or I could take seriously—we would have put a fence; right where this small stretch of land legally became “ours.” That is, if my lover or I could take such an idea seriously: that any piece of wilderness—any parcel of this glorious, giving, gorgeous earth—could ever belong to anyone other than the great mother that birthed her.
But the truth is it didn’t really begin in that garden, the first one I have ever known intimately. It didn’t begin there, or in any garden at all, in fact. It did not even begin outdoors. It began indoors; inside a building—a hospital I only ever set foot in because my body, my life, my whole being, had begun a process of transformation the like of which I had never allowed myself to believe might happen for me.
This is all a very tricky thing to word, but I have the sense that even the attempt to do so is important for me in this newly born stage of life—perhaps important for creatures other than me, too. You see, the thing I am trying to speak of here embarrassed me at first. When it all began, I was confused and a little shaken, unsure what to do with these primal senses that had started deep inside my body—a body in which I had lived for three and a half decades without really paying any attention to it. My own body. Things had started happening to the blood and bones and brain and breasts and organs of me. I realized, in the second trimester of pregnancy—as though struck by a bolt of lightning—that I was a mammal. That I was a female mammal, carrying—inside of me—another mammal: my offspring.
Suddenly every single thing I thought I knew of this world—my ideas on home, food, communication, justice, land, water, threat, safety, and more—was shaken up from the inside out.
Never had I felt myself such a part of a planet before; an ecosystem; a species.
Never had I felt the animal that I am so keenly; so bodily; so terrifyingly.
In trying to give voice to motherhood, I am trying to give voice to mammalhood.
IN THE FINAL TRIMESTER of that same pregnancy, we were allowed—for the first time in months—to leave the small, landlocked county to which we had moved only a handful of weeks before the country locked down. We returned, my lover and I, to Connemara. I swam in the same body of water in which I’d swam before we discovered the pregnancy that changed my body—and its way of being in the world—forever. As well as a sense of relief and delight, I experienced, that day, a deepening sense of dread and anxiety that I struggle to loosen myself from. Even now, two years later, this place brings something inside me to the surface; something that leaves me wheeling, unsettled. Perhaps the memory of that fiercely longed for but heartbreakingly lonely pregnancy is to blame. Nothing in that deeply transformative time period was how I had ever imagined it might be. To grow a baby hidden away behind closed doors, as an already aching world grew more fearful—more divided—was not easy. Or perhaps when I am in Connemara—the most beautiful place I have ever known—the weight of much, both unseen and unheard, presses more keenly upon my body, leaving me feeling dizzy, making me feel outside of my own body in ways I might never fully grasp. Some places have a knack of reminding us of all that we have already lost; all that still remains to try to protect. As someone who has struggled with their mental health for over half of their life, it is often difficult to unravel the various threads that tangle themselves around my throat. Sometimes it is hard to even remember where any of it all began. Trauma is a strange old thing; always there, so embedded that you forget that it’s not visible to those around you—a creature only you can really see.
HERE I AM, back again wading through the memory of that swim, right back at the cusp between here and there; then and now; waiting to bring my first child into our world. But the memory shifts, and I’m not in the water any longer; I’m in the car that my partner and I used all our savings on, a reliable car that would keep our baby safe, we hoped, from all harm. We are talking about where we should move to as soon as it becomes safe to do so; about what changes we must make in our lives to keep this wee unborn being safe. We are moving slowly along the motorway, on our way home, when out of nowhere, a mother duck leads her ducklings across the tarmac in front of us. My partner cries out, swerving as carefully as he can, managing—only just—not to hit them. Seconds later, the large jeep behind us ploughs on without a second thought. My partner is suddenly screaming at the top of his lungs, crying out in a way I have never seen him do in all our years together. Anger and worry and the weight of so much more than the safety of those ducklings is playing out here in our car. How, I ask myself, have I never seen such tenderness in my partner before now? I watch as his body gives itself over to the mammal that he is, while safely keeping our car on the motorway—a stretch of road built over the home of the duck and her babies.
Here I am in another home, a stone railway cottage at the end of an isolated laneway where we know almost no one. There is no community of which to speak. No one stands alongside us as we try to rear our son the way we know we should. No one holds us as we try to hold him, tenderly and with gratitude. We know it is not supposed to be this way; raising a family should be a shared responsibility, but we have lost much, so much, that finding our way back to this way of living is going to be a long journey.
