From Dublin Bay to a ta­pes­try of light: na­ture books for Christ­mas

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Michael Viney Michael Viney’s Re­flec­tions on Another Life, a se­lec­tion of col­umns from the past four decades, is avail­able from irish­times.com/irish­times­books; viney@anu.ie

If watch­ing birds were my only joy in life, I should have stayed in Dublin. Choughs and ravens and even whooper swans of­fer mod­est choice com­pared with the glo­ri­ously vari­able avian pa­rade of the cap­i­tal. The swifts may have gone from their sum­mer sky and terns flown from Sandy­mount Strand, but now come the great mi­grant wa­ter­bird flocks of the bay, their abun­dance and ease of ac­quain­tance still rare among the world’s cap­i­tals. Among new books for Christ­mas,

Dublin Bay: Na­ture and His­tory (Collins Press, ¤25) must take the lead for any cit­i­zen tuned to the ecosys­tem of the city and its ocean fringe. Out on the mud­flats, long-billed waders probe for marine food in sed­i­ments en­riched over cen­turies with Dublin’s hu­man waste. Brent geese from the Arc­tic ar­rive to ex­haust what sea­grass re­mains on the shore, then ad­journ for nour­ish­ment to man-made parks and foot­ball fields.

The daunt­ing scope of the book is served by three au­thors: the ecol­o­gist Richard Nairn, the bi­ol­o­gist David Jef­frey and the ge­og­ra­pher and plan­ner Rob Good­body, all well into cur­rent re­search and much con­cerned for the fu­ture of Dublin’s bio­sphere.

A new study, they re­late, now deep­ens the risks from ris­ing sea level and storm surges of 3m or more. Even Europe’s widely ac­cepted 1m rise could, it seems, threaten some 350sq km of Ir­ish cities. Along with flooded streets and houses, the new cli­mate regime will bring waves to the hard edge of built Dublin, swamp­ing the bay’s cen­turies-old nat­u­ral habi­tats and drown­ing the or­chids of Bull Is­land.

Skilled pho­tog­ra­phy Bloom­ing Mar­vel­lous: A Wild­flower Hunter’s Year

(Collins Press, ¤17) has one bloom­ing mar­vel­lous au­thor. Zoë Devlin has al­ready brought botany and the sim­ple love of flow­ers to the widest pub­lic through her books, skilled pho­tog­ra­phy and a de­servedly pop­u­lar web­site (wild­flow­er­sofire­land.net). Devlin’s passion for seek­ing out rare or over­looked species in new habi­tats made her “dis­tin­guished recorder of the year” for the Na­tional Bio­di­ver­sity Data Cen­tre in 2016.

This new book, rich in daz­zlingly good plant por­traits, weaves a story of her life and Ir­ish trav­els with a month-by-month chronicle of cur­rent bloom – and of birds, but­ter­flies and mam­mals met along the way. Much vis­ual plea­sure is also on of­fer in

Ta­pes­try of Light (Ar­ti­san House, ¤25), a book of su­perb bog­land pho­to­graphs pre­sented in large for­mat by a new and am­bi­tious Con­nemara pub­lisher based in Let­ter­frack, Co Gal­way. It shows the work of Tina Claf­fey, now liv­ing in Birr, Co Of­faly, and ac­cu­rately de­scribed as a pho­to­graphic artist.

Many of Claf­fey’s images are rev­e­la­tions of peat­land plants and wildlife (much of it mi­nus­cule). Some even of­fer what the Birr ecol­o­gist John Fee­han calls, in his fore­word, “a mean­ing deeper than the ma­te­rial sur­face of things”.

Two other new books would suit the more re­flec­tive days af­ter Christ­mas.

Michael Longley writes as com­pellingly in prose as in verse, and Side­lines (Enithar­mon Press, £30) is a pol­ished fist­ful of his writ­ings from 1962 to 2015, from re­views of po­etry and paint­ings to lec­tures he de­liv­ered in Dublin as Ire­land pro­fes­sor of po­etry. Among th­ese can­did and finely crafted pieces is the story of Longley’s deal­ings with the west, which be­gan early, in Co Done­gal, and have in­cluded, as some read­ers of this col­umn will know, his love af­fair with my coastal par­ish in Co Mayo.

Rich in quo­ta­tion

A third of his po­ems are set here, and the lec­tures and re­views are rich in quo­ta­tion, in­clud­ing many fel­low po­ets of the western land­scape, among them Derek Ma­hon, Sea­mus Heaney, Richard Mur­phy, Paul Dur­can and Louis MacNe­ice. They fur­ther the book’s deeply en­gag­ing por­trait of Longley, and of friends who have shared his af­fec­tion for the wild.

Com­pared with the English tra­di­tion ex­em­pli­fied in John Clare, Longley

Brent geese from the Arc­tic ar­rive to ex­haust what sea­grass re­mains on the shore, then ad­journ for nour­ish­ment to man-made parks

sug­gests, “Ir­ish na­ture po­etry has only re­cently got un­der way”. His half-cen­tury of prose sets a bril­liant mir­ror to its myr­iad forms and emo­tions.

Another life­long writer, Chris Arthur, has per­sisted, with wide crit­i­cal suc­cess, in a deeply old-fash­ioned form of words: the es­say. Arthur was once war­den of a na­ture re­serve on the shores of Lough Neagh, and his early life in Co Antrim still an­i­mates him as a teacher of cre­ative writ­ing at Scot­tish uni­ver­si­ties.

Few of his es­says have ever been sim­ple “na­ture writ­ing”: the land­scape and wildlife in Ul­ster serve as grist to a for­mi­da­ble in­tel­lec­tual mill. Read­ing Life (Neg­a­tive Ca­pa­bil­ity Press, £13.95), his sixth book, ex­tends a se­duc­tive flow of spec­u­la­tion and con­nec­tion, of­ten with his hero and ex­em­plar, Michel de Mon­taigne.

One es­say, for ex­am­ple, sparked by a blood-red pud­dle of fallen fuch­sia blos­som, tells all one could ever wish to know about the plant. But it also con­sid­ers how a youth­ful dal­liance in a cot­tage on Horn Head brought home the im­pact of flow­ers on hu­man life.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MICHAEL VINEY

Dublin Bay’s mud­flats: long-billed waders probe for marine food in sed­i­ments en­riched over cen­turies with the city’s hu­man waste.

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