Thin Places: A Natural History of Healing and Home by Kerri ní Dochartairgh
Gabi Diaz Guerrero
Finding hope in senseless violence can be as simple and as incredibly difficult as finding space to finally grieve. To confront, to reflect, to lay down anguish that you have carried with you for too long, buried so deeply and intrinsically within yourself that extricating it takes a patient, unflinching hand. In Thin Places: A Natural History of Healing and Home (Canongate Books, 2021), Kerri ní Dochartairgh elaborates, with the most patient of touches, how she has come to terms with trauma tied to her homeland, her hometown, and her life by seeking refuge and solace in the natural world around her throughout the years.
As she explains in her memoir, “Nature is not somewhere we go into. . . . Nature is not always silent and a bringer of healing. It is not for any one type of person, with any particular background.” The nature of her hometown of Derry, for instance, fills ní Dochartairgh with a dread that often boils over into an overwhelming need to leave. At the same time, ní Dochartairgh makes clear that one of the only ways that she can make sense of the violence she has seen and experienced growing up in Derry during the height of the Troubles is by continuously seeking out connections to nature and place. These places, which “anchor, nurture, and hold us,” and may just as easily be a traffic roundabout with pollinator plants as an untouched stream, become the titular thin places of this IndieBound Indie Next List pick for April 2022.
In a memoir spanning from a childhood where ní Dochartairgh’s family was driven from two homes by violence during the Troubles to an adulthood where her return to Derry happened to coincide with increasing unrest from the Brexit vote, escapes to nature—whether they be into the small, muddy garden spaces on the council estates she grew up in, or around the corner from a rented room in a not-so-safe neighborhood, or on daily runs to the nearest body of water—are crucial. Water, bridges, moths, crows, light, and St. Brigid are just some of the images and figures that recur in ní Dochartairgh’s natural history, and all serve as beacons, as breaths, as pauses, against the pains ní Dochartairgh has gone through.
Thin places are repeatedly described as places where the veil is lifted, where boundaries and borders become as spiritually immaterial as they are physically. They are possible locations of healing, but also of psychic confrontation, of unreality and boundless possibility. In writing about them, ní Dochartairgh creates a way to make sense of feeling perpetually displaced and disconnected, joining a long tradition of borderland writers who feel the acute pain and comfort of place, and come to it through language. Ní Dochartairgh weaves in Gaelic words and phrases, reclaimed through adult learning of the marginalized tongue, to connect to the way her ancestors have conceptualized the places around them.
Ní Dochartairgh knows that thin places cannot do all of the work but instead offer a lens. “Places,” she explains, “do not heal us. Places only hold us; they only let us in. Places only hold us close enough that we can finally see ourselves reflected back.” Places are how, over the course of a life distilled in prose that often reads like poetry, ní Dochartairgh finds space to at last grieve properly.
In Thin Places, readers can also find some of the healing ní Dochartairgh has created for herself. “Did you ever spend days obsessed with the idea of your loved ones dying, your house burning down, your favorite toy or book being stolen, and the only way to stop any of it, to make sure it didn’t happen, was not to step on the cracks on the pavement?” ní Dochartairgh asks readers, in a heartbreaking explanation for how she has often felt unable and unwilling to talk about the full trauma she has lived. If their answer is yes, then ní Dochartairgh’s descriptions of her own experiences and the nature she has observed might offer these readers a similar lens to understand their trauma. Ní Dochartairgh suggests that some people may go their whole lives without experiencing thin places. Her memoir is a beautiful portal for those who could need them.
GABI DIAZ GUERRERO is from Miami, Florida, and is a PhD student in FSU’s rhetoric and composition program. Her research interests include digital rhetorics, global/cultural rhetorics, and online identity and communities.
KERRI NÍ DOCHARTAIRGH was born in 1983, in Derry-Londonderry at the border between the North and South of Ireland. She has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times, the BBC, Winter Papers, and others. She is the author of Thin Places, which was highly commended by the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2021.