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.