Before Nelson’s pillar trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley, started for Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clonskea, Rathgar and Terenure, Palmerston Park and upper Rathmines, Sanymount Green Rathmines, Ringsend and Sandymount Tower. Ulysses, James Joyce.
Only thoughts reached by walking have value.Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche
In 1987 I saw him for the first time. I was crossing Central Park in the back seat of a Hyundai being driven by my wife, V. The traffic stalled a moment and I looked across to the oncoming traffic, also stalled, and saw my doppelgänger in the back seat of the opposite car. Our jaws — both of which had a rufous-coloured carpeting of beard — dropped simultaneously, and simultaneously we were whisked away a few moments later by the renewed flow of traffic to live out our lives in opposite directions. Those paths crossed again yesterday, a quarter century later. I saw him strolling down Rathmines Road Lower in Dublin carrying his bags of shopping. We were both alone, both on foot, both now with long white hair, and both gray bearded. We performed a furtive mutual inspection, then, though it was barely perceptible, shuddered, before taking off once again to complete our lives elsewhere. There are directions beyond sensible reckoning in which a person may fly or drive or walk, so it is unlikely, even if we both were to live another hundred years, that we will encounter each other again.
I set out recently to walk towards Dublin city center with a destination but no especial route in mind. The point of departure was my childhood home in Templeogue Village — until the 1950s fairly discrete from Dublin city — and the destination was the city center where I was to meet some friends at the Market Bar later in the evening. En route I wanted to inspect the “country home” of the Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger (1865 – 1953) in Rathgar. In fact, I am back in Dublin for a couple of weeks to sift through the Praeger archives at the Royal Irish Academy in Dawson St. In the course of my previous investigations on Praeger — an author of over 800 papers and 20 books on Irish natural history — I had learned that he had maintained a rock garden in his Rathgar home. I wanted to see if this rockery persisted in some form. Three points: Templeogue, Zion Road in Rathgar, and the Market Bar triangulated the route, though the passage was determined by the limits of my endurance (I am, after all, a man of 49 years), and my vague interest in punctuality (though friends in a Dublin pub tend to find things to do whilst waiting on an errant party member). As is the tradition among Irish naturalists, I sustained myself with a bar of chocolate.
An aside and a dedication before we depart: the inspiration of my career as a walker is my maternal grandfather William Nolan (29 Sept 1885 – 16 Dec 1967). Even at 80 he would walk the six or so miles from Xavier Avenue in Dublin’s North Strand, to Templeogue Village to visit his daughter, my mother, and her young family. Perhaps it is merely an extrapolation from a photograph I’ve seen of him striding along O’Connell Street with my mother, but when I think of him, which is still often, he is walking out of the house at 2 Xavier Avenue. Behind him, but looming high above that truncated street, is the train into Connelly Station. In the days when I was brought there (being four or less), passengers would wave to children who played in the streets far below. I don’t know, of course, what his attitude to walking was, but there were certainly easier ways of getting around Dublin in the 1960s if mere commuting was one’s sole priority, than striking out on foot from the city center. I may write some other day of his decline in health but there is a sadness to that tale, that I’d prefer not to have cut into this happier recollection.
As for my own philosophy of walking: I am working on a style of walking characterized by an openness to seeing new things, but that is guided by prior knowledge – that’s the kind of walking that I want to perfect. A walk through a city that one has known for five decades unavoidably entails an encounter with well known things, but such is the fractal nature of any track on a map (as writer Tim Robinson, more than anyone else has elucidated) that there is no end to the detail that can be added: an infinity between two cracks in a sidewalk. Besides, this is the city of the peripatetic novel: Ulysses, and Beckett’s early More Pricks than Kicks, for instance, have mappable action. Hard to imagine a Dublin story that does not within its first few pages have a hero burst out of a front door. The track that I followed, meander though I did, was therefore an inevitable topographic palimpsest, but perhaps not a single footfall of mine struck ground precisely where another had struck before. This is nostalgia, this is fresh ground.
