Beautiful woodlands bore the brunt of Ophelia’s winds

It was a once-in-a-lifetime event — we hope — Hurricane Ophelia, roaring across Ireland on October 16, and it wasn’t until five days later that we could enter our local woods with any degree of safety, writes Damien Enright

Beautiful woodlands bore the brunt of Ophelia’s winds

The woodland path which we have always enjoyed walking is still impassable beyond the first 80m, and this only after some chainsaw work in the nearer reaches. Beyond lies, or half stands, a dense tangle of felled trees, especially of graceful myrtles, the elegance of which I wrote about in August 2014.

They are now a mish-mash of russet trunks and branches, their colour salient amongst the fallen beeches, spruces and other pines. These myrtles were substantial trees, slim but tall, 13m, bearing canopies of small, dark green, waxy leaves, and glorious crowns of white flowers.

They were especially evocative in evening light, catching the last rays of the sun and lighting up, to all intents, the green penumbra of ivy-laden trunks of the big, native trees behind them, and the shadows that darkened as the sun went down.

Photo: Larry Cummins
Photo: Larry Cummins

The other evening, when we and our visitors walked down the road from our house, ventured through the ancient kissing gate and set off down the path, the light was catching the ivy on those conifers and beeches that still stood. When we came in view of the thicket of staggered or flattened myrtles, it revealed the tragedy and extent of the devastation. The woods had become a tangled, tropical jungle, or so it seemed.

On the forest floor, big, native trees lay prostrate, their root balls vertical, like the walls of long abandoned cabins, and beyond them, visible now that these were laid low, the myrtles, staggered and broken like a stand of giant bamboos, dense, impassable, a scene from a rainforest in the tropics.

On the smashed crown of one 25m long conifer — I say “long”, because, laid flat, I can no longer say “tall” — was a heron’s nest, a raft of twigs, interwoven seemingly randomly but with nothing random about it: These nests annually withstand the storms of February and the wild blasts of March weather.

I had seen that very tree, for all its height, maturity and strength, sway like a sapling, with the nest-builders balanced astride their raft like sailors on the rigging of a sailing ship in a storm.

Where would the herons nest, next year? At least half of the nesting trees are felled. Would the small colony that had gathered over the last six or eight years now be homeless, have to find a new patch, a new tree-top domain?

Our household heron was hatched atop one of those trees. He (known as Ron) is alive, thanks to our being alerted that he had fallen from the nest and was wandering terrified on the forest floor, where, flightless and with no hope of rescue by the parents, he would be a certain target for foxes, dogs –even cats – and be slaughtered before nightfall.

So, it was sad to see this institution, our local heron nursery, blitzkrieged by Ophelia making her rampant, triumphant way out of the deep Atlantic onto land to deliver us a timely reminder of what nature can do if the conditions for it are, by nature itself, or by human nature, created.

We all know that now, in the 21st century, we have the power to organise our own destruction and are made unwilling deckhands on a ship of fools, captained by the vainglorious Prince of Fools who has taken his country, a major contributor to our global monkeying, out of that single international accord, the Paris Agreement, which might, just might, somehow, stop our headlong voyage to the rocks of our own annihilation.

In a field of the old estate that borders our garden, three trees lie dead, including a stately giant Wellingtonia conifer, probably 200 years old. A coast redwood of similar age blocked the driveway. This was cut up and removed.

The trees in the field will, likely, lie there until they rot and rejoin the earth that nurtured them; there is no one to remove them. A macrocarpa with a massive girth survived.

The said estate might have been a mini-Fota, adding further charm to our charming village, now lauded on every-second flyer as “a hidden gem of West Cork”, a description with which I dubbed it in a leaflet some 20 years ago when it was, indeed, as described. It is now, no longer, hidden, but remains a gem, while the phrase has become a cliché.

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