August 15th, 2018
North Burren outside Ballyvaughn, County Clare
“You just go down the road there, past the cave. You go half a kilometer more and you get to a gate and you park there—plenty of room. And you go in the gate and up the left side of a barn and there’s a road. You follow the road up the mountain. It’s private property, but don’t worry, I know the fella. He’s said I can send people I know there.”
So you walk up the road, up to the top. It’s very strenuous. But the views are tremendous. On a day like today, you can see down the bay to Galway and all over the Burren. And if you’re up for it, you can keep on walking and you’ll hit another road. You jog left, then go straight up the next mountains. You see…you can walk everywhere around here.”
These are the directions we get from John Stack, our gracious host from Lisdoonvarna when we get home from the pub at 11 and ask where to walk the next day. Knowing that nothing off the main road is signed and that Irish directions are notoriously confusing, I’m skeptical of finding the right road up into the mountains. We drive up and down a single lane, looking for the barn. There’s no barn close to the road. After a while I decide to try the dirt track at the end, figuring that the worst that can happen is a farmer yells at me to get off his land and I throw out the name “John Stack” and it works or it doesn’t.
I find the barn. Next to it in a pasture a herd fat, brown cows run alongside me believing I’ve brought them hay. The road angles up through a tangle of alders and then out onto the strands of limestone, stackings of a 320 million year old sea bed eroded into the shape of great, grey domes of rock that cascade down to the sea. The movement of rock towards the sea looks fluid reminding me of lava flows. But this deposition took hundreds of millions of years, not days or hours. It is in the process of being weathered away by the rain not instead of formed by fire.
The clouds have lifted high and the sun is shining, in a wary way, onto my back. I sweat in the humid air as I run and walk up the steep track. In 25 minutes I’m at the top of one of the tallest mountains in the Burren. It is a tremendous view. Stone is the medium here: stone mountains are traversed everywhere by dry-stacked stone fences. The fences mark off field lines, but also march straight up the mountains dividing limestone pavement from more limestone pavement. Examining it from far away, the fences seem to divide property that would have no value at all for grazing–mostly rock with sparse grass, fern, and bramble deposited in the fissures where the soil collects.
Every landscape we see has a complex story layered through geological, ecological, and human time. On a nearby Burren mountain at the site of Poll na Bron, a 5,800 year old portal tomb, I read that early agrarian people who lived here would have seen these hills covered in a scrubby woodland of hazel, pine and elm. They began cutting the wood to build shelter and provide fuel. As land cleared, they grazed their cows, sheep, and goats on it.
The ungulates had more than just rock to eat. When this karst limestone landscape is looked at up close, you find that it supports an astonishing variety of flora adapted to ecotones upon the pavement. Where water finds weakness in the limestone over the centuries it forms crevasses, called grikes. Inside these moist grikes, tucked out of the wind, mosses and ferns thrive. The area of bare pavement between grikes are called clints. On the clints, hardy species live that can find narrow cracks of soil such as wild thyme, wood sage and wall lettuce. Between this landscape of miniature plateaus and canyons, lie pockets where a thin sleeve of soil has accumulated—a pocket of pasture.
Though the soil is remarkably thin on this pasture land, sometimes only five inches thick, it is also abundantly mineral rich. When carboniferous limestone is broken down by slightly acidic rainfall, the calcium and magnesium in the rock accumulate in these pockets of soil. Tasty, palatable grasses grow in these small pastures alongside a high diversity of wildflowers that include gentian, milkwort, bedstraw and cranesbills. In fact, over 70% of Ireland’s native plant species grow here in the Burren of the same landscape that initially looked so barren!
What fascinates me about this Burren landscape is that it exists in the diverse, flower -covered state I see because of a human practice. As land was cleared in the high country of the Burren, early agrarians discovered that the grazing in the Burren was better in the winter then anywhere else. Limestone stored the heat of the sun and allowed the grasses to avoid frost and flourish through the winter. The mineral-rich grasses in turn kept the cows healthy through the winter and grew back if allowed to recover for the rest of the year.
Thus, the agrarian, but also ecological process of winterage began. Cattle grazing in the winter kept the hazel and pine woodlands from growing back. Spring and summer blooming wildflowers flourished without competition from woodland species or grazing by cattle. The landscape seemed to reach an equilibrium that was dependent on and included a practice by humans.
Of course this human–wild equilibrium is hardly novel. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, tells of many ways in which Native Americans engaged in what she calls the “Honorable Harvest”—taking enough to support yourself, while leaving enough to sustain the vitality of the landscape. These practices could alter the look of the landscape—clearing out the understory by fire, or promoting camas growth by pulling them each year—but ideally they would not diminish the abundance of the landscape.
As I look at this karst landscape around me, I am struck by how long people have been able to live off a place that appears to be mostly rock. Clearly there has been an intimate understanding by the people who have lived here about how and when and by how many the place can be used. The fragility of the place—with only inches of topsoil—demands close attention to keep it healthy year after year. In a way, the landscape has determined use: if a pasture is overgrazed it will not produce healthy winterage for years or decades.
This is by no means a cut and dried, tidy picture of how to live in perfect union with the land. If you look around for larger megafauna, you won’t find any. There are few thriving mammals bigger than a stoat left in all of Ireland. As the woods were cleared, the bears and the wolves were lost as well and it is unlikely, unless humans leave this landscape entirely, that the megafauna will return.
As I consider the clints and grikes and pasture in front me I question what an ideal equilibrium would look like here: A forest that would exclude all grazing? The flourishing, wildflower-strewn pavement we see today? Or a patchwork of both?
Looking out from Poll na Bron, the forests have filled in on steep hillsides and gullies or properties the cows have been excluded from; much of the land has been protected from development within a National Park (which doesn’t exclude grazing); the cows are fat; the wildflowers are abundant; and, 6,000 years later, the people are still here. Perhaps another few thousand years of coexistence is possible?