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?

Imperfect Interconnectedness

During our first morning at Cloughjordan Ecovillage I was struck by the natural beauty of the landscape—the houses, interconnected meshes of reused materials, passive timber frame design, stone, and stucco are set amongst the tannic pines, sturdy oaks and abundance of wild flowers. It is, indeed, serene here and the pace of our modernized, technological lives seems to slow. I’ve been observing a mosaic of life so unlike my own: the sun rises, the grass rustles, crows caw as they fly over the village amphitheater, labyrinth, and small boys playing ball. My mind has not been jumping from sharp fragment to anxious fragment.  It is quiet. I am not used to this.

I find myself tangibly laughing—the kind that makes my stomach hurt. It reminds me of when I was little, how I would measure the day’s worth by how much dirt I had under my fingernails from playing. I have found myself not only engaging with other students but with a few of the ecovillagers as well. Mary, an ecovillage resident, told us, “The best thing about living in our ecovillage is the people, and the worst thing about living in the ecovillage is… the people.” Her wisely humorous words stuck with me because they do not idealize life in an intentional community nor community in general.

Our time living within the ecovillage has brought our small community of students closer together. Having two teams cook for the group was a chaotic joy that required us to listen and respect one another as well as have a fair amount of flexibility. While we walked to the market, I saw a number of ecovillagers outside enjoying the evening. I was surprised to see children playing together in nature, given that in the United States, many children at the elementary age are playing their Gameboys and watching T.V.

While composing our group’s meal out of locally sourced Irish food, my team members adjusted methods according to each person’s needs, whether it was making vegetarian burgers or gluten free pasta. Much like how Úna explained living in the ecovillage, our time working together was not easy, but immensely rewarding. And I thought, “Hey, maybe this is what it is all about: connection.” As a species we have become so detached from the earth and… each other. I have come to question whether our driveby coffees, microwave T.V. dinners and consumer culture can fill this void, or whether our consumer culture—advertised as the key to happiness and materialistic fulfillmen—is, ironically, the driving force of the void itself.

Cloughjordan Ecovillage is not perfect—their solar panels do not work for financial reasons, village proposals take a painstakingly long time to pass due to indecision, and not all villagers actively participate in all ecological practices and responsibilities. But no place and no person is perfect. Cloughjordan is making what I perceive to be a valiant attempt to reconnect with our humanness—our place in nature as an individualistic but profoundly dependent species on each other and our environment.

Looking Back to Move Forward

“These days, young people are looking for meaning through authenticity,” says Dearbhaill Standún. She tends to a peat fire as we file into seats that line a traditional thatch roof house. I observe the house’s quaint interior, adorned with sprigs of sphagnum moss, wild flowers, and a St. Bridgid’s cross perched carefully on the stucco windowsill. Dearbhaill owns Cnoc Suain—25 acres of farmland turned Gaelic cultural heritage site—with her husband Troy. While she tends to soda bread, Dearbhaill explains that the cottage, built in 1825, belonged to a woman named Ellen O’Hare who reared 15 children primarily on her own. “People had to very self sufficient back then,” she remarks. I gasp, 15 children! Clearly this place has a rich history.

And a rich history Cnoc Suain has indeed.

We listened transfixed as Dearbhaill told that after she and Troy found ruins of cottages dating back to the 1660s on the property, they hoped to establish an educational foundation, giving young people like ourselves, “the inspiration to go forward, by looking back, but to not be stuck in the past.” It was immediately evident that Dearbhaill is deeply in touch with the historical habitat of Cnoc Suain. As a fluent Gaelic speaker, she works to promote teaching the language in Irish schools, fighting its stigma as a “background language.” She sang us traditional songs in Gaelic and explicated that before electricity came to Cnoc Suain in 1980, children and adults would gather around the fire to sing and tell stories.

However, being of Gaelic heritage was not always merry. During the British occupation, those who lived at or near Cnoc Suain had to resourcefully navigate their environment in order to survive, often eating seaweed and dulce for iron intake and periwinkle for protein. As Dearbhaill told this to us, I noticed many grimaces amongst my peers. She passed us plates of seaweed and dulce to try. I took two brittle green and salty smelling pieces, eyeing them carefully before popping them in my mouth. Not that bad. I was surprised and impressed by how much the earth can provide us if we just care to look.

Later that morning, Troy held a hearty amount of thrush—a reed-like plant that grows in the bog lands surrounding the site—and explained that people used to throw it onto their floors to keep mud from the ground from sticking on their feet. He also discussed the process of thatching and how, if done correctly, it can make an immensely durable roof. Fascinating, I thought. My mind wandered to images of the big, generic, boxy houses made of plastic siding, standing obnoxiously on artificially green Chemlawns back in New York. Dearbhaill is right, we can learn a lot from the past to move forward, and perhaps a starting place is reconnecting with our natural habitats—rekindling the local knowledge of our traditions, languages, and environments to create new sustainable technologies and innovations.

