Saturday, July 10, 2010

Time and again

Yesterday, driving home from the village along our one-lane, hedge-crowded road, they suddenly darted out onto the tarmac -- four young stoats, as sleek as otters, twisting and tumbling in frisky play. There was no getting by. I stopped the car. We sat and watched as they sported along the road, oblivious of our presence. I slipped the car into gear and we followed close their pell-mell frivolities, rapt by their innocent wildness, their helter-skelter fun, content to idle there all day if the stoats had no objection.

It had been a while since I had seen a stoat.

When we came here 38 years ago, they were common. Badgers, foxes, hedgehogs, hares. Cuckoos and corncrakes. Many a time, sitting here in my studio, I had a fox look in at the window, its moist black nose pressed against the glass not four feet from my elbow. All gone now, or mostly so.

It began with the change in agriculture. Thirty-eight years ago, farming in this remote corner or Ireland had not changed much since the Middle Ages. A patchwork of tiny fields separated by hedgerows, among which our neighbors rotated their animals and crops, keeping the land naturally fertile. The scythe, the hay rake, the spade: these were the tools of the trade. The hedgerows -- "ditches" locally -- were ideal wildlife habitats, thick earthen banks topped with a wild tangle of bramble and hawthorn. Then, beginning about 20 years ago, a younger generation of farmers began grubbing out the hedgerows, consolidating fields into tracts large enough to be cultivated and harvested by machines. A single crop, silage to keep the animals through the winter. The land made productive by the application of artificial fertilizers. Insects, earthworms and slugs vanished, and the wildlife food chain collapsed.

There's no point being nostalgic about it. The change was inevitable if the standard of human living was to improve. Which it did. Modernity is always bought with a price.

How happy, then, to see the stoats at play, gay throwbacks to an earlier time when the farmer put down his scythe and took his tea in the shade of the ditch. There's still a few of the old folks here who look back and wonder what has been lost. The younger generation roll their eyes in justifiable disbelief and watch with satisfaction as the big machines bundle the grass into plastic-wrapped bales.

This morning we woke with a wren crashing frantically about the bedroom. They seem to have a gift for finding their way in the open window, but not for finding their way out. Never mind. A lovely alarm clock that, that little brown bundle of wildly fluttering heart.