Review of ‘An Irish Atlantic Rainforest’ by Eoghan Daltun

‘Our species is fully responsible for what is now befalling all non-human life on Earth.’

As scientists presently decide which place will formally mark the start of the Anthropocene, Daltun’s ‘An Irish Atlantic Rainforest’ reminds us that, as humans, we have incredible potential to transform the world for the good or the ill.

Unusually for my reviews, this one begins at the end of Daltun’s journey and the end of the text, where he concluded with his key argument, ‘Quite simply, it is profoundly immoral for us to think and act as if the entire planet were ours alone, and that we don’t have to leave enough wild spaces for the millions of other species that have just as much right to exist as we do.’ The realisation and humble acceptance that our species is just one of the millions which are lucky enough to exist on the planet and not the most essential one, is a central message of the book.

My journey to this book was via ‘Losing Eden’ by Lucy Jones, ‘The Insect Crisis’ by Oliver Milman and ‘Silent Earth’ by Dave Goulson, so it was comforting and reassuring to read similar messages breaking through to a wider audience. On one hand, ‘An Irish Atlantic Rainforest’ is not a ‘climate’ book- and yet, it is. For me, it was about the change in perspective that is needed to live as a part of nature and to respect nature as a living entity.

Nature existed for millions of years, both before and without humans, and will undoubtedly do so again. Despite our existence on the planet, being in geological terms the blink of an eye, our destructive influence on the world has been marked and noticed. Daltun makes the point, early in the text that a connection with this geological timeframe is a vital one. ‘I was beginning to perceive the landscape around me and under me in ecological and geological terms and time frames, rather than just those structured around the narrow window of time that is a human life.’ Through the tactile touching of the soil and strata comes a realisation of our true place in the world and the understanding that by changing our nature of stamping artificiality on the world, we could give nature a chance. ‘Our task is mainly just to stand back and let that happen: no small thing for a species whose success thus far has been so firmly predicated on the control and manipulation of environments.’

Daltun argues that by stepping back and letting go of trying to ‘tame the wilderness’, we can be blessed with blooming ecological diversity and life. ‘We need to learn to be able to let go- and then enjoy nature come flooding back in and do its thing.’

Discovering awe

In truth, the ‘narrative’ aspect of this book, could be seen as potentially clichéd. A family moves from the city to the country and they have their eyes open to the beauty of nature and they aim to protect an area of land and ensure that an ‘Atlantic rainforest’ can breathe again. This would be a very trite reading of the book and one that attempts to minimise the deep, almost genetic memory and connection that we have when we encounter nature.

Daltun connects with a growing zeitgeist– that of experiencing awe when faced with nature and the environment. He states ‘I was in complete awe of the place.’ and describes an encounter with a sparrowhawk, which ‘left me literally ‘enraptored’, and close to tears. It felt like a very personal welcome from another world, and in a sense perhaps it was.’ There are moments in our lives when we do experience awe and wonder and are transformed by it, as we realise that our eyes and minds cannot process what we are experiencing. If you have seen the Grand Canyon, this may be the closest example that I can think of here. You may be able to intellectually cope with its formation over millions of years, but on an emotional front, it is much harder to embrace and fathom. Without these transcendental moments in our lives, we miss out on a connection. For Daltun, it is the proximity to forests which is the focus of the book, ‘In the forest, ecological time, which is only truly measured in scales stretching far beyond our own lives, potentially comes into view, if not quite within full grasp of the mind.’ He acknowledges the healing properties of nature- and notes that forest bathing is medically prescribed. Whenever I felt as if I was carrying the weight of the whole world on my shoulders, within a few steps into the woods I would feel that start to lift, often in the most indescribably powerful way.’ He continues to explore the transformative power of the connection of nature almost as a rebirth, ‘After spending time in the woods, I leave as a different person, recharged to my very core.’

Nature must be permitted to come back

This book is filled with words that try and capture the elusiveness of his journey. Daltun writes about ‘rewilding’ and ‘reverting’ and ‘renewing’ and ‘returning’ and ‘rejuvenation’, as the limits of language make it difficult to describe what the preservation of the temperate rainforest becomes. Preservation itself isn’t the right word- as it suggests interference. What Daltun describes, is almost a preservation through inaction.

He repeatedly acknowledges that he is not promoting a return to some Golden Age, but rather to create opportunities for ‘land sparing’- ‘The real objective is not to back to the past, but forward: to complex, vibrant ecosystems that actually work by themselves and are therefore more resilient in the face of climate breakdown and other shocks coming down the line. As has been said before, the aim of rewilding isn’t to turn the ecological clock back in time, but to allow it to actually start ticking again.’

