Image from Nephin, a film by Niamh O’Malley, shot through a car window in Connacht, Ireland.
THE MAP WAS SPREAD OUT on a pool table in a darkened back room of Brannens Bar in Newport, a small town near the western coast of Ireland. The place smelled of old wood and smoke, as a pub should. It was a snug den in which to enjoy a pint and some music. But I was not there for the music, beer, and revelry—what the Irish refer to as craic. I had come about a walk through a wilderness.
The bar’s proprietor, John Chambers, ran his finger over the contour lines. An imposing man with close-cropped hair, he spoke in a rapid and melodic western Irish lilt. He and his wife, Clare, lead a group of local hikers and hill walkers called the Nephin Begers, and I had heard that the two know the remote reaches of this area about as well as anyone. “You’ll want to follow the Bangor Trail north,” he said, showing me where I could best get a flavor for the Nephin Beg Range, a rugged landscape of undulating hills and deep lakes. “Now you’ve got good boots and rain gear? The bogs can be deadly and the wind can blow a gale.” I nodded, explaining that I had lugged fifty pounds of backpacking gear through several airports and the London Underground for this very purpose.
He cleared his throat. “Right, so. If you want to make things difficult on yourself, jump off the trail here and climb this spine of rock,” he said pointing to a thin fin called Coreen More rising above the valley. “You’ll see the whole Nephin range, all the way to Achill Island. If it’s clear, the views are savage.” Brendan Lehane, a naturalist and author, described the region as “the bleakest, barest, most brooding, most haunting countryside in Ireland.”
In Gaelic, the word beg (or bheag) means “small” and nephin translates to “sanctuary.” The name notwithstanding, the Irish national forestry company, Coillte, has been logging the area for decades. A few years ago, however, the company embarked on an ambitious project to convert thousands of acres of plantation forest in the heart of the Nephin Begs into the country’s first official wilderness area.
Bill Murphy, the former head of the Nephin restoration for Coillte, told me that over the next fifteen years the company will work to reset the landscape to a state before grazing, turf cutting, and tree planting altered it, restoring eleven thousand hectares—roughly forty-two square miles—in the heart of the four-hundred-square-mile range. The ultimate goal, said Murphy, is to revitalize the Nephin’s once extensive upland blanket bogs—the region’s most distinctive and biologically important ecosystem. In order to rescue the bogs, dense stands of Sitka spruce and lodgepole pines introduced from North America must be thinned, creating new bog as trees fall and decompose. In a matter of decades, ecologists say, the mosaic of patchy coniferous forest and wetland that once covered the region will begin to reemerge. One prominent advocate of wilderness restoration, Toby Aykroyd, has called Wild Nephin “the single most promising project in western Europe for prospective restoration.”
I was inclined to be skeptical of the idea of Irish wilderness. My wife was born in Belfast and her parents today live in Derry. It’s been the base from which I’ve explored this roughly Maine-sized island for more than twenty years. I have been enchanted on many occasions by the island’s rain-soaked beauty—the towering cliffs of Horn Head, or the unpeopled white-sand beaches of the Dingle Peninsula, or the undulating ridgelines of the Mourne Mountains “sweeping down to the sea,” as the folk song goes. The Irish landscape possesses an undeniable beauty and power. But true wilderness—the sort of profound remoteness and aloneness that one can experience in, say, Colorado’s Weminuche or Wyoming’s Popo Agie—I had yet to find.
But perhaps I needed to revise my definition of wilderness. Though some estimates say that as little as 1 percent of Europe remains in a pristine, wild state, there are thousands of square miles of land that are “near-wilderness” quality. And unlike in the United States where decrying public lands as part of a long-running federal land grab has become a conservative cause célèbre, in Europe there is growing political will to bolster its own inventory of wilderness. In 2009, the EU issued a resolution calling for the “strengthening of wilderness-related policies and measures.” The key piece of that resolution is to “develop” wilderness areas across the eurozone. This legislative effort has given rise to a new ecosystem of environmental NGOs pushing ambitious restoration goals. One group, Wild Europe, for example, is working in various countries to protect old-growth forests and endangered species and is sponsoring restoration projects in eastern Europe. Another organization, Rewilding Europe, is calling for the designation of one million hectares, or 3,800 square miles, of wilderness by 2020. The group is also advocating for the reintroduction of iconic megafauna, such as the European bison, lynx, timber wolf, and red deer.
