The Zen of Gaelic Nature Poetry

Although I’ve known about transcendental meditation since I was a teenager, it was only when I had a personal crisis at the age of 40 that I had cause to do a deep dive into the latest manifestations of these spiritual techniques. I took a Mindfulness course offered by an Integrated Medicine program at the University of North Carolina to deal with the stress and anxiety I was experiencing, negative feedback loops that drew me into a black hole. Rather than the usual approach of conventional psychotherapy – delving into the past to explore the root causes of one’s emotional traumas – my guide into mindfulness had us focus on seemingly trivial and mundane experiences: What does a raisin really taste like if you chew it slowly and perceptively? What is the quality of experience when we breath slowly and deliberately? What is it like to really live in the present moment, in all of its sensory profusion and grandeur, rather than allowing our minds to draw us constantly to some other place, some other time, some other purpose?

Although there are many definitions of “mindfulness,” that offered by the Greater Good Magazine is sufficient:

Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.

Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.

I’m currently on holiday in Nova Scotia and holidays are meant to be relaxing by taking us out of our usual routine and allowing us to experience the sublime, or the exotic, or at least the non-habitual. And yet, I’m sure like many other people, my mind is constantly pulled (as it feels) by the things I should be doing to be “productive” (not least my secondary, non-paid career as a Gaelic scholar). And feeling this tugging while in the company of beloved Gaelic friends in Nova Scotia somehow reminded me of the debate over the meaning and quality of Gaelic poetry written about nature in past centuries.

Caveat: As I am on holiday and do not have access to my library and all of the dog-eared references I’ve accumulated in the past, I will not be able to cite references for the following discussion. I will be limited to my rather imprecise ability to recall … Please forgive any misattributions based on my imperfect memory.

If you’ve studied Gaelic poetry, you know that – at least from the viewpoint of a modern Anglophone – it can seem to get rather tedious. There is almost limitless attention to detail, catalogues of place names, flora, fauna, and phenomena, and onomatopoeic and anthropomorphized portrayal of the busy activities of ecosystems and their inhabitants. Probably the most celebrated poet whose output included many extended texts of this nature is Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir (1724 – 1812).

This modality of poetry clashes with modern European literary ideals and caused many previous generations of literary scholars to dismiss the capacities and accomplishments of the Gaelic “eco-literary” tradition. One modern Gaelic scholar (I believe it was Derick Thomson in the ’70s) expressed his disappointment that Donnchadh Bàn’s poetry did not use nature as a vehicle for philosophizing about life or social issues, despite his tremendous command of the language and literary devices; in other words, Donnchadh Bàn was celebrating nature at great length simply for its own sake, not as an eloquent circumlocution to be applied to some other set of themes and topics.

You can probably see where I’m going with this …

Another Celtic scholar (John Carey, I think?) has compared the sophisticated detail and fractal-like reflections of the intricate depictions in Gaelic poetry to the illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period and suggested that the latter may have formed a sort of spiritual devotion.chi_rho_bowl

So, rather than seeing the artistic skills and intellectual resources of the Gaelic literati as being “wasted” because they “failed” to leverage them for the literary equivalent of social engineering, we should instead see them as delightful celebrations of mindfulness, of taking joy in the wonder of being in the fecundity of nature and sharing that experiences and wonder with the rest of us.

Now that this blog is done, I need to be practicing mindfulness better myself.

PS. The great Gaelic scholar Meg Bateman also has an article about remnants of the female chthonic divine in Donnchadh Bàn’s nature poetry, but I must leave you to find this on your own: ‘The environmentalism of Donnchadh Bàn: pragmatic or mythic?’ Christopher MacLachlan (ed.), Crossing the Highland Line: Cross-Currents in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Writing. Glasgow: 123–36.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Feàrnach says:

    Similar to the nature poetry of, say, Japan, rather than to the Roman tradition of using nature to comment obliquely on society (assuming absurdly, in the process, that nature somehow reflects society – a profoundly superstitious, anthropomorphic stance).

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