Monday, June 26, 2006

On threads of slime

There was a time here in the west of Ireland thirty years ago when you couldn't walk down our road without stepping to avoid the ubiquitous slugs. In the garden we set out jar caps of beer to protect the lettuce, and when that didn't do the job, slug bait. In the morning the garden was full of dissolving threads of slime. They died by the dozens but still some got through to eat our plants.

Today the tide of battle has turned. We never see slugs on the road anymore, and not so often in the garden. Something has reduced the creepy-crawly population and it was not our beer and bait.

Something rather more murderous has been going on.

Whereas before our neighbors rotated crops and animals among many small fields that were tilled by hand, today the hedgerows have been grubbed and large fields opened up for mechanical monocrop agriculture. The land is kept fertile by the application of massive amounts of nitrates.

Gone are the hedgehogs and the badgers, the corncrake and the cuckoo, the fox and hare. And fading fast the slugs, those glutinous, viscid, semifluid, voracious banes of the vegetable rows.

But on the bright side, the country is more prosperous. The younger generations have euros jingling in their pockets (and fat bank accounts). There is a consequent growing demand for organic food, and farmer's markets are springing up in every town. Farmers who tended exclusively to sheep and cattle are showing interest in a variety of new market crops, including biofuels.

Nostalgia is not a viable environmental principle. Our fate and the fate of the slugs, whatever it is to be, lies in a creative future, not in the dead past.