We present an extract from Solace: Life, loss and the healing power of nature, the new book by writer and photographer Catherine Drea, published by the O'Brien Press.

On her soulful journey, Catherine Drea reflects on childhood and adult loss, the healing power of family and community and ageing. Her lens captures fleeting moments in nature – the light in the landscape, the lie of the land, our precious wildlife. A balm for the soul.


The Tracks and Trails

As I slowed my pace on these solo walks, the outer landscape began to reveal her many hidden treasures. The immediate surface layer of the land balanced my attention between observing the material world and having a holiday from my inner turmoil. Long before drones became fashionable, the layers of the landscape absorbed part of me as I imagined helicopter views – rolling countryside, distant mountains, two small lakes and meandering country roads down to the coast.

When my three sons were small I used to wheel a big, old pram around the country lanes. The youngest would be wrapped up in knits and blankets, while the older two ran on ahead foraging or finding small creatures in the ditches. We used to cross the yard of a deserted farm house and the boys would entertain me with tales of ghosts and ghouls that they imagined dwelt there. Their little legs would hop and skip along until one or other would tire and I would heap them up on top of the baby and speed off home – a stagecoach full of giggling boys.

Now I am imagining that if you were walking with me here, we would first figure out our options as to which layers, routes and destinations to explore together. We could begin at the top of our lane with a spectacular view to the Comeragh Mountains all the way across the soft hilly farmland of County Waterford. This view takes in the direction of the new Waterford Greenway, which follows an old railway track all the way west to Dungarvan. Here we would pass standing stones, including a spectacular dolmen, and eventually connect to the meandering river Suir.

Comeragh mist (Pics: Catherine Drea)

Alternatively, we could wander through quaint lanes and trails that lead down to the sea. In one direction we could go through the Anne Valley from Dunhill, past the ruins of a Norman castle and through the wetlands all the way to Annestown Beach.

In the other direction, we would have a seven kilometre downhill stroll into Tramore, a sunny South East holiday resort. Beloved of generations of holiday makers, Trá Mhór means the Great Beach and it is the classic spectacular golden beach of everyone's fantasies.

For a shorter walk we could ramble through grassy meadows to the lake or follow a boreen to an abandoned reservoir. Here, we would pass another deserted house and walk through a farmyard with a thatched cottage and a gaggle of noisy geese. This is a gentle landscape, typical of many off-the-beaten tracks in Ireland. On your first walk here, like me, you might find yourself chatting away about how beautiful it is, enjoying the green views and twisty lanes.

Although just typical country lanes, I imagine that these tracks once made well-worn paths for our ancestors. Many of the ancient stones standing abandoned in the middle of ploughed fields or strewn across farms and forests were once sites of the earliest community life on this land. In Ireland this is probably true of many places, but here the tracks are not much walked except by locals and so have remained old.

Palest blue (Pic: Catherine Drea)

Little did any of us know that during a pandemic as yet unheard of, we would be limited to only two kilometres of walking. At least by then I would be well rehearsed and would know the landscape like the back of my hand. I would also have developed a few of the coping skills and the resilience needed for isolation and falling back on your own resources.

Between here and the road to the Comeragh Mountains is the at least four-thousand-year-old Gaulstown Dolmen, a portal tomb of huge stones set in a peaceful grove of oaks. Our earliest ancestors must have been mindful of its positioning. The site is named for the townland, but is situated at the foot of Cnoc an Chaillighe, or Hill of the Hag, something that I enjoy as more significant.

An Cailleach, the old woman, the hag, or the crone, is found in many cultures around the world. In some stories she can be found weaving a tapestry of the world, creating dark spells for those who plunder the Earth or lying in wait to punish hunters who are all take and no give. This sacred place at the foot of the Hill of the Hag still resonates with women and I once circle-danced here with a group of them at the winter solstice.

Along the small road to the dolmen is a fully grown hawthorn hedgerow. Hawthorns are an ancient native tree and often remind me of the craggy olive trees of the Mediterranean that live for hundreds of years. It is rare to see a full hedgerow like this as fences have replaced many of these corridors of life and beauty. In spring these hawthorn trees reward us with a dome of blossoms and in winter with the red haws that the birds love so much.

Here, in this ancient place, it is easy to imagine an assortment of souls, meandering there like us. Perhaps the foragers of old rambled these lanes thinking about the big questions and the cycles of life as we do too. I think of them along these tracks and trails, wondering where their memory is most present. What were the women’s lives like and did they pick blackberries and crab apples along the lanes just like we do on summer evenings?

Solace by Catherine Drea is published by The O'Brien Press