We asked artist and writer Erica Van Horn to reflect on creativity in 2020; in response, she shared recent entries from her long-running blog “The Journal – Some Words for Living Locally.” In collaboration with Tubyez Cropper, she made a video recording of her May 4 journal entry, a remembrance of fellow writer Tim Robinson and his wife Máireád, lost this spring to the Corona virus.
For examples of Van Horn’s work in Beinecke Library collections and more information about her projects: Erica Van Horn Links and Resources.
some words for living locally
Author’s note: The Beinecke Library asked me for my thoughts about Creativity in Isolation and I think the best way I can respond is to share some entries from my on-line journal: somewordsforlivinglocally. I live and work in rural Tipperary. I have kept this journal of my daily observations and experiences here since 2007. This is not a place where much happens. It is a quiet world. I attempt to take note of the small things that will slip by. To record the things that I will forget, and to report the details that I learn about this place that is not the place that I was born into.This is not a pandemic blog. That is exactly what it is not. It is my same journal documenting my life in small daily entries. The Covid Virus crept in only because I could not keep it out.– Erica Van Horn
6 March Friday — We organized the bags around our feet as the bus closed its doors and drove off. At that exact moment, a woman greeted us with a hearty roar.
She shouted, “You’re back, then? Have you been away to London again?”
I looked up in confusion. The woman was no one I knew. After a few minutes of her enthusiastic chatter, I realized that I did indeed recognize her as the woman who had sat beside us in the bus shelter last November. That day the X8 was well late. There had been heavy traffic when the bus left Dublin, so it was now behind schedule all the way along its route. We were on our way to Cork to catch a flight. We had plenty of time so we were not worried about the bus being late nor about getting to our plane. The woman was sitting in the bus shelter to be out of the rain. She was not going anywhere. She was just waiting for the rain to stop. She told us all about her brother in Manchester who was dying. She thought it was The Cancer but she said that no one was telling her straight. She had been to see him once and she thought she might need to go again before it was too late. She announced that it is no good going to see someone when the person is already dead. They won’t appreciate your visit nor your love if you just travel to see them dead and in the box. She said that is the easy way for people to look like they care. She said she understood it all as it is no fun visiting a dying person because there is not much to talk about. They have no future and you do, so every conversation is going to be a bit skew-whiff.
The woman talked and talked and rarely paused, and when she did pause, she asked a question. She might have been 28 or she might have been 45. It was hard to tell. She quickly found out that we were flying to London, but also that we lived here and that we were only going over there for a book fair and some visiting. She said she was happy about that. She was happy that we would be coming back. She felt it was important to have people from different places living in Tipperary because it made the area like the world and not like a village. She said too many people had already married their cousins and the whole county was in sore need of fresh blood just the same way as farm cats need to be refreshed before they all become inbred and end up getting stepped on by a cow because they are too stupid to move out of the way. She covered a lot of conversation in every gust of talking.
I had not seen the woman again since that day in November. Now it was March. I doubt I would have recognized her at all, but when she started talking I knew her voice. She recognized us and she started right in as though we had all been speaking together this day last week. She reported that she was just back from Manchester herself, but this time it had been for The Brother’s funeral. She said he lasted longer than anyone had expected or even hoped for. No one had expected him to make it to Christmas, but he did. She said he was little more than a shell when he died. She said that she had only been back a few days but when she arrived back from the funeral and the flight, she had gotten off the bus and walked right down to the Aldi and bought herself a Shepherd’s Pie for her tea and it was lovely and full of carrots and peas and just what she needed after the plane and the bus and arriving home into a cold house. She said her boyfriend was useless so she knew there would be nothing to eat and that he would not be at home to welcome her anyway. She recommended that we do the exact same thing. She said, “A Shepherd’s Pie is not something you will ever regret.”
8 March Sunday — Primroses are blooming in the boreen. The air is cold but the pale yellow blossom means that spring is here.
10 March Tuesday — The market square felt a bit empty when I stopped in Mitchelstown. Half the country has gone over to England for the races at Cheltenham. The other half of the country was placing their bets for the first race at 1.30. I parked in front of Paddy Powers. People were rushing in and out of the door. It was the busiest place on the square. The word on the pavement outside the shop was that you should bring your own pen when placing a bet. People were agreed that The Virus is sure to be clinging on to those little stubby pens that they always have for you to use in the bookies. I heard one man tell another it would be no good at all to have your horse come in with a big win, and then to die of The Virus right after.
12 March Thursday — I have been sewing up the sections of a book. I finished one section and I am halfway through the second section. Each time I build up a sizeable amount of cotton off-cuts, I take the threads outside and leave them on the table for the birds. Immediately, the birds leave off their eating of nuts in the feeders and they attack the pile. Within minutes, the threads are scooped up and off into various nest building projects. As often as I take them outside they disappear. I cannot sew any faster.
14 March Saturday — Popping in and out of several pharmacies, I had been asking for the hand sanitizing liquid that is being recommended. We are being told to use it all the time, after every single interaction out in the world. Everyone is looking for it but no one has any to sell. One pharmacist said that she had heard that the woman who ran O’Gormans Pharmacy in Clonmel had gotten 144 bottles of the sanitizer in yesterday, but she added that they were probably already gone. Every single person is trying to protect themselves. I saw people shopping in the supermarket with gloves on. Some of them were wearing the plastic disposable surgical gloves, and some people wore just any old winter gloves. One woman was wearing thick hand-knit mittens. In the second pharmacy I visited, the pharmacist came out from the back and suggested that I buy some cheap vodka. 40% should do it. That will work just as well as any hand sanitizer, she said. She turned to the other woman behind the counter and then back to me, and she said, “You did not hear me say this!!”
