Caught by the River


Kerri ní Dochartaigh | 24th March 2020

Kerri ní Dochartaigh considers isolation, cocoons, and the solace of a sycamore

It started in the same month as the virus that is tearing across our planet like a wild beast; right as the old year gave up its haunting, grey-white ghosts. I can’t pinpoint when, or how it started. The days since we moved here –  to the end of an isolated laneway, just behind the remote central bog-land of Ireland – have all bled into each other like plumage of a young swan. There is no way of telling where the creamy brown and fawn-beige end; of telling if the white has even begun to coat the feathers. It happened, though, that much I know, and it had never ever happened me before.

In the last weeks, as the entire world has become increasingly burdened by fear and worry, by sadness and confusion – as the words distancing and isolation have filled our ears; we have found ourselves in a surreal state. People are dying, Health Services compromised, incomes lost, businesses shutting – weighing on many people’s minds is the fact of having to be at home, away from others; for an indefinite amount of time. We all know this is the safest course of action to minimise risk to the vulnerable in our communities. Of course there will always be those that refuse to give up their pleasures – even if they are potentially taking the lives of others into their hands. But the majority of folk seem to be voicing real concern at the fact that the UK government spent far too long telling people to simply carry on as normal; that loved ones’ lives would be cut short before their time. This pandemic, like almost everything, will affect those that were already suffering the most. Those in lives where poverty, injustice, and harrowing assaults on their human rights are taken as the norm. Those who are already being treated as less than human due to perceived differences. Borders are closing, there are people who already are struggling from one day to the next. Humans who have spent their heart-wrenchingly traumatic lives always on the edge; ready to plummet, to be pushed; to jump. 

In Ireland we were asked to Socially distance almost as soon as the first case hit the island. Shutdown of the world as we know it began two weeks ago, in the interest of the safety of all. The message across the board here has been consistent and clear: we have been asked, for the good of the most vulnerable, to stay at home. The weekend just gone by saw, for many of my friends and family, the very first day of proper social distancing in the UK; after being asked by the man in charge to ‘stay at home’ only last Friday. It took Boris Johnson until last night to tell the British public that non-essential spaces would be shut down. To advise that people should now only leave home to get to and from work, to purchase food and medicine, to care for a vulnerable person, to exercise or to attend a funeral. For weeks, as many parts of the world were led by their leaders towards the safety of their own homes, people in the UK were expected to more or less make their own call. On this island, since this all started, you could stand with one foot in the south and one in the north; you could choose your own course of action.

Likely I’d have just got over the thing I started doing at the beginning of this year – if things hadn’t gone the way they have. I’m not sure I would ever have told another soul, even my partner. If Covid-19 had not ricocheted across our planet the way it has, if the world had not been so shaken – things so ripped up from the ground as if by a spring storm – I might have almost forgotten about it: the weird, embarrassing thing I spent the first few months of this year doing. 

But that virus did come. And it has stayed. This pandemic is hurtling those already in most need into a harrowing position of serious danger. We do not know if it is stoppable. At the same time as knowing all the damage that is, and will continue to be caused, we also know that viruses are part of the earth on which we have our habitat. It is as natural as the pussy willow that has opened its soft whiteness up, as the fungi that jumps out from fallen branches like used neon condoms, as the small black amphibian beneath the stone I was planning on carrying home to give a faraway friend. (I googled and found it was an Irish newt; endangered – probably due to people stealing its stones from out of its fields –  in some fucked up attempt to feel embedded; in a place where they are so lonely they cry when they see their first newt.) 

I knew no-one when we moved here. My family keep very little contact. My friends live mostly in England and Scotland. I don’t drive, the village two kilometres away doesn’t even have a shop, and within the first week of moving here the weather turned, as they say; the winter light of December bled itself out. In its place came howling winds that heaved the trees out of place, rain that felt like the ending of days, sleet and snow – hail and darkness; like this virus – they came and they have stayed. The only place I get phone signal is in the field below the house. I can count on one hand the days free from rain this year. I became less and less able to find signal or go anywhere except the fields with the dog. The world – my wee unimportant, individual part of it – shrunk and shrunk. I heard less human voice, I saw less human faces, I watched as the world I knew took on a  fiercely different reality. 

Everyday the dog would make a bee-line for the huge, naked tree in the field. Whatever hangs out there really does it for her, and try as I might to hurry her along, she only wanted to be there, in the periphery of that tree – rolling herself in whatever creature’s shit she could, eating grass– just generally being there, at that tree. I get a signal there, at that tree, so before the storms hit I’d scroll social media, check email, message friends. Once it became too ridiculous to get my phone out from under my waterproof, it – the thing –  started happening. 

It feels so weird – so exposing –  to be sharing this, but the truth is I really feel like I must. I feel like it is a cusp moment – for me and my place in this world – in a way I cannot understand. I feel like we will all have to get a wee bit better at talking about weird, hard, sad things in the days ahead. This is a changed reality we are in right now; I don’t recognise the world in which the thing I did began. I don’t think we can ever go back to that world before this virus – so I am making space for the death of the old me; I am changed by this pandemic– and fuck am I grateful. 

