Thursday, January 31, 2013

"The avenue of trees"

I've ambled up and down Ireland's west coast, from Donegal Town to Kinsale with prolonged stops in between. I've cut across the island's mid-section, from Galway to Dublin and back again. I've long believed the most striking characteristic of the Irish landscape—after the stone field walls, of course, all 240,000 miles of them—is the near-total absence of trees. You will probably take note of this before you take note of the walls. The Irish countryside always leaves one conflicted: Bursting with green, one of the most effectively soothing colors, the land calms physical and emotional tremors; at the same time, the vast chasms of space produce twinges of desolation and inadequacy. One senses the sweet hope of forgotten harvests—and the cold hush of tiny graveyards. Perhaps it's why the yearning to emigrate is just as strong as the longing to return.

What I find remarkable is that despite its near absence from the Irish landscape, the tree holds a prominent place in the Irish consciousness. Maybe the island's inhabitants believe that a collective spirit of reverence toward the tree will atone for centuries of unchecked despoiling. (Quick aside: From what I understand, a number of human factors contributed to the island's deforestation: a history of unstable land ownership, which did not allow for long-term woodland management; England's yearning for timber to support its booming shipbuilding industry in the 16th and 17th centuries; the need for charcoal to fuel Ireland's 17th and 18th century iron works; the population swelling to over 8 million in the 19th century, leading to vast areas of forest being cleared for fuel and shelter.) For example, the early Irish tribes each grew a sacred tree in the immediate vicinity of their royal inauguration sites. These trees even had a name. From Niall Mac Coitir's book, Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore: "With regards to the important place of the sacred tree in Ireland, there is even a special word in the Irish language to describe it, namely a bile. Examples of the bile marking an important place can be found all over Ireland."

There are multiple versions of an ancient tale that says nine hazel trees grow at the source of the Rivers Boyne and Shannon, dropping "nuts of wisdom" into the water. During the Celtic festival of Beltane, typically held in early May, boughs of mountain ash were hung from the windows and doors of homes. From the wonderful Diary of an Irish Country Wife blog: "My grandfather, long dead now, was a great believer in the fairies and the old folklore. A Co. Longford farmer, he would plough a wide circle around the lone hawthorn tree in his field, for fear of offending the fairies that supposedly inhabited the tree. It was widely held that disaster would befall those who dared to dig up a hawthorn tree."

Meanwhile, Cuchulainn fought with holly spits (spears). Fionn Mac Cumhaill was held captive by Midac in the Palace of the Quicken Trees. From David Willis McCullough's Wars of the Irish Kings: "It [the Palace of the Quicken Trees] stood on a level green, which was surrounded by a light plantation of quicken trees, all covered with clusters of scarlet berries."

Half the letters in the ancient Ogham alphabet take their names from trees. Many Irish place names pay homage to trees. Derry, the island's fifth largest city, takes its name from an Anglicization of the Irish name Doire Cholmcille, or Colmcille's oakwood. According to legend, the first monastery the warrior-saint founded was in an oak forest near Derry. And consider William Butler Yeats' "The Two Trees." Addressed to his love, Maud Gonne, Yeats' poem considers the interminable skirmishes that take place between our active and contemplative selves.

