Crossing the Vee — Nathan O’Donnell

When I was a student at the Silvermines National School in North Tipperary, we were brought on what seemed to be endless nature walks. Our year was punctuated with regular meandering tours around the landscape at the foot of the Silvermine Mountains, during which we were told about the various species of deciduous tree that were either native or long-established in Ireland: ash, oak, birch, sycamore. We learnt to identify these trees by the shape and pattern of their leaves. We were not taught the names of the coniferous tree, the Sitka Spruce, that had been planted in great droves on the mountains overhead. We weren’t taught the difference between fir and spruce and cedar; for many years I thought of them simply as ‘pine trees’, their presence in the Irish countryside an anomaly into which I never thought to inquire. It was but one of many things we were not told about, in school, aspects of our surroundings overlooked in favour of a sanitised idea of ‘nature’, populated by blue-tits and foxes and wild badgers. This idea of nature wasn’t hard to believe. The village of the Silvermines was by then – the early 1990s – a tranquil, sleepy place. We were taught to regard its scenic setting as if it were a kind of enchanted wilderness, as if a century of mining and agriculture and reforestation had not transformed this territory beyond recognition.

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A friend of my parents from college – an intense Canadian expat with a rabid conversational style – built his own house, in rural Cavan, on a huge acreage. With a grant from Coillte, he planted a forest of spruce trees around him, ‘to keep the neighbours out’, or so my father said, though I do not know was this the Canadian’s intention or a wishful projection on my father’s part. It was, at any rate, a long-held, not very realistic ambition of my father’s to do the same. He was not an unfriendly man, but he was placid. He harboured a dream of perfect peace.

About ten years ago he moved to the country himself, with my stepmother, to a remote house on the West Clare peninsula, and talked jokingly about building a ten-foot wall to keep the neighbours out. He did no such thing, but he did over time plant the land around the house with trees, lines of them along the driveway and around the back of the house, giving the place a little privacy. For the big waterlogged meadow out the front he ordered eight hundred trees. By the time they were delivered, he had been diagnosed with cancer. Still, he went ahead. He and his brothers and his neighbours planted eight hundred saplings in the ground. I think of this now as a gesture of resilience on his part. He died less than two months after receiving the diagnosis.

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On holiday by the Blackwater, in 2015, I and some friends went in search of a mountain lake. Coming across the Vee, a mountain pass through the Knockmealdowns between Waterford and Tipperary, we started talking about the landscape. We couldn’t help but notice the beautiful, ineradicable rhododendron flowers – an invasive species brought to Ireland as part of the fashion for oriental-style gardens in the nineteenth century – that ran like profuse dripping veins along the hills and through the trees, every summer. We also talked about the coniferous forests marshalled around us. I had just learnt that these forests – which are spread across the Irish countryside – have a very recent provenance, the result of a state-funded programme to halt the massive deforestation of Ireland, planted only from the early twentieth-century on. I’d grown up with these landscapes, never really thinking about them, never being told what they were, except a species of mountain forest, an ordinary part of the landscape. I said this to the others in the car. These are the result of one man’s intervention, Augustine Henry. An Alaskan species, Sitka Spruces, I said. All of them? asked my friend. All of them, I said, without hesitation, yes, I nodded, as if I was certain of it.

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AusgustineHenry93_2PiceaSitchensis

Augustine Henry was a doctor, formerly of the Imperial Customs Service, and an esteemed plant collector when he established himself in Dublin in 1913. His Ranelagh home became a salon for Celtic Revival artists and poets. He is generally remembered either for this salon or for an early book, Notes on The Economic Botany of China, which charted his observations of the flora of the Chinese provinces. What is less well-remembered is that he was also the first person from Britain or Ireland to graduate from the National School of Forestry in Nancy, France; as a consequence, he was instrumental in determining the ecology of the nascent Irish nation state.

In 1907 while setting up the Chair of Forestry in Cambridge, Henry gave expert advice to an Irish departmental committee recommending that Irish forestry policy should concentrate on conifer cultivation – in upland, inhospitable terrain – instead of planting forests of broad-leaved trees. Henry’s research, based upon trials at the new experimental forest, Avondale, in Co Wicklow, led him to conclude that the Sitka Spruce, a non-native species, would be the most commercially viable conifer for Ireland’s temperate climate. His recommendations were taken seriously; the Forestry Commission (later Coillte) was established ten years later, and by the end of the century, non-native coniferous trees represented more than 60% of Ireland’s forest cover.

