We started a new family tradition last year where we exchange books on Christmas Eve. Daniella got ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle, Henry got ‘Piranesi’ by Susanna Clarke, and he surprised me with ‘Dearly’ by Margaret Atwood and ‘Wild Flowers of Ireland and Britain’ by Majorie Blamey, Richard Fitter, and Alastair Fitter. Needless to say, Henry’s gifts were spot on! I’m really into Atwood’s writing at the moment and, even though he’s often amused by my enthusiasm for plants, he knew how much I’d enjoy a book helping me identify plants.
I’m always stopping on walks to examine flowers, shrubs, and trees. I’d say my botanical knowledge is only marginally better than average and even though I’m far from knowledgeable, I can tell the difference between azaleas, agapanthus, and anthuriums. What I know about plants, I’ve learned over the years from my own gardening efforts and from my mother and mother-in-law who are both avid gardeners.
I wasn’t familiar with many of the plant and bird species in Ireland after we moved here and I found this weirdly unsettling. I was also disappointed with what felt like the lack of a ‘gardening culture’ where we lived and, what’s more, I initially thought the fauna and flora lacked diversity in comparison to South Africa. We lived in Johannesburg before we moved, and the green suburbs are home to a wide variety of plants, birds, and animals. Daily visitors to our home could include iconic hadadas, praying mantises, Cape skinks, and rain spiders, among many other things. I don’t think a week went by where we didn’t find a large, hairy rain spider in our house, but since they’re fairly docile, they were always carefully relocated to the garden. This is probably why they kept reappearing. We also had a wild civet living in our neighbourhood. Now and then it was seen on a neighbour’s security camera who would share photos on our local Whatsapp group. Another concerned neighbour told us she contacted the local zoo, asking if they were looking for a missing civet, but they assured her that several wild civets live in Johannesburg. But this is not a story about our Johannesburg garden – I wanted to talk about Ireland’s wildflowers…
I quickly learnt the names of the frequent feathery visitors to our new garden in Donegal: robins, tits, blackbirds, rooks, magpies… But when it came to the local plants, I felt deflated. It seemed like the Irish landscape, even the wild Donegal coast, had been shaped by human hands. To my homesick eyes, I saw only grass and gorse bush. This, of course, was very far from the truth. It took me a while to come to terms with the different landscape and that I now live in a country with no snakes and hardly any lizards. I’m not too fussed about the snakes, although it is strangely thrilling to walk in the veld, not knowing if a snake will cross your path. But I do miss the lizards, though.
Humans often have certain aesthetic expectations when we think about ‘nature’. J. Baird Callicott* notes how this anthropocentric view is ultimately trivial since longing for pure, beautiful, unspoilt nature is only relevant if we don’t have to think about nature in terms of resources or survival. What’s more, Walter J. Ong* observed how this aesthetic outlook stems from humans’ urge to dominate the natural world. This gave me a moment’s pause. How very human of me to project my expectations onto the Irish landscape. It’s true that Ireland, like Europe, has experienced a decline in biodiversity over the years.* And there’s nothing wrong with our need to enjoy wild/ untamed landscapes although, if we explore and enjoy these landscapes, how ‘wild’ are they? Philosophical debates aside, I realised I had to shift my attitude and look at nature with a different type of curiosity. Not only is Ireland a breathtakingly beautiful country, but it’s also home to fascinating fauna and flora. This is where ‘Wild Flowers of Ireland and Britain’ come in – I’m hoping to learn more about Ireland by identifying as many plants, trees, and grasses as I can this year. I plan to share my visual and written journal on the Wild Library blog and Instagram. I’m already a few weeks into this new adventure (catch-up post to follow!) and I’m already amazed by some of the little discoveries I’ve made. I hope by the end of the year I’ll be much more knowledgeable about Ireland’s wildlife in general but who knows what I will discover and learn on this journey?
I’d love for you to join me on this adventure! I post regularly on Instagram, sharing my discoveries on my stories and saving them to my highlights – ‘wildflowers’. If you’re on Instagram, give the Wild Library blog a follow! Or you can subscribe to the Wild Library blog by scrolling down and hitting the ‘subscribe’ button. I also share book recommendations, inspirational stories, and the occasional poem.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, I recommend reading Daffodils next.
Have a lovely day,
*Sources from The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment, Timothy Clark, Cambridge University Press: 2011