Lucy O’Hagan is an Ancestral skills teacher, Rites of Passage guide and Forest School practitioner. Her organisation, Wild Awake, seeks to rekindle cultural and environmental resilience through the (re)learning of ancestral skills in nature. As part of this organisation, Lucy organises the Phoenix Forest School in Dublin’s Phoenix Park as well as long-term Rites of Passage programmes for young people. In this article she talks about how this pandemic has given us an opportunity to look with new eyes at the world around us [photo credit Filipa Ana Crow].
THE ENERGY OF SPRING
These days, like many others around the world, I am experiencing the sense of stillness that has swept over my life. I’m spending lots of time with trees, finding support from their sturdy trunks and their lessons of connectivity. And in being still, I’m noticing that nothing else in nature is still at this time. The birds are busy singing in a new mate, firmly holding territory, and flying around with beaks full of nest materials. The new cubs of badgers and foxes are beginning to emerge from their winter homes. Eyes fresh to a new world. Bees are starting to find their way into my home again and the swallow’s chirps, whines and gurgles return to our skies. No, nothing is still in spring.
OPENING OUR EYES
The work of Irish eco-poet and philosopher, John Moriarty, greatly influences my own experiences of connection to place here on the land of Éiru. Moriarty adopted the phrase ‘Silver Branch perception’ from the ancient Irish story of Bran mac Feabhail. This he describes as ‘a return to seeing the world as if for the first time’; approaching nature with child-like curiosity and playfulness. It seems that, given the proper dedication, this is something that each of us could graduate into at this time. Seeing the world with old eyes, those of our ancestors, takes a little bit of practice but essentially it’s hard-wired into our DNA. You don’t need to know what every plant is, just hold an openness to learn more (and common sense not to eat something you’re not 100% sure about), a willingness to be flexible and the daringness to be wrong sometimes.
CONNECTING WITH OUR SURROUNDINGS
Do you know what wild animals live near you? Would you recognise their tracks or signs? What plants grow closest to your door? Where is the nearest river to you and how did it come to be? Where does your water come from? What birds are returning to your surroundings and where have they been up until now? Have you heard the cuckoo call in the Spring yet? From the underland, the place of mycorrhizal networks, worms, and micro-organisms, moving up through the stems of the plants growing around you, follow the ethnobotanical threads to our ancestor’s needs for food, medicine, textiles, dyes, crafts.. up through the fibres of trees, the lungs of the Earth, harbingers of spiritual wisdom, to the sky, Venus glowing brightly above us right now and the stories in the stars. There are endless threads to pull at and untangle.
EARTH AS ELDER
What’s special for me in learning about nature in this slow, deep way, is a feeling of returning to source. Many indigenous cultures around the world look to the natural world as teacher. We have, after all, only been here for the blink of an eye so it seems sage to ask an elder (by a billion or so years) for some guidance. In our own tradition, things seem to have been no different. Ireland is full of wells and they appear often in our mythology as places from where deep wisdom rises with the waters. This belief nods to our ancient reverence for the Earth, and not to wisdom being bestowed only onto a few saints from one all-powerful God, but as coming from the depths of the earth and being widely available to all who drink from the source.
REMEMBERING OUR ROOTS
For me, now is time to remember what and who we have come from. Not only about our strong and wise ancestors who lived fully, joyously and in difficult times. But also our wider plant, animal, and fungal ancestors. Somewhere, millions of years ago, we parted ways from them on our evolutionary path, and yet we still share common genes and ancient ancestors. Somewhere along our own path, we have forgotten that, and we have forgotten one crucial piece of our understanding: That we, too, are nature. We are made of the same cells, the same matter. Our bodies are 75% water. We have evolved ‘out there’, not ‘in here’. But, wherever we are, we have made it this far by sticking together, supporting the most vulnerable and looking after the place we call home. In a world full of things that divide us, how can we build and maintain these connections? In these fertile times, I might just try standing like a tree with my roots dug down, my branches wide and open.
Nature Watch by Liam Murtagh
ENCOUNTERS WITH THE RESIDENTS OF A POND
My first memory of frogs is one of watching in awe as they leaped across a newly mown meadow in early summer. The late Dick Warner described frogs as ‘little dinosaurs left over from the Jurassic’. Seamus Heaney, in his poem, Death of a Naturalist, recalls how his teacher described these amphibian creatures: “You could tell the weather by frogs too, For they were yellow in the sun and brown in rain”.
In these days of mid-May I see the tadpoles in the garden pond are transforming themselves into froglets. They will soon emerge from the water. Slugs and snails will then be on their menu. Slug damage to newly planted vegetables is a common problem for gardeners but having a small mature pond for breeding frogs will help alleviate the slug problem. Frogs spend most of their lives on land, so they also need long grass, leaf and log piles and a shrub cover as a place to feed and hibernate. Building a ‘frog house’ near the pond also helps.
The reality is that many tadpoles don’t survive to become frogs. While birds like the Heron eat tadpoles, the voracious Great Diving Beetle is another predator. I’ve seen them in the pond by day and I’ve also seen them flying at night. The night flight is to avoid being caught by birds. It is thought that they use the reflections of the moon on the water surface to guide them to new wetland habitats.
Another creature that I occasionally see in ponds is the Smooth Newt. Compared to the Frog, the Newt is even more like a mini dinosaur. Newts are now in their breeding phase but later they will take to the land. They are quite like the Lizard we have in Ireland because they are similar in size and colour. Newts have smooth skin with a ‘warty’ texture, whereas Lizards have scaly skin – and they seldom swim.
In recent years, declines in populations of amphibians have occurred worldwide. Many of their wetland habitats have been drained. Diseases and climate change are also thought to be responsible. A pond in a garden can be a very satisfying place for both children and adults to stop and view some of the wonders of Nature. There are also local wetlands to visit. The book ‘Monaghan’s Wonderful Wetlands’ describes what is a precious part of our county. When it comes to ponds etc, always take the necessary safety precautions.
STAYING CONNECTED @ HOME
‘Stories from the Waterside’ Competition: The Local Authority Waters Programme (LAWPRO) in partnership with Inland Fisheries Ireland, Waterways Ireland, The Heritage Council and The Heritage Officers Programme, is launching a national Storytelling Competition ‘Stories from the Waterside’ or ‘Scéalta Ó Thaobh An Uisce’. The competition is open to all with €4,000 in prizes to be won. Entries are welcomed from across the Island of Ireland and entries may be submitted in either in English or Irish. Stories of 600 words or less and only original and previously unpublished stories. Closing Date is 31st May 2020, see watersandcommunities.ie for more details of how to enter.
€40 million COVID-19 support package launched: The package consists of a €35 million ‘Covid-19 Stability Fund’ which will provide a level of support to qualifying organisations who are most in need and have seen their trading and/or fundraising income drop significantly during the crisis; and a €5m Government commitment to a Philanthropy Fund, ‘Innovate Together’, which will focus on supporting responses to the COVID-19 crisis that require innovative and adaptive solutions to existing and emerging challenges. Funding will help alleviate funding challenges faced by Community and Voluntary Organisations, Charities and Social Enterprises.
Saving energy and using renewables: SEAI have launched an SEAI Academy, a free online energy training resource aimed at employers and employees. See seai.ie/energyacademy. There is also training available for groups in the community that are already registered as ‘Sustainable Energy Communities’ or wish to register and avail of support and funding for local sustainable energy initiatives. For more details contact SEC County Mentor, Liam Murtagh 0868130296.