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Around the turn of the millennium, for a summer or two, I went to a number of raves in the countryside near Dublin, most of them at the overlaps of Dublin and Wicklow, in Blessington or the Glen of the Downs or else further along the road toward the Wexford border. I took ecstasy or magic mushrooms or, sometimes, both, and danced all night or talked rapid heartfelt vacuities to whoever would listen. In the mornings, when the sun came up over the wreckage of the night’s disorder, we were filled with a kind of elated solidarity, a communal triumph at simply having made it through. There was an exhausted bliss to proceedings. There was also, I think, a suppressed dread at the looming aftermath: the solitary psychological grind of the come-down. I remember rambling, still a bit out of it, through the rectilinear grid of stripped trunks and dead branches that form at the bottom of a forest of Sitka Spruce. It was a spindly, ghost-like, evidently man-made environment, and I remember wondering, even through the dopamine haze, what kind of forest would be engineered to look this way.

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In an archive box at the National Herbarium, housed in the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, is an original tree sample, sourced from an Alaskan forest: Picea sitchensis. The Sitka Spruce. The Herbarium in Glasnevin, an extensive repository of flora samples, is home to Henry’s own collection of more than 10,000 samples. Much of this material was collected from across the world by Henry himself, and catalogued and donated to the Irish state by his wife after his death. (While he lived he also contributed many specimens to Kew in England.)

Between this sample and the upland spruce forests of Wicklow and Tipperary and Kerry (to name just a few) is a tangle of bureaucratic and ecological legacies. The Sitka Spruce was chosen for its suitability to the landscape as well as its commercial possibilities. Over the course of the twentieth century, forestry was meticulously planned and managed, part of a broader set of industrial strategies to diversify and modernise Irish society, rural as well as urban. The archive box at Glasnevin looks in this context less like a hobbyist’s benevolence, more like a blueprint. Viewed this way, the managed mountainous landscapes of rural Ireland begin to seem like a kind of architecture, a planned environment that might be examined in the same way as the architecture of a city.

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On St Stephen’s Day every year, when I was a child, my father would come and collect my sister and I from our mother’s house in North Tipperary and drive us to Clonmel, where his mother and two of his brothers lived. His mother was a retired nurse, widowed young, who smoked incessantly and reserved most of her welcome for us children; unbeknownst to us, she could be tyrannical with the adults, particular those women who’d had the temerity to marry her sons.

We were there to spend a few days with my father’s family. There was not much to do. We just repeated the same activities every year, without fail. One of these was the drive up the Comeragh mountains. We would leave the town and cross the Suir and almost immediately we were driving uphill through dense coniferous forest. Sometimes we went as far as Mahon Falls; other times we stopped at a viewing point. I seem to remember my father telling me a story about a drunk man – was he real or mythic, I don’t know – standing at a certain vantage point in the hills, between Tipperary and Waterford, so he could piss on the two counties at once. For a long time I thought of this mountainous landscape as dangerous terrain, peopled by mythic stragglers and pissing drunks. I thought this part of Tipperary was a wild frontier. (It was a surprise for me to learn, later on, that in fact South Tipperary was our more prosperous neighbour, full of horse-breeders and fertile land: ‘the vale of honey’.)

I thought then and I still think now of those spruce forests in the Comeragh mountains as places of romantic wildness. I remember our drives in the quiet days after Christmas like forays into uncharted territory, though we didn’t so much as cross a county border. Those forests of Sitka Spruce have a peculiar symbolic resonance to me, even twenty years on, which the birch or the ash or the oak – our national tree – never had. They come back to me occasionally, vividly, now that my father is dead, and his mother as well, and the trees on the waterlogged meadow in West Clare still saplings, and the house on St Patrick’s Terrace in Clonmel lying vacant, waiting to be sold.

It was always dark by the time we descended from the mountains, taking the vertiginous road into the wide Suir Valley, leaving the forest behind us, the lights of Clonmel town becoming visible ahead.

This text was written in dialogue with visual artist Louis Haugh, images of whose work are reproduced above.  This work was previously shown at Pallas Projects/Studios in Dublin as part of Haugh’s solo exhibition, Alien Architecture, in 2017.


Nathan O’Donnell is a writer of fiction and criticism, and co-editor of an Irish magazine of contemporary art criticism, Paper Visual Art Journal. He has been published in The Dublin Review, New Irish Writing, The Manchester Review, gorse journal, and Southword, amongst others. He will edit the British avant-garde journal BLAST for the Oxford University Press Critical Edition of the works of Wyndham Lewis, and his first scholarly book, on Lewis’s art criticism, is forthcoming from Liverpool University @nathanodonnell

Images: Remains Looking North and Ausgustine Henry 93_2 Picea Sitchensis, Louis Haugh