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A Landscape Divine
Libby Cater Halaby uses the analogy of a tree to explain the Douglass Cater Society of Junior Fellows. It’s a companionship of learning that she and her husband, former Washington College President Douglass Cater, began growing 25 years ago.
The Caters are the trunk, she says. The Society’s curators are the tree’s roots, holding the tree fast in the rich soil of the College and the greater Chestertown community. The branches are students who, supported by Cater grants, stretch into the world, “testing new ideas, reaching out, and exploring beyond their comfort zones.”
“They return,” Halaby continues, “to bear the fruit of their experiences, which they gladly share with the community.”
This story is about one of those students, one of those branches, Shannon Lawn ’18.
Lawn, an anthropology major, is using academically accepted research methods to identify a phenomenon that, as she puts it, “is extremely slippery.” She’s attempting to define Irish “thin places,” particular landscapes that have as yet been defined only by the spiritual feelings they evoke and the myths they’ve provoked.
Lawn first experienced the haunting influence of thin places during a visit to Ireland with her mother in 2014. “We did a tour of the country in a circle and the landscapes really stayed with me, more than the way they looked, but I couldn’t put it into words,” Lawn recalled. Once home, she did a bit of research, discovered the concept of thin places, “and took the ball and ran with it — and that’s what led me to where I am now.”
Where Lawn is now is in Ireland, at University College Cork. In addition to her regular studies, she’s making at least four road trips to visit recognized thin places, Glendalough, Killarney and the Ring of Kerry, the Aran Islands and Drombeg Stone Circle. She’s applying four research methods to each location — participant observation, photo documentation, literary reviews, and semi-structured interviews.
She’s used those methods before, for her first Cater project, during the summer of 2016. Then, she spent two weeks in the American Southwest evaluating the impact of tourism on Native American societies. “A lot of that research was apparent to the naked eye, to the outsider,” she says. “You just collected and kept collecting.” She found differences in the relationship between tourism and Native American economies in several different locations.
For this, her second Cater project, Lawn is looking for commonalities, landscape similarities and common themes in lore, history, and religion that might be used to construct a formula, if not a definition, of the Irish thin place. Reached after her visit to the first site, Glendalough (pronounced GLEN du LOCK), Lawn said she’s already encountering unexpected challenges.
“People translate very easily to the page, but trying to translate how a landscape feels is much harder to put on the page,” she explains. And already, she’s revising her theory.
She had thought that every thin place would be characterized by three distinct connections, to an organized religion, a set of myths or folklore, and a historical event. But her research and the conversations she’s having with the locals are showing her that Irish culture is not that simple. “The Irish don’t differentiate between those three things,” says Lawn. “What’s become more important than analyzing these things separately is how, say, Catholics, coming into an area, folded folktales and fairy tales into their religion and how they crafted history to fit in with those things.”
Lawn had visited Glendalough with her mother back in 2014, before she knew what a thin place was. Her second visit, this year, was “very exciting, very intimidating, and absolutely terrifying.” Not the site itself, she explained, but the fact that, this time, she was there as a researcher. Her Cater project, Lawn says, is stretching her. “It’s challenged me to see outside the academic box. I have to be my own primary source most of the time, research on my own, in a foreign country, following a plan of my own design.”
And, though she has much more to do, this branch of the Cater tree is already contemplating how to frame the fruit she’s bringing home — how to explain the heretofore unexplainable to the companionship of learning back at WC.