To save our world, we must fall in love with nature

In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught”. These words were spoken at the 1968 General Assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature by Senegalese forester, Baba Dioum, and they came to mind when reading ‘Wild Embrace’, ecologist Anja Murray’s new book. My review was published in the Business Post in March.

IRELAND HAS fallen out of love with nature. Our famously green island is now ecologically depleted and almost bereft of truly wild places. Most of us live lives entirely separated from the natural world.

While we may choose to deny it, humans are but one species among millions, all connected by the long thread of evolution, all interdependent and sharing a profoundly rich common heritage. In this book, ecologist and broadcaster Anja Murray seeks to rekindle our love affair with the world around us, if only we take the time and effort to seek it out.

Opening our eyes to the incredible variety, mystery and beauty of wild nature is both invigorating and deeply disturbing, as we come to understand the depth and severity of the ecological crisis that threatens to tear down its very foundations.

Consider the plight of the majestic salmon, the king of fish. Venerated in Irish legends for their wisdom and grace, salmon have come to represent “good health, long life and knowledge”, Murray writes.

Their epic life cycles are also legendary. Salmon undergo a year-long migration of up to 3,000 km before returning to the exact river from where they were spawned, swimming upstream against the current and leaping natural obstacles to reach their own spawning grounds. In recent decades, Murray notes, “their trips upstream [have become] blocked by dams, weirs, culverts, road crossings and bridge foundations, all of which are barriers to migration”.

Worse, many of the pools and shallows along rivers essential for spawning have been destroyed, “as river channels are dredged to drain off farmland as part of arterial drainage works”. As the final insult, more than half our rivers are so polluted by fertiliser run-off that oxygen levels are too low for successful spawning.

While not flinching from reporting on the destruction of nature, Murray’s writing is most animated when she is describing the quotidian wonders that surround us. Take lichen, a symbiosis of fungi and algae, of which there are some 1,200 species in Ireland. Some lichen may be 5,000 years of age, making them our oldest living organisms by far.

Insects comprise more than half of all animal species in Ireland. “Our entire existence depends on them,” Murray adds. She is bewildered to find that “otherwise enlightened, nature-loving people reach for ant spray as soon as an ant appears on the garden patio.”

With thousands of tons of highly toxic pesticides applied to Irish fields, gardens and roadside verges every year, it’s as if we are at war with nature. Murray singles out recent dairy intensification for driving the “subsidised annihilation of Ireland’s biodiversity, which is a scandalous use of public money and a tragic demise of the rich tapestry of life” that was once associated with traditional agricultural landscapes.

The Irish name for ladybird is “bóin Dé”, which delightfully translates as “the little cow of God”. It arises from the medieval belief that ladybirds were sent from the heavens to save food crops from being destroyed. An average ladybird consumes 5,000 greenflies in its lifetime, making them superb natural pest managers. We could, Murray suggests, do with reviving some of the respect our ancestors held for the natural world and all the creatures, small and great, who inhabit it.

For the author, the magic of wild places is both intimate and personal. She sees nature as a balm that heals the body and calms the mind. While caring for her terminally ill mother, Murray experienced acute sadness and emotional distress that only reconnecting with the wilderness could ease. “I craved the reassurance of being bathed in dappled light, and the soothing soundtrack of the rust brown river running over pebble banks and gurgling around boulders.”

To love is to experience loss. Murray’s anguish at the relentless assaults on our environment, whether via bog mining, grassland monocultures or marine destruction, is palpable.

Ireland needs to rekindle its lost love of nature, and Anja Murray’s sparkling, accessible and often romantic personal account, with illustrations by Jane Carkill, is a very good place to start.

Wild Embrace: Connecting to the Wonder of Ireland’s Natural World by Anja Murray, Hachette Books, €14.99

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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