‘’Tis a bit windy!’ said the furniture maker as he left our new house on a breezy day just before we moved in. His pronouncement had the urgency and foreboding of a prophecy; as it happened, he was right, our house had been built in an exposed location on the side of a drumlin about seven kilometres from the coast at Clew Bay. It didn’t look all that exposed, but the Atlantic winds off the bay had no woodland to absorb them as they swept inland across the bare sheep pastures towards our house.
That was seventeen years ago. In the interim, we have endured the full menu of western Irish winters, from months of Atlantic storms between November and March, to halcyon seasons when blue skies reigned over the west, blissfully indifferent to weather statistics and norms. The winter of 2006-07 was the worst, when I thought we could not stay in this place of angry gales that seemed intent on vandalising all attempts at civilising our plot with shrubs, trees and flowers. I planted a line of poplars after that, and trusted that these four-foot saplings would one day be our screen against the elements. Thirty feet in ten years, the catalogue said, and so it was. We now have eighteen imposing poplars rising in a line as high as the chimney, giving us the peace and shelter we need. There’s even talk of clematis and wisteria to add colour to the garden.
‘Garden’ is our word for the top half of the field we bought as a site for the house. The lower half of the plot slopes away fairly steeply and was never going to be a candidate for building and was beyond our energies and ambitions as gardeners. Within a few months of moving in, I bought a bargain lot of oak saplings and planted them across the half acre. They stood to the south-east and so had no bearing on our critical problem of shelter, unlike the poplars along the western boundary.
‘Why oaks?’ you might ask. Hazels were another option for the settler with an eye for heritage. There are a few relict stands of hazel along a narrow river valley about two kilometres from the house; the trees are old, growing in the throat of a limestone gorge that has been exposed by the river scouring down through soft glacial clays. This sunken, hidden treasure is a favourite place of mine, a glorious parcel of woodland with a milky way of wood anemone and wood sorrel in April, followed by a wonderland of bluebells a little later. In a few other neglected corners of our locality it is hazel, birch and alder which predominate, not oak; the dream of native woodland in this area is a dream of hazel-alder-birch on drier ground, with willow and more alder in damp hollows.
If the oaks were an accident (a local garden centre was moving to new premises, and selling off old stock), it was an accident with potential. Oak woodland is a prized habitat in Ireland: in our part of the west only a few stretches remain, principally in the Erriff valley, at Old Head and Brackloon on Clew Bay, and around the western lakes. In this country there’s a special nostalgia surrounding oak; sessile oak woodland in particular has an almost totemic value for the nationally minded. In its simplest form, there’s an idea that large portions of Ireland were once covered in ancient oak woodland until colonisation and exploitation by the English from the sixteenth century gradually ruined that resource. This convenient alignment of woodland history to nationalist myth has been widely contested by scientists and historians. Oliver Rackham is among those who dismiss the idea of pristine, arboreal Ireland up to the Tudor era. The story is much older, he believes; Ireland’s mixed woodland heritage had been greatly depleted by the time of the Tudor conquest; he considers that in the seventeenth century only 2% to 3% of the country was wooded, and it was agriculture, not imperial shipbuilding, which hastened this process.
Alongside these scholarly debates, there’s the fact that a great relict oak woodland has survived at one of the country’s oldest tourist sites, at Killarney in Kerry. Around the shores of Killarney’s lakes, and on the surrounding mountains, an immense tract of oak woodland is spread in a picturesque setting, enough to keep the oak fantasy alive. It was at Killarney, and a few other select locations, that romantic writers and antiquarians imagined a primeval land where druids assembled for their rituals in oak forests. Oakwoods were a neat fit within the romantic picturesque, unlike the vast bogs and swamps of the centre of Ireland, and the bleak uplands of the west. At the climax of his discovery of the romantic west, Lady Morgan’s English hero enthuses, in The Wild Irish Girl (1806), about ‘groves druidically venerable – mountains of alpine elevation – expansive lakes, and the boldest and most romantic sea coast I ever beheld’.
My own efforts at myth-making were more modest. I wanted a piece of deciduous woodland outside my parlour window. I had been taught that oak was a rich species, with many associated life forms, including lichens, mosses and insects. Somewhere in the future, rare bryophytes and fungi adorned my shaded dream of oaks. To enter an oak wood, writes Michael McCarthy in Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo (2009) is ‘like entering a church – a great green church, hushed and still.’ It was with something like the same reverence that I walked recently in an oak wood in Northumberland looking for redstarts, or watched at dusk for woodcock roding over an oak canopy outside Glengarriff in west Cork.