Outside, as my son sleeps, I hear the “big truck” with which he is so deeply obsessed; the machine that rips up the grass, envelops it in plastic, and sends it off to feed to someone else’s cows. The last time the man driving the tractor came, he stopped to show it to our son. On the large blade at the back of it, I found the mangled body of an exquisite dragonfly. I carried it in one hand, my son’s hand in the other, to lay it in the shade of our rosebush, now taller than our house—the first plant my partner and I bought together, back at a time when I was convinced I would not make it through to winter, let alone the summer that would follow, so severe was my depression. The man who allowed this perfect creature to be broken in this way is the same man who took time out of his day to let my small son explore this vast metallic creature he holds in such tenderness; explore the very machine that annihilated the home of that beautiful, iridescent creature.
When he wakens in the dark of night, he is whispering, “big truck,” and smiling.
We were told never to view creatures as being at all similar to us. Not to anthropomorphize, to keep a distance every step of the way. As time passes, the more animal—the more mammal—this new role of motherhood leaves me, the more convinced I am that we got it all wildly, dangerously wrong. We are watching innumerable, unstoppable crises unfold at almost every step along the pathway. What does it mean to mother in the midst of such crises—climate, political, mental health, housing, economic, and others? I think about how all of these are interwoven, how their roots reach right back to white European settler violence. How, somehow, we’ve just accepted the residue it left—and leaves—in its wake. How this lingers in our pregnancy, our births, our postpartum experience. That violence. How much of modern parenting is built upon it: this white violence. Separation, forced independence, productivity, measuring, competing, comparing, and on and on and on. When we apply this to our mothering, how can we feel anything other than traumatized? Sleep training, feeding schedules, pressure to wean early, criticism from the little “community” we may be lucky enough to have. So when we choose instead to lean back into gentle, wild mothering—the kind that Robin Wall Kimmerer refers to as one which every single one of us can partake in, no matter our individual circumstance; led by our hearts and souls, our gut instincts, our love for our original mother; placing faith in our own bones—what are we doing other than turning our faces away from that violence and starting again? When we enfold each other—mamma to mamma—mammal to mammal—human to non-human—what are we doing other than healing the parts of us that have carried that violence in our sinew?
When we hold our babies and each other close, we are writing a new story.
One that the Earth herself—our great mother—teaches us how to sing.
But are we ready to listen?
Am I ready to listen?
BETWEEN THE 27TH and 29th weeks of pregnancy, the creature inside me started to hear sounds outside of my womb for the first time. As he began to hear the world, I began to feel a sense of responsibility I never even knew a person could experience. It was winter. Storms rattled through the world. I stood every day in front of the trees on our isolated laneway, in the midst of a period of perhaps the vastest change I have ever known. I was terrified. The world outside became more unsettled, unsettling, by the day. The only thing that soothed me was the wind working through the trees. Their hushed, then hustling communication. I felt certain that the most important thing our baby could listen to was the beings of the world around him in dialogue with each other. The fact that they were non-human beings seemed the most important part of all. I think, now, of how he stares at those trees—rapt, full of what I can only describe as love; in a deepened state of stillness he only ever experiences when the weather is wild. How they seem to calm him, to soothe his busy, developing wee mind in ways that even nursing him at my breast—his safe place—no longer seems as capable of doing, as he grows, as he takes his place in the order of things outwith our small stone home.
His ear grew inside me. Of all the body parts that had to form before he left my body to meet all the other bodies of the world, for some reason it is this one (this pair) that I cannot quite get my head around. That this is able to happen yet still people find it preposterous that trees, ants, the wind, rivers, birds, rocks, lichen, moss, the sea, communicate with the world around them—including us—shocks me to my core.
I am writing this listening to the sound of rain falling thick and heavy, one sodden field away from Ireland’s central boglands. Bogs are a part of this beautiful, aching earth that we rely on heavily for protection; to filter out much of the harm that we ourselves have created. But their nurturing and safeguarding extend to so many other beings than us. They offer important refuge for rare and endangered species.
What is a womb if not a place of refuge? A mother if not a safe place for the creature forming inside them?
I remember trying to sleep, the whole ward drowning in fear and tears at the height of the pandemic restrictions; telling the babe inside me all the things I would show them one day. Soothing my terrified maternal brain with lists:
butterflies and moths;
seas and rivers;
hills and mountains;
trees and flowers;
moss and lichen;
snow and fog
and sun and light
and light and all of the light.
Oh, my wee one, the things that I will show you. The things that we will see together. This world that you will see.
WHAT HAPPENS, though, when they leave the womb?
What can a mother do when those outside are ripping up bogland; tearing down trees; poisoning rivers; abusing to the point of extinction?
How can a mother keep her baby safe in a world that is burning and breaking; losing and aching; dying and mourning?
We continue to struggle with this extra responsibility that has been given to us: where and how to live in these days, as we raise a young boy who so dearly, so deeply, loves this earth and all her beings.
