Turf Turmoil

“This is turf.” Anthony, our guide at the Ceide Fields holds a lumpy-looking black block dug up from the sodden terrain. We watch with curiosity as he continues, “Only three percent of the world is made up of peat land—where turf is sourced—but this landscape holds thirty percent of the world’s carbon… Peatland is more of a carbon sink than the tropical rainforests.” My eyes widen as I survey my surroundings. The ground squishes beneath my feet as I crouch down to study a nearby sod: Sphagnum moss curls around grasses, its acidity preserving other organic matter as it grows at the rate of one millimeter per year, gradually turning to turf.

Thus, turf is considered a renewable resource and has been used throughout Irish history as fuel. However, Anthony cautioned that some things are better left alone. He explained that out of all fuels, turf is the worst to utilize in terms of the carbon emissions it releases. Indeed, Ireland is in the midst of a turf controversy as the government has recently proposed banning its use all together.

“Banning turf would cause a civil war,” Tom, the owner of Killary Sheep Farm proclaims later on in our travels. He demonstrates turf digging to our eager group, using a traditional edged spade to hoist the dripping blocks out of the earth. “I’ve been digging this patch for thirteen years,”he waves an arm towards the small terraced chasm in which he stands, “this is how we heat our homes… It’s the machines you have to worry about, they can strip an entire area in half a day.” I think of his remark in contrast to those of Anthony and wonder how many individual turf farmers cause as much pollution as one turf machine. How much damage are those rural villages actually causing?

In Ireland, turf is abundant. I have observed it burning from the majority of houses passing swiftly by our bus windows: gray tendrils reach up through chimneys, casting a distinctive earthy aroma that many of the Irish consider the scent of home. Turf, as a central and seemingly inextricable element of Irish culture, makes me contemplate whether the ‘scent of home’ can become less of a contributor to climate change.

Ireland is innovative in many environmental respects, from keycard light switches to push-button showers. On our way to Spiddal, I observed many fields adorned with wind turbines and was informed by Des that there are many offshore wind farms as well. I am curious to see what the future holds for the fate of turf, given the recent developments in sustainable energy sources. Can the shift to clean power be culturally sensitive, respecting the interconnectedness of turf to Irish history while also respecting the planet?

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