Originally published in The Irish Times
Silver bark of birch trees glowed in the darkness of late evening. Ghostly tall spindles lit the pathway as I snaked along and inhaled long forgotten Fermanagh air. There is a scent that only lingers here, redolent of childhood, wildness and innocence. It seeps into that soft, deep spot where strong feelings of “home” rest.
It was so good to be back here after a long absence. A fleeting visit to stay in a cottage tucked in beside a sneaky side entrance to Florencecourt House. We serendipitously arrived at that perfect moment, when the flurries started to shake the trees bare. Despite the darkness and the late hour, like a magnet, the woods pull me in straight away. The weariness of the long drive and a knackering week of school spill out like water, shedding layers of invisible weight.
Wind mingled with golden flickers as I prepared my speech for the climate rally in Belfast the next day. Whispering wounded words to the rhythm of walking, I pick up pace. Leaves skittered and gathered along the way, whilst hypnotic mournful creaking accompany my loudening cries for a better world. Not for me, because right now, I’m “alright”.
No, not for me. For those already feeling the catastrophic effects of the climate crisis. I feel like a broken record. After five years, repeating the same mantra. Over and over, again. Foolish or determined? Either or, it is mentally exhausting.
Looping around back to the cottage, a robin sings gustily on the gatepost, illuminated by a single streetlight. Unlike most other birds, they sing all year round, constantly defending their place in the world. I take it as a small sign. That constantly singing, might be necessary, as each and every time, someone new might hear your words and join the chorus.
Writing now, as Cop26 and the worldwide marches to protest the inaction of convening parties in Glasgow are over, as devastating flood damage has ravaged British Columbia in Canada, as I read that we have lost 600 million of the European bird population, grief has intensified and amongst youth especially, it is mingled with anger, frustration and also… a steely resolve, to keep hope alive.
Fermanagh is county comfort, and being there left traces which, kept me standing rooted like oak as I witnessed the watering down of language and agreements to phase out fossil fuels, to fund adaptation, loss and damage. Indigenous communities have been robbed, a lifeline ignited, only to be cruelly snuffed out.
I haven’t yet processed everything and am definitely not going to spout half-formed opinion here, but yes, disappointment is fiercely firing my brain cylinders, so as usual I dig my heels into the earth and seek renewed energy.
Each day the beach beside our house changes, pebbles, kelp and sand trading places constantly. I can now walk straight onto the sand from the shingle without negotiating slippery masses of tangled algae. I’m not brave enough for late autumn swimming; my thermoregulation, which is apparently related to my autism, plays havoc. Sometimes I throw caution to the wind and swim anyway, but it takes an age to get my body back to a reasonable temperature, teeth clacking like castanets, I’m blue, for too long.
Instead, I find “my” rock, and settle down, binoculars in hand and take in sea skimming gulls and common seals arching into a u-bend, faces tilted to the weakening sun on Selk Island. The colony has been increasing as the days have shortened and timing my visits during low tide has been easier than usual, falling shortly after school or after dinner. Watching seals slickly slide from rock to water, swim, rise to the surface with heads swivelling like periscopes, before diving once again is something I still can’t get my head around.
I feel a giddy gratitude that every day I can meld into this place and observe all the small details. Every species, all types of weather and wind. My lack of movement invites scuttling sanderlings, skating between sand and sea. Little wave chasers, black beaks constantly prodding for food. White breast, silver backs and crown they seem to walk on air.
I only recently realised that sanderlings, unlike other wading birds, have no hind toe, enabling them to run faster between shore and waves. Not only can they reach top speed on foot, they can fly at 50 miles per hour. They travel to Ireland for the winter from the Arctic, a round trip of about 32,000km. Such a wonderful little bird.
They are soon joined by a mixed flock of Dunlin and Knot. My luck is up and of course every time this happens, I never have my camera. Too big and wieldy, a bad buy really, for someone who likes to rush out the door, unburdened. I really need to get a replacement for my bridge camera, which I lost at the Europa train station in Belfast. Still a sore point.
The shore fills up and I am huddled low, the cold now penetrating my bones, yet rising would scare them all away, expending energy and ending the theatrics for me. I wait until they move off naturally and stiffly stretch out my muscles, and as I etch my return footprints in the sand, fluttering wings appear just at the moment I turn my face to catch the last of the light.
A kestrel! Frantic wingbeats, wavers against air, tail fanned out. And as the setting sun sinks down from beneath the clouds, it casts sparkles on russet feathers. My heart is clattering against my chest. A kestrel suspended right before me. What a moment.
The gleaming left behind from moments in nature lasts a long time. Accumulated, they become an amulet against inner shadow, against the weight of longing for a world that is not fractured, that is abundant for all species, human or not. The gleaming left behind from time in nature spreads joy within your whole being and, electrified, you have no choice but to extend energy outwards, to defend and protect our only home.
Some say that nature defenders are a voice for the voiceless. But nature speaks, it roars loudly from coast, to forest to mountain, and those that hear it are attuned to its needs. Those that hear it know when it’s out of balance. And it is. We need more listeners, and we need more defenders. Our planet needs everyone to preserve it.
I know, I sound like a broken record, but the plight of our planet is worth repeating, over and over again. Our lives depend upon it.