Similar skirmishes occur in Van Morrison's best work. Such as "Cyprus Avenue," an ode to a cherished destination of Morrison's during his adolescence. Morrison refers to the East Belfast thoroughfare as "the avenue of trees," a reference to the street's large trees, which spout from wide sidewalks, providing generous helpings of color and shade. Morrison's own Hyndford Street was largely absent of vegetation of any kind. Here are two emails I received from Jonathon Pilcher, a professor from the School of Geography, Archaeology, and Palaeoecology at Queen's University in Belfast. Pilcher is also the web manager for the Friends of Belfast Botanic Gardens site.
Hello Ryan, I have no definitive answer for you. I had assumed that Cyprus avenue was named for Cypress trees - ie something like Cupressus macrocarpa. I don't live on that side of Belfast, but if I am passing that way in the future I will check. As to what trees are common in city streets here, the two commonest are lime (Tilia x europea) and London plane (Platanus x acerifolia). Recently some newer trees such as the columnar oak and some hornbeam varieties have been planted.
Hello again, I wasn't sure from the photos so I went to Cypress Av this afternoon to look. There is a mixture of trees. There are about half and half Austrian pine (Pinus nigra) and common lime (Tilia x europaea). There are also 2 horse chestnuts and two or three sycamore (the European one - Acer pseudoplatanus). The Pines are huge and may be among the oldest street trees in the City. There are some new pines planted in gaps, probably in the last few years. You can see both the pines and limes in the photos you sent.
Professor Pilcher also speculated that the Austrian pines—a species not native to the British Isles, though it thrives in Northern Ireland—on Cyprus Avenue are 80 to 100 years old, meaning Morrison likely strolled underneath these very trees. And that's what I believe the trees partially represent in "Cyprus Avenue": permanence, an immortality that children mirthfully crave ("Someday I want to come back to life as a tree!"), the notion that even though individual existence will one day be snuffed out like a candle, some things will endure in perpetuity.

The trees also symbolize the promise of change, the inevitably of remaining ourselves yet becoming someone very different, the irrepressible passage of time that the young Morrison was only beginning to experience. Our personal development is reflected in the seasonal transformations identified in a tree. A sycamore sprouts clustered, pale green flowers in the spring, then five-lobed leaves shortly afterward. In the fall, the leaves turn a crinkly brown and die, joining the tree's winged fruit in falling to the ground. The tree becomes dormant in winter and then the whole process starts over. It's a complex life cycle neatly packaged into one year, a life cycle that we actively encounter as we journey through our very own. I see an adolescent Morrison tossing handfuls of the sycamore's winged fruit in the air and gleefully watching them helicopter to earth—and leaving the adults to sweeping the bronzed, curled leaves into neat piles and then unceremoniously cremating them.

Monday, January 28, 2013

"Is there life before death?"

What Van Morrison lyric would make for good graffiti? I've considered this very question after seeing how deeply provocative and poignant the street scrawling can be in Belfast. Spray-painted messages on crumbling walls that read, "Give them their rights not their last rites." Or, "Is there life before death?" Yet another, a longtime favorite of mine found on the predominantly Catholic Falls Road: "To those who understand, no explanation is necessary. To those who will not understand, no explanation is possible."

In Belfast, many of those responsible for graffiti make creativity the top priority. Each side takes notice of the other's finest work. In Sally Belfrage's Living with War: A Belfast Year, one Protestant is heard to lament, "They [Catholics] have all the best songs and our graffiti is nothing against theirs."

One of my favorite scenes in Dervla Murphy's remarkable 1978 book on the Troubles, A Place Apart, is when she stumbles upon a rare bit of neutral graffiti in sectarian-obsessed Belfast:
DEAR TERRY IS DEAD. There was a mildness and tenderness about this expression of grief, in the midst of so many brutal and blasphemous slogans, that quite devastated me.
So what will it be? What Morrison lyric would make for good graffiti? "It's too late to stop now?" "You don't pull no punches but you don't push the river?" How about: "'Cos this town, they bit off more than they can chew?" Maybe this: "Did you ever see the people with the tear drops in their eyes? I just can't stand it, living in this world of lies." Or this: "And we'll walk down the avenue again; and the healing has begun." Or how about any couplet from "No Religion?"

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Withdrawing behind walls

I'm looking at the blurry photo I snapped as we sped through the gate of one of Belfast's notorious "peace lines." We were zipping down Lanark Way, away from the Catholic Springfield Road and toward the Protestant Shankill Road. The photo was taken through the smudged, cracked back window of a Black Taxi, so it's difficult to provide details, but it appeared each side of the gate featured a painted mural: for the Protestants, an aquarium complete with bug-eyed fish; for the Catholics, a collage of images including a boxer and two lads sitting atop an over-sized boombox.