Snow-flakes were general all over South County Dublin though no snow fixed upon the ground, for a Dublin snowflake is typically an evanescent item. The temperatures hovered at zero, that point where Dubliners generally remark it to be cold. My metric is whether I need to wear gloves, which I prefer not to as they obstruct note-taking and photography. I did not need them.
On the way to the Praeger home on Zion Road I passed by 101 Templeogue Road where we lived for those many years as I completed my PhD at University College, Dublin. It is a fine old house each room of which was converted into a tiny but well-appointed flat. It was the home in which our eldest child lived for his first few years. The landlord on hearing that V was pregnant observed that they “never had a child in one of units before.” His unit, our home. Perhaps the housing crisis that recently took an axe to the Irish economy occurred when homes became “units” even to their occupants. Nonetheless, our landlord granted us permission to stay on in the flat which we did until shortly before we moved to the US. 101 Templeogue Road is a famous address in some circles. Turn over your LP records of Irish recording artists from the ’70s and ’80s and you’ll may see the address there. It had been the location of Mulligan Records. Bob Geldof and the other Boomtown Rats would hang around outside, chatting up the girls from Our Ladies school further along Templeogue Road. No doubt Sir Bob was tutored on the true meaning of charity from from the flinty young women of Templeogue.
A ten minute walk away from 101 Templeogue Rd is Praeger’s house, Lisnamae, 24 Zion Road, where the naturalist and his wife, Hedwig (”Meine Hedie”, as he addressed her in letters), lived from the earliest years in the 20th century till 1922 when they moved to rooms at 19 Fitzwilliam Square, the year before Praeger’s early retirement from the National Library (he had risen by that time to the position of Head Librarian). I knocked on the door and the present owner Billy O’Regan opened. On the TV within, England and France clashed in a Six Nations Rugby fixture; without, the snow mildly fell. Not a great afternoon to rouse an Irishman from his throne. But Mr O’Regan seemed interested enough in my little quest. I, apparently, am the first to call looking for Praeger’s garden. I was offered an umbrella which I declined, and was admitted into the garden while Mr O’Regan retired to his match.
According to Charles Nelson’s An Irish Flower Garden, (1984), one portion of Praeger’s rockery, measuring five meters by four, contained over two hundred and fifty species. Of this diversity Praeger wrote: “When one specializes in the “tinies”…it is surprising how many different plants can be accommodated on each square yard.” In all Praeger’s garden book ran to 2000 species. Pictures taken in the garden by the famed Northern Irish photographer Robert John Welch, former photographer to Queen Victoria, reveal the mad vegetative exuberance of the garden. Nothing of this formerly great garden yet remains. Though the O’Regan’s have a lovely backyard with some nice plantings and features, the rockery was long gone; gone before they lived there. Mr O’Regan mentioned that sometimes unusual plants crop up on the walls of the garden, and he committed to sending me some photographs. Sometimes absence is all we get; sometimes absence is everything.
Like many of the great naturalists, Praeger had an ardor for unspoiled places. In his best loved book The Way that I Went (1937), he recorded this predilection for wilder lands. “Who does not wish on a fine day”, he wrote, “to escape from town into the country?” Escape he did, and Praeger “traversed Ireland to and fro from end to end, and from sea to sea. Mostly on foot for that is the only way to see and get to know intimately any country; sometimes by cycle; seldom by car, for the motor travels much too fast for the serious observer.” Walking for Praeger was therefore his chiefest methodology, and not conveyance merely.
