You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which know
and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
– Seamus Heaney
The Flaggy Shore is a charcoal sketch dressed in ink. The sky is sometimes a smudge of clouds and the low tide Galway Bay Atlantic is a brush wash keening against the beach. Black and sepia seaweeds run amuck here, gone gonzo in the shallows with an errant brush. Here, the Kelp, Dabberlocks, Murlin, Bladderwrack, Buttonweed, and Oyster Thieves are still wet pigments. They even exhale their own metallic salt smells as they dry like open bottles of ink. Higher up the tidal zone, beyond the fingerprints of rock licked by foam, jagged lines of limestone pavement stretch in broad, warped slabs along the strand. Each is marked by the bleached calcium stroke of fossils. Being there, you get the sense that you are roughed out, a hurried paper draft crushed, recovered, and smoothed, still pleated with grykes. You are not a final work, only one of many impermanent sketches, merely a fleeting impression—parietal art without the hand of man.
I was brought to the Flaggy Shore. You had to be brought there because when you think of Ireland, you do not think of stones. When you think of Ireland, you think of stomping pubs, pints of beer, session reels, and ruined castles. I was brought to the Flaggy Shore by tour bus at the end of a Burren tour. I was part of a group of American students who knew little about real land. We expected only our expectations, green-stained mirages informed by a brownstone city-life infused with the ceaseless digital chirping of information. Because of this, we found ourselves both rattled and released from something we did not know had a hold on us. We found ourselves stunned at the rise of black cliffs and gray hills that were neither asphalt nor concrete nor cement. In that part of County Clare, the landscape is artfully skinned of sediment. During the Pleistocene, when Ireland was being made into Ireland, glaciers had scraped their way across the land like colossal icy snails tearing up trees and dropping granite boulders. Their silvery trail exposed the calcareous limestone bones of the island. Bones are not dead things; they live, shift, and dream underfoot. In their dreams, they tilt south, fold, sprout grass, become peopled, and grow ancient, wrinkled, and wise.
Just because you’re somewhere doesn’t mean you’re there. People are slow to arriving and need time to catch up to their bodies. We experienced an uncoupling as we were brought at tour pace from place to place. We were brought to the Flaggy Shore up the Wild Atlantic Way. We were brought past the Cliffs of Moher, past Poulnabrone, and Fanore, and Ballyvaughan. We were brought past Coole Park and Thoor Balleylee. We were brought past wild swans, painted sheep, and dozing cows. We were brought past hazel wood and pastures. We were brought between herbaceous hills and crags, turloughs and fens. We were brought along steep and laughably tortile roads. We were brought through kelly green and sage, through malachite and mint. We were brought into karst and granite, shale and sand. We were brought past New Quay to Finvarra. We were brought to the Flaggy Shore as a postscript. When you think of Ireland, stones are not even an afterthought—unless you are brought through the Burren. The Burren, from bhoireann, means “a stony place”.
Beneath our feet, the limestone karst of the shore looked like someone had traced a finger through potter’s clay and mercury—every tidal pool reflected a chromium afternoon. The baker’s dozen of us clomped around in hiking boots and canvas Chucks. We were glad to be blurped up from the velour belly of our Irish Greyhound, and so we stretched against our packs as our guide told us things we didn’t know. We were a little damp all over. Irish weather is incomprehensible and impressionistic, a madness reacting to the pressures of the Atlantic. We had dressed in layers of wool, nylon and Gore-Tex, but whether we stripped or swathed, our clothes could not keep up with the weather. All day there had been fractal episodes of sunshine and heat, tree-bending wind, downpour and hail. Rainbows faded in and out of the atmosphere. Swallows disappeared into drizzle, and magpies into thunderheads. An hour could describe four seasons of rain. My hands were clammy from all the wet things I had touched. It looked like it had just showered and the air seemed siphoned from that glossy nether world between sunshine and precipitation—it turned us into no more than refractions of water and light.
At the Flaggy Shore we might have been Monet water lilies pooling into the dun and smalt colored backdrop of limestone and sea. Even our chatter was smeared by offshore gusts. I could only articulate individuals by arithmetic—each of us was the sum of four limbs arranged or akimbo, one torso, and one head. I imagined inside each hood, beneath hair tacking windward, single brains nodding on stems like shuttered buds of grocery Phalaenopsis. Is this where we begin and end?
Separateness depends on how you look. Consider staring into a stereogram, a Magic Eye. What sometimes seems distinct can drift into invisibility; curves can become cobbles, arms into marl, ears into erratics, spines into sand. We can all dissolve into some errant and fantastic geology.
