Friday, August 21, 2009

Gathering honey from stone


When we first came to Ireland 35 years ago, these wild Atlantic cliffs were open for walking. And for fossil hunting. We found trilobite fossils, among others. Then, as the number of tourists and pleasure walkers increased, a new generation of farmers began posting their land. Many of our favorite walks were closed off.

The farmers had some justification. A few irresponsible walkers left gates open, broke down fences while clambering over, let dogs run among the sheep. Sometimes it was a single instance of mindlessness and the "No trespassing" signs went up.

Now the old walks are slowly being reclaimed, as farmers are compensated for permission to use their land. Styles are put in place over fences. Signposts keeps walkers on narrow tracks through fields. And so it is that the marvelously rugged coastline in the photo here is again yielding up its fossils and breathtaking scenery.

I wrote about these cliffs in Honey From Stone. They were explored in the mid-19th century by James Flanagan and his famous colleague in the Geological Survey of Ireland George Victor Du Noyer, as they struggled to unravel a geological mystery known as "the great Devonian controversy." No need to retell that story here; you can read about it in Honey From Stone. Here's a teaser:
One hundred years ago there was hardly a wilder place in all of Ireland for human habitation than this westernmost tip of the Dingle Peninsula. The standard of life was exceedingly poor. The countryside was often gripped by famine. The life of a field geologist in such an environment could not have been easy. Comfortable accommodation west of Dingle Town was probably difficult if not impossible to find. The geologist' workday began at 9:00 A.M., six days a week. First came the ten-mile walk from Dingle to the cliffs with the puzzling fossils, then hours of field work and mapping, more likely than not in mist or rain. The workday ceased in time to allow the researchers to return to their base of operations by 6:00 P.M. In the evening, around the hearth in a Dingle public house, wet tweeds steaming in the heat of the fire, the geologists transferred their observations to the huge paper base maps that were a growing portrait of the island's geological past.
The scene has changed dramatically in this westernmost tip of Ireland, but the cliffs are as wild and unspoiled as ever. We scramble among the scree looking for the fossils that so perplexed the 19th-century geologists. We know one big thing they didn't know: Two hundred million years ago there was no Atlantic Ocean. Two-hundred million years ago one could have walked dry-shod from here to New England. But we only know this one big thing because of the habits of close observation and open-minded empirical rigor pioneered by the likes of Flanagan and Du Noyer.