For all of this, like many naturalists, Praeger spent the vast majority of his time living in a city. And like many naturalists though he expended considerable energy botanizing, and perambulating from vegetation station to station on the look-out for rarities, nonetheless he spent, to judge from his considerable archives, most of his time writing. Not walking, not leaping from tussock to grassy tussock, not botanizing, but working with pen and paper, with galleys, lists, indices, and with letters to publishers. This is, I suppose, what one does in a city — cities are for static dwelling. It is true not just of Praeger, “our own Linnaeus”, as a Dublin newspaper once described him, but of most naturalists: Von Humboldt, Darwin, Thoreau, Muir. All the great naturalists were prolific writers, though one oftentimes pictures them on the hoof in exotic parts of the world. One thinks less frequently of the domesticated lives of these men where withdrawn in their abodes they worked on manuscripts. Darwin was most radical, so to speak, when rooted in Down House, a ride away from London. To further illustrate: Thoreau’s journal ran to two million worlds. At my rate of writing — perhaps a slow one — taken together that’s about 10 years of writing time. Thoreau’s maintained the journal over much of a lifetime and was only 44 when he died. He was a writer first, a walker second.
Praeger’s urban habits, his gardening especially, complicate a little my hypothesizing of a crisp distinction between the urban and rural life of a naturalist. In his late book A Populous Solitude he wrote “An activity that served as a useful foil to my daily work at the National Library during many years was what might appropriately be called microcosmic gardening.” His gardening can be seen then an extension into his urban life of his love of rural nature. His interests in the genera Sedum and Sempervivum on which he wrote extensively stemmed, as it were, from his gardening interests. Though he inclined to the country he seemed to enjoy living in Dublin. When Praeger came to Dublin from Belfast in 1893 to take up a position at the National Library, initially he lived with a family on the outskirts of the city in Dundrum. He walked or cycled the nine miles into town rather than taking the train. And more than many other 20th C natural historians he provided in his major works extensive accounts of the natural history of the city itself: the wagtail roosts in O’Connell Street, the ferns on Dublin walls, plants on North Bull Island. Years before his very famous survey of Clare Island, off Ireland’s West Coast, Praeger and a small team surveyed Lambay Island a few kilometers off the coast north of the city.
Despite this generous attitude towards Dublin, one does not as far as I can recall, get a sense of Praeger being a proto-urban ecologist. So, it is with Praeger’s rural sensibility applied to urban streets, and performed against the flow of Thoreau’s habitual direction, that I moved on from the Zion Road garden to continue my circuit into the city center. Of course, in the city one cannot easily ignore the dominant mammal of the city, nor the trace she leaves upon the land.
Walls and paths and gates and pavement are habitat if left alone. The biological diversity that develops on a substrate is determined, very roughly speaking, by the forces of competitive exclusion and ecological disturbance rubbing up against each other. Darwin, or at least those forces that his name stands for, is alive and well on the walls of Dublin. Individuals from species differ in their ability to sustain themselves in the terrain in which they find themselves; over time species are sorted based upon their talent for life in those circumstances. Countermanding those exclusionary forces, disturbance events, defined by the mortality they inflict, reset the ecological clock. So, competitive exclusion propels a system to one surviving species and this is balanced by the indiscriminate scythe of disruption which buys time for sub-dominants. A homeowner flailing about with a hedge-clippers can rout the more zealous species, and allow less competitively able species to flourish. However, too much zeal and a wall is clipped clean – it is as bare of live as a newly cooled lava bed.
Different phases of these successional processes can be seen on any route through Dublin city. On the walls of Zion Road, ferns perch in crevices. There I observed Hart’s-tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrum) and Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum sp), the latter is so-called, according to one of my old botany lecturers, because it resembles female pubic hair (perhaps at that time I had not inspected female pubic hair closely enough, as this had not immediately occurred to me). Praeger noted Hart’s-tongue fern in Fitzwilliam Square, and provided a list of ferns on the walls near the National Museum a street away from where I have been working for the past week. The fern community persisted there until “some unfortunate tidying up” inflicted a local extinction event. I checked the location he mentioned a day or so ago and even a couple of generations after Praeger inspected them the walls remain vegetation free.
