The trees surrounding the still lake formed an emerald awning, as fading sunlight rested on the lake’s surface. The wind that had once shaken barley wafted in gently, dispersing leaves and disturbing the calmness, sending infinite ripples across the lake. It was a quiet moment on a quiet evening. There was no one else around. I was alone, waiting for the swans.
I had reached the lake after a long walk through the woods, where tall trees seemed to want to reach out and touch the sky, their branches joining hands, shading the path, forming a ceiling through which sunlight could filter through only occasionally. It was spring; when I had left the main road, the sky had been blue and the sun bright, but now I was inside the woods, and the trees had shrouded me completely, like a blanket of despair, emphasizing my loneliness.
I was struck by the silence at the lake. Many autumns ago, William Butler Yeats had walked through this path, and come at a spot, perhaps where I stood now, or maybe under the shade of that tree, and he had counted swans. There were 59 of them, and they had sounded cheerful, and they were happy and they were in the wild. They exuded conviviality and joy, blissful in their youth, while the trees seemed aware of their mortality, ageing gracefully. Yeats, too, was growing old, and he kept coming, year after year.
He had wandered through that forest, its mood inspiring him to meditate upon his country’s past, beyond recorded history, going back to the time of Celtic heroes and myths, his imagination giving shape to those stories. He had walked the 4.5km path to the sounds of pigeons and garden bees hopping from one flower to the next, and in those whispers of nature—the howling wind through the trees, the twitter of the birds, and his own soft footsteps, he dreamed of thrones and princesses, and of an archer waiting to shoot. The lake had a special meaning for Yeats; of its waters, he once wrote: “What’s water but the generated soul?”
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A stately house stood here once. It belonged to Lady Augusta Gregory. She was the precursor of Gertrude Stein in Paris some years later. Stein nurtured the Lost Generation of Americans in Paris; Lady Gregory nursed an Irish literary revival. She was a patron of arts and a woman of letters, who offered writers space and time. And the writers came to the house in this town off this windswept part of the west coast of Ireland. Besides Yeats, John Millington Synge, Seán O’Casey, and George Bernard Shaw came; they also etched their names on a copper beech tree, which still stands in the walled garden. A year before her death in 1932, Lady Gregory was to write: “These woods have been well loved, well tended by some who came before me, and my affection has been no less than theirs. The generations of trees have been my care, my comforters. Their companionship has often brought me peace.” Shaw called her “the greatest living Irishwoman”. Alas, the house is gone: After her death, the state took over the responsibility of maintaining it, and some penny-pinching bureaucrats, thinking it cost too much to maintain it, razed it.
Bird spotting: Yeats would visit Coole Park every year to see the swans. AFP
But the woods and the lake still stand, with its “brimming water among the stones”, as Yeats saw the place. But I had yet to see even a single swan, although on the way to Coole from Galway, I saw a pub, a bed-and-breakfast, and a restaurant called The Swan.
There were other birds all right in Galway and in Shannon, the two big towns near Coole. The previous evening, sitting by the quay in Galway at a charming pub, loud, talkative seagulls had constantly interrupted our conversation as they flew over us, heading towards the water.
I had seen swans in contrived surroundings in the past: posing for photographs at a picture-perfect lake in a tropical garden in Singapore, where nannies pushed prams and women jogged along a reservoir. The swans had sat awkwardly cheerless, like the tame city itself, as if they had never learned how to flap their wings.
The wild swans come here in autumn, I was told, and this was spring. But life offers its own vicissitudes, and there are quirks: On a bright evening I was walking in the shadows of trees; not yet old, I felt no longer young. The onset of melancholy follows no known patterns. And this was the forest where lakes disappeared, and re-emerged, as they were turloughs. Sound science could explain their vanishing act, but I liked the magical explanation, of waters following their own moods, like the swans. But by seeking them out of season, was I hastening time, trying to rush a play? Maybe that’s what the seagulls in Galway had been saying.
Yeats had imagined the swans’ thinking as they drifted over the still water, looking mysterious and beautiful. In a blink, they’d have flown away, after delighting his eyes, to please someone else.
I finally saw a swan, at the far end of the lake, barely visible, stretching its neck, flapping its wings. It was too far for me to hear the flutter, and yet I felt it, inside me. Probably it was my heart, leaping a little, witnessing a poem learned at school come alive, emerging from nothingness, like a forgotten turlough. In these poetic woods, science couldn’t explain everything.
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