November 30, 2023
Northern Ireland’s natural spaces that bring me joy and peace

Northern Ireland’s natural spaces that bring me joy and peace

In a rambling response, I listed not just one place, but many. I love the Minnowburn trail that runs alongside the River Lagan. It’s a tour that I discovered during confinement and what I like most is the variety of landscapes on the tour. Walking the worn path that winds around the flowing river. Passing through the cheerful village of Edenderry with its colorful doors and bright red postbox. Crossing fields with gentle, silent hills and descending from the historic Giants Ring.

I have fond memories of trailing through blankets of wild garlic in the earthy forest at the back of Glenbank Park on Ligoniel Road. A sea of ​​vibrant green leaves, the air heavy with a strong aroma of garlic. I also love walking around the Ligoniel Dams, especially in the height of summer, with dragonflies and damselflies flying and hovering at the water’s edge in the intense heat.

Then there are the dramatic cliff walks along the north coast, with weathered rocks, salty air and an endless expanse of ocean. And, of course, Newcastle, with mountains and sea. I used to associate the Mournes with memories of struggle, of unforgiving rocky peaks I climbed as a reluctant teenager as part of the Duke of Edinburgh’s exhibition. Fortunately, in more recent years I’ve come to appreciate the expanse of tranquil ridges and sturdy bushes, with cool air that becomes thinner as you climb.

I also have fond memories of hiking on Achill Island, of camping in the Wicklow Mountains, of swimming at Seapoint in the warm glow of the sun – and I could go on. But instead, I’ll ask the same question. What is your favorite natural space? Even more interesting is: what does this place represent to you?

As I spoke, and even as I write now, I am reminded of the fact that it is not just about the vivid beauty of these places, which offer vantage points from which to pause and absorb the natural world, but it is also about the memories and the connections they represent. Long, uninterrupted conversations with friends. Feelings of connection during lockdown. Warm childhood memories. These spaces are living canvases, where we can project the powerful emotions we feel and hold, and from which nature paints vibrant memories.

For context, I was asked this question about my favorite natural space in a recording of the Solastalgia podcast. Solastalgia describes the emotional impact of witnessing the degradation of our natural environment. It’s like nostalgia, but much deeper and perhaps darker. It is a melancholy, almost a mourning, for the negative changes in our environment caused by climate change and human activity. The Solastalgia podcast, hosted by Dr Sue-Ann Harding and Colin Shaw, is an archive of conversations with ordinary people living in Belfast who, driven by emotion, have become activists, fighting for environmental protection and conservation. Sue-Ann and Colin call these people (themselves included) “accidental environmentalists”: ordinary people who effectively “fall into” environmental action after witnessing the degradation or destruction of fragments of nature where they live.

In the podcast, Colin and Sue-Ann talk to 10-year-old Mollie Rose after her favorite part of her walk to school was put through a wood chipper in January 2022. Without proper consultation or an Environmental Impact Assessment, an avenue of mature sycamore trees were felled along Lagan’s path. A millennium of tree growth has been erased, leaving behind short stumps and gray asphalt.

Sue-Ann and Colin also speak to Doris Noe and Chris Murphy, who have fought for years against the construction of a dual carriageway through wetlands between the freshwater lakes of Lough Neagh and Lough Beg. The lakes and surrounding land have formed wildlife habitats of international environmental importance for species including whooper swans that feed on the lush grass from October to April. Despite strong public protests and overwhelming scientific evidence of the need to protect these wetland habitats, alternative routes were rejected and six kilometers of new dual carriageway roads were built.

Intertwined in his conversations with Mollie Rose, Doris, Chris and others is this central theme of Solastalgia. The strong emotion, and sometimes anguish, when a place you know and love is undergoing negative change. It’s an emotion that’s also present in many of the conversations I’ve had with fishermen and farmers over the past year, including a fisherman on the River Moy in Mayo. No fish arrived in the spring and the river had to close during the summer after water temperatures reached levels similar to those in indoor pools.

The two of us looking at this lifeless liquid domain, the fisherman told me about the river as he knew it growing up. He described a symphony of splashes and flakes, with salmon leaping gleefully from the river in acrobatic explosions. I was a little sad. I have never been treated to such an amusing display of liquid tails, and I suppose I never will.

I also heard a farmer reflect on his experience of growing up in rural Co Down. He described rolling fields of corn, opening and closing drills for potatoes, lifting bales of hay, drinking water from the well, growing and harvesting potatoes and vegetables at home. He described the shift toward industrial agriculture and a market-oriented economy, and some of the skills and community that were lost as part of this. “Labor-intensive jobs required people to come together,” he said. “Working? Happy? It was both.”

Thinking about your favorite place is an exercise in visualization, and it can be sad to think about the disregard for our fragile world, especially the ways in which nature has been changed, sometimes irreversibly. In fact, it would be difficult not to have a strong emotional reaction to this habitat destruction. But as the Solastalgia podcast suggests, there are glimmers of hope in the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people, in the paths of trees and the shelter of hedges.

We are moving further and further away from the land, but memory, history and music can heal us and connect us back. Memories to create a vision. Memories to enjoy, to attract us and to stay with us, always.

Follow Rosalind on X @rosalindskillen

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