Belfast's first barriers went up in 1969. Constructed by British Army engineers, they were designed to separate Catholic and Protestant enclaves, and help quell the growing violence between the two communities—violence eventually labeled the Troubles. (Gates like the one we drove through are closed and locked at night.) But as history has demonstrated, walls are far easier to erect than tear down. Today, 14 years after the landmark Good Friday Agreement, the number of peace lines in Northern Ireland has grown to nearly 100.

According to Alan MacWeeney & Richard Conniff's Stone Walls & Fabled Landscapes, there is approximately 240,000 miles of field walls in Ireland—more than any other country in the world. They are typically composed of limestone, granite, and sandstone. In Belfast, the building materials are far different: corrugated metal and concrete block. In the book, MacWeeney & Conniff quote an elderly man from the island of Inisheer, where field walls have become an immutable part of the landscape as assuredly as the peace lines have in Belfast. "Walls are more important than people," the man said. Certainly, but only when the communities they separate or surround allow them to be.

Though Van Morrison and others he grew up with contend that their largely-Protestant East Belfast neighborhood was relatively free of the sectarian tumult that plagued other areas of the city, there are peace lines roughly a mile away from Morrison's childhood home on Hyndford Street. Both the brick-and-mesh-fencing walls along Bryson Street/Thistle Court and Cluan Place/Clandeboye Gardens were erected at some point during the 1970s, far and away the Troubles' bloodiest decade.

Throughout his adolescence and well into adulthood, Morrison was often guilty of withdrawing behind walls. Belfast was as well, though on a much larger, more consequential scale.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Beyond the brogue

For those without closed captioning software:

Dick Clark, host of "American Bandstand": "What do you do when you have a moment off? Do you work?"

Van Morrison: "No, I kinda like just walk about ... Y'know, parts of cities ... In the rain and things like that."

Morrison left Belfast for the States in August of 1967, taking up residence in New York City with Janet Rigsbee and her son, Peter. For Morrison, who was already prone to episodes of oddball, cloistered behavior, America only thickened the walls of his long-established personal cocoon. There were friends and acquaintances and colleagues in New York and later in Woodstock, but they invariably sensed that reaching Morrison meant crossing an expanse that could never be successfully crossed. Like all the various individuals in Morrison's life were traipsing the same broad path as him and at a steep rise, they glimpsed Morrison standing at the rise just ahead of them. So they quickened their pace to close the distance, only to reach that rise and find Morrison standing atop the next one. So they quickened their pace once more ...

In Belfast, the perpetually introverted Morrison frequently collapsed in on himself like a dying star. In America, he did so with such intensity that he swallowed the light of those around him. Rigsbee and others crumpled with exasperation. His worsening alcoholism was to blame, as well as a deepening distrust of the music business. And perhaps most shattering of all, language failed him; his words became blunted and broken tools with no use. (Like in the clip posted above; Dick's got no idea what Van's talking about). Friend Jon Gershen described the Morrison from this time period:
Really out of his element ... Far away from home and ... Very unsure of himself. And when he starts talking, most people don't know what he's saying because of his accent, so now he's reaching a point where maybe he should not bother talking because it's too painful.
One cliche that promises to make me wretch: "Such-and-such spoke to us through his music!" However, with Morrison, it was certainly thus.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Breaking out of rigidity

Infinitely beautiful, incomparable, heroically visionary, otherwordly-yet-so-rooted-in-this-world, unfuckablewith Astral Weeks in a nutshell:
The Irishman enlisted a pair of musicians from Boston’s Berklee College of Music to join him, bassist Tom Kielbania and flautist John Payne. The trio took up residence at the Catacombs on Boylston Street, developing the sound that was ultimately captured during the sessions for Astral Weeks that autumn: melodic, commanding bass lines; emotional accents from accompanying instruments, such as the flute; a foundation of basic chords on the acoustic guitar; lyrics strung-together from bits of narrative detail and shards of imagery and rough sketches of characters. Morrison shepherded Kielbania and Payne though each song, carefully guiding them like the leaders of the showbands he played for years earlier in Northern Ireland, emphasizing the notion that the thrill of playing comes from what you discover along the way, not where you finish, and that every performance, every telling, of the same song is its own unique creation, its own fusion of structure and spontaneity.
Or, distilled even further:
Morrison dubbed it "breaking out of rigidity."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Just as charming as he was grotesque