Mother Nature’s Meal

“What’s the most Irish food there is?” Megan asks our bus driver and human-knowledge-bank Desmond, or Des as we fondly refer to him. “Oh, well, let’s see.” Des pauses, then gives a sly smile, “Black pudding.” “What’s black pudding?” I ask. “Blood sausage!” Des responds happily, then upon seeing my grimace states, “Oh come now, there are foods in America that are a lot less appetizing.” I think for for a moment, then slowly utter, “Well I suppose that blood sausage isn’t nearly as unappealing as a processed McDonald’s Happy Meal or ballpark hot dog.” “Exactly!” Desmond exclaims, “Now you’re thinking.”

He’s got a point. While traveling through rural Ireland, I have not seen a single fast food chain. The food seems fresher here and somehow more… present: mussels are harvested straight from Killary Harbor, greens are picked from the communal garden at Cloughjordan Ecovillage, and milk comes from grass pasture-fed Irish cows. Thus far, I have been able to trace the majority of my meals back to the earth.

Back home, many people I’ve talked to do not know where canned olives come from and how broccoli grows. Food consumed by college students is often packaged and preprocessed. In contrast, when I was walking through the Cloughjordan minimarket, I learned that eggs on the mainland need no refrigeration due to their freshness and there is a law against selling milk from cows on antibiotics. Upon acquiring this knowledge, my mind briefly flashed back to Michael Pollan’s descriptions of U.S. factory farm feedlots in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The juxtaposition of his gruesome illustration of cows and chickens wallowing in confined filth with the animals here, wandering contentedly through luminescent green pastures, is absolutely striking.

Yesterday the staff at Killary Harbour made me the most delicious salad after learning that I was a vegetarian. I could taste the freshness of the vibrant beets, greens, and red raspberries. And I savored each flavor, grateful for the earth, which we often forget is the provider and nurturer of all species. Mother Nature lets us grow the foods that bring us together—from the grains grown to make Guinness enjoyed during pub gatherings, to the oysters my peers happily slurped as we crowded around a picnic table, telling stories about our days.

When contemplating American processed foods, I found it immensely troubling when Des informed us that McDonalds and KFCs are cropping up in Dublin, Limerick, and Cork. As he alluded, McDonald’s Happy Meals are, indeed, not happy meals at all. Rather, the smiles I see on my peer’s faces during dinner times here—while biting into freshly caught salmon fillet and homemade mashed potatoes—speak to what a happy meal actually is: the closeness and contentment we feel, conversing over food grown from the ground and raised on the fertile land, vibrant with well-respected life.

“Don’t Waste the Water!”

“Please only flush the toilets when you need to,” Linda, our host at the Brú Radharc na Mara Hostel tells us kindly. Her request is met with a few nervous glances. We file into the Hostel’s quaint foyer and I observe that the walls are covered with courtesy notices about water conservation. Outside the coast is relatively calm and salt water slowly laps at the weathered limestone. It is remote at Inis Oirr and fresh water is scarce—a surprising reality for some who wonder why, with ocean on all sides of us, that we must be so cautious. I approach one of the notices on the hostel billboard that reads, “Limit shower use.” Oh no. With all the hair I have, short showers are not my forte.

I have noticed that water conservation in Ireland is much more prevalent on both the mainland and Aran Islands than in the United States, forcing me to confront my privilege as someone who has long taken unlimited water usage as a given.

After greeting us, Linda explained that water is shipped to Inis Oirr on boats from Galway three times a day—a process that is very costly and not environmentally sustainable. As a result, proposals to develop water mains through the Aran Islands have been fervently debated throughout the past year. However, since water is currently shipped to Inis Oirr, islanders are left to the mercy of the weather to determine their water usage. “Last year,” Linda tells us, “we had a water curfew between 19:00 pm and 7:00 am due to a very dry summer. It was quite an adjustment for the students here before you.” More nervous glances pass around the room. I wonder what it would be like to live as a resident on the island and figure that a careful approach to water would become a second nature.

I tried to adopt this second nature for myself when I took a shower this morning. Upon turning the faucet, a jet of frigid water shot out. When the water did not increase in temperature after a minute, I got rather uneasy, then, deciding to suck-it-up and deal with it, I plunged into the icy cold. And I got used to it. As I showered, I was careful not to keep the water running while I was shampooing and conditioning my hair. The process was somewhat difficult, but it made a profound amount of sense in terms of conservation. Linda later told me that the long duration of cold water was due to newly installed faucets that limit hot water consumption.