16 March Monday — I heard a car horn outside. Ned had arrived with the heating fuel in his mobile tank. He needed me to move my motor out of his way, and to fetch him a ladder and then he needed me to open the window so we could drag in the extension lead to plug in his generator. He said he knew we were all in lock-down so that is why he arrived without ringing first. He knew we would be at home because where else would we be? He said: “You are going nowhere‘” He did not like the idea of us running low on fuel. When he was finished filling the tank, I asked if he wanted to come in for tea. I was not sure if I should ask him to come into the house, but I did. In the end, he did not offer me much choice. He said, “Of course I will come in for tea. We always have a cup together, don’t we? We cannot let a small thing like a world-wide epidemic get in the way of our tea. Your table is a large table. I will sit at one far end and you two can sit at the opposite end. We will speak up good and loud-like and we’ll have no problem hearing one another.”
17 March Tuesday — Today is Patrick’s Day. There is no celebration anywhere. No celebrations, no church services and no parades anywhere. Everything is cancelled. It is quiet. It is very quiet. I walked up the Mass Path, slipping in the mud all the way up the hill. Once there, I was delighted to find the wild garlic in bloom. I had not noticed any growing in the lower meadow yet, but the path at the top is lined with the shiny leaves. I came home with huge handfuls of it ready to be eaten.
A Cow With Red Tape on Her Tail
21 March Saturday — I love the gate closest to the end of the boreen. It was constructed to follow the uphill slope of the land.
22 March Sunday — I met Breda and Margo up at the Boulders at 11. We each traveled in our own cars and we did not venture near to one another. We walked for three hours following a particular overland route that Breda knew and that Margo wanted to learn. She was tracking us on a new app on her telephone. I was happy with the freedom to walk the mountains without a single thought about where I was going. There was no path. All I had to do was keep Margo in my sights. We saw one man and his dog in the far distance. We saw no one else. Breda kept repeating, “There is Not A Sinner in Sight!” I saw some furry caterpillars curled into circles and nesting in the dry grasses. We saw a lot of sheep, and ten or twelve Belted Galloways in a loose group. The gorse was in bloom everywhere.
23 March Monday — I found a new cattle ear-tag stuck in the peaty soil up the mountain yesterday. I did not show it to Breda nor to Margo. I knew they would not be interested. I knew Breda would tell me to drop it because it was covered in muck and dirt. I put it in my pocket and today I have washed it. I am delighted to add it to my collection of tags.
25 March Wednesday — There were cows being led up the road. Rather than wait, I turned up the Knocklofty road on my way home. Seeing a car stopped up ahead, I assumed it must be yet another farmer blocking the road while yet another herd was ready to cross. It was not a normal time of day for the movement of cows so it was odd to be stopped in two places for the same problem. As I neared, I saw that it was not cows. A woman was walking around the outside of her car which was stopped exactly in the middle of the road. She was looking down. I assumed she had a mechanical problem. I drove a bit closer and then I stopped and got out. There was a white-haired lady sitting in the back seat. An old and extremely dirty terrier was wedged under the car on the driver’s side. He was not trapped. He was just sitting there with only his head showing. His head was unusually large. The woman said she stopped because the dog was in the road and she did not want to hit him. As soon as she stopped, he dove under her car and now she could not get him out from underneath nor could she get back into the drivers side. He was barring her way. I approached the dog and he bared his teeth and snarled at me. He was ugly and he was vicious. I talked to him nicely and then I lowered my voice and attempted to sound stern. I told him to Go Home. Go Home. Go Home. He snarled and snapped each time I attempted to get closer. At one point, he rushed at me and then he ran around the car and wedged himself in under the other side. A small van pulled up behind my car. I went over and asked the driver if she had any kind of a stick. She got out with a walking stick and a small boy. By now the white haired lady had gotten out of the back seat of the first car. All five of us were keeping our distance from each other and we were all trying to keep an eye on the dog. The woman with the stick pushed at the dog and he scooted underneath the car so that he was completely out of sight. He came running out again and went from one side to the other side returning always to his position of head exposed and body tucked underneath. I ran up the road to the only house in sight to see if the people there knew who owned the dog or maybe if it was their own dog. Two big lazy friendly dogs greeted me in the yard and then they returned to lie down in the sun. They could not be bothered. No one answered the door, so I ran back down the road. Just as I got there the dog rushed out from under the car and into some tall grass. He bared his teeth and snarled at the woman with the stick who had nudged him away. Without a word, we all jumped in our cars and raced off before he could rush out and get underneath one of our vehicles. He was looking for shelter and protection. I have been worrying about this dog all day. I know that he was angry and probably he was scared and hungry and maybe hurt, but I also know that he was vicious and dangerous. I deserted an animal in need. I had no idea what else to do.
26 March Thursday — An Post has given us all postcards. We can post them for free anywhere within the country. It is their gentle idea of a way to keep us in touch with one another. It is a gift to make everyone feel better. Having the postman arrive down the track is like a visit. There are lots of balancing acts. Some of the postmen have to take turns taking care of their children while their wife works. Some of the postmen have fallen ill, or someone in their family has fallen ill. There is only one postman left who knows our rural route but he must also do his own regular route so he delivers to us every other day. Maybe he arrives three times a week or sometimes it is only twice a week. There are never any deliveries on a Saturday. Having things delivered by post is more thrilling than ever.
27 March Friday — This year Lent lasts from 26 February to 9 April. Every year I hear people describing or listing what they have given up for Lent. It is only valid if you give up something that you want and you love like butter or chocolate or wine or television. The idea of Lent seems to be to remind yourself that you cannot have everything all of the time. I am surprised that people are still bothering now with this particular denial when all of life has been turned upside down. I find it strange that people are still sticking to their self-imposed restrictions even while so much of life and normal activity have been curtailed from outside forces.
