A winter walk wakes an old Irish legend

The snow is still falling on the ridge behind my house when I set out, the soft, thick snow that holds onto branches and transforms the woods. We finally have a real winter day. Saplings bend into arches and tunnels. Limbs interlace and stand out against their mantle of crystals. The slender tips of next spring’s leaf buds show clearly on the beech trees.

And spaces open out between the trees with the udergrowth hidden — enough that up on the Chestnut Trail I walked right off the path without knowing it.

Snow coats the trees along the Chestnut Trail in Williamstown.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Snow coats the trees along the Chestnut Trail in Williamstown.

Feeling my way back again, I wondered how long it had been since I last looked at the contours of the land and tried to find my way by the shape of it. Here a gully parallels the ridge, and here a stream comes through. A bank rises. A glacial erratic holds a clearing.

I can see those curve now in the snow, and I can feel the path’s relationship to the slope above me. Now it runs parallel, and now it swings to face the quartzite bluffs, and I can see the long line of the ridge through the trees. Something in the perspective brings the scale and shape into new relief.

Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass asks how our perspective can change if we change our pronouns. In English, pronouns can indicate organic or inorganic, living or inert — so what happens if a mountain becomes not an it but he, she or they?

How many stories talk about the mountains as giants, powerful beings, spirits awake or asleep? I met one this morning, a wise women … and she speaks Gaelic. I caught my first glimpse of the Cailleach. She makes the mountains, and she is of the mountains. She can appear as a woman or an outcrop of stone. She rides with the fair folk, the people of the woods, and she knows herbs and healing and dreams — says Sharon Blackie in If Women Rose Rooted.

How many stories talk about the mountains as giants, powerful beings, spirits awake or asleep?

I’ve been reading Blackie’s stories, and I’m thinking of her in the snow on the Chestnut trail half a year from the afternoon when her book first came my way. My summer interns came with me to Chatham, N.Y., that day in August. We were cooling off in the bookstore, and Scarlet handed me a dusk-blue paperback with an irridescent tree on the cover.

Blackie’s book is half a memoir and half an exploration through Celtic legends, and it fit into that unexpected sunny day. An hour before, the three of us had been talking with a guide at Hancock Shaker Village who told us she was about to head to Edinburgh to study osteo-archaeology — learning stories from bogs and bone 1500 years old.

Icicles form in the mosses on quartzite boulders along the Chestnut Trail in Williamstown.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Icicles form in the mosses on quartzite boulders along the Chestnut Trail in Williamstown.

We had spent the morning in the village with the work of three artists from around the world, all thinking about women and community and the natural world. In gardens and quiet rooms, they made prism light and spider webs and earth paintings. Scarlet runner beans were blooming on an iron trellis curved like a woman’s body.

I remember them now, when I’m reading Blackie’s book on a raw morning in the rain. The Cailleach lives on rocky outcrops. She protects birds and animals, and she holds storms in her hands.

I’ve been finding her in new glimpses this winter … when Cassandra Sohn tells me about photographer Rachael Talibart, who heads out in a hurricane to catch images of elemental waves.

Karlene Kantnor recalls the scent of wood-fired ceramics when the curves of clay and the embers in the pit are glowing red hot. Wild Soul River tells gentle stories with the tarot cards a local artist has made with locally foraged plants.

Stories like these have power for me now, whether they are old or new. The Cailleach’s stories are not the Irish folklore I’ve known frol old college classes, in fragments of chiefs and cattle raids. They are not even tales of kelpies and selkies dancing, though those sound like closer kin. They are old stories — stories of women and magic and the land.

The Cailleach made the mountains, as Blackie recounts her — she danced and poured the rivers over the hills — “she leapt from hilltop to hilltop followed by herds of deer.”

She is the essence of “protective, female creativity and power … seen, in Irish ancestral culture, to be the major source from which emerges … the physical universe and the security and well-being of the social order in times of stress.”

Photo by Kate Abbott

From the top of Chestnut Street, the view opens across Williamstown to the far ridges.

(Blackie is quoting here from a folklorist, Gearoóid 0 Crualaoich, and a quick look this morning through the Williams College library brought me to his visions.)

The Cailleach, as he sees her, may give people ways to talk about pain they find hard to deal with openly, because the community will not allow it — and the ones they find hard even to see. And she can hold her own life and the land and her community in balance.

“The bearers and narrators of such seanchas (lore and legend) can be seen to play a very significant role in the cultural life of the community in terms that are creative …”

In the pressure we’re under now, her presence sounds vital to me. Or maybe I want to dance on mountaintops in good company.

Snow-coated trees, pine and ash and alder, stand at the foot of the ridge below Pine Cobble.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Snow-coated trees, pine and ash and alder, stand at the foot of the ridge below Pine Cobble.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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