On Orwell Road, under the shadow of a sycamore tree, a nice bed of moss fans off the footpath and towards oncoming traffic. On Temple Road, a pine tree looms over St Philip’s Church. Across the road shrubs gang up behind a disused gate. Cars were coming down from the Dublin mountains with a halo of snow. Daffodils bloomed on Richmond Avenue South. Having forgotten how lovely it was, I stopped a while in Palmerston Park. A hooded crow (Corvus cornix) was the park’s sole sentry. I paused outside several fine houses on Rathmines Road — the nests of ordinary humans, commemorated not by plaques, but by the wear and tear of footfalls on the steps, and by the choice of paint-color on front doors. Dogs shat leisurely on the street near Rathmines, and elsewhere/everywhere left their traces: it’s all ecology now, I suppose. Where Rathmines Road Upper and Lower intersect, I intersect with my doppelgänger. Question: how many times does Stephen cross paths with Bloom as they traipse across Dublin? I then turned off Rathmines Road to take a less direct approach into town, going down Castlewood Avenue and on into Ranelagh.
In my very early teens I had walked from the bus stop in Rathmines into Ranelagh every Friday afternoon and did so for a few years. I struggled to remember the precise route as I walked this time — it was as if my mind and legs were encouraging me to forget. Ahead of me a child ran through the street in the direction of Belgrave Square wailing “The sky is on fire!” There was no doubting the destination when I arrived there: the site of a small parish hall, now replaced, near the Hill Pub adjacent to Mount Pleasant Square, where so many un-pleasant things happened to me. It was there with my sisters and a first cousin, that I learned the rudiments of ballroom dancing. I have recorded elsewhere other moments in the misery of my dancing career, but the memories of this place have a very special ferocity. Perhaps had my cat-suit not been sewn by my mother, and had my arse not been quite so ample, and had my limbs not been so truculent, these time would not have damaged me so much. In one competition I danced with my first cousin. Though I am sure she was fine, I was not. When the prizes were called, my worst fears were realized: they had created a “special prize” for me alone. Later that evening my father came out to me in the front garden, back in Templeogue, and witnessed those terrible tears of injured pride that I had sought to conceal beneath the darkened summer sky.
On I walked around Mount Pleasant Square, and towards the Grand Canal. Night had fallen by then and a barge was lit up and brightened the water. I strolled along the banks and watched mallards, a male and a female, up-end by turns, in the water and root around in the slime for tasty morsels. By the time I reached the statue of the poet Paddy Kavanagh only a street light illuminated him. Kavanagh wrote: “O commemorate me where there is water/Canal water, preferably, so stilly Greeny at the heart of summer.” So there he is perpetually caught in the act of staring at stilly water. Was it Sartre who once wrote that a man could get used to living in a hallowed out tree, as long as we had a view of the sky? What about the sight of water, forever? Not far from here my father had an encounter with the poet which my fathers remembers though I assume Kavanagh never did. Kavanagh dashed out onto the road and nearly colliding with my father’s moped. My father skidded to a halt, the poet shook a furious fist and lurched off.
Recently I have stopped listening to music on my iPod as I walk. I do not have energetic misgivings about the habit, I just prefer not to do so. Un-headphoned one can hear the birds which is nice, though mostly in the city one hears the traffic. But music has a way of imposing a type of unity on things that I’d as soon do without, especially on a walk. The song, the album, the playlist, announces prettily but emphatically the flow of time. If I have a philosophy of walking it is this: a walk, especially a long one, has a unity announced by a point-of-departure and a destination and by the rhythms of the body doing its thing. A body walking without aggressive intent cultivates a certain style of meditation. Not necessarily one where the walker resigns herself to letting thoughts rise and fall, or where memories or the day’s projects open up like avenues which are purposely left un-inspected. But something related to this practice happens when one walks for hours. The body in motion provides a unity but the mind does not seem quite so jointed as it does when it is applied to the habitual static crafts. I am reminded here of Nietzsche’s claim in the Will To Power that “belief in the body is more fundamental than belief in the soul.” (Section 491). A mind afloat within a walking body is a fractured thing.