28 March Saturday — We are eating wild garlic at least twice a day. So far it has not been added to breakfast. I keep a jug of it on the counter. It is used as a garnish. It is made into a pesto. It is mixed in some way with just about everything we eat. When I go out to collect more, it is a form of shopping. I must decide where to get my leaves from today. Under an apple tree? Under which apple tree? Near the water butt? Down the edge of the path? These are the decisions that keep me busy.
29 March Sunday — We changed our clocks last night. This means that the sun is now setting at 8, but really it is not fully dark until 9.
30 March Monday — We have been walking through Joe’s fields but it is hard work. The last time the cows were in the field it must have been extremely wet and muddy. There are deep and varied hoof holes all through the grass. The soil is now dry. The holes are hard. Walking over the fields makes for a lot of lurching and staggering. Without strong boots and a sturdy stick, such a walk is potentially ankle-breaking stuff. It is a relief to get to the long rough track and out of the fields. Every day this week, we have lumbered all through the fields and around on the road and down the boreen to home. It is about a 4 1/2 kilometre walk. Today, we saw only one man on a bicycle and one man in a tractor. Most days we see no one.
31 March Tuesday — There is a cow in the field of the other Joe. She has red tape on her tail and red tape around each of her back legs. None of the other cows have any red tape. I would like to know what this means and what her problem is. The chances of me bumping into Joe to ask about the tape are slim. I wonder about the cow and her red tape each time I pass. I shall continue to have theories.
3 April Friday — Birds are everywhere. In the cities people are remarking that this easy to hear birdsong in their lives is thrilling. Here it is the same as always. It is of course exciting, but it is the same as always. The bird activity sounds no different. It is spring and birds are building and discussing and rushing about. What is unusual is the racket inside the book barn. I knew the starlings were building their nests in the roof as they do every year, but now they are way past the building stage. There are already new chicks. There is a great noisy chirping altogether. Never ending chatter. Sometimes there are what sound like little screams. At moments it is impossible to be inside the barn and to get anything done. The noise is too loud.
4 April Saturday — I was glad that I remembered to ask Joe about the red tape when I saw him. He told me that the cow was probably on a course of antibiotics. The red tape on her tail and her legs was simply there as an alert to ensure that her milk could not be put in with the milk of other healthy cows. He said that this is what he does for his cows and he is just assuming this is the case because the cow in question belongs to the other Joe and she is not one of his own cows. He was only answering my query.
5 April Sunday — All day rain. Soaking rain. Heavy, lashing, pissing rain. Desperate rain. It is desperate rain with gusting winds that throw the downpour into different and often surprising directions. This is the kind of rain we have not had for many weeks. Many many weeks. The farmers will be pleased. It is good to have an excuse to stay in the house. It is good to have an excuse that has nothing to do with disease or contagion or death. It is a valid and completely ordinary reason to be struck indoors all day. It is pleasing to feel trapped and happy. I spoke to Tommie on the telephone before lunch. I ring him often. He is not allowed to visit Margaret in the care home in Cappoquin. His dinners are delivered to his house. He was not bothered by the rain. He said “Sure, where would we be going anyway?” Several times, as the rain appeared to let up, I dressed for a walk but as soon as I was ready to step out, the rain came down hard again. If I had a dog I would be obliged to go for a walk, but since I no longer have a dog, I am not obliged. I made the short trip across to the tool shed to fetch something from the freezer. I decided that as a walk out, perhaps this was enough. Going to the freezer is a bit like going out to a shop. I always find something in there that I did not know I needed or wanted. Which is kind of what happens in a shop.
6 April Monday — I am trying to use things up. My plan is to not wear anything that has much life left in it. I only wear old clothes. I wear the sweaters that have unraveled at the sleeves and have been caught on barbed wire. I am letting holes and stains have their day. Socks that are almost worn out with holes in the toes or almost broken through at the heels are being worn and worn. When the heels finally break through, the socks will be thrown out. We are eating the things from the back of the cupboards. There is a high shelf in the pantry that I cannot reach. Since I cannot reach it and I cannot see up there, I pay little attention to what is there. The other day we soaked and cooked some ancient lentils. That was a mistake. Even after several days of soaking and cooking, they never softened. They remained hard and unrelenting but the sauce they were in was so good that we crunched our way through them anyway. Homemade chutneys and jams have appeared. These are the things that are always being Saved for Something Special. Now is the time. They are being dusted off and they are being eaten.
Yesterday I threw out six old telephone books from 2014, 2015 and 2016. Some were the residential directories and some were the Golden Pages. Of course, throwing out is a relative term. All I could do was to move them from the house into the lean-to. It is me who drives things to the Recycling Depot. This morning I decided it was time and I loaded up the stuff to go. It has been more than two months since my last trip. Maybe it is more than three months since I last went. I think it was January. The lean-to was full. Gathering all the stuff from the various buildings took me an hour. There was not one inch of spare space in the car when I finished loading up.
The instruction from the government is to go no further than two kilometres from home, except for Essential Errands. I drove to town with three Essential Errands to do. I have to break the two kilometre rule to go anywhere at all. As I drove up the Cashel Road, I was stopped at a Garda checkpoint. I had heard about these checkpoints but it was my first time to be stopped at one. The young Guard looked at my car and said, “Going to the Dump?” I said, “How did you know?” He claimed that he just has a sense for these things, and he waved me along.
7 April Tuesday — This morning, the doctor telephoned to check that Simon is okay. They had a long and cheerful chat about a variety of things. Dr. Maher said that he rings a few of his vulnerable patients every day just to make certain that they are keeping well and safe.
