The Glen of the Downs

In the Autumn of 1997 I went to live on a road protest in Ireland in the Glen of the Downs Nature Reserve. I had just finished doing my A-Levels through which I had become obsessed with the poetry of Alice Walker and with saving the Earth as a full-time, spiritual, eco-feminist vocation. This is an embroidered picture of Daphne, Greek tree goddess, which I completed the summer before I left for the Glen.

I had £20 and a rucksack and I hitch-hiked over on the ferry with a boy I barely knew. I had a mandolin and a flute; a striped woolly hat; some impractically heavy crystals; a tent; a sketchpad; a sleeping bag. My heart was full of dreams and my head was full of stars. I was very, very young. Last weekend I attended a 20-year reunion at which some of us who lived in the Glen gathered to commemorate that time and what it meant.

A flier for a gig at The Old New Orleans on Dame Street had drawn me to Ireland: a crumpled, photocopied piece of paper that travelled across back-packs and pockets spreading its vital message. I remember entering the gig and thinking I’d found the most earnest folk on earth. Drum ‘n Bass boomed upstairs but downstairs there was a studious kind of feeling. People sat quietly and respectfully, watching grainy 1990s camcorder footage from the Glen of the Downs Road Protest which had by then been running for a few short months, spearheaded by folk wishing to halt the progress of a destructive road-widening scheme through a designated nature reserve. People were quietly and urgently discussing EU policies; the environmental implications of the Celtic Tiger Economy; “Special Area of Conservation” and the European Route E01. I honestly can’t remember if we went to the Glen directly from that gig, or whether I camped on a Dublin kitchen floor overnight somewhere before heading Glenwards the next day; it is difficult to remember the exact sequence of events and, when I think back to that time, my mind is like an old tin of photos all in the wrong order and bundled up with ribbon.

I do remember that the main camp in which I very briefly lived was situated just over a stream to the right as you entered the woodland from the car-park. I set up my tent near the main fireplace. I slept in there quite a bit, but was also keen to get up into the actual trees and to learn how to ascend and descend in a harness. I remember a glorious day spent 80ft up in the crown of a beech tree, building a platform for a treehouse on the opposite side of the valley. I remember sleeping in a tree house directly above the stream and being awoken each night by its beautiful, tinkling sound. I remember waking and falling asleep to the sounds of cars, and to the terrifying feeling that they were going to career off the N11 road and run right over us. I remember boys and men from that campaign as well, the romance of being at war with everything together, the way men look in the forest at night, the way I felt living by firelight and rain. I sang songs around the fire, and was reminded during the recent reunion that I also did some unflattering comedy impressions of the insalubrious characters who came to live in the Glen.

I also remember ingloriously having an accident in a beech tree, during which my foot slipped through a loop-shaped branch and I fell backwards. I hung suspended in the tree for an hour or so screaming for help and lacking the upper-body strength to pull myself up and out of this predicament. I was preparing to break my own ankle so that I could wriggle free when some women who were luckily passing nearby heard me and were able to help me down. I was shaken and afraid of tree-climbing after that and had badly bruised and pulled tendons in my leg. The symptoms of what has now developed into my psoriatic arthritis were also beginning to make themselves known when I was 17 or so and I think that the wet, cold discomfort of tree-house dwelling is ill-suited to that. At some point I left the camp and became more involved in the Dublin-based aspects of the campaign.

One day in maybe December 1997? January 1998? We heard through the phone tree that Wicklow County Council had begun illegal tree-felling in the Glen. I went there and was photographed in an emotional embrace with a friend. I still remember the chainsaws buzzing, the traffic and the helpless rage at watching trees we had defended with our bodies coming down. Our crying faces were plastered on the front of the Irish Times and the local employment office cut my benefits immediately, citing the photo as evidence that I had not been available for gainful employment on the day when the trees were cut down. I took a part-time job in a florist, continued sharing a 1-bedroom flat with a good girl friend in a bad part of town, and ranted non-stop to my fellow flower-arrangers about the dark wrongness of the entire Capitalist system and why we should all be anarchists. Later I moved in with a beautiful man who had a large, kind heart, a shining spirit, and a way with a guitar. Together, when I was not making floral displays for The Flower Box, we worked hard fund and awareness raising; flier-designing; magazine-writing; poster and window-display creation; supporting comrades during court appearances and hearings; making art about what was happening; painting (and singing about) the trees, the people, and the feelings associated with the campaign. I designed this flier at some point during the campaign.

The ins and outs of the campaign have been extensively documented elsewhere so I won’t go into all that here, but it lasted approximately three years and was emotional, amazing, depressing, heartening, horrendous and magical by turns. By the early 00s I was no longer involved with many folks from those times. But days spent in the forest, in the rich culture of 1990s Direct Action in Ireland, have had lasting legacies for who I am now and I have a lot of love for what we shared.

