Damien Enright: Nature is thrifty, and avoids feasts followed by famines

What attracts some of us to the cliffs and the wild shores?
Damien Enright: Nature is thrifty, and avoids feasts followed by famines

Heather starting to flower on Seven Heads, West Cork, with ruined tower, built 1804-1806 as a lookout for the threat of the Napoleonic fleet arriving to invade Ireland.

We went to see the 30 choughs that gather and forage on the sparse grass of the cliffs above a remote cove on West Cork’s Seven Heads, an ideal ambience, symbiotic with such birds and, when sea-lashed, shared with ravens and the wild cries of gulls punctuating the roar of waves throwing spume high as breaching whales over the rocks below.

Well, hyperbole it might seem to be, but how else to describe the ambience encountered in such unchanged places?

So much else on the surface of our Ireland was changed by our ancestors over time and, more radically, by recent generations. There still exists, in these surviving places, sights and sounds to which our 21st-century souls respond and in which they find nurture.

The sea is half the magic. John Masefield put it in 15 words: “I must go down to the sea again/To the lonely sea and the sky...”

Our Mesolithic ancestors came to this island as seafarers; when they settled, they lived and foraged on the seashores for shellfish and seaweeds and rock pool fauna. They made incursions inland via rivers, and lived on river banks or lakeshores, on the banks of the Bann in Co Derry, of the Shannon in Co Limerick, and on Lough Boora in Offaly. Just as well, one might say, that they had a love of water, given our rain-rich skies.

Well, on an island, what else would one expect? Water, all around us. If it gets a bit warm south or west of us, sea vapour rises. Then, it’s blown over land, which is cold (relatively), and falls. This is no scientific or climatic treatise; I know as much about climatology as you do — quite possibly, less — but, although I’ve spent, on aggregate, 30% of my earthy in hot, dry places, I had noticed, as have we all, that Ireland does get more than its fair share of rain.

But back to the littorals of our island home. The wind lashed, sea lashed coasts provided sites for the first settlements.

What attracts some of us to the cliffs and the wild shores may be that we ‘recognise’ their environment via some sort of subconscious memories or, maybe, they simply trigger the imagination — but they elicit a response not engendered elsewhere.

They also provide relief from mechanics and technology. Personally, ignoramus that I am, I can spoil my day by taking and trying to ‘open’, a ‘forwarded’, ‘must-read’ unreadable mobile phone message before breakfast. It’s a generational thing...

There were no choughs, that day, at the cove. But the man who told me about them is — and has always been — a truly reliable source of interesting and unique outdoor sightings. It was simply the wrong day, or the wrong time of day. But, out there, in the wind (there’s always wind, witnesses the absence of even gale-sculpted sceacs behind the stone walls crusted with lichens) there was so much else to see.

Purple heather was a pleasure, mats of it flowering amid the swathes of it still green, but soon to bloom. What a glory it would be if it all bloomed together, what a banquet for the bees! But, as in other bounties, nature is thrifty, and avoids feasts followed by famines.

An unmown field in front of our friend’s house was chock-full of daisies. So dense and white in the sunlight were the flowers that they resembled snow and the field an out-of-season, out-of-place, snowscape.

It wasn’t particularly sunny; it was, in fact, grey but we encountered butterflies in heartening numbers along traffic-less small roads edged with briars in flower and snaking out from the opposite ditches as if to try to shake hands with neighbours from across the way. And on these briar flowers, we noticed butterflies, especially Ringlets, of which there must have been a hatch.

When they bask, their open wings are dense brown, dark as dark chocolate, often edged with white; when they sit up, the folded wings show distinct yellow rings encircling black dots with a white spot at centre. It’s likely these five rings, from small to large, give them their everyday name. Ringlets fly from late May until early September.

Extensive drainage for agriculture has reduced their habitat in Ireland. They’re now scarce over much of England and Scotland, have disappeared from Spain, Italy, and Scandinavia but are still found eastwards as far as Japan.

On a recent morning, I received, in the post, a small box of Kerry chanterelle mushrooms sent by my German mushrooming friend, Horst (when I say “mushrooming”, I don’t mean he’s getting larger) whom I have mentioned in these columns before. Pasta with wild fungi for dinner!

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