A Van Morrison character study shouldn't concentrate on the two sides to his personality (because it's a particular type of charm we all possess, no?), but the idea that the gulf between those two sides is so voluminous it could swallow Ireland entire. With Morrison, the severe and contrasting aspects of his personality elicit one of the following two responses from those in his presence: He is either categorized as being "dual-natured" or branded a caustic, cruel arsehole of the highest degree. The former is an attempt to use profound language to mask the ugliness of Morrison's character. The latter is ... Also an attempt to use profound language to mask the ugliness of Morrison's character.

Morrison's ability to leap from one side to the other so effortlessly is quite stunning. Such as during the late summer of 1964, when Morrison and Them were gigging in anticipation of their forthcoming first single, "Don't Start Crying Now." Behold, the arseholish Morrison, who during a show in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, a center for the Northern Irish pork industry, responded to pennies being hurled at him and the band with an emphatic, "Goodnight, pigs!" The words touched off a near riot and Them were police escorted from the town.

But Morrison could be just as charming as he was grotesque. That summer, Them's touring schedule found the band staying at the Aaland Hotel in London, which at the time was also accommodating American bluesmen Little Walter and John Lee Hooker. The moon-eyed Morrison prostrated himself before them. He was their meek, too-eager-to-please errand boy, fetching Chinese food for Little Walter in the hope that the harmonica legend would give him a pointer or three.

Interestingly, despite all the boot-licking behavior on Morrison's part, Hooker took a real shine to the young Irishman, and the two struck up a decades-long friendship that found them appearing on one another's albums (for example, Hooker's 1973 record, Born In Mississippi, Raised Up In Tennessee, and Morrison's 1994 live release, A Night in San Francisco) and performing together in concert. Morrison has cut a number of duets throughout his career; 1993's "Wasted Years" with Hooker is my favorite.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Reminders of their own impermanence

To start: a quote within a quote ... From the introduction to an anthology titled Modern Irish Short Stories:
Sean O'Faolain, in his excellent little cultural history The Irish, makes the point that the Irish are surrounded on all sides by reminders of their own impermanence: "Because of colonization and wars and persecutions, there is no physical continuity in Ireland like to the physical continuity in Britain, i.e. no ancient villages, with 'mossed cottage-trees,' old inns, timbered houses, cropped greens; and handcrafts survive only in the simplest needs—turf-baskets, churns, farming implements, a few kitchen utensils. We have, that is, an unfurnished countryside." As O'Faolain observes, what Ireland does have to preserve and unite is its memory of a Celtic past—in this respect the physical reminders, mostly ruins, are plentiful—and its capacity to express in word and song its character and history.
Other than brief dalliances with Irish folk (such as Irish Heartbeat, a collaboration with the Chieftains), there is nothing certifiably "Irish" about the sonic paths Van Morrison chose. Instead, he exhibits his Irishness through language, i.e., using lyrics to preserve the glow and warmth of the past, to reanimate moments from a Belfast adolescence, to dispel the notion that memory is ephemeral and thus volatile.

The Irish are often criticized for an eternal fixation with the past. My favorite response, uttered by an individual and during a moment I no longer recollect: "Well, the Irish have a [insert whatever expletive you'd like here: bloody, fuckin', fecking, etc.] lot of it." Morrison's lyrics express a similar sentiment (though in a manner that's a tad less rough around the edges): Time creates a backlog of memories, making it necessary to undertake periodic cataloging.

In Northern Ireland, the past is a weapon—and one that is wielded by individuals from both sides of the sectarian divide. Morrison does shape the past into something that's sharp and able to keep its edge, only his intent is to brandish it aloft, a reminder that for all the suggestions of their own impermanence, your everyday Irishman has quite the long memory.