Dara in The Irish Times: ‘The world can carry on without humans, but we need abundant nature to survive’

Originally published in The Irish Times

Autumn has come at last. The fleeting cold winds of late September quickly gave way to an Indian summer, and I wondered if the too slow seepage of heat would ever actuate the natural cycle of seasonal signals. I had, in vain, searched forest floors bereft of leaves for fungi.

No amber light radiated through golden trees. Prolonged sticky heat well into the first term at school, was oppressive and, when always thinking about the climate crisis, sickening.

Everything was stagnant. Waiting between worlds for the seasonal happenings to trigger, or for the air to cool a little, is of course a privilege. When reading of the extreme weather events over the last few months: flooding in Germany and China, wildfires in Canada, California and Greece, landslides in India and soaring temperatures in Pakistan, and rain rather than snow falling at the summit of a melting Greenland, I feel ashamed and selfish.

The shame then giving way to anger as yet again leaders are convening at Cop26 to debate whether or not economics is more important than our living world. Where they will continue to discuss growth and opportunity in the face of ecological crises and human loss.

Many people have asked whether or not I will attend, and some have invited me to speak and once again, lay my heart beating on a platter, for applause and inspirational congratulations. For a moment I considered it, I got excited by the possibilities, but it just didn’t feel right. The cost, both emotional and environmental, was just too much.

There was also the fact that Cop26 does not need another white, western, teenager. Instead, I will rally with my fellow islanders on the Global Day of Action (for the climate and ecological crises) on November 6th, because hopelessness prevents action, inaction prevents change and without demanding change, our leaders will never be held to account. This is a cycle that needs all our vigorous kinetic energy and support.

Leaders give great promises of retrofitting and a green growth economy, but they take more than they give. With one hand they offer technology whilst with the other they wield destruction. They decimate habitats, fill in rivers, fell trees and continue to pollute and degrade nature. The balance is far, far from equal. These thoughts permeate and I have to try, each and every day to find beauty within desperation.

Autumn came, when a sudden swoop of wings, swung the pendulum right. It started with four bugling Whooper Swans, arriving in heavy flight, directly over the house. I was helping mum hang out the washing and at first, we thought it was the line squeaking in the breeze. As the noise closed in, we turned and there they came from the sea. A clarion quartet flying right towards us.

Following some invisible magnetic passage line to their feeding grounds on Strangford Lough maybe. Stragglers adrift perhaps, for I had heard that many had already found their perennial fields. I hadn’t expected them here at all and I nearly fell off the steep step that bridges the tarmac and the grass in our back garden.

Exultant, I went to school that morning and felt a delicious autumnal chill. Small things were put to rights and shifted my consciousness to a less anxious burrow to fall down.

Fly agarics came next, semi-circling a Spelga Dam birch tree, fungal fruit finally bursting from the ground. Agaric and Birch share an ectomycorrhizal relationship, a symbiotic partnership. The social connection and nutrient exchange between trees, plants and fungi, known as the “Wood Wide Web” is a fascinating area of ecological discovery and study. Understanding these relationships give scientists important information to reverse biodiversity decline and predict ecosystem behaviours.

Wood Blewit and Amethyst Deceiver amidst just-fallen rufous beech leaves, it finally began to feel like the seasonal shift was happening.

I honestly think fungi have the coolest names in the natural world. The first book I bought with my own money, was a mushroom identification guide, aged four. I handed the coins to the Waterstones bookseller in Belfast and after clutching it to my chest on the walk home, I pored over the pages again and again, uttering their names like incantations. My favourite picture in that book, was of the Devil’s Finger Fungus, not as poetic a name, but it looked pretty ghoulish and fantastical to my young eyes.

I had more or less forgotten about it as it’s very rare here, until I was walking in Murlough Nature Reserve last year. I spotted six cardinal black-spotted tentacles on the grass, mimicking a gnarled archetypal horror film hand. It is the most incredible sight. The Devil’s Finger fungus burst out from an overground white gelatinous egg, and I definitely think the Alien movies were influenced by this grisly natural occurrence.

I went back this year and didn’t find it, sometimes you just have to be there at the right time and lately, time is now mostly taken up with study, writing deadlines and early university application. It is a sad irony that the young nature writer is bound by the hourglass whilst outside.

Home is still majestic though. The dynamic beach shore is changing daily as sand and stone travel, creating high ridges of pebbles and soft stretches of beach. Curlew have been gathering in numbers on the rocks, their early morning acute cries hollows out the space between darkness and light. One of our most emblematic birds, curlews have been declining severely since the 1980s and seeing them as I do now, daily, I am constantly reminded of the fragility of the living world.

A new bird here (to me) is stalking the October rocks, a lone Little Egret, hanging out with the gulls before stealthily shore walking to catch fish. Twenty-five years ago, I wouldn’t have spotted a Little Egret, now they are fairly common and breeding around the coastline.

I have seen them many times in Dundrum Bay but lately have been seeing this single bird on “my” little patch of shoreland. Scientists are in agreement that Little Egrets have sought sanctuary in Ireland and the UK due to rising Mediterranean temperatures, another stark climate indicator.

Stealing these moments to seek solace in the natural world is, as ever, necessary and urgent. Just as mycorrhizal networks of mycelium threads connect fungi, plants and trees beneath the soil, the natural world in its entirety holds us all together. The world can carry on without humans, but we need abundant nature to survive. The sooner leaders realise this, the better for us all.

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