So the thing is that I started talking to the tree. 

Not in some kind of ‘ nature as therapy’ way. I’ve done my time with therapy. It was heavy, annihilating, necessary work. This was very, very different. Neither was it in any kind of idealising/spiritual/praying kind of way. There was no sense of relief – no newly enlightened way of dealing with a life so changed from what it had been until this winter –  by talking to the tree. It didn’t feel like there was any kind of communion, or answering back; no echo or deeply resonating keen filled the grey clouds above us. I would simply hunker down, feeling overwhelmingly sorry for myself, unable to really understand the vast changes my life had undergone that winter – and wondering why shit always seems to happen to me.

 I would try to mould myself into the wet hollow hole at the front of it, and I would talk. I talked about normal things, sometimes big and scary, sometimes boring – annoyances that seem so insubstantial now in the grand scheme of things. I talked about the weather, birds, nests, ice, light, broken things, walking away from all I had once held close, hope, money worries, my brothers, Brexit, the death of an abusive friend, jealousy and things that I might remember again but I don’t right now. 

I got sick a few weeks into the tree thing, and couldn’t go to the field. I dreamed of it; feverish, haunting, moments with a tree I couldn’t even identify yet. (I know now this tree is a sycamore.) On the first morning I returned to the tree, I told it about the odd, disarming thing my father asked my nine year old self underneath a tall oak tree, just before he left us: ‘What if none of this is real, and we are all just the dream of a tree?’

Before this virus hit our world, I would go twice a day – with a full belly, from a warm house I don’t pay rent for, with a phone that doesn’t get signal because I get to live in a beautiful, wild part of a first world country – the one I come from and still get to choose to live in – in between editing the book that an amazing publishing house are going to put into the world, trying to connect with friends that might live far away but that care so much for me; and I would genuinely, honestly feel sorry for myself. I cannot believe I once sat in the hollow of a tree and bemoaned how hard done by I was. That I would talk to a tree about how shit things were, how scared I was; I would tell it of my grief, my sorrow; my ache. 

When I think back to those weeks before this virus I could cry with shame.

I don’t think we are ever going back to how life was before this virus. We had become immune to the suffering of others – we had learned to pretend it wasn’t happening – and fuck are these days undoing us. Fuck are we weeping. Last week the Taoiseach – the leader of the Republic of Ireland –  addressed us in a Paddy’s Day message unlike any before, and fuck did I howl. Did I weep and shake and moan. Fuck did I listen to him call the most vulnerable in our communities ‘the most precious’, asking the teenagers to help their parents and call their grandparents –  saying how grateful he was to those on our front lines; telling us that we – every single one of us, needed to come together: ‘We are with you…We are with you…We are with you.’ 

And fuck did something in me shift. Did it untangle, did it undo, did it shake itself free. And fuck did I pull my self-obsessed, lonely, privileged self together. And I am sharing this with you, because –  he may have been my leader for the shortest of time, and he may be on the way out – but oh my did Leo Varadkar undo my pre-Corona bullshit like a loose knot. 

He said that to get through this would take real solidarity, and that we would need to cocoon. I have long been obsessed by moths. What it must take to be a thing so small, so delicate – and to traverse such vast, treacherous spans. They have been flying above the field that tree is in for millennia – long before I came along. I stood the next morning, beneath that tree, and I googled ‘cocoon’. 

Butterfly and moth caterpillars grow by shedding their skin. They find a safe place and attach themselves to it by spinning a silken thread. Both form chrysalides but only some moth caterpillars spin themselves a silky but tough outer casing before they shed their skin for the final time; their cocoon. 

There are threads in this world that are longer – stronger –  than the distance we must keep from one another. The thread we most need to hold, as tightly as we can right now, is the one that ties us – properly – to our own self. That calls us out when we are not being true to the greater good, when our obsession with our own self means we are not being strong; when we forget that we are part of the human race – on a broken, beautiful planet we share with so much else. 

That we are a ‘we’

Those threads are invisible but they are still there, as resilient as moth-wing; as precious as silk. I am not dropping the threads I already have, no matter what. I am going to hold myself, and my privilege, to account; every step of the way. I am ready to pick more threads up, from every corner of this earth. I am ready to make like my tree, and tie myself to every other member of this race. Your suffering is mine. Mine is yours. The ache of those in the worst pain is the ache that we must give our all to soothe.

This is the moment for cocooning but we are not alone. 

We are shedding skin that may have been a wee bit too thick. That may have kept us apart from one another, immune to the suffering that others around us have long been battered by; too burdened by the weight around our own necks to look, to listen, to care.

When we emerge from this, we will be changed. We will be more gentle, we will be more kind, we will be more resilient. 

When we emerge from this we will be more human. 

There is a light out there today that wasn’t there before this arrived.

Its veins are spreading across the whole earth, like tributaries coursing towards a shared river. 

There is a light out there today, that has tied us to one other again; with silken, unbreakable threads.