It snows each day in Ireland. It drifts, silver and white, inside dark and mutinous waves. It falls beyond the Flaggy Shore, in Galway Bay, in the Atlantic. It falls faintly across the universe, in all oceans—the descent of the living, the dying, and the dead. Marine snow has been falling since forever, for as long as there have been seas, for as long as the dead will sink. It is made up of dust, detritus, and shit. It is made up of corpses, body parts, and bones. It settles to the bottom as muck or sand, is stirred by currents and collects in dunes. Marine snow is the constant precipitation beneath the surface of the ocean. It is the storm that swallows larger life and freezes them in time. It is the dead burying the dead, and when it becomes stone, it offers evidence of the things that have lived.
We are told that almost all limestone began as marine snow carpeting an equatorial sea. We are told that the limestone of the Burren was once a piece of Africa floated north on a tectonic raft. We are told that it took 20 million years to form and is some 300 million years old. We are told to imagine Ireland as a Venusian marinescape fecund with coral stands, crinoid lilies, spiraled ammonites, lamp shells, and urchins. I imagine what drifts between—microscopic foraminifera, the hole bearers, that true to the nature of snow, formed shells as strange and delicate as snowflakes.
When I think about the formation of limestone, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe at the density and expanse of life compressed into slabs of land. By some accounts, the Burren stretches 150 square miles and more. Its limestone sprawls beneath cottages, fields of cattle, gentian, orchids, and strange arctic flowers. It asserts its presence everywhere, pushing up from the ground and breaking into fissures. Everything laid on top of it, the highways, the hazel scrub, the 12,000 years of human habitation, seems as translucent as onion skin. Still, whatever amazement I feel is yoked with a funereal funk. The nature of limestone is as apocalyptic as Soylent Green. Limestone, the whole of it, is animal. It is calcium carbonate, the skeletons if you will, of living creatures. It is no different from the portal tombs of Ireland—mass graves of bodies buried among their tribe.
When we look at a skeleton, we can’t help but imagine it living. Maybe we sense, if we sense memory, the echo of a time when it was animated by the soft stuff it supported—the blood, guts, heart, plasma, cells, organelles, and some other mystery. Life on the scale of limestone forces us to reckon with dualities that we have sequestered to opposite poles to protect ourselves—that life is inseparable from death, that death is inseparable from life, and if they are so indistinguishable, then they are one in the same. To consider each life preserved in limestone is to be drowned in a disappeared sea.
At the Flaggy Shore, it seemed strange to have the Atlantic guarded by altitudes of ocean bottom. When I looked up from the limestone into the cloud clotted sky, I saw an imagined snowfall. Flakes landed on my shoulders, settled on my shoes, and collected around my ankles. It dusted all of us and so we kicked it around as we scrabbled over rocks. It clouded up like flour. This snow was the dry and weightless kind that falls only on the coldest February days, the kind that can be disturbed by a breath, the best kind of snow for angels, the worst kind for snowmen. There was a cold sea breeze and I breathed it in.
You need to imagine a snow in Ireland the way James Joyce did, because snowfall there is rare. I had to return home to New England for the real stuff of Nor’easters. What would that kind of snow look like on the Burren? Would it look like the sky was tearing? Would it turn the air into a static screen? The first dusting would speckle the rocks, then coat them in a fragile sheet. The colors of things would turn monochrome. Corners, cracks, and low-lying plants would smooth into white plains. Stands of wild heather and rows of thistle would be frosted in icy jackets. If it kept on snowing the features of the land, the stone walls, cottages, castles, cattle, and people would be entombed. We could grow into glaciers. We could return to the ice age. We could arc back 2 billion years further and become early eukaryotes dormant inside snowball earth. How can we conceive of this avalanche of time? I think we would want to stretch our hands up and swim, trying to break the surface.
We do not disappear without evidence. I don’t know if this is the ego of living things, or the ego of matter, or the ego of our need to attest to our existence. It might be a little bit of all three. Maybe because we look at our passing with dread, we are driven to search for things that might refute the idea of unbeing. Perhaps this is why we are fascinated with ancient history and with fossils—we can resurrect stories over and over again by reading the earth like a Rosetta Stone. At the Shore, the limestone pavement was etched with hieroglyphics, and while most of us recognized it as a language, we needed our guide to translate. He was as much a part of the Burren as the lichen, and so we accepted everything. When he gestured toward our feet I saw how casually we had been dismissing a narrative. Is everything beneath our feet sentenced to neglect?
The figures were easy to spot in the eroding matrix. Against the gray rock were white impressions like chalk drawings or a primal braille. Hurried wriggling lines were once the paths of worms. Pre-historic cockles mounded out like resting surf clams. I saw coral everywhere, sliced along all planes; they surfaced as brush strokes, pock marks, divots and erratic holes carved out by the maudlin force of rain. The latter looked to me like broken honeycomb with larval bees peeking out. These were the ones that I wanted to touch the least. I found them unsettling. They seemed like nests slipped through folds of time—they looked hungry.
