Monday, July 18, 2016

Botany and Fantasy

This is generally a truth in fantasy literature: before extravagant quests, before dragons and gold, before rings of power, before strenuous heroism, comes botany. Hobbits farming the Shire, Harry Potter in the greenhouses with Professor Sprout, Ged on the mountains of Gont with Ogion the Silent learning the uses of fourfoil.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Islands as Keystone Locales in Children’s Stories

Liam Heneghan

Islands are a type of keystone locale, to adopt the language of the late influential experimental ecologist Robert Paine. They are disproportionately represented in children’s literature and play an undeniable role in shaping the reveries of childhood. But investigations on and of islands were also integral to formulating our contemporary understanding of how species came into being,  More recently, and more ominously, islands have shaped our understanding of how organic forms disappear. Islands are epicenters of  species extinction.

This remarkable convergence of a prevalent theme in children’s literature and in ecological and evolutionary research should not, however, be overly-interpreted.  Islands emerge as important in both literatures  for fairly distinct reasons. No children’s writer, one assumes, writes about islands because they can serve as fruitful experimental replicates for understanding the patterns of nature. Nor might an ecologist chose to study an island because it evokes feelings of comfort, security, and snugness (though she may chose  to study it because an island is beautiful—but this is altogether another matter.)

This caveat against drawing strenuous parallels aside, islands appeal to the the literary and scientific imagination alike because they are discrete, contained, manageable, exotic, quirky; islands are often wild, often subject to large natural forces, and usually navigable. An island pares things down to their essentials; islands clarify.

Ecologists and evolutionists examine islands in order to determine the forces that shape natural communities. But storytellers oftentimes inform us of how natural patterns appear to their protagonists. They describe what it is like for people to encounter islands with all their insular and uncanny strangeness. Islands contain and intensify a plot.

A significant implication of all of this is that in the hands of a skilled storyteller a island story elucidates the island environment. A child may come away from the microcosmic experience of such a book knowing a little more about her relationship with wild forces; knowing more about the world beyond the basic movement of a plot. Stories about islands are a gateway for understanding the nature of islands, the history of our interaction with them and on them. If a child loves an island, the adult she becomes may value them, and by valuing islands she may have a disproportionately beneficent impact upon the world. Islands are stepping stones to the broader world of wild nature.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Ephemeral Islands

Liam Heneghan

There is a little tuft of land a few feet oceanwards of Letterkesh beach in Connemara on Ireland’s Atlantic West Coast. You can walk out to it and take a perch on its distant shore; sitting there you can stare out across thousands of miles of open ocean. Exercise a little caution though, for the tide races in quickly here, and during the course of a brief marine reverie the land that was once safely contiguous with the shore becomes an island.

Several of my students who have visited that beach with me over the years have found themselves marooned on this freshly minted islet. And where moments before the surging of the sea calmed the tumult of their mental tides, it’s then they realize that, lost as it is in a private conversation with the moon, the ocean cares not a whit for them. Fortunately, a short paddle in knee-deep waters gets you back to shore and cools any castaway anxiety.

Tim Robinson, that great chronicler of island life along Ireland’s western shores describes his visits to some of these “intermittent-islands,” although the ones he described were of a more substantial variety and at two of them were inhabited. He wrote in Walking out to Islands (1997): “Sometimes one has to wait for the parting of the waters as for the curtain-up of a play, which wakes high expectations.” After this, the timer is set; the duration of your visit is set by the tides.
The shore to which you return from Letterkesh Island is itself, of course, on an island.  This island, Ireland, has itself been separated by an anciently rising post-glacial tide from the neighboring island of Great Britain. There would have been moments when a dithering animal having found itself on Irish soil could have scampered back across the sea to Great Britain and then on, if it cared to, to the continental mainland. Now the ancient land bridges are beneath the waves and the shallow waters are gone. The island of Ireland, in this sense, has been free for an epoch.