While it may seem rather facile, showering here has made me appreciate and question my water usage back home. We take much for granted, and perhaps dangerously assume that hot showers are a universal aspect of the Westernized world. But this is not the case. Water is not an infinite resource and should not be treated as such. Hygiene is essential, yet respecting the earth is just as important.

Dear Adrienne…

The following is a work of fiction based on recent events and experiences in Ireland. 

Dearest Adrienne,

Life in Dingle has been exuberant! I work night shifts now at Adam’s Bar—convenient because I was able to lease a one-room apartment above the taproom. The noise prevents sleep from occurring until around 3:30 am, so I have become rather nocturnal with the exception of working a few odd-jobs as a gardener during the week. As you can imagine, my diet consists mostly of Muesli and highly caffeinated tea.

Life is bustling by and I want to make the most of my young years. Perhaps this is why gardening has become a respite from the rush of the world. The radio gives me additional solace as I am able to listen to it while I pull weeds and plant seeds. Today, I tuned into a fervent debate between a young single-mother and an elderly man about the election to repeal the 8th amendment. The mother said she was voting ‘yes’ because she yearned for her daughter to have more agency over her body. Goodness! My fingers are crossed.

I garden for Mrs. Mahoney, an elderly woman who lives by Dingle Bay and has an affinity for decorative cairns. While working, I often watch the fishermen preparing to harvest a day’s worth of mussels and listen to buoy bells ricocheting in the distance. This afternoon, I was in the middle of overhearing a conversation between two men about the economic state of rural Ireland. One of the men, probably aided by a few pints of Guinness, adamantly announced, “Ya know what the problem is around here? It’s feckin’ lovely, but ya can’t eat the scenery!”

In my amusement, I almost failed to notice one of the tourist’s walking by. She held multiple bags of souvenirs in one hand, cellphone in the other, a knick-knacky trinity cross necklace swinging around her neck. She talked obnoxiously, feet stomping the cobblestone and I watched, transfixed by her rowdy demeanor. Then I saw it: a delicate butterfly that had paused to rest on the ground—directly in the path of the tourist. “Wait!” I called out to her, “Be careful! Don’t—” but it was too late. She stomped directly on this beautiful creature, crushing it with carelessness. I ran to the bug as the woman rambled away down the road. Its body lay near a gutter.

I’ve been noticing how oblivious we have become to our natural world. I too, have become detached, working at the bar, filling glass after glass. Charlie, who works night shifts as well has been pestering me to perform one of my poems as a party piece. Perhaps tonight I’ll compose something about that butterfly. Mother always wondered why I chose to garden. I would tell her, because it gives me time to grow my thoughts into words. Oh my, I’ve been running on. I hope you are well and please do take care.

All my love,

About Adrienne

When I was two-years-old I often told my parents, “I’m so glad I chose you.” Under Ithaca air, Grateful Dead music and lilac blossoms. When I was three-years-old I almost fell over a waterfall on my tricycle, but didn’t – I survived. I made towers out of toy blocks – artist, architect of worlds with no rules. I found words later. I laughed when I was scared. Always had scrapes on my knees – toothpick legs. Tree climber. I was told I was smart, but bad at math. I could beat the boys at recess races. I laughed when I was scared. Read A Wrinkle in Time. Tesseract. Time travel. I wanted to find the worlds I made with toy blocks. Bought three books on the universe. I hiked mountains with my father. Adirondacks. Loon calls. Late night canoes on lakes. I laughed when I was scared. My friends and I made a woodland metropolis out of roots and broken branches.

In sixth grade John asked me, “If I died, would you cry for me?” Sitting on blue bus seats, big backpacks, country music in the background. “Well, yes.” I said. Light fleeting outside my window. “Well,” he said, “If you cry when someone dies, that means you love them.” High school, hair straightener, straight ‘A’s. Drugs. Beauty. Booze. Books. Brand name clothing. I found words for what I could not. Forgot John. Remembered at the funeral, later on. The phrase om mani padme hum.

Om mani padme hum. A lotus blooms from shit. Remembering lilac blossoms. New Orleans night club. Weathered hands and fixing homes. Builder. Writer. Lost Things Finder. Academia and assessments. Yearning for. Swamp tromps and tree leaves. Unfamiliar conversations and car horns, wildflowers in cobble stone cracks. Love heavy like old blankets. Picture frames hung haphazardly from walls – imperfect stories. Waterfalls where I survived.