Unlike the doctrinaire foundational principles of the US Wilderness Act—“an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”—Europe is working with a more general definition. According to the European Commission, “A wilderness is an area governed by natural processes. It is composed of native habitats and species, and large enough for the effective ecological functioning of natural processes. It is unmodified or only slightly modified and without intrusive or extractive human activity, settlements, infrastructure or visual disturbance.” Where the American definition traffics in philosophical absolutes about what wilderness should be, the European definition presents a more general set of ecological guidelines about what a wilderness could be.
Do such qualifications and nuances equate to a watered-down definition of wilderness? Or is the European view a necessary evolution of the wilderness ethic, one that takes into consideration the vast and growing footprint of mankind on the planet? Recently, the eminent biologist E. O. Wilson proposed that half of the earth’s surface needs to be set aside for nature; only then, he wrote, “can we hope to save the immensity of life-forms that compose it.” Are such goals remotely attainable under the US model, which seeks pristine, “primeval” landscapes, as if these places were contestants in some naturalistic beauty pageant? Could we in the US benefit from an expanded view of wilderness of the sort being embraced across Europe?
A backpacking trip into the heart of the nascent Nephin Wilderness, I hoped, would help me to answer some of these questions.
I SAID GOODBYE to John and Clare Chambers at Brannens Bar and drove twenty minutes north of Newport to the Wild Nephin trailhead, at the edge of Ballycroy National Park. When I arrived at the trailhead it was about five o’clock. My plan for the following day was to make a ten-mile loop up the Bangor Trail—an ancient path believed to be thousands of years old—then bushwhack through a steep corrie and into a hanging valley between the summits of Slieve Carr and Nephin Beg, the region’s 2,057-foot namesake. In the valley, I would drop my pack and ascend Slieve Carr. From the top, my plan was to descend the mountain’s eastern side, aiming for another long-distance trail called the Western Way that would carry me into the heart of the plantation forest, where I would be able to see the first phases of the Nephin Wilderness redevelopment.
My destination for the evening, however, was a mere four miles away, a small wood shelter known as the Lough Avoher bothy, or hut. Several small huts like these—built by the Irish forestry service in the style of the lean-tos found in the Adirondacks—are scattered throughout the Nephin Beg Range. At the bothy, I had been told, I would not only find a dry place to pitch my sleeping bag but an enchanting perch from which I could absorb the wild essence of the Nephins. As I made my final preparations, I double-checked that my lightweight one-person tent was tucked in the depths of my pack. April, surprisingly, is the least rainy month in this part of Ireland. Chambers suggested that, with the dry weather pattern emerging, the roof of the bothy might provide adequate shelter. Past trips in the wind- and rain-scoured landscapes of the west country have proven to me that dry is a relative term, however, that Irish weather can change in an instant, and that to leave the tent behind is to invite disaster.
The trail began by winding through a rocky ravine in which rivulets of the Ailtahuney River (also known as Altaconey River) flowed in a series of small pour-offs. It meandered from one side of the swift-flowing, shallow stream to the other, switchbacking up to the hanging valley. Above, a cloudless swath of sky unfolded. From this vantage, the rolling summits of the Nephin Beg Range sprawled out, dune-like, in all directions. Ireland is often referred to as the Emerald Isle. But the name is something of a misnomer. Green is the color of cultivation—of human intervention on the landscape. The hue of Ireland’s wildest regions—particularly those of the west—is unremitting beige, a patchwork of tundra, heather, and bog.
As I plodded ahead, the sound of a saw and a masticator could be heard ringing out from the edge of the tree plantation from which the Nephin Wilderness is being hewn. In Ireland, these tree farms were originally part of a government-incentivized program to stimulate the economy in rural regions. For decades, farmers were given subsidies to plant conifer forests on their farmland. According to a report from the Irish Department of Agriculture, from 1928 to 2006 Ireland’s national plantation-forest “estates” grew from 89,000 to 700,000 hectares, roughly one-tenth of Ireland’s land area.