A week after my walk I heard a paper read at a meeting of the marvelously named Dublin Unit for Speculative Thought (DUST) by phenomenologist Dylan Trigg. Trigg is working on what he calls Xenoarcheology. This is a term that sometimes applies to the literal excavation of sites with putative traces of alien life, though for Trigg we are the aliens and the traces and fossils are those that are aggregated in the body. His work brought to mind that just as Nietzsche destabilizes the unity of soul, replacing it with his “hypothesis” of “the subject as multiplicity”, it would also be wrong to think of the body as being itself the stable ground. Briefly, building on the work of French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Trigg reminded his audience that body is “the bearer of two orders of time.” What are these two orders? “One marks the coherence of time as lived and unified by the subject. The other signals the alterity of an originary past which is both constitutive of the present without ever being present.”
One does not have to be walking, of course, to notice this strangeness of both body and soul. Neither is an entirely personal affair. But as I walked towards Dublin I walked with a body that remembered: a grandfather, old homes, a debilitating dance and so on. What walks is a body weighed down by the processes of dissolution, the tiredness of half a century, and the limitations in movement and dance imposed by my genetic predisposition. What walks with me is my evolutionary past: these legs, these senses, and as I closed in on my destination, this raging thirst.
In the end I can not be sure who it was, but someone showed up at the Market Bar five hours after I left from Templeogue. That person enjoyed a pint, and his friends did not treat him any differently than they had before.
Post Script: Now a strange thing happened after my walk that I thought I should record. I tweeted about my encounter with my doppelgänger and my friend Mark Curran, an artist presently living in Berlin, suggested that he might know him. When later he saw a picture of him he confirmed that it was David Farrell, the photographer. Since Mark came back to Dublin later in the week he invited us both to Cafe Moda in Rathmines. On closer inspection my doppelgänger is a better groomed fellow than I am. Like me though, David has flitted around a bit, having worked in Paris before returning to teach in Dublin. Like me, he had done science degrees as UCD. In fact, when we had compared notes it emerged that he had been one of my chemistry demonstrator when I was doing my degree. Dublin may indeed be a fractal infinity, but its universe is nonetheless a small one. We are all, of course, our own doppelgängers, finding and loosing ourselves over and over again in this palimpsest called life.
Here, approximately, is the route I took: Templeville Drive, “The Lane”, Templeogue Rd, Rathdown Crescent, Rathdown Park, Rathfarnham Road, Bushy Park Road, Zion Road, Orwell Road, Orwell Park, Dartry Road, Temple Road, Richmond Avenue South, Palmerston Road, Rathmines Road Upper, Rathmines Road Lower, Cambridge Road, Castlewood Ave., Belgrave Square North, Cullenswood Road, Charleston Road, Ranelagh Road, Grand Parade, Baggot Street Lower, Fitzwilliam Square East, Fitzwilliam Place, Leeson Street, Lower, Stephen's Green, Kildare Street. Molesworth Street, Lemon Street, Clarendon Street, William Street South, Castle Market, Drury Street, Fade Street.
Distance: approximately 12 km.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to the following: Petra Schnabel and the staff of the Royal Irish Academy for their hospitality as I examined the Praeger archives; Mr Bill O’Regan for access to his (and Praeger's) back garden; Will McNeill for discussions on Nietzsche on the notion of the subject and for emailing me on short notice his paper: The Poverty of the Regent Nietzsche’s Critique of the “Subject” Epoché: A Journal for the History of Philosophy, Volume 8, Issue 2, Spring 2004, Pages 285-296; Dylan Trigg for a copy of his essay Towards a Phenomenology of (Xeno)archeology, from his forthcoming book: The Thing: Xenophenomenology and the Origins of Life (Winchester: Zero Books). Of course, a big thank you to Mark Curran and to my doppelgänger David Farrell (see here)