This fantasy of the future on my own plot was a distant one, something I would leave to a later generation. Meanwhile, the oak saplings took hold and grew – and eventually revealed themselves to be pedunculate oak (Quercus robur), not the sessile oak (Quercus petraea) of the purist. At the very edge of the site, where westerlies blow hard during the winter, some trees struggled at first, and one died back completely, but with the help of shelter from a few pioneering grey willows and the hardy hawthorn, they thrived. They are late to bud and leaf – usually not before early May, but then they put out a strong, proud shoot of leaves; several weeks later, in late summer, comes a second spray of foliage, more coloured than the first, a rich garnish of salmon pink, yellow and orange before the leaves mature to deep green. In evening sunlight it is as if the young trees are on fire.
Tree planting is not my farmer neighbour’s idea of working the land, but last winter he and I had a happy alliance when I opened the gate at the bottom of our site and let in a flock of his sheep to graze the growth under the oaks. The animals cropped and trampled the ground to a muddy mess in a short time, but more appealing to my mind was the fact that they came into the plot in the evening and settled down under the trees to spend the night. They had the cover of a maturing hawthorn hedge and a fourteen-foot canopy of oaks to protect them from the raw winter winds with their freight of rain and hail.
Spring took the place of winter, the gate was closed to sheep, and growth returned to the oak grove. The ground layer is the first to be transformed as grass and lady’s smock return along with orange tip butterflies; in early April, when the new season is an unsteady, chilly contest between sun and breeze, the oak is still bare, ‘as bare as the same oak in December,’ said Ted Hughes in Season Songs, ‘but it looks completely different,’ as energy stirs in the trees just before the leaves appear. It was in these brisk conditions that I watched an American mink, an animal I had not seen in our area for years, bolt down through the plantation one afternoon on its search for prey and cover.
I was walking among the trees one day in May, with the trees in full leaf, when I realised that the air was full of the noise of bees, hoverflies and flies; the insects had come to the feast of honeydew, a rich glaze on the leaves produced by aphids. A month later, after this early feeding frenzy had passed, the leaves were dark with the sooty tone of a mould on the lower sprays of growth, and the foliage was still thick with insect life going about its business.
The fly life among the trees is a main source of food for our hirundines: swallows nest in the porch and house martins do so under the eaves. Whenever the gloomy air of damp days discourages insects and birds from flying high, the tops of the oaks are busy with swallows and house martins dashing about after flies. It takes the arrival of a sparrowhawk to disrupt this feasting: the birds fly up in a teeming commotion, and the swallows repeat an alarm note they reserve for hawks and cats.
The tallest of these trees are now about eighteen feet high, the smallest about six feet. Those that have done best in the most sheltered spots produce a rich crop of acorns. Many leaves are speckled on their undersides with spangle gall, where gall wasps have laid their eggs for the winter. Gall wasps also leave their marks as artichoke galls and oak apple galls, and other deformations of the leaves.
Trees have character, just like animals and people. Some have grown tall and rangy in a rush for elevation; others have a more rounded crown and are already strongly branched; these are candidates for climbing by children, and I have been tutoring a friend’s little boys (a six and a seven year old) in the sport. When I am alone among the trees, I often stand under my favourite, a fourteen-footer that spreads its tent of foliage over a young tree’s muscular limbs, and casts a cosy, yellowish gloom of light around me. I feel protected and welcomed in this tree’s ample skirts.
By late summer, the shade of these oaks is increasingly visited by newcomers; more and more fungi appear as the cover of leaf mould increases and the grass declines gradually and steadily with the closing canopy. The process is far from over: the ground is still moderately lit by sunlight, but grass is retreating from widening patches of gloom under the densest layers of leaves. More dreams settle here, of shade-loving plants such as enchanter’s nightshade, herb robert and cuckoo pint. There are bluebells and wild garlic established under a small group of hazels in a top corner, which I want to encourage to spread. I believe they will move in eventually among the oaks, under cover of woodland darkness.
SEÁN LYSAGHT’S latest book, Eagle Country, is published by Little Toller. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Noah’s Irish Ark (1989), The Clare Island Survey (1991), Scarecrow (1998), Erris (2002), The Mouth of a River (2007) and Carnival Masks (2014). He received the O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry in 2007.
Illustration by MIRIAM COCKER.