When I was doing my art degree at Dun Laoghaire, I returned to the Glen to make field recordings of the sounds I remembered from living there. Because of our proximity to the road and the extraordinary contrast between the tinkling stream and the roaring juggernauts, the Glen lodged itself in my consciousness as a place of sonic significance. Those memories pushed me to listen more in my life. You can hear some of those early recordings in this podcast but you can also hear more recent sounds from the Glen here.

In my mind the SONIK part of the KNITSONIK mission was born in the Glen of the Downs, where I first heard the world through a microphone and began telling stories with sounds.

Apart from the horrors of watching my favourite trees being bulldozed to widen the N11, the Glen held a more personal pain for me that has also had lasting effects on whom I’ve become, and how I see the world. It’s a feminist thing. My encounters with men in road protest culture were not always positive; something about living in the forest and being at war with the state brought out in some cases what I would now call toxic masculinity. The mythologies we created in which the earth was personified as a woman being “raped” by post-industrial human societies were difficult to reconcile with building a positive and empowered self-image as a young woman. If the earth – our best and most beautiful female icon – was not strong enough to withstand the violence of the patriarchy, what chance did I have?

We were against authority and within that context it was complex to understand how to make rules; when and how to tell people NO; when to make and maintain boundaries; and especially when to tell men who were talking too much to shut up. The right-on-ness of us all, how fashionable it was to be casual about sex, the male posturing “I know all about Irish Goddesses / The Irish invented Feminism etc.” coupled with years of patriarchal feminine socialisation made it difficult for younger me to spot the psychological, gender-based abuses of power that went on back then in the guise of being “liberated”. I remember being told by one individual that I ought to stop giving my power to men – advice that followed the classic pattern through which abusers always tell their victims that abuse is their own fault.

In 2017 I look back on those aspects of camp life with a bit of sadness; a good dose of healthy anger; and some fierce love for younger me and the girls and femmes everywhere who are still dealing with this shit. Last weekend I walked along old pathways as if beside my younger self. I touched beloved trees, knitted beside my cherished stream, listened to the traffic, and thought about how different my life is now and how awesome it would have been to have had me around as a big, big sister when I first set foot in the forest. Breathing and listening between the trees, I found myself feeling that in my past there is a lot of feeling to channel into the more contemporary mood of feminist resistance in which I remain engaged. Every time I read the word “gaslighting” online in posts about social justice, it’s good to remember what that is and how it feels.

I’ve spent years reconciling disability with my former hardcore environmentalist self as well. Aged 18, I went to live on a road protest and was uncompromisingly anti-road building. I was also against corporations, governments and Capitalism and it was easy because I was young and I felt invincible.
Aged 25, I learnt to drive on a government sponsored mobility scheme for people with severe mobility difficulties, and my opinion of roads was drastically altered forever. I got a speeding fine almost immediately and embraced roads as new frontiers of freedom. Getting a car when I couldn’t really walk was incredible. It changed my opinion in ways that make conversations with anti-road protestors deeply uncomfortable today. When we get to the part where I say “what about disabled people who can’t walk or use a bicycle?” the conversation either dries up or turns dark. The most hardcore environmentalists I’ve met have told me they believe that serious illnesses like Arthritis, Cancer, and AIDS are either the earth’s solution to overpopulation, or further evidence that evil corporations are making the world unfit for healthy human life. There is a troubling shred of truth in the latter and companies must be brought to justice for pollution or deregulatory actions that result in people getting ill. However, neither of these explanations centre the needs or feelings of disabled people. For this reason, when I was coming to terms with the limitations and beauty of my arthritic body, my disabled identity, my flawed genes and my raging pain, I had to take a break from environmental activist circles. I still can’t deal with the incredulity and hostility that ensues when I reveal the inconvenient truth about my long-term disability. No combination of special leaves, homeopathy, prayer or magic potions has ever helped and I am increasingly offended by invasive questions about what I have/haven’t tried and an obsessive focus on finding me a “natural” cure. What has worked for me are years of therapy to come to terms with being in pain and needing help, plus genetically engineered anti-TNF drugs made by a giant pharmaceutical company.

All of which is to say that last weekend was a precious time for measuring a distance of 20 years and gauging how things have changed, and how they are still the same; to look at the evolution of my own politics; and to be in the forest with the same people who changed my life 20 years ago.

In the summer of 2017, I didn’t hitch-hike to the Glen. I travelled on the ferry and the train with money I made myself, selling the book that 447 of you helped me to produce, and producing art commission for various museums, using sound. There were no crystals in my rucksack; instead I brought a sensible selection of items designed to sustain me for two nights in the woods. These objects were all purchased for different long-distance walks shared with Mark; kettles, sporks, titanium mugs, sleeping mats and a tent that has sheltered us in Scotland and along the South West Coastal Path. Our tent is full of memories of laughter and shared adventures, and though being in the Glen brought back many memories for me, our marriage is a bridge under which many things from my past life in Ireland feel like old water. This time I had no mandolin with me, but carried my recording devices to document the special sonic magic of the forest.