That initiative has produced impenetrable man-made forests that blanket the countryside. They are dark shadowlands created with the sole interests of maximizing board feet, pulp yield, and profit. In the densest stands, the mirror-image pines grow mere feet apart. The high canopy prevents direct sunlight from reaching the ground—a hummocky carpet, strewn with pine needles, from which little grows. The light that does reach the understory is gray and flat, as if filtered through dark canvas. I was thankful my path on this night would not be taking me into that dark wood.
As I skirted the bogland along the tree farm’s western edge, the sky remained clear but the trail was a different story altogether. Successive rainstorms had transformed it into a muddy minefield. A few times, my boot plunged into ankle-deep muck. The brown mire was glue-like but little more than an annoyance. My eyes were fixed on the ring of brindled, rocky hillsides rising around me. Then the ground gave way as my right leg plunged into a deep hole up to my midthigh. It was as if I’d stepped from solid ground into a bucket of oatmeal. I’d hiked in Irish bogs before and recognized almost instantly the sensation. Quickly, I lurched forward, taking weight off my caught leg, splaying lizard-like onto the solid ground ahead. I could feel my knee hyperextend slightly under the weight of my 170-pound frame and 35-pound pack. Belly down on solid ground, I wriggled to liberate myself, a strange exercise of pulling and torquing. With substantial effort I managed to free my leg, which dripped with tannic muck the color and consistency of melted chocolate.
For a small country, Ireland contains an outsized percentage of the planet’s remaining “blanket bogs.” The Nephin Beg Range, in turn, holds what may be Ireland’s finest tracts of unbroken blanket bog. But what distinguishes these squelchy places from the world’s other waterlogged landscapes—swamps and muskegs—is climate. Along much of Ireland’s west coast annual rainfall is greater than four feet per year. And at a mere twelve degrees south of the Arctic Circle, the average annual temperature hovers at around fifty degrees Fahrenheit, causing decomposition to slow to a crawl. This combination of cool temperature, high precipitation, and poor drainage (the Irish writer Frank Mitchell aptly described bogland as a “water-filled bag”) causes minerals to be leached from the soil. In this waterlogged, nutrient-poor environment, only a set of highly adapted plants and mosses can survive. As those plants die and decompose, a substance called humic acid is released, raising the bog’s pH and giving the soil preservative properties (more on that in a moment). Over decades, layers of decaying plant matter accumulate, eventually giving rise to peat, a key energy source in the British Isles for centuries.
Many visitors to Ireland will recognize instantly the sweet and smoky smell of peat wafting through quaint towns and the sight of dried turf briquettes smoldering in the hearths of darkened pubs. Peat in fact is a fossil fuel, an intermediate step in the formation of coal. It is not only burned in domestic fireplaces but is also combusted in massive power plants. The Nephin Beg region has long been a center of peat-fired energy production in Ireland. One of the largest turf-harvesting operations in Ireland once lay on the northern edge of the Nephin Range, near the town of Bellacorick. The peat was dredged up and fed into a massive power plant beside the massive strip mine. In 2007, the Bellacorick plant’s iconic cooling tower was demolished, all but ending the era of industrial-scale peat-fired electricity generation in this lonely corner of Ireland.
Which is a good thing, because peat, like other fossil fuels, is a tremendously dirty fuel source. It is also quite energy-poor; for comparison, peat is about one-fourth as energy dense as natural gas, meaning it takes around four tons of peat to generate the same number of BTUs as a ton of natural gas. In addition, the burning of peat releases almost one and a half times as much carbon per kilowatt as natural gas.
The corollary is that bogs are one of Earth’s most potent terrestrial carbon sinks. A single hectare of two-meter-deep bog is capable of sequestering eight thousand tons of carbon dioxide—roughly as much as is emitted by seventeen hundred cars annually. Though they cover only 3 percent of the planet’s surface, peat bogs lock away roughly one-quarter of the planet’s land-bound carbon, accumulating more carbon dioxide than all the world’s tropical rainforests.