If we wanted, we were allowed to collect fossils, but this seemed a little bit like a catch 22, a joker’s trick. They were everywhere, tapped, dotted, and swirled, but the best seemed to emerge on the large boulders. Still, I remember how this permission gave way to a weird devouring. Let loose to hunt, our group bent down around among the rocks, and began to pick through the cobbles. Some were squeamish, some more committed. I remember a few pocketing golf ball-sized rounds, while one seized a squash-shaped football speckled with cross sections of coral. In his hands, the fossil suddenly looked like it had the measles.
I wanted something to take home, but there was a part of me that wanted something different, a something that felt like a discovery or treasure. The cacophony of fossils made me think of how sterile pavements were back home and how nice it would be to have one on my mantle beside my Nahant seashells, the egg-like rocks from Barcelona, and the two iron birds I was given as a gift. It felt predatory, this need to possess. Perhaps this is why there are only fossil hunters, and not fossil viewers.
What is it about us that that demands evidence for our lives? We do our best to exact ownership of the mundane and the spectacular. We try to crush and flatten our memories into photos, as facsimilia of time. But really, these virtual impressions carry as much weight in the physical world as light on the hair of a moth orchid. The value lies in authenticity. The realness of an object is what makes for a first-class souvenir—it is evidence that we existed in another place. For tourists, the more novel the object the better because bragging rights hang on the strangeness of an object. And because life seems to be the most intangible mystery to us, strange beyond conception, the possession of fossils trumps of our daily show and tells.
But in truth, the fossil record is less a document of the things that have lived and more the testimony of our world’s mass extinctions. These great catastrophes eliminated most life on earth—the Ordovician–Silurian extinction (439 million years ago, 86% of life); the Late Devonian extinction (364 million years ago, 75% of life); the Permian–Triassic extinction (251 million years ago, 96% of life); the Triassic–Jurassic extinction (200 million years ago, 76% of life); and the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction (65 million years ago, 76% of life, including all dinosaurs). It’s hard to fathom the numbers, much less the time. But sometimes I think of this loss of life like losing money in a petty gamble—out of a dollar I might make out with mere pennies. With each extinction, the dominant species, the high rollers, were blown away and life reset itself. Maybe our need to possess fossils comes from this—if we can hold it, we can say we own it; if we own it, we can say we control it. In the face of a history of extinctions, perhaps this is the mantra that we find ourselves living by. The creatures of the Flaggy Shore seem similar to modern marine creatures, but really, they ceased to be during the most extreme of extinctions, the Permian-Triassic—out of a dollar, 4 cents.
Among the dots and slashes of white, the spiraled shapes of early snails cut against the limestone like a loose spread of quotation marks. They seem to bookend an ancient speech that we can’t seem to make out. Perhaps these clustered whorls inspired the triskelion, a Celtic cipher of three spirals. Its meaning is a mystery, but it has been seen as far back as 3200 BC inside Megalithic Irish tombs.
There’s an eternal cosmology in the shape of the spiral. The spiral exists in motion, in tornados, in the forever rolling of the sun, the moon, the waves. This is physics beyond man. The movement of clouds and water suggests the invisible motion of the wind. We see the spiral in living nature—in shells, plant tendrils, buds unfurling, fiddle heads, and spider webs. We see it in chameleon tails, in our own fingerprints, in our twisted genes. What might it have meant to Paleolithic man to see these shapes emerge from the ground before language? These spirals existed on rocks, stark and white, before they took to etching rocks themselves, mimicking land by drawing in their own stories.
Animals move in spirals too. We are all made that way that way— in eggs there is the curling, wet, knees to nose shapes of embryos that gives evidence for our evolution. As vertebrates, we begin like the tiniest of fry. It is also the instinct of all things to roll. Like armadillos, caterpillars, and pill bugs, we curl to protect. We curl in our sleep. In our dreams we lie like galaxies etched into rock. The spiral is the shape our hand makes when we coil it around something and hold tight.
The idea of extinction challenges us with too many problems. Mostly because we are human and have a hard time conceiving of a world without us. We end up constructing a directional vision of our world with an arrow pointing toward progress us. But if anything, the fossil record of worlds without humans reminds us that we are the happy or unhappy accidents of a primordial soup. We are as alien to those lost beings as they are to us. How alien will we be to the forms of life a billion years from now?
