Little terns: courtship feeding display on the east coast near this rare migrants breeding grounds at Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, a beautiful sight to see in May
My most recent environmental article in The Irish Times:
It was an uncharacteristically balmy late afternoon in early March, about 20 years ago. I had just taken extended leave from this newspaper to write a book, and given myself a few days to wander along midlands waterways to reflect on the challenges ahead.
One moment the air above the Grand Canal was clear and quiet; the next it was full of flickering brown wings and excited rasping calls. For several long minutes, wave after wave of sand martins, smaller relatives of the common swallow, pulsed past me.
These tiny feathered bundles had flown all the way across the Sahara desert, the Atlas mountains, France, and Britain to nest in Ireland. Pathetic though the fallacy may be, they seemed like a good omen for my own upcoming travels.
I was lucky; such encounters, where you can be quite certain from the time, place and numbers that you are encountering a mass of birds in full migration, usually require a bit more effort and specialist knowledge. But many people keep an eye out for their first swallow, or first cuckoo, each year, and associate then, like spring flowers, with new life and fresh hopes.
But bear in mind that most birds migrate. Your garden robin may have just arrived from continental Europe, though it looks just like the one you fed all winter.
We have picked a selection of more obvious migrants, some more familiar than others, which will arrive in increasing numbers over the next few weeks, and may enhance your sense that spring is coming.
This article first appeared on Saturday April 7. You can read the whole article here
Left: rhododendron, an exotic shrub which threatens the very survival of Killarney's oak forests, is burned for charcoal in Post Colony, a complex artwork exploring history and culture in environmental issues by Gareth Kennedy. Photo: Brian Cregan. Right: one of Eoin Mac Loclainn's bluefire jellyfish paintings at Dublin's Olivier Cornet Gallery, in a group show inviting artists to respond to climate change; these jellyfish are turning up on Irish beaches increasingly regularly as the sea warms, and may displace native species.
My most recent environmental article in The Irish Times:
You might easily think that the names of the two template image shapes on smartphone cameras – portrait and landscape – were coined for the digital era, though they were already familiar to anyone who worked in publishing before the micro-chip changed everything.
And indeed, these twin concepts of portrait and landscape reflect two fundamental categories of visual art. You could even say they go right back to the moment our species developed art in the first place. Early cave art, in Europe at least, mostly featured animals, often arranged as if in a landscape. Cave artists also proclaimed individual human identity, through hand prints that we might consider the first portraits.
And as art developed, most cultures maintained this dual focus, on portraits of people, and portrayals of landscapes. And often of both at once, with varying relationships between the two.
In The Harvesters, Dutch painter Bruegel the Elder celebrates the human labour that transforms a diverse natural landscape into highly productive if monotonous wheat fields. Henry Raeburn’s Sir John and Lady Clerk, which hangs in the National Gallery on Merrion Square, exudes the pride of individual ownership of vast tracts of parkland, where nature has been tamed for safe recreation.
In our own times, artists have been trying for decades to engage in new ways with our heightening awareness of rapid and potentially catastrophic environmental change, generated by our own actions. And this unprecedented crisis requires us to think about the interaction between humans and the environment – between portrait and landscape, if you like – in radical new ways.
This article first appeared on Saturday March 17. You can read the whole article here
Dear SER friends and colleagues
Voting for positions on the SER board has just opened. You should have received an email from the Society on Friday, with a link to the voting paper and candidate information, if you are a member. If you have not, and are a current member, please let me know.
After 13 years involved in SER activities, I have to decided to run for one of two vacant positions on the Board as a Director-At-Large. James Aronson has very kindly nominated me. I am also grateful to Carolina Murcia, Karel Prach, and Kingsley Dixon for agreeing to act as referees in the first stage of this process.
There are five candidates for two positions as Directors-at-Large. All candidates would be new to the Board. I believe that this healthy competition, and the diversity we represent is, in itself, an indication of renewed vitality in the Society.
You can read the full background to why I am applying below. This information is also available with the voting papers on the link SER has sent you via email if you are a member.
Kim Eierman's excellent EcoBeneficial! enterprise prompts gardeners to think about new ways of looking at the relationships between what they plant, how they plant and how they treat their land to wider environment issues. She kindly asked me to do an interview for her very lively blog, after my presentation on invasive alien plants at New York Botanical Garden in November (see below). The interview covers a range of conservation issues -- ecological restoration, the challenge of climate change, my critique of the very problematic 'novel' ecosystems approach. Kim liked it enough -- or perhaps I was just so garrulous! -- that she split it into two parts. The first part I published here last week, see below. You can listen to the second part here.
Kim Eierman's excellent EcoBeneficial! enterprise prompts gardeners to think about new ways of looking at the relationships between what they plant, how they plant and how they treat their land to wider environment issues. She kindly asked me to do an interview for her very lively blog, after my presentation on invasive alien plants at New York Botanical Garden in November (see below). The interview covers a range of conservation issues -- ecological restoration, the challenge of climate change, my critique of the very problematic 'novel' ecosystems approach. Kim liked it enough -- or perhaps I was just so garrulous! -- that she split it into two parts. Here is the first part, and the other will come in the next few days...
A rainy day in Stoneybatter, enjoyed by juvenile herring gulls: probably raised locally, the birds take advantage of temporary pools on a flat roof to bathe and preen, just a couple of metres from my bathroom, in this video
There is not a blade of grass, nor a square inch of soil, let alone a tree, on the street where I live in Dublin’s Stoneybatter. Our sturdy redbrick terraces open directly on to concrete pavements, and the small back yards are also concrete. The natural world was not high on the agenda of the Victorians who created such housing projects for the skilled working classes. Gardens and tree-lined streets were a luxury, reserved for the new middle-class suburbs.
