Soil and soul: lessons from Ireland

Alastair McIntosh
16 December 2002

I have a reputation for spoiling landscapes for people. That’s the trouble with being an ecologist, and particularly a human ecologist. You get taken somewhere by somebody, and then you read the landscape in such a way as to spoil it for them!

For example, my French wife took me to one of her family’s favourite spots in the Alps. She asked me what I thought of this place that she’d loved since childhood, and I said: ‘Well, it’s beautiful. But it’s a fossilised landscape. It was created by pastoral practices now discontinued and so, sadly, it’s dying.’

Saddened and a little doubtful, she took me to see a local farmer. True enough, he confirmed, very few people are still following the old grazing practices. Why make hay when you can import it so much more easily from further down the valley? To make matters worse, it’s getting ever more difficult for the few traditional farmers who remain to make a living. Without a certain critical mass, there just isn’t enough networking to share labour and resources. As a result, both a way of life and, more slowly, the landscape that it created over many generations are under transition. As the human ecology of place unravels, so does its natural ecology.

The same is true all over Europe. I see it every time I go back to my home island, Lewis, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. At one time, the blown-sand machair coastal grasslands were covered with raised beds (‘lazybeds’), which were the arable mainstay of the community. Today, it’s cheaper to buy potatoes from the shop. In consequence, the machairs don’t get fertilised with seaweed, dung and soot the way they used to. It’s thought that this causes them to suffer gradual nutrient reduction and so the vegetation cover becomes less resilient. When winter storms come, the wind can more easily get in underneath the turf and cause massive sand blow-outs.

The lesson, again, is that people in the past have substantially made many of the landscapes we most know and love. I find this particularly evident as you leave Scotland and fly across the Irish Sea. On reaching Ireland you immediately experience the sense not just of a different country, but a different history and attitude to landscape.

The power of place

In Britain, the countryside has been sanitised of its people since the 18th century Enclosures and Highland Clearances. Left behind is a landscape in which, too often, ‘everyone who ever mattered is dead and gone.’

Thanks to landlords, and the planning systems that their social class in political power constructed, rural life tends to be the preserve of the rich and their servants. The poor more often live up an urban high-rise with a TV as their only window on nature.

In contrast, Ireland’s countryside is still alive with human settlement. It’s a cultural landscape where people and nature have co-evolved into communities of place.

Place matters in Celtic identity. This sees the social realm as being much more than a mere community of interests, but rather, a holistic community of place. It’s a very powerful thing that goes right to the soul. It enters our bones and even the smell of who we are.

Genesis 27 has the poetry to name what the sterilised modern world misses. ‘See,’ said the aged and blind Isaac, reaching out, as he thought, to confirm the identity of his son Esau. ‘The smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed.’

Even the vexed problem of incomers can be reconciled by the power of place. No less an arch-colonist than Edmund Spenser lamented of Ireland back in 1589: ‘I heard that any English there should bee worse then the Irish: Lord, how quickely doth that countrey alter mens natures!’ If you stay in a place long enough, you eventually start to partake of the qualities of that place.

At least, that was true then. In those days people were far less mobile. You couldn’t buy corn from America or chicken from Thailand. You had to stand the ground on which you stood. And that way the ground could work its magic. It could heal and sustain the culture.

Today, if we want to keep a grip on culture as well as conserve the environment, we must plan, consciously, to maximise what the experts call ‘linkages and multipliers’ with our local place. We must do so not just at the economic level, but also the psychological, spiritual and cultural levels of what it means to be a human being.

Planning for community

In June 2002, I was invited to North Cork in Ireland to speak at an event called A Rural Planning Symposium for Duhallow. The organisers had read my book called, for reasons that will by now be evident, Soil and Soul, and they wanted to share with their county planners ideas about the relationship between community, spirit and place.

I knew that Ireland was in the middle of a major debate about rural strategy focused round a policy document called the National Spatial Strategy. I accessed it via the Internet before going there, and was both fascinated and disturbed to find very little awareness in the Dublin-based planners’ minds of what place is really about.

Yes, the strategy claims to be ‘about people and places’, but nowhere does it mention co-operation upon which community is built. Instead, it emphasises ‘the enhancement of national competitiveness’.

Maintaining the cultural heritage is actually listed last in the Strategy’s guiding vision. One is reminded only too poignantly of Ireland’s great scholar, Daniel Corkery who, in his 1924 masterpiece, The Hidden Ireland, laments: ‘And how soon we became aware that what the writers in English omitted concerned the mind and the soul – the hidden world!’

Of course, to Corkery ‘the writers in English’ meant those ‘improvers’ and colonisers who saw no value in a place other than its capacity for economic production. Gaelic culture, by contrast, understood place not just for what it could grow, but also for its mythology, its stories, and the poetry and song that flowed from every rock, flower, and river. As writers such as William Blake and Shakespeare show, Anglo-British culture too is capable of such understanding, but sadly, it has lost much of it as English has become the language first of colonisation and now of its corporate equivalent – globalisation.

Ireland’s National Spatial Strategy is seen by many grassroots folk as bearing too much of the hallmark of planners trained in British university departments. Yes, it contains admirable proposals for shifting population growth away from Dublin, but it suggests building up regional urban centres rather than making it easy for local people to continue living in their local rural neighbourhoods.

Whether in Britain or in Ireland, I think this is a mistake. It may be cheaper, as the County Cork planners told the conference, to have people living in towns. But how do they calculate these sums? Do they look only at infrastructure provision, or do they cost in such ‘externalities’ as social work and policing costs?

I think it is vital that people can, if they wish to, continue living with the land even if not directly from it. Planning policy should favour locals wanting to maintain their roots. But how can that be achieved without ripping up more and more of the countryside in the way that’s been blighting Ireland in recent years?

The spirit of settlement

After meeting me at Cork airport, my Irish hosts took me to one of the Duhallow area’s ancient sacred sites, Tullylease, where in addition to a 6,000-year-old drystone fort, there was a statue of the Virgin Mary. ‘Have a look at this,’ said my host, community worker Brendan O’Keeffe as we surveyed the gently rolling lie of the land. ‘It will show you how long we’ve lived here and what this place means to us. It might inspire you in what you’re going to be saying tomorrow.’

Well, although I’m not a Roman Catholic, true to the spirit of the culture I subsequently checked out the ‘Magnificat of Mary’ at the opening of Luke’s gospel. Sure enough, there was the perfect rural planning policy written out – words with which I was to commence my address at the conference. Verses, or shall we say, clauses 52–53 of chapter 1: ‘He hath put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.’

Applying this principle as a planning policy, I suggested, would militate against Ireland’s ‘Celtic tiger’ magnates who’ve been building more and more ‘trophy mansions’ on every pristine hilltop they can get their hands on.

It would favour the construction of clachans, as we traditionally called them in Scotland. A clachan is a small cluster of homes: close enough for friendship but out of earshot of each other’s family rows!

Nestled sensitively into the landscape and designed for sustainable ecological living, clachan-style development could honour Ireland’s rural beauty. They could meld agriculture with residential plots and with native woodland to provide screening.

And who knows, maybe it’s not just Ireland that could benefit from the application in planning law of Clause 1:52–53!

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