Rather than traveling with a random boy, I met with three of my dearest girlfriends in Dublin en route to the Glen. We laughed, told stories, ate well, bought cheese, stayed up late, and spoke of ALL THE THINGS.

It was beautiful to see so many familiar faces, and so many old friends. Many folk sacrificed a lot to be in the Glen and to defend the trees from the road expansion project; it was good to celebrate what these comrades gave; to say thank you; to light fires; and to remember absent friends. It was lovely to sit by fires again; to hear the crackle of dead wood; to smell the smoke; and to share food cooked in the same old pot that we used years ago.

I don’t have a sketchpad like the one I had 20 years ago, though I do keep a bullet-journal which is at least as colourful as the book I had back then. There are less mystical paintings of trees, less sad paintings of heartbreak, and more to-do lists, knitting charts and washi-tape now… and I’m still celebrating trees, in yarn…

On the ferry on the way home, I found myself ultimately feeling glad for my time in the Glen and for everything I learnt there. In the Glen I learnt to act with conviction and to take action when I think that things are wrong – a feeling I remembered strongly this year in January at the women’s marches, marching against Donald Trump (the ultimate in gaslighting and abuse of power). In the Glen I learnt to listen and to connect to places through their sounds and textures – ideas that have remained central to my art practices ever since. In the Glen I learnt how to play a tiny part within a much larger story. In the Glen I learnt a deep and abiding love for trees that has never gone away. And In the Glen I learnt that my body is not invincible. I’m so grateful for everything I found there. I wonder how everything we experienced 20 years ago has manifested in each of our different lives. We don’t live on the road protest any more, but the road protest lives on in all of us somewhere, I’m sure. And this weekend, looking into familiar and well loved faces, it looked as strong and shiny and radical and flawed and beautiful in 2017 as it was in 1997.

Thank you, old friends.
YOURS IN TREES XXX

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11 Responses to The Glen of the Downs

  1. Hivetender says:

    Great post. Lots to think about. And today you look at roads as Tarmac Tuesdays!
    So interesting. I appreciate your convictions and creativity. Womon Power!

  2. Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth says:

    A wonderful post. Thank you for your effort doing it then, and writing about it now.

  3. Jeannette Smyth says:

    thank you for this. so beautifully and honestly recalled. thinking about the power of trees is something i need to start thinking strategically about. i got the axis mundi thing. the thing that they’re always concatenating and that photosynthesis is the beginning of life on earth. but the pain i feel when they’re cut down is bigger than that.
    it was lovely to meet the young felix, and to reconnect with the wiser and still enthusiastic older one. as always.

  4. Meredith MC says:

    Thank you for sharing this powerful and very personal story. You beautifully articulate the place you were, and how it led to the place you are now.
    And I understand your love of the trees. I’ve long felt that they have so much to teach us- they stand and live in their own communities, for centuries. They are patient, kind and gentle. Have you read “The Secret Life Of Trees”?
    Living in the Pacific NW, I am blessed to have forests surrounding me. It’s a quick trip down the road and I am in nature’s own Cathedral, full of birdsong and filtered green light.
    Thank you again for your story.

  5. michael hirst says:

    Beautifully written Felix i feel privileged that our life paths crossed briefly. You are an inspiring person. X

  6. Joan says:

    Lovely. Knowing there are those still among us in your generation who keep up the good fight makes this weary US resistor just a little less weary.
    Thank you.

  7. Dianna says:

    What an incredible story! Thank you for sharing it, there is so much to think about here.

  8. Omw says:

    Wonderful Felix xxx

  9. You made me laugh reading you soon got a speeding ticket after pasing your test, and was going to mention the tarmac turesdays but someone pipped me to it….
    Such heartfelt and thoughtful writings as always, a little melancholic and yes, I would like to speak, offer advice and laugh with my younger self….

  10. Failbetter says:

    This is an absolutely fantastic post with lots of food for thought. So much so that I’m slightly embarrassed to ask for more. But I’m really missing to learn how the Glen is doing, what did the protester succeed in defending?

  11. Administration says:

    You can learn more of the story here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8I-6cyuID1Y and read some archived news updates here: http://www.urban75.org/archive/news096.html the road was eventually widened against the wishes of our protest. But the protest was also massively successful in raising awareness of environmental issues in Ireland; in the UK, many road-creation plans were also shelved in the 1990s because the expense of removing protestors made many projects unfeasible. Highly recommended for context is the chapter “You can stuff your motorway” in Joe Moran’s book “On Roads” in which he wholistically chronicles the impact of direct action anti-road protesting in the UK. He doesn’t talk about Ireland, but there are many parallels. Hope that helps.

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