County Donegal, in the northwest corner of Ireland is known for shitty weather. Pinned in by the mountains coming out of Sligo to the south, and to the east by northern Ireland and all that entails, it was cut off for much of the past couple hundred years. It remains wild in places.
The village of Port, while never exactly bustling, did at one time have life. But in a land known for shitty weather, Port was abandoned because the weather and the sea made life just too hard to deal with. In its time it was known for exceptionally strong rope, and a technique they perfected in making it, which was necessary to keep the roofs on their cottages from blowing off in the nasty Atlantic gales. There is nothing left of Port except abandoned stone cottages, their thatched roofs gone for generations.
And so of course I had to go there.
It’s not on most maps, I had to buy an ordnance survey map to find it, and even then it took blind faith that we were on the right roads. I had just purchased the third raincoat of that trip. I decided I’d have more variety in raincoats in Donegal than I did in southwest Indiana, where I lived at the time. And I was right. It’s just the rain soaked through the first, and found its way through the openings of the second. I finally went with a waxed barn coat, with sleeves that cinched tight and a hood. As it was, the rain still found its way up my sleeves.
It was only the second or third step I took after getting out of the car that my right leg sunk into the bog halfway up my thigh. The ground where I stood was soup, the only parts solid were the rocks. It was heaven.
We made our way down to the beach, a rock beach. It was comprised of flat stones, most small enough to fit snugly in the palm of your hand. When faced with an ocean I tend to wade. Not far, just enough to get my feet wet. They were already wet, so it didn’t matter. And it was a chance to clean a bit of the Irish mud from my boots.
My companion advised against it. She wanted to have my child after all. She didn’t realize she already carried it, nor did I. But I stepped out into the water, just enough to cover the soles of my boots. The waves seemed gentle enough, coming part of the way up my shins … very cold. But when the surf went out, I realized the stones were like ice, and it sucked me out a good three feet before I knew it.
I laughed, as it was kind of novel to be pulled like that, like a child on a sled. But with the next wave, I found myself pulled out to my knees.
There’s a bit of panic that sets in as you’re being pulled out to sea. My first thought was there were rocks about thirty yards out which would catch me. I turned to look and saw that where the surf hit the rocks, it wasn’t so gentle. It was a pounding, and the rocks were jagged. I’d avoid drowning, and have my brains bashed out instead.
Not wanting to die there, as there wasn’t another soul around for god knows how many miles, I turned to come back to dry land.
My companion was watching me, telling me to come back. I took a step and it was like walking on a sheet of ice. The tide pulled me out further. I smiled at her, because I knew if she realized I was being sucked out, she’d come out to try to rescue me. There’s no way I could have caught her … she weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet and with rocks in her pocket. She’d have been halfway to North America before her body turned up.
Though we weren’t more than ten yards from each other, the roar of the surf meant neither of us could hear what the other was saying. I could tell she was a bit irritated because I didn’t just walk back in. But for every foot forward I’d take, the tide would suck me back about ten inches. I was more than concerned. Those two inches I stole back from the sea took all the energy I had. I didn’t know if I had enough to get back the few yards to safety. But I knew if I missed even one cycle of the tide, or even worse, lost my footing, I was fucked.
She finally caught on, that this slow motion walking I was doing was out of necessity. I stopped looking at her and looked at my feet, and inch by inch walked my way back from the precipice.
I lived obviously, but it was the first time since I was a kid when nature almost killed me. Those of us with pagan inclinations tend to think of nature as a positive force, white magic. But in our natural state, in most of our natural habitats, to be exposed to nature would rather quickly spell our doom. As Ian Anderson once wrote, “he who made kittens, put snakes in the grass.”
Once I accompanied a friend of mine to visit a couple of bikers who he’d sold some pot to, and had yet to pay him. We knocked on the door, hear a “come in” and walked through the door to find ourselves facing sawed off shotguns. It’s not the only time I’ve had a gun pointed at my head. In those moments you wonder what the other person is going to do. The natural tendency is to hesitate, because you can’t help but think the person holding the gun won’t be willing to pull the trigger.
Nature, and the sea, isn’t like that. If you find yourself in danger and don’t act immediately, you die. It’s not personal, the sea doesn’t have have it in for you, in all likelihood at least. It’s just the way it is.
As a child I was in a small boat in a storm on the ocean, out of sight of land. Some might find it exhilarating. I didn’t, I found it terrifying. Just as I find tornadoes terrifying, and I’ve seen enough of those as well. A friend of mine who lived only a few miles from here was killed by one of those earlier this year. Death from the sky is something those of us who live here learn to deal with. I heard the tornado that killed him pass by here, above us, not yet on the ground.
But to live in the shadow of the sea, where storms are more commonplace than the sun is to live next to a hungry beast. No matter how much you think you’re on easy terms, you can never forget that it’s a force without mercy. The ocean is so deep that light doesn’t reach the bottom. And that was the thought that stuck in my mind as my feet were being sucked out into the Atlantic.
My dream would be to live high on a cliff, overlooking that ocean. My dream would be to live in Port, because when death dwells just out your kitchen window, it’s very easy to feel quiveringly alive.
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