In the afternoon, a police van arrived. Mattie McGrath, our local TD, was the passenger and a young Garda was driving. They came to see that we are all right in the lockdown. This checking up on isolated homes and older people is another gesture by the authorities. It was also a way for the new Garda to learn where people are living. New police recruits are trained in Templemore at the Garda Training College, and then they are sent all over the country. They are never sent to the place where they are from, so each new posting is full of strangers, never friends and family. Ideally this means that there is less chance of them being compromised or corrupted but it also means they do not know the back roads, the boreens and the hidden away places. The word Garda means Guardian, which means they are the protectors of the people, so in order to be protectors they need to know where everyone is. Mattie, as a TD (Teachta Dála), is one of several elected Deputies for Tipperary. He sits in the Dáil in Dublin. He is the equivalent of a Member of Parliament or a Member of Congress. He is also a neighbor on the road into the village.
8 April Wednesday — Every day there are more and more plants and flowers to notice. I cannot keep track of what appears but it is fun to try. Nothing in nature is ever the same. The same plants appear every year but they are always a surprise. Today I saw the first bluebell. Dandelions. Celandine. Robin-Run-Up-The-Hedge. Forget-me-nots. Every tree has buds or blossoms. Gorse. Hawthorn. Spring is rampant.
9 April Thursday — In the midst of this time of isolation and hand-cleaning and worry, the Everyday Challenges remain the same. The enormous milk tankers which race along at speed remain a danger on the road for both pedestrians and drivers. Milk gets collected every other day from each farm, but both Glanbia and Dairygold collect in this area so there seems to be a long shiny milk truck on the road every single day. Today I pushed myself into a ditch as a tanker came barrelling around a corner. After it was gone, I spent ten minutes getting myself unhooked from the brambles that held me.
10 April Friday — Good Friday is always a quiet day. But this is the quietest Good Friday ever. Except for one tractor in the distance, there is not a single human sound. In previous years there was always the discussion in the build up before Good Friday about the pubs being closed in the whole country and all alcohol consumption forbidden. Increasingly these discussions have felt more and more at odds with contemporary life. The pubs have been closed for many weeks now. There has been no Good Friday discussion this year. The radio has been silent on the subject.
11 April Saturday — We walked down through the fields below Molough Abbey. On the right side the field is freshly plowed. Maybe it has been planted. If not, it is all ready and a crop will be planted any day now. On the left side of the track, the rapeseed has grown tall. It is as high as my head. It is so beautiful to see the glowing yellow of the blossom but the smell is terrible. It smells like fiberglass resin. As pretty as it looks, the stink of it nearly ruins a walk.
12 April Sunday — Another Sunday of all day rain. After a week of warm sunshine and eating our lunch outdoors in sheltered spots, today feels like winter. The rain has been hard and straight down and it has never ceased all day long. An Easter Sauna seemed a good idea. I enjoyed walking across the grass in my dressing gown and my rubber clogs while holding an umbrella. I liked stepping out of the sauna and standing naked in the rain, using the downpour as my shower. I liked walking back across the grass not even bothering with the umbrella.
14 April Tuesday — There is still a lot of hay stacked in the three-sided sheds. It takes a farmer weeks and weeks of work to get a shed filled up with bales in preparation for winter. The removal of the hay then happens slowly over the winter months. Some years the farmers empty their sheds and run out of hay while the cows are still under cover. This year cows have been out in the fields and feasting on grass for several weeks now. The grass is not growing fast, but it is growing. The cows are eating in the fields and there is still hay to fall back on. I think this is a sign that all is well.
15 April Wednesday — I went to the supermarket in Clonmel. It was my first trip to a large store in 5 weeks. I felt nervous and I felt a little bit silly for feeling nervous. It was 8.30 in the morning. The shop was not open for everyone yet. There was a man outside making sure that people were over a certain age before he let them in. I fit his age bracket, so I was allowed to enter. Inside the store was gloomy. The lights had not been turned on yet. It wasn’t really dark, but it was odd to be in a supermarket and to be in such subdued lighting. There were very few people. There were so few people that it was almost like I was on my own. Whole long aisles were empty. I was surprised to turn a corner and to see another person. Everything was extremely quiet because of the lack of light. I went down an aisle to get some shampoo and I heard a peculiar moaning sound. There was one woman at the far end of the shelves. She was wearing a big woolly hat pulled down low. She was keening and moaning and banging her hands on her head. I wondered if she was alright. I listened and I was able to hear her muttering to herself. She said: I cannot do it. I cannot do it. I have to do it. I have to do it. I cannot do it. Then she moaned again. Walking past her, while keeping my distance, I saw that she was standing in front of the hair dye selection. Dying her own hair was obviously not something she was accustomed to doing and it was not something she wanted to do. I think what I was hearing was fear.
16 April Thursday — A cow was sheltering in the corner of the field nearest to Scully’s wood. As I grew near, I saw that she was giving birth. The calf was most of the way out. The mother bellowed at me. I assumed this was a Go Away kind of noise, so I moved along quickly to give her privacy. A little later I walked back up the boreen to see how mother and child were doing. The black calf was shiny and still very slimy with placenta and the residual birth stuff kind of hanging off in places. It was standing up and sucking on the mother’s teat. The mother turned her head and once again gave a huge bellow. I felt my presence was an intrusion so I left. I was pleased to see that they were both okay.
17 April Friday — I have been searching for Maisie’s stile for more than a year now. I have not been looking in any kind of focused way but each time I walk up by where her old house was, I try to locate where the stile was. Today I think I found it, but really, I cannot be certain.
While in her eighties, Maisie walked across the narrow road and went over the stile into the fields for a walk every day. Her two elderly dogs went with her. She was always wearing a cardigan and an apron over a striped dress. Her outfit was the same all year round. As she got older and more stiff, she just walked across the road and climbed up onto the steep stone stile and used the high vantage point to look around and over the fields. She did not climb doen the other side. Eventually all she did was cross the road and cross back home again. The stile remained a destination until even crossing the road became too far for her. After that, she would just stand at her gate and look out at anything that might move and at all of the things that did not move.