Now, if we can continue to stretch out the term ephemeral to encompass a span of more than ten thousand years—a stretch that will give no offense to geologists I suspect, but may offend common sense—then Great Britain is an ephemeral island also having been connected to the continent with land bridges of its own. All of this is from a geo-chronological recent news, since both the land that constitutes Ireland and Great Britain were, at a distant point in the past, undefined regions of a great landmass. The land mass snapped apart to the west as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge opened up the Atlantic. North America and Ireland still drift apart at the rate at which fingernails grow as my old geology professor, Padraig Kennan, once informed a class of us.

One day these nails will be trimmed, and to gravely injury the metaphor, those hands across the ocean will be brought together again.  Ireland, and Great Britain will be reunited. Borderless, indistinguishable from each other, and recognizable only to those with geological-scales memory; that is to say, not recognizable at all.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Awe, Despair, and the Annihilation of Nature

Liam Heneghan

Published in TREE June 25, 2016

Although it can be hard to discern at times, every academic subject is accompanied by a particular mood; for example, patient industry in the case of history, righteous indignation in peace studies, refined querulousness in philosophy, stolid deliberativeness in chemistry, head-spinning giddiness in cosmology, and, at first glance at least, sadness in the case of contemporary environmental science. Although gloominess may be inevitable in a discipline into whose domain falls the triumvirate of anthropogenic climate change, the radical alteration of biogeochemical cycles, and the torquing up of biodiversity loss, nonetheless historically there has been another mood, albeit somewhat muted in recent times, that accompanies the environmental disciplines, and that is awe.

See the article here. If you don't have access, let me know and I'm sure I can rustle you up a copy.

Did the Famous Five come from Cork?

Liam Heneghan
[Irish Times, Mon, Jun 13, 2016, 06:00]
Bandon-born children’s writer LT Meade’s ‘Four on an Island’ shares similarities with Enid Blyton’s ‘Five on a Treasure Island’, published 50 years later

LT Meade’s novel Four on an Island: A Story of Adventure (1892), now quite rare and seldom read, is sitting in front of me on a cushion in Dublin City Library’s Pearse Street archive. After deliberation about its location in the stacks – the catalogue information was incomplete – the librarian had brought it to me on the cushion, and speculated about my need for gloves while handling the fragile volume (she deemed them unnecessary).
Is this the book that influenced Enid Blyton’s Five on a Treasure Island (1942)?
A few days earlier, arriving back in Dublin from Chicago, where I live, I had picked up Blyton’s novel as part of my research for a book, Beasts at Bedtime, about environmental themes in children’s books.
Although Blyton wrote enthusiastically about nature – her early books include The Bird Book (1926), The Animal Book (1927) and Nature Lessons (1929) – my recollection of Five on a Treasure Island was as a sturdy adventure story rather than a bucolic meditation on kids’ survival on a wild island. It’s a romp where four cousins and their dog gallivant about an island off the Dorset coast, searching for “ingots of gold” and drinking lots of ginger beer.
Island stories are intriguing, as children away from parents’ gaze not only get up to high jinks but are often at the mercy of the wilder forces of nature – their own and environmental.
Blyton’s novel has some pleasant observations on the natural history of Kirrin Island: its rocky inaccessibility, the tameness of its rabbits, the fishing skills of cormorants. I suspect my career choice (a scientist of sorts) derives from a captivation with Uncle Quentin, the irascible scientist, father to Georgina and uncle to her cousins Julian, Dick and Anne, in Blyton’s Famous Five books.

Read on here

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Environmental Science and Studies at DePaul Turns 30 this year: let's party!

ENV at DePaul is turning 30 this year. We are hosting a reunion dinner with Guest of Honor: Dr Tom Murphy, Director Emeritus on 3rd June 2016 from 5-7 pm!

We've made a real effort to contact alums from the past 30 years, but there is still time to respond. If you are an alum and want to join us email me at lhenegha[at]

The dinner will coincide with our annual student symposium on June 3rd from 3-5 pm. All event are in McGowan South, 1110 W Belden, Chicago!

We will be making a quilt to commemorate our 30th anniversary.  Leaves for the quilt will be available on the night!

I would love to see you all at this event!  If you are still in contact with your old ENV pals, please make sure they know about this event.  It will be a blast.”