Thursday, June 21, 2007

The cuckoo's lament

Bushbabies, tarsiers, lemurs, pottos, aye-ayes, orangutans, gorillas, chimps: The human cousins we met at the family reunion in yesterday's footnote are in danger of being pushed into oblivion by the explosive and voracious expansion of our own species. I sit here on my hill in the west of Ireland and rue the fact, but feel impotent to do anything about it.

Readers of Honey From Stone will remember my encounter with a hedgehog while walking home from Dingle late at night along a dark country lane. That was twenty-five years ago, when our little cottage was just about the only holiday house in this lovely part of the Dingle Peninsula. Ours was an exclusively farming community then, and hedgehogs were not uncommon. And badgers. Many a time I was given a scare by a badger that suddenly appeared in the dark lane as I made my way home from the pub. And many a time too I looked up from the desk in my writing studio to see a fox striding along the window sill. Rabbits and hares frolicking with the lambs in the field below the house. A stoat dashing along the ditch. A corncrake? A cuckoo?

Gone now, all gone.

Within a decade, Ireland went from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest in the world. Our narrow lane -- "the fairies' road" -- has been tarmacked, and our tiny cottage now stands at the head of a string of rather posh holiday houses. No haycocks in the fields below, but lots of empty nitrate bags, and where they still cut the grass for fodder, it is done mechanically by big machines that wrap the hay in black plastic bales for silage.

Nothing unusual about this transformation; it has happened many places -- a century of development packed into a dozen years. I don't begrudge my Irish neighbors their newfound prosperity, but I grieve that no one -- here or anywhere -- has yet figured out how to take the hedgehogs, badgers, foxes, hares and stoats with us into our prosperous but increasingly solitary future.