Maisie was not outdoors very much in the last few years of her life. She lived mostly in her kitchen with a lot of cats. The smell was terrible. I could not enter the room because I knew I would be sick on the floor, but I spoke with her regularly through the open door. She died at the age of 93. The house where she lived has been torn down now and a new house built in its place. The new gate is not where the old gate was and the new house is not on the same footprint as the old house. I hold her old gate both as a photograph and as a location in my mind. But the changes have made it difficult to locate where both the gate was and where the stile that Maisie walked straight across the road to climb over was. Brambles and bushes have grown up and over the stone wall. Once the foliage has taken over I will never be able to see the stones of the steps. One day I walked through a lower farm gate and back up into the field thinking that it might be easier to recognize the stile from the other side. But the other side is even more overgrown than the road side. I feel like today I have identified the spot. I might be wrong but I feel satisfied to have found what I have been looking for, so I hope I can now stop looking for it.
18 April Saturday — There is a new ritual for funerals in this time of isolation. It is not the same as an actual funeral but because people are not allowed to gather together for the traditional ceremonies in the family house, or the funeral home, or the church or the graveyard, an announcement is now made for mourners to pay their respects On The Road. The route the hearse is to take will be announced for a certain time of day. The departure time and approximate times of arrival through certain villages along the way will be listed. The journey will be along the lanes and roads that the deceased traveled regularly. The arrival time at the church or the graveyard will be announced too. People are not invited to attend the service which will be restricted to family only but they are invited to stand outside their houses or beside their fields at the given time. They are invited to stand inside their gate or outside their gate. To stand respectfully as the deceased passes and to pay their tribute in this quiet way.
19 April Sunday — I almost stepped on part of a dead bird outside the kitchen door this morning. It was not a whole bird. It was one wing and a bit of connecting flesh from what had been a starling. An hour later, I was down near the book barn where I found another wing and more remnants. I wondered if the two wings were the wings of the same bird or if two different birds had been eaten. I decided not to think about.
20 April Monday — One building down in the village has been closed up for as long as I have been here. I always think I should ask someone about it but I never remember to do so. The windows and the doors are completely closed up with blocks. There is no visible way to enter the building, or at least not from the front. I do not know if it was a house or a shop. The closed up place no longer surprises me but what does surprise me is that every few years it gets a fresh coat of paint.
Interrupting the Silence
22 April Wednesday — We were heading out of the village for a walk. Since we were passing Tommie’s house we thought we should stop and say hello. We knocked and then we backed off as far as the stone wall. He came to the door and pulled out an aluminum cane with three feet. After greeting us, he explained that the cane belonged to Margaret. It was a special one for The Balance but since she is no longer at home to use it, he uses it himself when he comes to the door. He leaves it in place so that it is always ready. He leaned heavily on the cane while we talked together for a few minutes. He spoke calmly of the long lonely days and the need for us all to be trapped and to stay trapped. He understands that it is important that we do what we are told, but he is not enjoying being obedient. After a short time, he announced that he had to go back inside to sit down. He said his legs had held him upright for long enough. Before he closed the door he thanked us for Interrupting the Silence.
23 April Thursday — Stitchwort has taken over the hedgerows. Whenever I call a hedgerow a hedgerow, I am quickly corrected by anyone around here who hears me say the word. A hedgerow is not a hedgerow. A hedgerow is called a ditch. I should know better by now. I do know better, but I do forget. Stitchwort and vetch are the predominant blossoms of the moment and because the stitchwort flower is a bright white it makes the ditches look polka-dotted from a distance. I love stitchwort. Vetch demands closer examination. I am fond of its leaves with the grasping tendrils at the end, but for the moment stitchwort is my favorite flower.
24 April Friday — Joe’s cows were in the adjoining field last night. We could hear them tearing and pulling the grass as we lay in bed. We were nervous because at the moment there is no proper fence to keep them out. If they were to break into the yard, or if they were to break out of their field, they would of course make a mess trampling and eating plants and leaving enormous hoof holes in the grass. The fence needs to be replaced, but for now there is only a piece of white rope stretched across the missing pieces of fence. It would not keep a determined cow out. Then there is the fine string with the bit of blue in it. I believe the blue is a filament of wire that is hooked up to a battery to give a tiny electric shock. Much of the time these flimsy strings are not connected to a battery so there is no shock to be given. I know this because I step over them or under them regularly and I rarely get a jolt. The cows do not know whether a string is electrified or not. They just seem to learn that the blue and white string means that they have gone far enough. I do not like falling asleep with the niggling worry that I might be woken at any moment by a garden full of cows. I slept well last night trusting that the very large field offered enough eating options and distractions for the herd not to take interest in the one section that offered an easy break out. Happily, this morning all of the cows are still on their side of the pieces of string.
25 April Saturday — John Scully was on the road outside one of his barns. The yard was full of drinks cans. Beer cans and cider cans and lager cans. Thousands of cans. Millions of cans in tumbling piles. There were also twenty or thirty of those huge bags that you need a tractor to lift and carry and place somewhere. The bags are usually used for sand or mulch or even firewood. The bags were all full of cans. There were lots more cans in various heaps up against the barn buildings. I asked him what he was doing with all the cans. It turned out that they were not his cans but they belonged to his friend Pa. Pa has been collecting them from pubs and from friends in order to crush them and then to sell the crushed cans as scrap metal. Pa has a special machine called a hopper that he uses to crush them all up at speed. I think there are a lot of already crushed cans in one barn all ready to go. I do not know how much money one can get for a ton of crushed drinks cans. Somehow I do not think it is much. Pa is not around these days and John has all the cans. Maybe he has the hopper too. He said he has other things to worry about. His tractor has broken down and he is trying to repair it. His lawnmower is broken too. The grass in front of the house is knee high. He himself is sporting a huge white beard. He says everything is growing and there is not enough time for all the jobs needing to be done. The cans can wait.