In addition to sponging up carbon dioxide, Ireland’s bogs have also absorbed the corpus of Ireland’s natural and human history. Remains of extinct species such as the great Irish elk have been hauled from their depths, uncannily preserved. Human artifacts and so-called “bog bodies” have also been exhumed. One of the latter is Clonycavan Man, a body pulled from a bog in County Meath, north of Dublin. Because of his immaculately preserved skin and hair, the workers who found him in an industrial sieve thought he might be a modern murder victim. But carbon dating revealed that the remains were those of a man who lived twenty-three hundred years ago. In his hair, scientists found a kind of primitive hair gel made of pine resin and oils native to Spain and France, suggesting that he was probably a man of wealth. Other telltale marks on his body hinted at a violent demise. His nose was smashed in and his head split with a sharp implement. Perhaps he was a murder victim after all.
A FEW MINUTES after my own wrestling match with the bog, I saw a figure a hundred or so yards up the trail. The man, clad in Wellington boots and a black stocking cap, was driving a herd of a dozen or so sheep across the soggy terrain. I picked up the pace in an attempt to catch up. The man was clearly in a hurry, racing daylight. He took long, loping strides and clawed at the stony ground with a gnarled wood staff. I looked up the mountainside and could see where he was aimed—a low spot on the ridgeline, five hundred to a thousand vertical feet above where we stood.
When I caught up with him, I said hello, and he replied in kind. “What part of the world are you from?” he asked. His three border collies paced nervously at his feet, eager to continue their uphill march.
“California,” I replied.
“Oh, that’s a good place,” he said. “And you’ve come to another good place.”
He asked where I was headed. I explained that I was trying to get to the Lough Avoher shelter before sundown. “You’ll make it easily,” he said. “And you’ve picked the right day to come. The winds are blowing the clouds away. The rain has passed. You’ll see stars tonight.”
I asked where he was headed. “Home,” he said, pointing his walking stick toward the cleft. “Over those hills.” Then he was off—rapidly ascending. Within minutes he and his flock were mere specks flitting across the hillside.
The sun dropped rapidly and the light took on a golden hue. Against Chambers’s advice, I made things easy on myself and stuck to the trail, arriving at the shelter in a little over an hour. As I approached the structure, something seemed askew. The triangular walls of the wood bothy remained standing but the roof had peeled away and lay shattered ten or fifteen yards from the shelter—testament to the fearsome winds that frequently rake the hillsides in this part of Ireland.
No matter. The sidewalls remained standing and seemed sturdy enough. The floor was still level and dry and offered a fine sheltered place to pitch a tent. Even though the site sat at a mere six hundred feet above sea level, the area had a similar feel to a high basin in the Colorado Rockies. Small stunted trees, resembling the gnarled krummholz pines found at high elevations in the Rockies, threw up their twisted limbs. The sun descended, illuminating the tops of the Nephin Range in purple alpenglow.
After I erected my tent and cook stove, I nibbled on English cheddar and chorizo and sipped red wine (all procured at a gas station in Sligo) as I read a few passages from a quirky interpretive map of the Bangor Trail by Joe McDermott and Robert Chapman given to me by my hosts. The section where I was holed up, according to the map, lay near two former town sites, Scardaun and Maumaratta. Curiously, the names were printed on my topo map, too, though there were no signs on the landscape (none obvious from where I stood, anyway) that suggested that these settlements had once existed near here.
In 1841, the population density of County Mayo was 180 people per square mile, three times as great as it is today. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, once lived within a one-mile radius of where I was now camped. But nearly all evidence of that tenure had been erased from the land except for a few faint green scars on the surrounding hillsides, remnants of “lazy beds,” traces of a farming technique in use across Ireland in the early nineteenth century. The method was simple and effective. Seed potatoes were buried under a shallow layer of manure and seaweed. In these impoverished districts, the lazy-bed technique was preferable to conventional farming methods since it didn’t require a horse and plow and because it greatly increased yield.
The lazy beds were also susceptible to Phytophthora infestans, the potato-blight fungus that destroyed potato crops across Ireland during the 1840s and led to widespread famine. In a nearby village called Treanbeg, now vanished, every single resident perished and was buried in a mass grave. Had the residents of Scardaun and Maumaratta met a similar fate? Between 1841 and 1851, the population of Mayo fell from 390,000 to 275,000 as famine and mass emigration emptied the countryside. That trend would continue unabated for another 150 years. Today, Mayo’s population stands at a mere 130,000.
