Life on a pillar: environmental thought and the odor of sanctity

by Liam Heneghan

The saint on the pillar stands,/The pillar is alone,/He has stood so long/That he himself is stone. Louis MacNeice, Stylite, 1940 [i]

In Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville’s anachronistically recognized ecological masterpiece, a calculation is presented that on a three or four year voyage a seaman manning one of the mast-heads of a whaleship would spend several entire months aloft his pillar above the ship. A whaleship like the Pequod, Ishmael informs, was not provided with a crow’s-nest as was the case with the Greenland ships – the mast-man on the southern whaler was exposed to the elements and to the mesmerizing crawl of the oceans far below him. Our narrator cautions the ship-owners of Nantucket to be especially wary of taking on philosophical lads given to “unseasonable meditativeness”. Whaling could be an asylum for romantic souls, youngsters that are “disgusted with the carking cares of earth”. The cost could be high. Such a youth can lose his identity in his ocean reverie and “[take] the 520px-Simeon_Stylite_Louvre mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that, deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading man and nature…” In such a meditation one misplaced step and “your identity comes back in horror” and perhaps “with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.” Ishmael concludes the observation thus: “Heed it well, ye Pantheists.” By which I take it that he is talking to dreamy youth and latterly to us environmentalists.

In chronological sequence Melville mirthfully compares the solitary, watchful, deprived life on the mast to that of other motionless dwellers, starting with Egyptians who climbed the pyramids to gaze at the stars and concluding with stone or metal men atop columns, figures unresponsive to the beseeching yells of those below them, that is, statues of Washington, Napoleon and Nelson. Included in this evolutionary sequence – for the land-locked lofty paved the way according to Melville to maritime mast-men – is Saint Stylites of whom he says “in him we have a remarkable instance of a dauntless stander-of-mast-heads…[he] literally died at his post.”

A helpful footnote in my copy of Moby-Dick declares Melville’s entertaining claim about pyramids as astronomical pillars implausible, and of course, statues, though they may remain impressively motionless for quite some time, have the benefit of being lifeless[ii]. In Melville’s roster, Saint Stylites stands out, so to speak, having spent almost forty years on his pillar.

About him I have a few things I’d like to say.

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An Ascetic Encounter: Oisín the bard and Saint Patrick at the source of the Dodder

By Liam Heneghan

For Oisín Heneghan, an exemplary contemporary Oisín.

The River Dodder, a significant stretch of water that arises at Kippure in the valley of Glenasmole, Co. Wicklow, travels twenty-six kilometers through the Dublin suburbs before joining its more significant cousin, the River Liffey, at Ringsend. Together these rivers, along with other lesser streams and brooks, move Dublin’s detritus out to sea. On its way, the Dodder passes through Templeogue Village, where I grew up, a town which the suburban expansion of Dublin caught up to and washed over in the 1950’s as the city surged in the opposite direction towards Tallaght, and on towards Wicklow, leaving behind alluvial deposits in the form of barely distinguishable estates of semi-detached houses banked up against the cottages, churches, and the forgotten antiquities of much earlier times. Some mornings queuing for a bus into the city center the sweet smell of pig-shite would catch in the throat, emanating from the little piggery down near the river, down where the village seems a little older, more primordial.

A seemingly benign and even-tempered river, the Dodder recouped some of its old boisterousness on the 25th of August 1986, when Hurricane Charley (called Charlie inAscetics0001_1 Dublin) dumped several inches of rain into the catchment. It was the night of my younger brother Padraic’s twenty-first birthday and our family, along with many others from the village, stood close to the bridge over the Dodder that connected us to the rest of South Dublin, watching the water rise close to the roof of the new bridge. The Dodder has never been kind to its bridges. Whole trees were swept along that night. And over the years the river has carried many an unwary traveler to their watery end during such unexpected swells.

Those turbulent waters that we viewed that night traveled the same course as did the waters where, legend has it, St Patrick Christianized one of the last great Irish pagans, Oisín the bard.

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