There’s a saying that the world rests upon the back of a turtle, which rests on the back of another turtle, and another, and another. It is turtles all the way down. Confronted with fossils, turtles might as well be dinosaurs, might as well be crinoids, might as well be trilobites, might as well be things smaller and stranger still—the single cells of life. In a sense, they are the same. Because we all spiral, because we all carry the coils of DNA, we know that all known life evolved from a single organism. But what was before that? Life is the result of an accretion of the non-living, organic matter electrified from the inorganic. We are concoctions of minerals, molecules, and atoms, the result of a 13-billion-year-old process, exploded in the universe and then incubated on our planet for another handful of billion.
What can remind us that we were once not life? Maybe we need to be dominated by a stone landscape to feel this. Maybe there is something in the way the sea meets stone that suggests a time when there was nothing but primordial sea and primordial earth. To stand along the Flaggy Shore is to be overwhelmed by the sense that you are braided into something beyond life.
We can’t draw a straight line through this idea either. Humans have a preoccupation with a history that describes the world as linear when in truth this idea might just be a cloak draped by a culture that abandoned our oneness with nature. We have been taught into straight lines and distinctions. But the study of the past, the study of creatures long gone reveals that the rules that have governed the making of the past are the same that exist today. There is combination and recombination, genetic mutation, and response to the environment. In this, we find simultaneity—the past is now, and thinking this blows our minds. We must learn to unlearn this if we are to approach the infinite.
Imagination allows us to hold these things in our mind. It gives us the power to consider the existence of things that do not exist and to contemplate ideas on the fringes of our selves. We lean hard on imagination to construct the world around us, and to give shape to worlds long gone. The most beautiful thing about imagining the extinct, is that we have the power to create. We can breathe life into creatures, allow them to swim, fly, and scream in ways that can never really be documented. Imagination is fecund energy that opens us to possibility.
But in truth, this is all the process of working things out in our brains. Really, nature rules. Nature determines what is made and what is unmade. Nature delights and surprises us with the odd and the curious—the wings of pigeons, the shapes of noses, the hypnosis of birdsong, the complexity of insects, the spirals of wind, weather, and galaxy. And nature gives birth to imagination itself, because really, we have as much a hand in the things that we think as a whisper moves a rock.
Consider evoking the image of a creature in your mind and it evolves of its own accord. Natural forces to draw together what we have learned, remembered, experienced to build its shell, the movement of its eyes, its subtle variations, its spots. This miracle of our neurobiology. Our brains are really running amuck, because in a sense, it is the rules of the universe that govern the chemical firing of the synapses, the shape of neurons, the uptake and osmosis, the interplay of molecules, hormones, and neurotransmitters. Our conscious experience may merely be the collective construction of a million, billion infinite events, impressions and interactions with the environment, converging into the thing we call our experience or even ourselves.
How is it that we can claim control or ownership over ourselves? How is it that we can call ourselves self-governing? We are not only buffeted by our natural physics but are products of it.
Seamus Heaney’s portrait is fixed on weathered plaque at the far end of the shore. He is white haired, and thin lipped. I can’t make out his expression. It is one of those portraits that seem to follow you and shift in the light. Sometimes he is looking at you, at other times, at something miles beyond. Sometimes he is stern, and at another glance, he seems to be holding back from laughing at an incredible joke. His poem “Postscript” rides the contour of his left shoulder. It begins: “And sometime make the time to drive out west / Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore.” He does not ask you to stop. The feeling you get from being there comes as a culmination of a journey. To pass the Shore you must drive through the hard landscape of the Burren. Your car will fill with the astringent sweetness of livestock, the odor of salt and smoky peat, of kelp and dying moon jellies. It will fill with something else. When you pass, you will be greeted by an atavistic sense of recognition. You will know, without knowing, the meaning of a stony place.
When I looked up from fossil searching I saw how far behind I had fallen from the group. The tour had moved far down the beach toward the bus. I had spent most of my time standing in one place but had succeeded in turning up the scaly impression of a crinoid, just a whisper beneath a rock. Crinoids are also called sea lilies and I think finding one at the end of our time was a fitting memorial. The lily represents innocence, transience, and rebirth. It is the choice bloom for funerals to say in sympathy that the soul departed will be restored after death. These long-gone flowers would have bloomed and faded along with its garden.
I try to catch up with everyone, but I can’t quite run. The wind has picked up and I need to pick my way over the rocky ground. There is no shortcut around a secret garden—the only way out is through.
We would all eventually finish our visit, board planes, and return to our homes, elsewhere across the sea. These homes would be noisy and painted with the lives we sketch for ourselves. Only maybe we would carry with us a new sense of place, that we are in Dreamtime, neither here nor there. Nature is out of our control and the universe unfurls around us in dimensions that we can barely begin to imagine. We do not create the world—the world creates us. We are being dreamed.