Originally publishing in Catflap magazine (November 2021)
There were two reasons I became a champion tree climber as a child. Firstly, because I loved it, the shapes of the branches and glow of the leaves when the light came through, the whisper of the breeze like the promise of something magical about to happen. Secondly, to prove that I could. I wish I could say that the first reason was always more important, but I spent twenty years of my life structuring my behaviour around what other people expected, even when it was just to do the opposite. So when my brothers said I couldn’t follow them, hand then foot then getting the sturdy branch under your stomach to swing a leg over, I didn’t have a choice.
That little chip on my shoulder has told me to do stupider things.
I don’t have an interesting coming out story. Couldn’t tell you when my come to gay Jesus moment was. Some house party at fifteen I think, snogged a girl while dancing as a joke and went ‘oh alright’. It was only notable for its complete lack of fanfare. It’s interesting, maybe, just because every other attempt at learning myself was like pulling teeth. I shifted and changed to suit my circumstances for so long that I got spit into the world in my mid-twenties with absolutely no idea who I was, what I wanted, or what I was going to do now.
When I six, I followed my brothers into the overgrown field behind my grandparents house. It seemed so wild then. Old, old trees in the hedgerow with twisting crab apple branches, and grass that grew over my shoulders. I wasn’t allowed in the field because there were wasps nests and holes hidden in the feral plant life. My brothers knew this, which was why they’d teased me before running off.
I chased them all the way through the high grass to the Big Tree. The Big Tree was a monster of a thing. An old evergreen of some sort that was collapsing under its own weight. Probably a South American cedar, a long way from home, but then it just exotic and giant. The weeping branches were wide enough for a kid to run along without their hands.
Not safely, obviously, but that never stopped us.
My brothers were already dashing along the tree’s rollercoaster track branches, confident that I couldn’t follow. I didn’t even know what they were doing or if I would want to be a part of it, but they told me no so I climbed. The tone changed when they saw me running along the loose, scaly bark to catch up. In fairness, I do think they tried to get to me before I fell fifteen feet into needles and spiders.
When I first moved to Scotland I was running. I moved so fast, before I could change my mind, that I couch-surfed through my first few weeks of work until I could move into an apartment alone. Even after my roommates arrived, I was working ten or eleven hour days in the centre of Edinburgh during the Fringe. Everything I thought I was ditching in Dublin had been waiting to pick me up at the airport. I worked too hard, didn’t tell my doctor about my mental health, got into a relationship too hard too fast, and I had never felt less connected to my community.
It isn’t that the queer scene in Edinburgh isn’t lovely, it’s just that I wasn’t a part of it. The only time I felt like I was part of it was after a vigil for Pulse nightclub shooting. Me and my roommate had stopped into the gay bar near our flat for the world’s most depressing pint. We were just so angry. By what had happened and the growing sense that it wouldn’t really change anything. There were people at the tables around us, angry too. It was the most connected I’d felt in years and that made me want to scream. I didn’t want to only share pain.
One of the far too many speakers at the vigil had said “we should all be very proud we’re here today” and it haunted me all the way back the flat. I sat down and wrote a miserable poem about a lifetime of attending public vigils as an activist and how we should not be at all proud to be here, wherever the hell here was.
Maybe it was that chip on my shoulder, finally earning its keep, telling me that I didn’t have to just be angry and sad forever. It got to the point where I was sitting down with a box of old diaries trying to figure out the last time I’d been reliably happy.
It had been long enough ago that all I could thinking of was the way leaves glowed when the sun came through them, and how satisfying it was when you finally found a spot comfortable enough to settle in and read, towering above anything that might bother you on the ground.
So I volunteered to lead groups of teenagers from inner-city Edinburgh on conservation works outside the city. I bought an Irish oak in a pot and grew it on my window ledge. It was better. It was. Things were better. I wasn’t.
Moved back to Ireland and threw myself into a masters in environmental conversation. Maybe if I could work in the field rather than just volunteering it would help, right? I was living out of town, behaving like a hermit, and my relationship was falling apart but I was still doing something, hand then foot, keep climbing.
I went to Pride with my friends. Say what you like about Dublin Pride these days and I’ll probably agree but it hasn’t changed the sense of relief that always came over me. I believe that Pride is a protest, but as an activist since my early teens, it was also a day off. Here was a time where the most important thing I was doing wasn’t being in opposition to something, bank holiday for chips on shoulders, I just had to be and that was statement enough. As cheesy as it sounds, it felt like it had taken me all year but that was when I got home.
So of course, all the sincerity meant that I immediately had a nervous breakdown, ended my relationship explosively with public infidelity and spent two weeks hiding in my sisters house until the dust settled.
Three months, a new puppy, two psychiatrists and an acceptance to a PhD I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do later, I went for a walk in the woods.
When I was little kid, my parents used to drive us to the Glen of the Downs at the weekends. This was before they widened the N11 into the woods and there was still an active protest movement against the road works. The ecowarriors had been living in the trees there for months and my parents used to volunteer to take their rubbish to the dump when we passed. I’d run to play with the kids in the camp. There were rope-ladders, and huge nets, like under a trapeze, stretched between trees to climb and roll around in. I thought it was the most magical thing in the world.
