Wisdom's Garden: Lessons for Northern Ireland

By Arthur, Chris | Contemporary Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Wisdom's Garden: Lessons for Northern Ireland


Arthur, Chris, Contemporary Review


'THE act of composing a garden', says Russell Page, who has composed many, 'is a question first of selection and then of emphasis'. These were certainly the two key operations that underlay my mother's efforts to cultivate the quarter-acre site around the house she and my father built in Lisburn, County Antrim, half a century ago. A mark of the concentration she brought to Page's two inter-related principles of composition lay in what I came to think of as the garden's temporary superimposition on her mind. Years later, when failing strength and ill health made gardening of any sort beyond recollection impossible, she described what happened when, after an afternoon's weeding or planting, she lay down to rest and closed her eyes. A picture of the ground she'd been working on appeared, so exact in every detail that, had she continued her labours imaginatively in this inner spectral garden, her selection and emphasis could have precisely mirrored the pattern she'd been working to outside. It was as if the eyes, in secret collusion with memory, wrought some perceptual alchemy such that seeing became momentarily independent of having things visibly present in front of her. The account she gave suggested a kind of visual echo that traced with the delicacy of perfect similitude the contours of every plant, each patch of soil, leaving a clear reverberation of the real shimmering like a mirage in the secret garden of her mind. This haunting aftertaste would keep its flavour for maybe ten or twenty minutes before it dissolved, fading back to the blankness that customarily governs the screen behind our resting eyes.

I've never experienced such a superimposition myself. Whether this is due to different wiring in the brain, or to my less rigorous approach to gardening, I'm not sure. Perhaps my lack of first-hand familiarity in part explains why I'm so intrigued by this phenomenon. Or maybe it's because a superimposition of this nature seems to betoken such intensity of focus as to be arresting. Mainly, though, the fascination it exerts comes from the way in which it represents a common mental operation, thus acting as a ready-made metaphor, a found model happened on by chance, for the way in which we all select and emphasise from inner blueprints in the process of cultivating our pictures of the world.

One of the things that bemused my wife-to-be on her early visits to Northern Ireland--as it must have bemused thousands of outsiders--was the way in which so many of the acts of social composition she witnessed selected and emphasised aspects of the world that were, to her, irrelevant. She found curious, but not endearing, the way in which Ulster ears are so finely attuned to markers of tribal allegiance. Name, address, football team supported, school attended, mode of pronunciation ('aitch' or 'haich' for 'h'), whether you say 'Derry' or 'Londonderry', the 'North' or 'Northern Ireland'--our diction is littered with seemingly innocent features that announce whether someone is a Catholic or Protestant, whether their allegiance is more likely to be nationalist or loyalist.

For me, the divisiveness of Ulster society has come to resemble something akin to the garden's superimposition on my mother's mind, only it is a far more permanent and injurious imprinting than the temporary occupancy laid so gently and delicately on the fabric of her consciousness. It's as if the two communities have laboured for so long in their respective plots--selecting their favoured myths, emphasising triumphs and injustices--that a self-sustaining picture of Ireland has been branded on each tribal psyche. These superimpositions are, of course, adversarial, opposed, conflicting--and they're burnt so deeply into commonplace perception that their rules of composition are hard to shake off, even when conditions on the ground have changed.

Sectarian composition uses a blueprint of selection and emphasis that, unless you're brought up with its patterns glazing the wall of the inner ear, can be as difficult to hear as a bat's squeaking. …

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