In the open spaces of the west of Ireland, every parcel of the waterlogged landscape feels lived on, altered, haunted. I thought of the US’s own deracinated national parks and wilderness areas, once the homelands of native peoples who, for centuries, were violently and systematically uprooted from the land. Several years ago, in a copse of wind-blasted pines at a high lake in Yosemite, I stumbled across a midden of obsidian flecks. The shards were not naturally deposited but had been carried there—probably from the shores of Mono Lake or Obsidian Dome, a glittering volcanic mound on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada—by Miwok or Paiute hunters who used the Sierra high country as a summer hunting ground. I imagined an ancient hunter taking refuge, just as I had, in the small stand of trees by the windblown lake, working the stone into a tool that might help bring sustenance to a waiting family. Some of the fragments of volcanic glass were still sharp, remnants of a shattered culture. At around the same time Irish peasants were being starved out of these rolling valleys, the Ahwanechee Indians were being forcefully removed from Yosemite Valley.
Indeed, conservation efforts in both the Nephin Range and Yosemite were preceded by a long history of dislocation and loss. The difference, of course, is in the way we remember each. The Irish have not forgotten the mass de-peopling of the countryside in the wake of the famine. It is part of their collective identity. But we in the US have become accustomed to the idea that our wild lands are “untrammeled”; the corollary to that line of thinking, of course, is that we forget the plight of the people who once called that land home.
After an hour or so, the sky shifted from deep azure to black as the late-winter stars blinked on one by one. Soon the white smudge of the Milky Way appeared. In all my years traveling in Ireland I had never seen a sky as dark or more shot through with starlight. As I went to bed, the wind picked up, clattering the loose boards of the shelter.
WHEN I AWOKE, intermittent rainsqualls tapped an indecipherable code on my rain fly. For a moment, the weather broke and I crawled from my tent, retrieved my stove, and prepared breakfast. Suddenly, a dark rain cloud rapidly passed overhead, obscuring the sun and spraying my face with mist, and right then a rainbow arced across the valley. The good weather pattern I had been blessed with the day before was breaking down. I quickly packed up my camp and within minutes had my feet back on the trail.
The path climbed gently, contouring the western shoulder of Nephin Beg. To my right, small streams and cascades poured from steep heather-studded corries. To my left, the land rolled away into a brown boggy valley cut through with the slate-blue meanders of the Scardaun River. I paused on the trail near a gnarled oak tree, the only one visible for miles in the otherwise treeless valley. I retrieved my topo map as the rain rapped at the hood of my coat. According to the map, the summit of Nephin Beg was no more than a mile distant and about fifteen hundred feet above where I stood.
With more serious rain threatening, I stepped off the trail and made an ascending traverse along the steep hillside, each step squelchy and spongy. Several small pinnacles and bands of quartzite loomed ahead. Under them I found rockier and more stable footing. After about twenty minutes of steep climbing I gained the ridge and the sun returned through a gap in the clouds. Perhaps ten or fifteen miles in the distance, in full sunlight, squatted the bulky triangular mass of Slievemore, one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe. In between, light glinted from hundreds of bog ponds and the arcing inlets of Tullaghan Bay. The scene, with its play of shadow and light, gave the unmistakable impression of isolation, of vastness—of wilderness.
The angle of the slope soon relented but the route was now cut through with muddy defiles, where grassy slopes plunged abruptly into large murky pools. Some of these small chasms could be crossed with a leap. Others had to be carefully circumnavigated. With a full pack, the going in the mountain blanket bog was slow as I prodded at each piece of ground with my trekking pole to ensure there was no bottomless hole waiting to make a Clonycavan Man of me.