That patch of woodland is all gone now, because they did widen the road. The woods are still nice for a walk. Finn, the new dog, enjoyed them, but I stood at the stream and remember how much life used to be there. Including mine.
The field behind my grandparents house is all cleared now too, clean pasture grass, and my monster tree hacked to pieces. I crouched in the Glen of the Downs, out of sight of my family for a second, to have a quick cry before anyone noticed. That’s when I learned that in the previous few months I had accidentally trained Finn to climb into my lap when he hears me crying like Ireland’s most anxious service dog. I didn’t think that I cried often enough for him to learn it. I swear I normally don’t cry much at all.
Flighty. That’s what my science teacher called me when I was just turned thirteen and I never let it go. My mam says I should because he was a good teacher (true) and he’d just given my an A (also true), but there’s that chip again. I had done a project on deforestation in the Amazon and greenhouse gases and “Global Warming” as it was. The scale of how fucked we were hit me like a ton of bricks and I cried making it and a little during my presentation. That certainly didn’t do me any favours in a school I’d be bullied out of less than twelve months in the future. I learned my lesson though, that your work can be flawless but no one takes you seriously if you seem “upset”.
Now I’m one of those people that when my psychiatrist asks me how I am, I say “fine”, as if this isn’t a mandatory check-in to keep the medication coming. It’s a hard habit to break. Hand then foot, keeping climbing and everything will be fine. I got the job I wanted, working on woodland conservation, then it was March 2020 and it suddenly became a depressing year to specialise in science communication.
It’s funny the stereotypes we gleefully run towards sometimes. I definitely thought I was above all that in my teens. I slagged the gay lads I was mates with rotten when they developed LA accents for six months after coming out. But then I was the one who told people I wasn’t good at maths (I am) and didn’t take biology at the Leaving Cert because I was so caught up in an identity I’d constructed at sixteen that merged being a drama kid and being queer into something tangled up and iron clad. Being in the arts sector meant… something? I pushed forward with that, hand then foot, not questioning it and not getting anywhere at all. Until it all fell apart and I ran away to Scotland.
I didn’t really celebrate Pride in the pandemic. I didn’t really know how. All it was for me was a time people came together in one place, the safety that made me feel, no matter how illusory. Tweeting out our memories of Pride just made it worse. I tried to think of productive ways to address it, climb, about projects that would make environmental conservation more accessible to queer youth, climb, or increase my own platform to speak on these issues, climb, and then, slip, realise that this is the longest I’ve ever worked one job because I’d been trying to work for myself and feel secure and honestly I’d never really expected to live this long. Fall.
Fifteen feet into spiders and needles. It probably wasn’t that high really. I was so small that even if the tree branch had only been six feet up it would have felt like quite the fall. The dry, brown needles of years and years of my monster tree shedding created a scratchy, unsettling, but ultimately safe place to land. Not that it felt like that in the moment. If people were story-shaped that would have been the moment my life-long terror of the feeling of crawling legs on my skin began. It wasn’t though, it was already there, meaning the panic set in so quickly in the dark dell under the monster tree, that looking back I couldn’t promise you that there’d been more than two or three spiders as opposed the hundreds my skin promised were all over me, leaving me scrambling back towards the light.
Lights up on a desk set with a podcasting mic inside a small cottage off the west coast of Ireland recently purchased by ORLA [28,
female(?), lesbian] who sits at the desk. She has lived there several months. Most of that time has been taken up by a severe manic episode, the evidence of which is scattered all around the room (mish-mash of clothes, half-full notebooks, empty lithium blister packs, and bags of wigs and makeup from a drag hobby picked up in isolation). The laptop on the desk is connected to a producer for BBC Ulster, and ORLA gives an interview as Gaeilge. Her vocabulary is stuttering and unsure, rusty from long disuse and she’s sweating. She is meant to be speaking on the subject of the benefits of nature on mental health, off the back of her day job and recent inclusion in a poetry anthology. Instead ORLA babbles. Suddenly she says something along the lines of “I’m just as bipolar in the woods as I am in the pub, you know?” and the host moves things swiftly along.
At some point that summer I started making lists of things I have to do so nobody worries about me. It’s important not to tell anyone what’s on the lists or it defeats the purpose. They’re lists that might as well confess I’ve burned more bridges. Lists that might as well have said hand, then foot, then hook your chest over that one to get your balance. I know how to climb. What I’m bad at is admitting I don’t know what tree I’m supposed to be in.
There are nearly no trees on Achill. I knew this when I moved there. There are nearly no gays on Achill either, with a population of just two thousand outside the tourist season. I try not to relate to two things but the problem with telling yourself not to relate two things is that by the time you know to tell yourself that, you’ve already done it. My retired neighbour hears about my plans for my field and tells me that trees won’t grow here because the salt winds are too strong. On the same day, Tinder tells me the next nearest queer woman is on the next island over since things with the kite-surfing instructor didn’t go anywhere.
Haven’t figured out how to fix that problem. Don’t know how to feel part of a community in isolation whether it’s a pandemic, an island, or my own bloody head. So I’m planting trees, because someone said I couldn’t when I know I can, and I’m hoping for the best.