Gerard Howlin: Short-lived silence is a reminder of what we have thrown away

Spending time in nature can help us restore our attention, especially after depletion, writes Gerard Howlin
Gerard Howlin: Short-lived silence is a reminder of what we have thrown away

Spending time in nature can help us restore our attention, especially after depletion, writes Gerard Howlin

A woman runs past a sign encouraging social distancing near the Wellington monument in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.	Picture: Brian Lawless/PA
A woman runs past a sign encouraging social distancing near the Wellington monument in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA

GRANNY Sinnott could stand in her kitchen and tell whose car was coming. In the 1970s, cars in Co Wexford were few.

On the Blackmoor lane, an untarmacked track so narrow that the trees met across it, with half a dozen houses, people had regular routines.

Such a car, at such a time, was expected. So few and so-known, they could be identified far away. There were no competing sounds. Traffic was two cars meeting on the lane. Dexterity was needed to negotiate between your neighbour and the ditch.

More than 20 years ago, a work colleague from Urlingford, Co Kilkenny told me of an elderly relative who could recall natural darkness. We have almost no experience of it now. That person could recall looking out of their house and seeing no artificial light anywhere. Dark nights were truly black. Now, almost every vista is backlit artificially.

On Monday, I was walking on Dublin’s North Circular Road. I counted and counted waiting for a car to pass. Eventually, after what seemed like a very long time, one did. Then traffic subsided again. I looked down to the gates of the Phoenix Park and back towards the top of Aughrim St where the old cattle market was, and there was no car to be seen.

It was of another era. But what is not new is scoping out parkland in the city.

Before several centuries on what only long afterwards became the North Circular Road, Oxmanstown Green had been the market since 1541. Due for development in the 1660s, a petition to the council for the space to be kept for the citizens to walk and take the open-air was answered favourably.

In 1665, it was renamed Smithfield, with walls built and trees planted to keep out cattle. The 1660s was also the heyday of the Duke of Ormond as Charles II’s viceroy. The king gave the land, now the Phoenix Park, to his mistress. The duke relieved her hand of the prize, and today we enjoy the largest public park in Europe. Our open spaces have long histories.

There is a reclaiming of space globally.

In Teheran, New Delhi, and Beijing, blue skies are seen again. It is closed now but there is a new appreciation of St Stephen’s Green as Dublin’s ‘front room’ — the parlour you can be proud to offer anyone a seat in.

Dislocation, unfortunately, brings consequences. Swans bereft of the meals on wheels service from passers-by they enjoyed on the pond are putting their long necks through the railings for brought offerings instead.

On the streets, less appreciated and homeless people have no passing trade to beg from.

There is a sense of the city Philip Larkin wrote of it in ‘Dublinesque’:

Down stucco sidestreets,

Where light is pewter,

But it is unreal. This is limbo. It seems eternal already but it won’t last at all.

Those Victorian parks that are our model now, were intended as little paradigms of countryside in the city. By then, cities were much bigger than the Dublin of 60,000 people in the 17th century.

Their boundaries were much further away, and the countryside beyond them largely inaccessible to the urban masses within them.

Parks were a stylised nature — open-air drawing rooms and part of a great improving project that included public libraries, museums, and the greatest era of church building since the Middle Ages.

They were also a place to step away from squalor. Even in that highly stratified society, you could literally sit beside anybody. That, in a society where seating arrangements were ritualised, and a seat of any sort equated with privilege, presaged the extension of the franchise. People’s parks were a forerunner of people’s democracy.

There is something called Attention Restoration Therapy. It is about how we renew attention after intense concentration.

It is an answer or antidote to a life increasingly transfixed online. It shows how spending time in nature can help us restore our attention, especially after depletion. In real life, that could be as little as a potted plant in a bedsit.

Natural environments help recovery from stress. That makes sense to anyone who goes for a walk. A view from the bedroom of a sick patient, access to the outdoors in a nursing home, and the subconscious is replenished.

Views that soothe the mind, sounds like birdsong and water are the cocoons we need. Had we noticed how drowned out they were?

Something to notice in Dublin parks is that the first generation who made them really their own since the slums were cleared were the new Irish. They come from countries with densely-built cities and a sense of the park as another front room.

The Irish went directly from the farm or the tenement to the back garden. Unlike those mainly Eastern Europeans, but also many from Latin America, they had less experience of sharing limited space on public transport as they preferred the car.

Housing was intended to accommodate prosperous peasants, with pocket-sized curtilage that mimicked the big house, and room in the drive for a motorised carriage. The back garden was for the new suburbias what The Field was for John B Keane.

It demarcated status. It delineated difference, particularly from people who lived in “the flats” and it left parks as places to walk through, but not to spend time in. The occasional children’s playground was an exception.

This is not a rus in urbe [an illusion of countryside created by a building or garden within a city] now, however.

It is a real, but seemingly unreal, retreat one from another in a pandemic. The silence, the empty roads, the refound sounds and the abundance of time are all therapy. They are also a brief reminder of a time nobody under 50 is likely to remember, and an interlude before ‘recovery’.

WHILING away time, we might think of what recovery we want. In the small street I live in, there seems to be more conversations between socially-distanced neighbours now, than in all the business before.

It is a little like those best days immediately after Christmas, when the synthetic festival is complete and time arrives for visits, unforced hospitality, and relaxed conversation.

There is a reason for the massive fads for gardening and cooking programmes. They are iterations of the same impulse. To be grounded, to be connected, and to be in tune with nature. Preparing food, digging your hand into soil does that.

The park, a public garden, is a reimaging so rich that we have passed beyond subsistence to have time and space to plant flowers, place art, and enjoy ornamental water. In the imagination, they are places of palatial luxury.

It is in this short-lived silence a reminder of what we have thrown away. That was a world so intimate you knew by the sound of the car who was coming down the lane.

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