Nevertheless, nature has found footholds here, though I didn’t notice some of them for a long time.
You tend to see only what you already know about. I had long been interested in birds, so I watched herring gulls beginning to nest on our rooftops. I heard the robin that sometimes seemed to sing right through the night from a patch of garden lovingly created by a neighbour on nearby “waste” land.
Only when I became interested in plants about 15 years ago did I start to notice the diversity of species exploiting tiny niches on the street.
This article appeared in The Irish Times on 20 January, 2018. Read the whole piece here
One of the great pleasures, for me at least, of looking for birds and plants in unfamiliar places is finding familiar species in contexts where you wouldn't find them so easily at home; seeing them better, in better light.
So the most exciting find of my first hike in Morocco this year was not seeing some exotic species for the first time, but getting great views of common snipe. I've seen snipe since childhood inn Ireland. But with few exceptions, the experience is a fleeting one: a sudden rush upwards from my feet as these beautiful waders launch from snipe-grass (what else?) into a rapid zig-zag flight, before towering high above and disappearing to somewhere any gun I might be carrying cannot reach them.
But here, in the unromantic but species-rich context of water treatment ponds near Diabat, where Jimi Hendrix is supposed to have composed his second album, I saw a dozen snipe out in the open on water, in brilliant sunlight. They kept feeding away with their oversized beaks, mostly ignoring me, though not letting me close enough to take good pictures. They gave me great pleasure, as did black-winged stilt, half a dozen other wader species, and a juvenile marsh harrier that caused a commotion every ten minutes or so by making a leisurely pass in search of unwary prey.
However, I have to admit that the biggest nature moment so far came a couple of days later, and did not involve a species I could have seen at home.
I was hiking in the blissfully silent, empty-full landscape of adjacent argan and juniper forests in the vast dune system around the Oued Ksob. A slight movement in a wolfberry bush caught my eye. Brilliant green, twisted round a twig, I thought it was a small tree snake of some sort. Then it began to move slowly down the branch, turning brown as it did so, and I realised it was a chameleon. It allowed me approach very close, and demonstrated its remarkably facility for turning its eye through 360 degrees...a moment to treasure.
Worth looking for: a family of long-tailed tits in our garden in Glenmalure
Very few people are entirely indifferent to birds, and most of us find them an occasional source of some brief wonder and delight.
Even the most common birds can surprise us with their beauty, when the light suddenly catches the tail of a magpie or the breast of a starling, and reveals an unexpected prism of iridescent colours.
Part of the fascination lies in the fact that they are so familiar on our earthbound world, and yet are also so completely at home on the water, and in the skies. Their ability to take wing has inspired the imagination of all human cultures; the sudden rush upwards of a flock of birds from our feet can still make us catch our breath.
Rural people have always known that birds are as finely tuned to the turning seasons as the leaves on trees. Even today, many city-dwellers find joy in seeing the first swallow of the year, and sense a deeper connection with the rhythms of the world when a flock of geese first plummets down to their local sports ground in autumn.
But what is needed if you would like to deepen these mild pleasures and learn a little more about the birds in your area? The good news is that birdwatching is a much more accessible recreation than you might expect.
This article appeared in The Irish Times on 30 Jan 2017. Read the whole piece here
Both the Catalan nationalists, and their Spanish nationalist opponents, lack a broad strategic vision
The campaign for Thursday’s elections in Catalonia has been depressingly symptomatic of two dangerous and interlinked contemporary tendencies in western democracies.
One is the prevalence of tactics over strategy, and the other is the preference for slogans over substance. Twitter is the ideal, and toxic, medium for this debased political culture.
Calling snap elections in the region was an uncharacteristically clever tactical move by the lugubrious Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy. For years, his only response to the accelerating momentum of the Catalan independence movement had been obtuse immobility. He had hidden from the challenge of engaging with change behind the 1978 constitution, which had been forged under intense pressure from the heirs of the Franco dictatorship.
This was a disastrous strategic failure, but it was tactically beneficial to his conservative Partido Popular (PP) in the rest of the country. It played on a barely dormant nostalgia for authoritarian Spanish nationalism, and diverted attention from the corruption scandals in which the ruling party is mired.
This article appeared in The Irish Times on 21 December, 2017. Read the whole piece here
Five regular hikers, Olivia O'Leary, Liam Lysaght, Sinéad O'Brian, Mark Boyden and David Staunton -- share the joys, and pains, of their favourite riverside walking routes
We have been drawn to rivers since long before the dawn of history.
We were attracted to watercourses for their obvious and essential gifts of food and rapid transport, which made them favoured sites for settlements. But perhaps we were also drawn to them for many less tangible but still vital benefits, so that we continue to delight in walking alongside, or kayaking within, their flowing waters today.
Ireland’s exceptional river wealth is rightly celebrated, from the feisty mountain trout streams that inspired WB Yeats’s “wise and simple” fisherman, to the majesty of the Liffey, reflecting the lives of myriad Dubliners in the work of James Joyce.
Our rivers often retain fragments of natural beauty lost in surrounding agricultural and urban intensification. Yet they are also inevitable conduits for the detritus of the catchments they drain, barometers of the health or sickness of our landscapes. So a riverside walk can be a source of both pleasure and pain to the observant walker or kayaker, as is evident from these reflections by five people who spend a lot of time down by the river.
This article first appeared in The Irish Times on 9 December 2017. Read the full piece here.
Articles & Blog
Articles on the environment; Spanish, Catalan and Basque politics; travel; culture; and other subjects; interspersed with personal reflections and images