Within a half hour, the summit was close. Or so it seemed. I had crossed into a layer of cloud and mist that had been massing along the hilltops all morning. This was a darkened zone, a place sapped of color and dimension. The fog was not only disorienting but bitterly cold. I’d forgotten a compass, so I decided to use the digital compass on my cellphone to make sure I was maintaining a northward bearing toward the summit. But when I turned it on, the screen blinked, returning a flashing battery icon. Drained. On instinct, without a clear sense of up, I plodded deeper into the cloud bank. After what seemed like an hour of blind navigation (but that was closer to fifteen minutes), I saw a dark outline that resembled the head of a giant protruding from the ground. I proceeded toward it and the rough edges of individual stones could be made out. The head was, in fact, a four-foot-high cairn at the summit of Nephin Beg.
Nephin may translate to “sanctuary,” but on this day it was certainly no place to linger. I paused for a sip of water and continued on at rapid pace toward the mountain’s northern slopes, where, I hoped, I could find a safe route to descend to the lakes and the tree farms of the Nephin Wilderness beyond. Fortunately, my instincts were correct. Within minutes I had descended below cloud level. Two lakes, surprisingly large and filled with inky black water, lay one thousand feet directly below me. I picked my way gingerly down the slope, aiming for the well-defined margin of green and beige where tree farm met bog. A small barbed-wire fence that ran beside the lake on the west and the tree farm to the east created a bulwark, a grazing-free zone. The blanket-bog lands here were particularly spectacular, cut through with small streams and littered with large boulders and huge tufts of heather, some of which were taller than me. The scene was like no other I’d seen in all my days of wandering. To say that one here entered a lost, wild Ireland did not seem an overstatement.
At the margin of where the upland blanket bog gave way to dense plantation forest the map showed a trail descending through the heart of the forest and connecting with the Western Way. After some searching along the fringes of the woods, I found a set of metal stairs cutting through an otherwise impenetrable stand of spruce. I descended and arrived at the Western Way, which was not a foot trail at all but a well-worn logging road.
I was now in the Nephin Wilderness proper. But the feel of the place was far less wild than the section of Ballycroy National Park I had just traversed. The vast expanses of open blanket bog had given way to plantation forest interspersed with logging roads. In places where the trees relented the soft pyramids of Nephin Beg and Slieve Carr, now free of cloud, came into view. Accenting the foreground were thick bouquets of slick-leafed rhododendron—a beautiful but highly invasive flowering plant that has overtaken much of western Ireland. I took a quick lunch at the Altnabrocky Shelter and filtered water from a stream that sliced through a black embankment of peat. The water in the streambed was the color of dark mahogany and delicious.
For the first time on the journey, I was on consistently solid ground, the crunch of my boots accented by the unmelodious bleating of sheep. On the hillside, I saw a patchwork of stumps and thick forest. This could hardly be called “thinning”—unless by “thinning” one means total clearance across vast geometric plots. More troubling, few if any logs had been left to rot where they lay—a key component of the restoration plan.
Here was the heart of the Nephin Wilderness “restoration.” But the scale of the logging was jarring and hard to reconcile with an attempt to return the land to a more natural state. To my eye, in fact, the scene looked no different from industrial clearcutting in the Cascade Mountains. As I continued on Western Way, I entered the largest cut I’d yet seen. The road was muddy and gouged with deep ruts from heavy equipment. The log piles here were easily ten feet high, forming an unbroken wall that stretched a hundred yards or more.
Ahead, a man in a bright-green jacket was surveying the piles, making little tick marks on a paper affixed to a clipboard. I waved hello and he stared at my pack quizzically—his look suggested that I’d entered a forbidden zone. He asked where I’d come from and I pointed behind me, toward Nephin Beg, explaining I was on the last leg of a short overnight loop over the mountain.
“Beautiful up that way,” I said.
“So why’d you come this way?” he asked. His Day-Glo jacket was stamped coillte. “There are prettier ways to go.”
I explained that I was a writer from the US and that I’d heard this was Ireland’s first wilderness area. “It’s hard to visualize with all the cutting,” I said, asking about the apparent replanting. “Will the tree farm still be in operation?”