26 April Sunday — No one ever uses the bottle banks on a Sunday because the bottle banks are located in the car park beside the church. It is not a law nor is it even a rule, it is just something that everyone pays attention to because a Mass might be happening inside and it would be disrespectful to be smashing bottles outside the church while people are worshiping inside the church. In these days of quarantine, Mass is no longer held in the church on Sunday, but still, without it being discussed, no one uses the bottle banks on a Sunday. So now it is not because there is a Mass taking place but simply because it is Sunday that the bottle banks are not used on a Sunday. The fact of it being Sunday is enough to make us all hold onto our glass bottles and jars until Monday, or any other day, as long as it is not Sunday.
28 April Tuesday — When the daily total of deaths from the Corona Virus are being reported they are not identified by town, nor by county. The deaths are listed by the totals in the East, South and West of the country. The news reader might announce 22 deaths in the East, 2 in the South and 7 in the West. The Republic is a complete country but the North of the Republic is never spoken of as a part of the country. The North of the Republic is not a place. When The North is spoken of, it means Northern Ireland. This is the North of the island. This is the North of Ireland. So there cannot be another North other than The North. There is only one North.
29 April Wednesday — I took an unexpected tumble out the barn door. I do not know how it happened. One ankle twisted and then the rest of me went down and I ended up flat on my back with my knee twisted and my shoulder rammed and my back throbbing. I was so surprised by it all that I just lay on the hard cement weeping. I wept copiously. When I stopped crying I tried to notice how much the different parts of my body hurt and where they hurt and if anything was broken. I lay quietly on my back. Maybe I was in shock. The ground was wet but at least it was not raining. Very quickly, I became distracted by the starlings who are nesting in the eaves right above the doorway. They were taking the open door as an opportunity to swoop in and out of the workshop. When a large dollop of excrement landed on my leg I decided that it was time to get up off the ground and to hobble over to the house.
30 April Thursday — Recent weather has been predictable in its unpredictability. After days and days of warm dry temperatures, it has turned changeable and wild. Rushing fluffy clouds and rain and sun and then more rain and more sun and the greyest of skies and heavy hard downpours followed by the bluest of skies. Everything is fast and thrilling and then it is over and there is something else. It is this kind of constant change that does not let us forget we live on an island. We are landlocked here in our valley, and we are in also in full Corona lock down, but the sudden changes in weather remind us that we are never far from the sea.
1 May Friday — I am still feeling fragile from my fall. Nothing is broken but I am stiff and weak. I am reading a lot. I am not walking or doing much of anything physical. I am thinking that perhaps I move too fast. Maybe I need to slow down instead of always being in a rush.
Welcome Home Dear Husband
3 May Sunday — This morning, I cut Simon’s hair out in the garden. I gave him a haircut but I am not yet willing to let him give me a haircut. I placed his hair on the wall for the birds. No nest building material goes to waste in the spring. Everyone is getting haircuts at home. Marianne reported that she had just given Jim a haircut because she said he was looking like A Blown-Over Thistle.
4 May Monday — The weather is dry. It is too dry. The farmers need rain. The crops need some proper soaking rain. We all need more rain. I have a mossy ground cover that I love because it creeps and covers things throughout the garden. Some people hate this plant because they think it is invasive. I cannot think of it as invasive. It is easy to get rid of it. It is easy to tear off a bit if it arrives in an awkward place. It provides a soft spongy cushion over rocks and hard surfaces. I was looking at a clump of it today and remembering that Tim and Máiréad Robinson gave me a bag full of this plant many years ago. It was rampant in their damp garden in Roundstone. The Connemara climate was perfect for keeping it moist and happy. I brought some home and I have had it growing here ever since. Máiréad told me that the local name for the plant was Welcome Home Dear Husband No Matter How Drunk You May Be. The idea being that if you fell onto the plant after having Taken The Drink, it would soften your landing. Now both Tim and Máiréad have died of the dreadful Covid Virus. I am glad that I have this small living thing to remind me of them. Most people will remember Tim for his wonderful writing. I will, of course, remember that, but I am most happy to have this tiny spreading plant from their garden. This little plant is impossible to kill.
5 May Tuesday — Today our freedom of movement has been extended. We are now permitted to go as far as 5 kilometres from our home to take exercise. This is a big increase from the 2 kilometres we have been restricted to until now. It feels like the whole world has opened up. It feels like anything is possible and that things will get better. I drove up to take the Knockperry walk and to feel closer to the mountains.
6 May Wednesday — Rat Glass. Rat Rug. Rat Hole. The word Rat has been on my To-Do lists everyday. I know it is hard to live near a farm and not to have rats around. I know it is hard to live anywhere in the world without having rats nearby, visibly or not visibly. I prefer it when they are not visible. On Saturday, I saw a rat disappearing into a hole under the concrete outside the printing shed. Later I went into the print shed and I found that the back wall had completely rotted in one corner. The hole was a big hole. The hole was easily big enough for rat entry and departure, and the old rug on the floor was covered with hundreds of rat droppings. I closed the door to the shed. I have yet to deal with the problem. The next day, I found an enormous rat dead on the grass near the shed. I could not see any wound on him so I do not know how he died. He was much bigger than the first one I saw. I smashed a jar and poured the broken glass down the hole in the rocks. Now I will smash some more glass and place it outside the print shed beside the hole in the wall. Mick instructed me on the broken glass method years ago. It is an ugly solution but rats are an ugly problem. It is too hard to kill them with poison when they are living outdoors. If they can get to water, the poison may not kill them. With Mick’s method, when a rat cuts its feet on the broken glass and the other rats smell blood, they gang up and kill the bleeding rat. Very quickly all the rats will avoid the area where the broken glass is so that they do not become the next victims.
