Eagle Country, by Seán Lysaght, is the tenth book in the publisher’s Nature Monograph Series. Presented in the form of a journal it details the author’s travels around Ireland as he searches for the eyries where eagles once nested. Despite growing up on the island I would not have associated Ireland with eagles, never having heard reports of these magnificent hunters settling there. Until a recent reintroduction programme they had been exterminated, shot or poisoned by farmers and gamekeepers who would not tolerate them taking small livestock or the grouse required by shooting parties. The impact of this policy is described in some detail, a lesson in causality when attempting to control nature.
As Lysaght walks across the mountainous and coastal land where eagles once bred he marvels at the flora and fauna that has somehow survived modern farming methods. The land has been denuded by overgrazing as farmers maximise the subsidies they may claim from the EU. This has affected the habitats required by grouse and hares on which eagles would feast. It is not just the land that has been affected. Fish farms and rubbish contaminate the water. Pine forests turn rivers acidic making it unsuitable for native fish species. Short term gain has been given precedence over a healthy ecology. Man has set himself apart and then wonders at the impact of the damage.
“state bodies and learned institutions were there to give us exact statistics about the degradation, without any apparent clout to change things.”
Despite his unease at these observations, the descriptions of the elements Lysaght encounters are awe-inspiring. In poetic prose he marvels at the landscape and the nature it supports. He remains aware that his presence also has an effect, exemplified by the chagrin felt when others appear in the landscapes he walks many miles to survey.
“Mine was a typical arrival – a lá brea (fine day), someone who appears only during fine weather and arrives with a tourist’s fantasy of remoteness, cultural purity and authenticity.”
There are explanations of the names of places. As he travels the views shift, the same features observed from different vantage points. Vast mountains disappear behind closer peaks, lakes come into view reflecting the sky and the sheer drops of their surrounds.
“The binoculars isolated the image, extracted it from the scene, and made it abstract; I imagined these recorded on video and placed in one of the temples of contemporary art.”
For some time the only eagles the author sees are fashioned in stone or plaster and placed upon gateposts. Landowners marvel at the creatures despite having wiped them out. The land itself has been shaped to suit human development, stunning vistas offering health and safety compliant adventures, marketed and branded almost out of existence.
“[I] lay in the tent, amused at my own naivety in thinking I could escape the twenty-first century in the twenty-first century.”
Lysaght feels a strong affinity to the place and its history. In his observations he recognises that he is myth making yet what he shows the reader is a fascinating snapshot of the detail most won’t be aware of because they do not know where to look. There is suffering inflicted on creatures that modern squeamishness may baulk at, despite knowledge of animal cruelties that prevail in factory farm settings.
As well as the wildernesses and farmland, Lysaght’s travels take him to state run reserves and places he visited as a child.
“My father brought us to those institutions to make us understand that Ireland’s identity was as much about the country’s flora and fauna as it had to do with symbols of the armed revolution.”
Now a grandfather himself he thanks his grandson for reminding him that ‘there is more than one way of looking through a telescope’.
The sights are described in exquisite detail. Alongside the landscape and its natural history, the inhabitants and their impact, there is wonder and appreciation. This is a glorious evocation of nature, and of the difficulties of recreating the order that man has upset.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.