it starts at the top of a mountain. Not the novel itself, but the idea for the novel. The mountain is Errisbeg, on the coast of Connemara in County Galway. It’s an ugly lump of a thing, pocked with prickly yellow gorse and patches of swampy bog, but the landscape it commands is magnificent. The face of the mountain looks directly down on the back-to-back beaches of Dog’s Bay and Gurteen Strand. To the east is the lovely village of Roundstone. The Ballyconeely and Erislannan peninsulas are to the north-west, and beyond them lie the beginnings of the Atlantic, dotted with small islands.
So far, so normal. It’s only when you turn away from the sea and cast your eye inland that things get a little strange. The view travels across an expanse of desolation that stretches as far as the Twelve Bens mountain range in the distance. Not a thing lies between, only bog and scrub and pockets of water and the shadows of clouds travelling over the land. There’s a savage beauty to the place, but there’s also the feeling of something missing. This is a landscape strangely bereft of trees.
I’m a novelist, so you’ll have to take some of what I tell you with a pinch of salt. If you go to Connemara, and take the road from Maam Cross to Clifden, you will see drifts of evergreen trees in the clefts of the land, but they look to me like they don’t belong. Clusters of nondescript deciduous trees huddle together on islands in the lakes, like groups of refugees. There are motley arboreal gatherings along the side of the road, lone trees bent over double by the wind. A photographer could capture them, but I stand by my novelist’s impression. What the mind registers is a vast emptiness. The place feels heavy with some dark mystery. It feels like a crime scene.
Every novel starts with a haunting, an idea that is vivid but nebulous and won’t leave you alone. In this case, it was the strangely treeless landscape of Connemara that took a hold of me. There was no narrative attached to it, only an eerie feeling. If you’re a writer, you learn to follow that feeling, so I began to read up on the natural history of the area. I discovered that the place had once been inhabited by rich native forests. This information was spoken in my mind by a woman’s voice, a voice dripping with wonder. It can be hard to separate fact from fiction.
“This whole area would have been covered by trees,” she said.
“What happened to them?”
“We happened. We chopped them all down.”
The native forests of Connemara have been gone for many thousands of years, but they haunt the place still. Fascinated by this notion of a landscape that is forced to remember its dead, I began to play with titles. “Where Once There Were Trees” was an early one. “The Memory of Trees” was another. That sense of a ghost story – how something can be gone from the world but not entirely absent – carried into the story of the people I started to write about.
The characters I created – two siblings in their mid-30s called Cassie and Christo – are troubled by the legacy of their long-dead mother, in the same way that the Connemara landscape is troubled by its long-lost trees. The trees had made their absence a scar on the landscape, just as the loss of a mother had left a scar on the lives of the children she had left behind.
A novel needs roots, and I had found mine. I had the setting for the story. I had the characters and the plot. What I was missing was a full circle for the story to travel – a beginning and an end that would deliver a sense of completion. A successful novel is like a model railway set – it doesn’t work unless a circuit is achieved, and I was missing that last, crucial piece of track.These trees were more than 7,000 years old and had remained submerged for millennia
I found it purely by chance, one day as I was reading the Irish Times. The newspaper reported that a storm had uncovered an ancient, drowned forest off the southern coast of Connemara. The report carried a photograph of a man walking on a stony beach. In the foreground were the stumps of trees – my trees.
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