The banner is a low-tech simulation of my place through time: the first photograph is intended to invoke the tundra of the PaleoIndian period, 12,500-10,000 BCE; the second, the swamps and woodlands of c. 1630, of the contact period between the Massachusett and the first European settlers. The third photograph is of my front yard when I moved in (the yard was used as a doggie playground), c. 2007; the fourth, a photograph of my garden, c. 2010.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hills not like white elephants, by Caitlin Ó Cadhain Ó Ceallaigh

Medb (Old Irish spelling; sometimes Anglicized Maeve, Maev or Maive) queen of Connacht, a major figure in the great twelfth-century Irish epic, the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), wields her power in a number of ways—perhaps most astonishingly through her ability to shape the land itself: she prevents Cú Chulainn from following her and her army by strategically urinating (or menstruating—fúla fola, “bloody urine”), creating three impassable rivers or lakes (there is more than one version of the episode, and certainly more than one interpretation). Her story, as well as the Táin itself, is worth pursuing; see Sarah Connell and Shannon Garner’s The Torque.

Medb has been interpreted as a river goddess and/or fertility goddess: blood, urine, amniotic fluid = rain, water. She is one of several figures across a number of cultures, both male and female, associated with natural features and elements.

The earth (terra) itself is often gendered female: as much as rivers might be imagined as issuing from the goddess and insuring fertility, other topographical features like hills, valleys, and caves are compared to the curves and dips and hidden places of a woman’s body. (The earth is our mother; we answer to Mother Nature—and to Father Time.) Such anthropomorphizing of geographic features arises out of looking at the natural world (like cloud-gazing) and making associations that may have personal, fanciful importance as well as larger cultural significance. (Google “breast-shaped hill.” And read about the “breast-shaped illumination” in Wiltshire.)

So, what does it look like when humans deliberately terra-form the earth to create the human body? Well, it looks like Rushmore. But my favorite example is the Mud Maid at the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, UK. Here—it is hard not to say “she”—is:

However, my least favorite is the new Northumberlandia, a kind of Swiftian female figure subsided into turf and made a permanent tourist site, now constantly tramped upon by Lilliputians. It certainly is an experience in scale. While I find it ugly—it’s an it—it is somewhat redeemed by the kind of enterprising repurposing that created it. But only somewhat: the Shotton coal mine is nearby, and they had to figure out what to with 1.5 million tons of earth and rock, quite expensive to put back or to haul away. Land lost to a coal mine and then invented as a tourist trap. Unhappy locals call the sculpture “Slag Alice.” 

Milton’s Mammon comes to mind:
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From heav’n, for ev’n in heav’n his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heav’ns pavement, trod’n Gold,
Then aught divine or holy else enjoy’d
In vision beatific: by him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransack’d the Center, and with impious hands
Rifl’d the bowels of thir mother Earth
For Treasures better hid. Soon had his crew
Op’nd into the Hill a spacious wound
And dig’d out ribs of Gold. . . . (I. 679-90)

I’m not quite sure what the occupants of passing spaceships will think when they look down and see the Lady of the North, as she is called, sprawled out at her full 1300 feet long and 112 feet high. I would hope that they see and admire the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Uffington Chalk Horse instead.

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