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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 11, Number 4, December 2017
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Guy Stephenson,
Letterkinny, Ireland


Ballyarr Wood

Autumn rain falls on the gnarled ridge of impervious quartzite that underlies these woods. It trickles through mire, rattles over pebbles, running towards the Leannan. The rocky outcrops, humps, hollows and steep dells host a congeries of woodland green: navelwort for chilblains, sorrel for the ague; bilberry and rowan to charm the tongue; jelly ears for the jonders and puffballs for the bleeding.

This ancient forest has held its own since the first arctic willow took root in the newly exposed glacial till. But most of it has vanished in the nine thousand years since humans arrived, making way for oats and barley, beef and potatoes. On walks in the lower woods I see the tumbled remnants of field walls, the traces of long-ago farmers; now the trees have reclaimed their own.

relict walls –
now lost
in wildwood’s tangle

On a cashel built when St Patrick was in his prime – a tall oak leans. Its offspring sprout beneath, their roots buried deep, along with the names of those Early Christians. More recent farmers, survivors of An Gorta Mór, were named in a book, the better for their taxation. Gael and Planter: among them, Thomas McGettigan, Patrick Gallagher, Daniel McSwyne and Charles Porter, James Robinson, John Fleming.

I sit down on a fallen log, breathe the scent of green ferns in deep, damp moss and imagine Elly Russell in her black shawl, as she stoops, seeking simples beneath the hawthorn.

slow drip from
sodden branches –
blackbird’s chatter


Writer’s notes:

While I was in the early stages of developing this Haibun, my attention was drawn to Matsuo Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, specifically the “Hiraizumi” passage. I had previously read some of his haiku so I approached this reading with interest. What I found was a wonderfully evocative haibun, rich in poetic description and simple in language. I was taken by the geographic scene setting as much as by the way the history seemed to seep up through the page. I admired the way in which Bashō included himself as spectator and philosophizer, taking the work far beyond straight description. Bashō’s wonderful concluding haiku not only took me back into the preceding prose, it also led me to explore my own understanding of the futility and pathos inherent in warfare. I was further inspired by Sora’s poem, which follows Bashō’s. Thus challenged, I re-engaged with my haibun, with a better understanding of the form’s potential, hoping this enhanced appreciation would show in my new work.

‘Jelly ears’ is a common name for a fungus which grows on trees, especially Elder. One of its traditional uses was in the treatment of jaundice (jonders). An Gorta Mór is Gaelic for The Great Hunger, the famine which, in the mid-nineteenth century, caused Ireland’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%, with a million people dying and a million more emigrating. The ‘taxation book’ refers to Griffith’s Valuation. Richard Griffith was appointed by the British Government to carry out a valuation survey; his work on this lasted from the early 1850s until 1865 and it is one of the relatively few extant documentary records of land ownership or occupancy in Ireland in the C19th.

The translation of Bashō’s "Hiraizumi" passage from The Narrow Road to the Deep North that I read was here.

Should a reader wish to find out more about the ecology of Ballyarr Woods, further information can be found here:

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