7 May Thursday — The postman was sorting letters up against the steering wheel. He had his head bent at an angle and a telephone clamped tight onto his shoulder. He was talking on the phone while sorting and tossing a few things onto the seat beside him. He looked busy and efficient. I was disturbed that he was doing all of this while driving his van down the middle of the road with me coming towards him in the opposite direction.
8 May Friday — I walked around the bend just as the fox jumped down off the banking. We were both startled. He saw me while he was in mid-air and he twisted his body so that as he landed he was already running away. It all happened fast. He was gone in a second. He was young with a shiny dark red-orange coat and a thick and bushy tail.
9 May Saturday — One part of the Saturday ritual that has been maintained in this time of lockdown is porridge for breakfast. It was our habit to order it at the café where it always tasted different from what we make at home. Of late, the At Home version is Pinhead Oatmeal which is far superior to regular oats. The café will never be serving Pinhead, but when we are allowed, we will once again enjoy eating our Saturday breakfast there. We like eating upstairs and looking out at the weir and the castle. It was the whole activity of driving to the village for the papers and then over the back road to Ardfinnan and on to Cahir for breakfast and then to the Farmers Market across the street from the café. We are missing the Farmer’s Market. We miss the fresh fish and the cheese and the vendors who have all become friends and the other shoppers too who are our once-a-week friends. Going to the village for the newspapers remains, like porridge, as a Saturday morning constant. Today we woke up to such a thick fog that it was impossible to see as far as the place where the fence would be if it had not fallen down. Everything was gone. It was impossible to see the fields. It was impossible to see across the fields. The hills had disappeared. Waterford did not exist. The Knockmealdowns did not exist. By the time I drove back from the village with the newspapers, I was in a little tunnel of light fog. It was already lifting a little then, but it was 11 o’clock before it burned off completely.
10 May Sunday — The boreen is becoming more narrow by the day. It is closing in. The stitchwort and vetch and bluebells, violets, primroses and ferns are all getting overwhelmed by cow parsley. The cow parsley is lining the boreen and taking over the ditches. It is frothy and soft and nothing else has a chance to be seen. Every year I delight in driving through it while it rubs both sides of the car. It is like going through a car wash without any water.
11 May Monday — I have been wearing a few garments again and again and again. A thin black cardigan is a favorite. It is full of moth holes. Some of the holes are large because I have washed it and worn it and washed it and worn it again. The holes get bigger and bigger. There are no longer moths nor eggs anywhere near it. They have done their damage and they are gone. I wear it every day and I layer more things on top of it if it is cold and if the day gets hotter I take it off. A few days ago I walked in the mountains wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. I did not need that sweater or any sweater at all. Today is not like that. Today is cold and there is a vicious wind. I went down to the shop to purchase a few things. As I left, a woman followed me from the hand-washing station outside the door to my car. I do not know this woman except to say hello to. Sometimes we comment on the weather to one another. That is as far as our relationship goes. I am not sure what her name is but I think I know where she lives. She is an older woman but I do not think she is as old as she looks. If she is as old as she looks, she should not be out at the shop, but staying at home and cocooning. She spoke to me from the required distance. She said, “I do not want to interfere but I could not help but notice your moth holes. I have a solution for that if you want to know it.” She did not wait for me to respond. She kept talking. She said, “Since your sweater is black you must only ever wear a black shirt underneath it. That is the trick. That way no one will notice the holes and you will get a few more years out of it.” I thanked her for the advice and she nodded quickly as she turned and walked away.
To Town on the Wood Road
13 May Wednesday — They are called Maize Strips. They appear each year in certain fields. They change the land. They define the curves of a field. They make everything look different. They make the fields beautiful. The Maize Strips are made of a thin white plastic material extruded over the soil from a machine. The soil in the in-between section of the strips weights the white strips down. Seeds are planted through slits in the plastic or underneath the plastic. I am not exactly sure how that works. The plastic works like a little green house holding in the heat and encouraging growth. The corn grows through the plastic while the weeds are kept down. The white material breaks down all the time as the corn gains strength and height. By the time the corn is a foot high, none of the white is visible. I would like to believe that the Maize Strips are made of potato starch or some kind of material that breaks down and goes directly back in to nourish the soil. I wish it was not plastic, but I fear it is.
14 May Thursday — I met Siobhan in Ardfinnan. A visiting carer was at the house to shampoo her mother’s hair and to make her a cup of tea. Siobhan’s mother is 102 and it is not wise to leave her alone. Siobhan had a slot of about an hour before she needed to be back at home. We walked through some fields on the far side of the river and she was able to point out the back of her own house across the fields. She used to walk back there with her father and if he caught some fish he would hold them up and her mother could see with the binoculars if they were having fish for supper. We counted 39 swans in the river. It was not easy to count them because they kept moving. There is big discussion as to whether the swans belong in Newcastle or Ardfinnan. Both villages want to claim them. The swans go where they want to go. There are six geese on the green and in the river. The number is down from 12. No one knows if the geese are being stolen by a fox or by a man. There is now a new small hut for the geese to be locked into at night. Tommie Myles, the butcher, and a woman named Norah, who normally runs the pub but of course the pub is closed for the lockdown so now she has lots of extra time, have joined forces. Together they make sure that the geese are safely shut in before dark and that they are let out again in the morning.
