"As long as she could remember, back to the freedom of childhood, Luce had believed that if you walk in the deep woods long enough, you'll inevitably come to places of mystery or spirit or ritual." From Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier.
I read this passage last night, on the edge of sleep, and was suddenly fully awake to the subject at hand. A good part of my childhood was spent doing just this — searching for a hidden spring, or grotto where water dripped and ferns grew lush in the shadows. There were woods labeled The Deep Woods, farther from the known forest where we named trees and established camps. ("Boy's Camp" and "Girl's Camp".) There the salal was nearly waist-high and the second-growth Douglas firs swayed high above the forest floor. They sidled a raspberry farm, and beyond that, a housing development encroached. The Deep Woods seemed limitless but now I know their boundaries stretched barely a few acres, and had been logged a mere sixty-or-so years prior.
Once I found a hollowed-out space, like a bowl, in the trunk of a Big Leaf Maple where rainwater collected. A single seedpod floated on the surface: miniature skiff.
But I wanted more, I wanted a surging up from deep below, something sprung from underground vaults. I desired honeyed cures and sweet nectar that I could hoard, or share secretly in tiny vials. The best I could do there, though, was to anoint my forehead with a muddy streak — decidedly Catholic. I remember running through glades of fiddle-head ferns, the smudge dripping down my nose.
Decades later in Ireland, I discovered the marvels of holy wells, those marvelous pagan sites co-opted by Christianity and usually replete with offerings of every possible persuasion: rosary beads, holy cards, coins, hair barrettes, ribbons, keys, rings, photographs, toys — draped and strung on decaying statues and mossy branches.
Another time in Ireland, we'd hiked straight up the steep hillside from Keem Beach on Achill Island, to the ridge where the Atlantic Ocean stretched thousands of miles to the west. It rained, the sun came out, it rained, the sun came out again. Looped back down in a treeless valley where a stream had cut deep ravines in the rocks and peat. Around every twist in the stream was a place to perch under a bank, quiet but for the rushing water, ferns and reeds and wildflowers everywhere. Those few hours were charmed, nearly holy. The sunlight reflecting off raindrops sparkled as if thousands of prisms were strung along the path. I was so deeply transfixed by the landscape that I didn't speak for hours — couldn't speak. There was no language, no words worth more than what seemed like sacred silence.
I hadn't discovered digital photography at that time, and any photos taken that day by my then-husband were a casualty of divorce.
Here, though, is a detail from a holy well in County Donegal....
And the holy places of childhood?
Consigned to the stories constructed from memories.