We are all ecologists now

Daltun intersperses his book with images of human interaction with nature and in this, there is a similarity to the photographer Jonk’s work in ‘Naturalia’, where he visits abandoned human sites around the world, where nature has reclaimed the land and buildings. There is a humbling, haunting beauty in both the images of Jonk and the natural world described by Daltun. ‘How nature can return- and does best- when left alone.’

The practice of humans not leaving nature alone, but instead introducing non-native species creates significant issues for Daltun, as it threatens self-regulating eco-systems. He argues, ‘It may surprise many people to learn that invasive exotic (non-native) species are recognised by ecologists as the second biggest driver of global species extinction.’ He also points out that introducing non-native plants, or larger mammals can have unintended consequences for other elements of the food chain. ‘There is strong evidence that the increasing prevalence of non-native plant species is a major factor driving the current sharp decline of insect populations across the world.’

Good intentions aren’t enough

Daltun explores in depth the complex issues that are created when humans try to interfere, sometimes with good intentions, with what they view as deficits in nature. Perhaps not understanding that if something is not there in the eco- system, then nature has probably not put it there for a reason. He bemoans the introduction of goats and sika deer, ‘Often described by ecologists as ‘desert makers’, they are responsible for helping to push native species across the planet into extinction, with fragile island ecosystems especially vulnerable.’ He supports this point by emphasising that when human activity has impacted the eco-system already, any more interference can prove costly, ‘The most crucial thing to understand about invasive species is that they tend to make most headway in ecosystems which are already heavily compromised by human activities.’

Daltun takes time to unpick the dialogue between farmers, governments and environmentalists, and explores the challenges and cooperation that is possible between these groups. His target appears to be the Government more, which tries to impose and limit nature, while at the same time allowing invasive species to damage what and threaten what remains. ‘That such a situation has been allowed to persist for so long- both sike deer and rhododendron were already recognised as serious problems by the mid-1970s- is a monumental national disgrace.’

The dangers of monoculture plantations are analysed fully in the text- ‘However, despite all the arguments in favour of treating the land gently, there is a rapid and relentless homogenisation taking place throughout the length and breadth of the Irish countryside, with flat monocultural banality the ideal always strived for.’

There is also a warning that easy political soundbite solutions should always be viewed with caution, especially the ideology that if we just plant enough trees, all will be well. ‘Tree-planting is not synonymous with conservation; it is an admission that conservation has failed.’- Oliver Rackham

Daltun suggests instead that a flourishing, diverse, self-reliant ecosystem is thebetter solution- not just for a political term, but for the generations to come. ‘Nature must be permitted to come back. Society needs it; our rapidly disappearing wildlife desperately needs it.’

Our relationship with nature is a broken one, but it can be repaired.

It is important to note that Daltun does not finish his journey with an arrogant flourish of ‘Look what I achieved and you can too, if you work hard enough.’ In truth, there is no end point to the natural rainforest journey- just perhaps a different steward and guardian at some point. The connections and awareness of time that nature allows is more vital, as is a deep gratitude. Of his own experience, Daltun writes, ‘Restoring a wild natural ecosystem- or, more accurately, removing some of the man-made impediments that were preventing it from restoring itself- has brought deep joy, fulfilment and meaning.’

For more people to experience this deep joy and meaning, he argues that a dramatic cultural shift is required- to one of awe and to one of wonder. ‘Since culture is such a key driver of human behaviour, a profound transformation in our cultural relationship with forests and other natural ecosystems, to one of respect, and indeed reverence, is vital.’

If we continue on the path of treating nature as expendable and as a resource for us to enjoy, then we will continue to be the ‘planetary killers’ as E.O. Wilson describes us. Daltun concludes by arguing that our priorities need to dramatically altered. ‘The human economy is always placed first in our order of priorities…while the natural world is actually treated as expendable…it should be the diametric opposite.’

Without this cultural shift, we could be jeopardising our own future. ‘It is not an exaggeration to say that our own very survival as a species will ultimately largely hinge on whether we can do so- or not.’

‘The essence of nature is wholeness’- Douglas Chadwick

In reading this text, I thought about the journey of the author from Italy, to South Africa to Ireland. I thought about his work as a sculptor and wondered if Michelangelo’s quotation of ‘I saw the Angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’ could be applied to Daltun’s transformation. I felt there was a spiritual part to this book, which wasn’t based on a religion, but on a discovery- that the work of preserving and setting nature free, changed Daltun more than it changed nature. When he writes, ‘I was privileged to be witness to the most stunning, magical transformation of the land inside,’ it seemed as if nature had transformed the writer as well.

What happens to us when we lose the magic of connecting with nature and choose to not allow ourselves to be transformed?

Will our rooms refuse to transform into forests as in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Maurice Sendak?

And will we always be missing a part of the wholeness that could enrich our lives?


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