I turn to a space many of us inhabit daily. One that perhaps—unlike many of the physical spaces the world over—became more visited, not less, during the various lockdowns of these last years. On Twitter and on Instagram, I post an image of my hearth: A large piece of wood, attached to the wall of our small living space in the first winter of the pandemic. A white wall. Hanging in the middle is an art piece: dóchas—the Irish word for hope—in shades of orange and red. Flowers and a beeswax candle on either side. At the end, a wooden candle box. This picture was taken the day I got home from that hospital visit. This beam, which my partner hung when he was not allowed to be with me, had been dragged by his own hands out of a skip in Galway on that duck day, as a wee boy searched to no avail for the key to the small lock he had found just underneath it. He made the candle holder from scrap metal. The frame and candle box are his handiwork, too, made from branches of the sick ash tree that came down the weekend we conceived.
Accompanying the image:
What does shelter mean to you?
What makes you feel safe?
If you had to define HOME in a few words, what would they be?
Almost all the responses came from women.
Almost all those women were mothers.
I knew that I would be moved by the responses, of course I was—but I don’t think I quite grasped the effects these answers would really have on me—on my animal body.
There were some domestic / object-based responses—the smell of coffee, mismatched crockery, slippers, books, an old sailor’s duffel bag, etc.—but generally the answers were not tied in any shape to an interior living space. Quite the opposite, in fact. I am drawn, it must be said, to lists of many forms, but this particular one has been quite something to bear witness to. It has been lifesaving for me, and I do not use that term lightly.
And so here it is, that list: for you; for me; for every creature in the world; for the earth herself—by whom we are granted various forms of shelter; innumerable ways to keep each other safe—the only home we can ever hold as ours.
Home is sunrise and rain on skin.
Home is kinship, protection from the storm (this exact response occurred three times), relief, somewhere you can feel able to sleep.
Home is growth, it sounds like laughter and busy bees in the garden, a quiet place of refuge.
Home is waking up before the sunrise because of the sound of the birds.
Shelter is safety from suffering the cold frost of life.
Somewhere to feel connected to those who came before me.
Home is moss, lichen, trees, the sea, woods, rivers, the wind howling in the Hebrides, sea birds, rain, wild rugged landscapes, my love / my child (insert name after name after name).
I LIE IN A SMALL room of a small cottage in a small county on a small island with a small boy, asleep on my chest. Outside the late afternoon sky is blue. The approaching autumn winds are dragging their dancing, electric bodies through the tall trees on the laneway; trees that tower above a wooden FOR SALE sign and a wooden children’s go-cart.
All these things—that mother, that place, that son, that season, that wood—are in quiet kinship with each other in myriad ways.
All these things dance, in their own way, with those restless, magnetic winds.
The only sound, aside from the winds, is the sound of our breath, our hearts—the sound of our being.
There is no sound in the whole world that could mean more to me in this moment, than this.
No sound that could call me more fully to action.
I close my eyes and try to hear each thing individually: the sound of my own chest—rising and falling, rising and falling; the sound of his wee involuntary suckles—lips making a circle around my breast; the noise that the branches make as they touch each other—towards one another, then pulled apart; the dog yelping softly in her sleep—dreaming of who knows what, who knows where; the birds, all of those birds—in the canopy, on the branches, in the nests, on the roof, so often in the house, too.
But I cannot untie them from each other, I can’t loosen one colored thread from the whole quilt I have been wrapped up in on this cold, ordinary September day.
Suddenly, all out of nowhere: buzzing.
Buzzing that seems almost circular—making its way around and around—drawing a circle above our heads with its fizzy echo. A bluebottle is caught in the web of an amber-bodied spider. Within less than a minute the buzzing stops. It is as though all the sound has been bled out of the world. It feels—although I know this to be an impossibility—silent. I wonder if my sleeping son has noticed the almost silence; if he is listening to the gaps in between what is and what is no longer. I think about listening; about what it means to find a still, quiet place in the midst of such deep unsettling and uncertainty. And what listening really means.
I wonder if he will always listen to the trees.
If he will always let me sing to him; this mammal song of milk and warmth and sleep; this song of home.
Once more, the sounds of us,
our beat and our heat and our breath,
weave themselves back into
everything else around us.
Those living winds outside.
These living bodies inside.
All the unheard, utterly beautiful things in between.
Read More Stories from Volume 4: Shifting Landscapes
Our fourth volume, Shifting Landscapes, is woven from this liminal space. Within you’ll find stories of changing rivers and migrating forests, blurred boundaries between human and animal, geological landscapes that reveal human histories, and prophecies that weave themselves into the land.
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