“This is just the first phase,” he said. “But yes, there will be areas where trees will be replanted.” He seemed reluctant to comment further. For more on that I had to wait for Denis Strong, senior divisional manager of the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service, who is overseeing the Wild Nephin project. I spoke with him several weeks later. Strong said that Coillte would continue to carry out a small section of logging within the wilderness boundary where logging is “commercially viable.” But he said that the overarching ecological goal is to restore an ecosystem more reminiscent of what existed before the plantation forest, albeit one that acknowledges the long history of land use and alteration. “It was never the intention of this project to ‘turn back the clock,’” said Strong. “By which I mean to take out all of the conifers and turn it back to what it was sixty years ago.” Areas deemed suitable for deciduous trees, he said, would be “restocked” with natives such as alder, willow, birch, and rowan, meeting the letter of Coillte’s licensing requirements by replanting native trees at “noncommercial rates.” “We’re trying something here that hasn’t been done anywhere else,” he told me.
About a half mile past the man in the green jacket, I encountered a locked vehicle gate—a barrier clearly meant for hikers going the opposite way. Parked beside it was a semitruck jammed with massive logs. Soon after I crossed the gate, I left the land of clearcutting and emerged into an idyllic stand of old-growth conifers and hardwoods along a meandering river—the sort of mixed-growth forest of which Strong seems to have been speaking. Clearly, Coillte was showcasing this small parcel of “wilderness” extending a couple miles from the trailhead and discouraging travelers from pressing any farther into the restoration, all of which seemed to me a contravention of the wilderness ethic.
Within another half hour I arrived back at my car, lifting the pack from my back and heaving it into the trunk. Later that night, suitably scrubbed, I drove to nearby Westport. In a pub known widely for its live music I sipped a Guinness and listened to two local musicians sing of the beauty of the Irish countryside. “You may travel far, far from your own native home,” a man with long white hair and a battered guitar sang tremulously.
Far away over the mountains, far away over the foam
But of all the fine places that I’ve ever seen
There are none to compare with the cliffs of Dooneen.
My American mind, inculcated with one vision of wilderness, was conflicted about what I had seen—the starkly beautiful and haunting landscapes of Ballycroy National Park juxtaposed with the clearcuts and new plantings of non-native conifers in the heart of Nephin Wilderness. To reconcile the two views of wilderness these landscapes represent, I realized, I needed an experienced guide.
The next day, joined by my ten-year-old daughter, Deirdre, I met with John Chambers’s cousin Michael, who logs hundreds of hours a year running, hiking, and cycling Nephin’s tangle of trails and back roads. If anyone could give me a sense of Nephin’s landscape before the tree plantation—and what might come after—it was Michael Chambers.
On the morning we met, Chambers sat in his small car in front of an old stone church near Newport, watching the wind whip the waters of Lough Feeagh into a meshwork of whitecaps. Chambers does not immediately cut the figure of a marathoner. He is short with roundish, almost cherubic features. When we arrived he inspected my tiny, unscathed rental. “Better take mine,” he said, gesturing to his own small vehicle, which looked as if it had been through a rally circuit on these rough back roads.
We climbed in and Chambers’s stories of the land began immediately. He pointed to the misty ridgeline of a nearby mountain called Tirclieu (or Torc Shléibhe), to a spot named Lookout Rock. With the enactment of Oliver Cromwell’s Penal Laws in the seventeenth century, large tracts of Catholic-owned land were confiscated and Catholic religious ceremonies were outlawed. But the religion found sanctuary in the Irish wilderness, Chambers explained. Parishioners climbed the slopes to Lookout Rock, where they would hold mass out of sight of British authorities. The landscape also played a critical role in the struggle for Irish independence. Every Easter, Chambers leads a forty-kilometer “walk to freedom” through the Nephin Range. The trek commemorates a battle during the Irish War of Independence, in the early twentieth century, in which a small column of Irish rebels are said to have used safe houses scattered throughout the Nephins to evade British troops. Chambers asked if I had seen the giant cairn atop Slieve Carr during my hike the previous day. I nodded, noting that I’d seen it from across the valley, from the top of Nephin Beg. He said that the massive rock pile is ancient and believed by many to be the final resting place of Daithi, the last high king of Ireland. “Every place here has a story associated with it,” Chambers said.
