Forestry swallows houses. Its onward march is unrelenting in the west

In rural Ireland it’s the animals as much as humans that make a person sociable

‘My friend is not old. He is not yet ready for a nursing home. But when he saw the diggers on his neighbour’s land he feared the worst’. Photograph: Getty Images

‘My friend is not old. He is not yet ready for a nursing home. But when he saw the diggers on his neighbour’s land he feared the worst’. Photograph: Getty Images

 

I went to visit a friend who lives on the mountain. He has ice blue eyes, sharp as needles from a lifetime of watching the weather, following the track of wild animals, listening to birds, and commanding his sheep dog. But there was a shadow on his face. I asked him what was troubling him. He made no reply. We were standing on a headland looking at a new fence his neighbour had erected and the diggers were already in place to prepare the land for forestry.

 Forestry swallows houses and townlands without mercy. And it’s onward march is unrelenting in the west of Ireland.

 A man looks out his window for 50 years, enjoying the permanence of the scene. The mountain is where it always was and the lake below is in his sights. At night the lights of neighbouring houses tell him who is at home.

 The matrix of a thousand relationships may define a modern urban mind, but in rural Ireland it is the badger, the donkey and other wild beasts as much as humans that makes a person sociable, in an archaic and rustic way. It is the undulation of the land, its slopes and drumlins, low-lying fields and the hilly lanes that rise and weave themselves in familiar patterns around a human being that really matter. They tether him or her to the medieval conviction that the sacred and primary mover in the cosmos is shining in every quantum of slanting sunlight.

 We that still live in rural parts of Ireland are not alone, even when we are alone.

My friend once mowed fields on the sloping hills with such precision that he knew them like the back of his hand. He knew where the soggy ground was. He knew where the streams below the surface were. He knew every ditch and bush and he could manoeuvre his dainty Ferguson tractor accordingly.  

Measuring time

I too live on a hill and as I walk beside the ditches of blackthorn and fuschia laced with winter gossamer I can still remember what the land looked like when I arrived. I remember the rushes in the wet ground before it was drained, and the brown bog pools and the syrupy stream of rusty ocre coloured water that dribbled down through the ferous rocks. I remember old stepping stones that sank beneath the surface. And I remember a Scots pine that almost fell in 1995 after half its limbs were torn off in a storm, although it has completely recovered since then. The land measures time at a different stretch than a human life, and feeds my equanimity as I grow older.

 I have watched farming men for 40 years on the slopes of Sliabh an Iarainn and in the valleys of west Cavan who knew the land like that. They talked to goats in the dawn, they remembered great trees felled in winter storms, they petted furry black-headed cattle in the fog, and wheelbarrowed fodder through rocky ground to reach their animals in winter blizzards that veiled both man and beast in a single silhouette of love. One Christmas long ago the front page of the Anglo Celt newspaper carried a photograph of such a man stooped in the fog by the weight of an enormous hay bale on his back. The caption underneath the photograph simply read – Man Foddering.

Memories

But Foddering Man’s days are numbered. He grows too old to get off the chair beside the fire. He moves to lower ground to pass his final days in a nursing home where no one has ever heard the sound of the townland where he was born and where no one can read his fingers, when they tap out old tunes on the arm of a chair.

My friend is not old. He is not yet ready for a nursing home. But when he saw the diggers on his neighbour’s land he feared the worst.

“Drainage, perhaps,” I suggested.

“No.”

“Foundations for a new house perhaps?”

“Not likely up here,” he said, “I would have seen the planning application on the gatepost. It must be forestry.”

And it was. His neighbour had sold out to a company without letting him know. The diggers came without warning. Without permission. When the ground is ready next spring they will begin to plant. And in the years to come the forest will envelop him. It will smother his view, erase his memories and when he does finally go to a rest home some nurse may ask him where he came from, and he will whisper his townland name, and the nurse may or may not notice the tears in his eyes.

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