I was trying to figure out what it is that I found so amazing about seeing the sights in the British Isles.
It’s the age of everything, that’s part of it.
Part of it is the mark. The … the sheer hubris of it all.
Part of it is that these things, these buildings and structures of such age, are still in use. They are part of the fabric of life. The office buildings, the governmental structures, they are hundreds of years old.
I went to Trim Castle, built in the 12th Century. I was pondering what, if anything, in North America might be comparable. The European and African Settlers arrived in the 1500s. What stone buildings they built — and there weren’t a huge number — are no older than that. The people who lived in North America before the Europeans largely did not build with stone — and then most of their works were destroyed in genocides, anyway. The Aztec and Mayan cultures built with stone, and their works have lasted. But many (possibly most?) are not in use at this time. There are some communities in the American Southwest that are hundreds of years old, built into the cliffs, that are still lived-in. That’s the only thing I can think of, offhand.
Glendalough, or the Valley of the Churches, in Ireland, was beautiful. It was full of ruins of a monastic community from 750-1200 CE, more or less. But the part that got to me was the enormous graveyard covering the site. The guide explained that the graves are primarily from the 1600-1900s, long after the bishophric was of St. Kevin was dissolved. The people who lived in the valley, well, they buried their dead on holy ground. Long after the church withdrew its presence.
The oldest markers are broken chunks of weathered stone, half-buried in the grass.
People are still being buried in the valley to this day.
I am torn, conflicted in my emotions, about humanity’s insistence on leaving a mark. On the one hand we struggle to create and record meaning, we ascribe story and myth and we demand that we be heard. We fight to be remembered. And at the same time, in the same action, we destroy what was there before us. The Cathedral of St. Kevin is half-gone — the stones taken away by people to build other things.
J and I talked, as we left the neolithic burial mound of Newgrange. We tried to imagine whether the people who built the mound would be pleased that their work is now a tourist attraction. I don’t know. There’s no way to tell whether their rites were secret or public, hidden or publicized.
I like to think, though, that they would be pleased to be remembered. I like to think that they would be pleased that the labor of generations, of an entire river valley, is known and appreciated today. The meaning has been lost, but the work remains.
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