By Gaia Woolf-Nightingall
“If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall sometimes come to someplace.” -L. Frank Baum
The dark skyline of frenzied trees bowing and swaying in the quickening winds was my first vision of the Forest of the Glen of the Downs, Co Wicklow. It was the early evening, the twilight hours, and I had just walked the four-mile road from Kilpedder, where sat the first organic farm in Ireland, my place of work. It was a part of Ireland that was imbued with an old-world rural charm, a feeling that Dublin city, only an hour’s drive to the North, could no longer invoke.
It was the late 1999’s, and Ireland was in the throes of the financial renaissance. This was a period in Ireland’s history that would soon become known as the time of the ‘Celtic Tiger.’
This term was categorized by the onslaught of rapid economic growth that had been inaugurated by the influx of large amounts of European financial aid.
No one would deny Ireland its newfound prosperity. For too long, this beautiful Isle had been the poor relative of Europe. Its people struggled to meet their most basic needs, and as a result, emigration had been the most frequent option taken by the young seeking a better life. Along with the positive aspects of this newfound wealth came, inevitably, and much to the grief of those, like myself who cared deeply for the land and all its inhabitants, the environmental costs.
The injustice of unabashed ‘progress’ bulldozing across the nation had brought me here, and now, to the Glen of the Downs. A road ran through the Glen valley connecting Dublin to the South East coast of the Country. The road lay parallel to an ancient waterway, which had been abandoned many moons ago, to forge its own path by glaciers after the retreat of the last ice age.
The Irish government sought to design a faster communications network throughout the country to make the roads wider and faster. Unfortunately, this would mean the destruction of many thousands of the cathedral Beech, Ash, Scot’s pine, and rare Sessile Oak trees that inhabited the fifty-two-acre nature preserve, which was situated on the valley sides on either side of the road. Ultimately a new expansive road would threaten the future survival of the entire Glen ecosystem.
For the next two years, I would come to call the Glen of the Downs my home. I would live and work here, waking in the early morning to the light of the rising sun streaming through my shelter, high atop the Eastern valley side. I would listen to the sound of the woodland creatures busy celebrating the daybreak, on the forest floor, and in the top branches of the tall trees, which were the church pews of the birds of the forest, the rapturous music of the morning chorus would flow.
My shelter was a small dome-shaped creation, fashioned from the weaving of malleable Hazel rods, which were then covered with a waterproof tarpaulin. We called these designs ‘benders.’ Every morning, I could avail of the great beauty that was before me. Exploring the vast woodland, which clung greedily onto the steeply sloping sides of the valley.
Underneath the climax tree canopy was hidden a magical understory, eclectic in nature, full of the branches of Hazel, Elderberry, Cherry, and Rowan trees. Lower still in the undergrowth, where the wild animals lived out their daily routines, was a collection of wild, herbaceous, perennial plants. They emerged from the bare muddy ground every Spring, releasing the pungent odors that announced their arrival. The ever-charming and fragrant honeysuckle, ivy, woodrush, wood sage, the fruiting bramble, and bilberry lived amongst their ranks.
The Sessile oak trees of the Glen were a rare and precious gift to the ecosystem. Gnarly and archaic, they appeared to twist up from the sides of the Glen like the spirits of ancient folks, that had perhaps, long ago, wandered, too far into the realm of the fae, where, with there fate then sealed, had been forever frozen into the forms and shapes of the Sessile Oak trees. Tasked to forever be the Guardians of the Glen. They grew cautiously and steadfast, full of ancient voice and mystery. All the while providing a welcome home to many a woodland epiphyte, insect, bird, and creature.
I approached the main campsite of the watchers of the Glen and the ‘fire bender’ for the first time. The fire bender was in place so that those who had chosen to protect the woodland from the onslaught of progress and destruction could gather together. I had chosen to be one of the watchers. One of the protectors, one of the Eco-warriors. I had sworn an oath to protect the land and to raise awareness of its plight through the means of peaceful, nonviolent direct action.
I was proud to be part of such an important movement, and I will always feel a strong sense of pride whenever I recollect what we tried to accomplished then, the imprint of which lasts still to this day in the consciousness of the Irish people.
Tonight was to be my first watch, and the fire bender was all aglow as I approached. A makeshift kitchen, storage area, and many other needful things were gathered under a large blue tarpaulin that flapped in the gentle breeze of the evening, like a flag, declaring the sovereign vows of the occupants within. A large warming fire was sunk into the ground, and small gray, partially blackened shale stones surrounded the flaming pit.
An eclectic seating arrangement made from an array of reclaimed wooden pallets circled the fire, and the watchers of the glen crowded around it. White smoke and water vapor billowed upwards from the center of the circle and flew rapidly off into the air intermittently. Chattering voices rose and fell in pitch, echoing as they did in the flight of the wood smoke.
I was excited to be here, but I did not want to disturb the calm scene in front of me, and as a storm was fast approaching, I made the decision not to stop by for a conversation. I needed to get to the top of the Eastern valley before I lost the last remnants of daylight.
A top of the wooded valley, somewhere, was a hidden shelter built by a watcher who was unknown to me. They had left the bender as a home to those that might follow, and I had been given the general idea of its position, but now in the darkness and with the first splashes of rain falling on my brow, I doubted my resolve to find it.
My heart was pounding, but I knew there was nothing I could do now but to attempt the long walk up the hillside in the hope that my eyes would keep a firm fix on the dimly moonlit trail in front of me and that the woodland itself might take pity on me and help me stay on the right path.
The trees were silhouetted black on either side of me as I walked. They swayed to the rhythm of the coming storm. And I was once again reminded of long ago my youthful adventures, listening to the music of the winds and watching the ballet of the trees. This comforted me as I continued to walk for what seemed like an age, up through the looming shadows of the shaking trees, cracking and groaning under their own enormous weight.