A few years ago, Chambers proposed an idea to Bord Fáilte (the Irish tourist board) based on the English system of walking districts. In Chambers’s proposal, walking districts would connect the wild seascapes of Achill Island with the remote mountain landscapes of Nephin Beg. “It would marry the whole area together, the cliff and sea walks in Achill and the hill walks here in Nephin. We could call it the Wild Mayo Walking District.”
We reached a parking lot near a dense forest. Chambers threw his hood over his head and plodded toward the trees. Deirdre’s eyes grew large as we approached the seemingly unbroken wall of black trunks. She has been on many hiking trips with me through the high country of the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies. But this was something else entirely.
She tapped me on the shoulder. “We’re going in there?” she asked in a whisper.
I shrugged. “Guess so.”
We would have been lost without Chambers. Even in the shadow lands of the mirror-image pines he walked with confidence, weaving across embankments, hopping man-made runnels between the narrowly spaced trunks. In his mind is a map so finely detailed that he needed no horizon or discernible landmarks to keep him on track.
At one small stream crossing, my daughter stepped onto what looked like a patch of solid ground but proved to be a boggy pool of indeterminate depth. She sunk in nearly to her knee. I grabbed her hand and pulled. With considerable effort, she managed to extract her leg but her shoe was gone. I thought surely she’d have to make the half-mile walk back to the car through the dark wood clad in only a single shoe (or, a more likely scenario, clinging sloth-like to my back). But Chambers took my trekking pole and with a few twists in the muck extracted the pilfered shoe. “The bog is greedy,” he said, explaining that days earlier his daughter had lost her cellphone in almost the same spot.
We emerged in a circular clearing, probably fifty yards across. Through the mist we saw a small mossy rise. As we climbed to its crest, we could see that the formation was nearly perfectly circular, with a depression in the middle, like a great moss-ringed donut. Chambers explained that we were standing atop the walls of a Neolithic ring fort. Chambers said that this structure is but one part of an entire complex of ancient forts and other stone buildings far older than Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde in the United States. “Can you imagine it?” Chambers asked. “They planted this forest over dozens of ancient sites. It all should be accessible to the public but no one can get to it. It’s a shame.”
Our final stop—and the one Chambers was most eager to show us—was a set of natural caves on the east slopes of Coreen More (the same ridge that a few days earlier John Chambers told me held “savage” views). Known as the Caves of Coinicear, these caverns are not true caves formed by erosive action but a series of mazelike underground enclosures left behind after the collapse of a massive rock outcrop, perhaps after the retreat of the glaciers ten thousand years ago.
We plodded up the hill’s steep slopes, zigzagging along grass ledges overlooking the Nephin forest and its notch-like clearcuts. We had to tread lightly, Chambers said. In places the cavern’s ceilings were covered only by a thin layer of soil. The ground could give way at any moment, plunging us into a deep chasm. After carefully negotiating the heights, Chambers wandered to the cave’s opening—a vertical fissure, little more than a foot wide, between slabs the size of airplane wings. We slithered between the wet rocks into a darkened void.
After a few seconds, my eyes adjusted. I snapped a picture of Deirdre and Michael but the dark conspired against the image. All that appeared on the LCD was a ghostly smudge of two blurred faces against the blackness. Heavy smoke stains on the walls ran upward to a chimney-like opening above. Chambers said that these caves were used by bootleggers and smugglers in centuries past. But the thick layer of soot on the walls suggested a far longer period of human use. (A few months later, on a nearby mountainside, Chambers stumbled onto a similar cave where he discovered ancient human remains.) The conversation turned back to the wild. The traces on the maps and the physical marks on the land, Chambers said, are hardly blemishes—as we in the US have come to see them—but important reminders of the past that not only are compatible with wilderness but that enhance it. “In the Nephins you can hear the echoes of our history,” Chambers said. “It is a place that reminds us of our suffering and our struggles for freedom. It’s all worth protecting.”
Just as the Nephin Range had been pulling at me all week so, too, were the words of the late Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney, in his poem “Bogland”:
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
Now we had finally gone under, toward the bottomless wet center. Here you could feel the seep and drip of time—the Irish elk and the bodies of the bog—all sinking inexorably toward the island’s deep core. The seeds of wilderness were there, too, germinating in that dark sanctuary, reaching upward toward the surface.