15 May Friday — John the Post used to complain about the cow parsley in the boreen. Every year he would be angry about the sudden growth. Every year he acted like it was a new and unexpected thing just put out in his way to annoy him. As he drove up and down the boreen four or five times a week, the cow parsley would get thicker and denser and then it would start to droop with its own weight or with the weight of the rain if it was a rainy season and John could never laugh and think of the copious cow parsley as a crazy little fluffy car wash. The cow parsley made him furious. He was irate all the way down the track and he was irate all the way back up, every single day, until the season moved on and the cow parsley had fallen flat to the ground or it had been cut down. Derek is the post man now. He does not let things bother him. He commented on the cow parsley today but he told me it was much worse over Ballindoney way where the road is a proper tar road that is made to have space for cars in two directions. He said there is no use to worry about it. He said, “We could have much worse things coming down on us.”
16 May Saturday — The sun does not set until about 9.40 at night. Dusk is still falling at 10.30. It takes a longer and longer for the night to get fully dark. Most nights I am asleep before the dusk has dropped.
18 May Monday — I took Tommie into town this morning. I offered to drive him as I did not think he was able for driving himself. He did not think so either. He needed to go to the dentist because his dentures are crumbling. One front tooth has completely broken off. Others have been breaking off in pieces. Sometimes he swallows the pieces and sometimes he spits them out. The dentist is open two mornings a week for emergency visits. This is an emergency.
I made Tommie sit in the backseat in order to maintain the sense of social distancing and I made him wear his seat belt. We had a little struggle finding the ends and getting him hooked in. He said he was too old for seat belts. He said he felt like he was the Queen of England or someone like that but he said if he was the Queen he would have to wave to everyone and he would not enjoy that.
He reported as much as he could about his time inside at the dentist. He said that every single person wore masks and face shields but then he admitted that he only saw the dentist himself and three other people and one was the woman at the desk. He said he was the only person who was not wearing a mask. He said, “I do not even own one.” He said, “I see them on the television and everyone has one but I do not have one.” He sounded a little bit plaintive. The dentist asked if he had driven himself in to town and he said, “No my friend drove me. Her name is Erica but just now today sitting in this chair I do not recall her second name.” The dentist whose name is Daniel said, “Oh, do you mean Erica and Simon, that Erica?” Tommie was pleased that the dentist knew who I was and that he knew that it was me who had given him a lift. It made him more certain than ever that the dentist is a fine and clever man because he knows everyone there is to know.
On the return trip I asked Tommie if he would like to drive home a different way just to see how things are out in the world. I drove in to town on the Wood Road and I drove back by way of Marlfield. I thought he would be curious about who was planting in the fields closest to home and who had cut their silage and where cows were grazing, but he said, “No, it does not matter how we go because I have never been much of a man for sightseeing.” He said, “I feel strange being out of my house at all after eleven weeks at home. I do not feel very confident. I will be glad to get myself back indoors.”
20 May Wednesday — We received a special six page pamphlet today in the post. It is full of information about the Covid Virus. It is all written in Irish. Usually these government announcements are in both English and Irish. I will give it back to Derek in the morning and ask if an English language version is available.
21 May Thursday — Over the recent weeks, elderly people have been disappearing from our view. Everyone over 70 has been asked to stay at home in quarantine. 70 is not so old but that is the number and they are being cocooned. The outside world is full of younger people and the less we see of the older people the more it is possible to think that they do not exist. We see grey hair but we do not see people with white hair. We never see a very old person out walking with a stick. Johnny told me today that they are starting to come out. He said they are sick to the teeth with being cooped up so they are coming out. Today there were two white haired men in front of the church. They were keeping the width of a car between them as a form of distancing and they were roaring back and forth having a lively and much needed conversation. The shouting might have been because of the distance or it might be that their hearing was bad and they would have been shouting no matter where they stood.
22 May Friday — The young dog down at McGrath’s farm has moved himself out onto the road. He looks at each car carefully. He is not chasing the cars. He is just staring at each approaching vehicle and making us drive around him. The old dog is out on the road some days but she stays well back. Her head goes back and forth as she watches a car approach and pass by. Her head is busy but the rest of her body has no more energy for chasing. She had been training up this young dog to be the chaser she can no longer be, but this one does not have the same urge.
23 May Saturday — A second day of wild thrashing winds. The Amber warnings are still out for much of the country. In between the noise of the winds and the worry about falling trees, branches and wires, there are moments of scary silence over the land. It is nice to have something to talk about that is not the virus. “Fierce Windy Today!”
24 May Sunday — There are big fat bumblebees in my work room. I do not know how they get in but they do not seem to be able to leave the same way that they arrive. They fly slowly and heavily with a loud droning noise. They have thick black legs. They do not fly so much as hover. They bump into the glass on the window and the door. Every day I find at least one dead bee on the floor. If a bee is still alive, I take it outside or I leave the door open so that it can depart. I had a piece of cardboard outside the door where I placed each corpse. I collected about 25 dead bees but the huge wild winds in the last few days blew the cardboard and all of the bodies away. I have started a new Bee Board today and there are already seven dead bees on it.
25 May Monday — I took Tommie back to town today. He sat in the back seat again. I left him in the waiting room where there were three big high backed arm chairs with floral upholstery. There used to be eight chairs and a table full of magazines. Now there are only the three chairs with large pieces of clear plexi-glas hanging down between the chairs doing the job of separating each chair from the next one. There is not a magazine in sight. Tommie was the only person there. He sat himself in a chair. He looked like he was in a booth. He did not have to wait long. When he came outside to meet me, I could see that he was disappointed. He looked like he was about to cry. He had come into town to get his new teeth but instead he had his mouth measured. Now he has to wait two more weeks to get his new teeth.
Continue reading at The Journal, some words for living locally
Descriptions of Van Horn’s work in archival collections at Beinecke Library can be found online: Erica Van Horn Papers (YCAL MSS 863); Erica Van Horn Prints (YCAL MSS 340); related collections (Erica Van Horn – Archives at Yale).
Images related to Erica Van Horn in Beinecke Collections are available in the Beinecke’s Digital Library.
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