Ever wonder what Ireland might look like in its primordial condition? One man set about not just finding out, but recreating this, in a remote corner of south-west Ireland. I filed this review of the book he has just written about his adventures in rewinding for the Business Post in early September.
YOU MIGHT not expect a book about restoring a rainforest to be a romance, but Eoghan Daltun’s tale of how he came to find his passion and purpose in the rugged wilderness of the Beara Peninsula is essentially a love story.
“Within seconds, I knew with absolute clarity that this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life, if at all possible,” is Daltun’s description of his initial encounter with the wild woodlands at Bofickil. “I said out loud the words, ‘This is it.’ That might sound a bit of a stretch, but for me it really was love at first sight.”
If much ecology writing in Ireland is about paradise lost, then Daltun’s odyssey, which at times takes on an almost dreamlike quality, is about paradise regained. He offers readers a tantalising glimpse into the mysterious, mystical, even spiritual wild world that lies waiting to be rediscovered.
“My fingers vanish to the hilts into a deep, soft, cool and moist green cushion of tamarisk, haircap, little-shaggy, rough-stalked feather and other epiphytic mosses. And there you have it, in writing: not quite an open admission to tree-hugging, but pretty damn close,” he tells us playfully, evoking an almost romantic connection with his rainforest idyll.
After buying a small, dilapidated farm in 2009, Daltun received grant aid of nearly €37,000 the following year to erect a two metre-high fence and keep grazing animals out of his 21-acre holding. Having been largely left unfarmed for decades, it was struggling to revert to its primordial condition.
This changed everything. “In the years after the deer fence went up, I was privileged to be witness to the most stunning, magical transformation of the land inside.” The dull monotones of an overgrazed landscape quickly gave way to a riot of diversity. “The visual effect was one of wildly splashing impressionist colour about the blank canvas of a previously barren woodland floor. Slowly at first, but at an ever-increasing velocity thereafter, life in all its vibrancy was coming back to the woods.”
Later in the book, Daltun confesses that rather than him owning the temperate rainforest at Bofickil, “if anything it owns me – heart and mind, body and soul.” The author grew up on a bleak social housing estate in inner Dublin, where every tree had been destroyed except a solitary large cherry tree he could see from the window of his flat. One day, he watched helplessly as a gang of local kids burned it down for fun.
“The sight of its still-smoking, charred skeleton has lingered in my memory as another potent symbol: of the depth of self-destructive madness and violence that pervades so much of human behaviour towards the other life forms with whom we share this planet.”
The poverty and social dysfunction Daltun grew up with mirrored the human disconnect from the natural world. He notes that, despite our carefully cultivated “green” image, “Ireland is actually one of the most ecologically trashed and dysfunctional places on Earth.” Farmers, he adds, are “being continually pushed by official policy to destroy wildlife habitat, when exactly the opposite is what needs to be happening.”
Perversely, they are also paid for pointless schemes to “take token actions useless to wildlife”, such as erecting boxes on poles for bats and birds when what they really require is intact habitats.
A sculptor by training, Daltun admits to being an accidental ecologist. He quotes from the great 20th-century American conservationist Aldo Leopold: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”
Daltun’s book is part-memoir, part-polemic in defence of the natural world. His story opens a window into an alternate Ireland blanketed in forests and teeming with abundant life. This Eden is now so thoroughly razed that we may have forgotten it ever existed, as we gaze on our sheep-wrecked uplands, moribund industrial timber plantations, degraded national parks and endless rural monocultures of ryegrass.
While reminding us of all we’ve lost, Daltun’s ultimate message is about resilience. If we could give wild nature the space to survive and thrive, it might just save us too.
An Irish Atlantic Rainforest: A Personal Journey into the Magic of Rewilding by Eoghan Daltun, Hodder & Stoughton, €23.75