Saturday, July 26, 2014

#1000 Urban Miles: An Invitation to walk in the Praeger spirit

Photo by Emily Walsh
It’s possible that you don’t know what walking is, what walking can accomplish, until you have walked a distance across a mountainy bog in Ireland. In the rain.

Earlier this summer, accompanied by a colleague and by 14 of our students from DePaul University in Chicago, I followed in the footsteps of the great Irish naturalist and walker Robert Lloyd Praeger (1885-1953). Praeger, an amateur naturalist and one-time Head Librarian of Ireland’s National Library, traversed Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries mapping the vegetation of that moist and verdant island. More than 60 years after his death he remains Ireland’s most influential botanist; an influence that derives not only the prodigiousness of his output (over 800 scientific papers and articles and 24 books) but in his advocacy for the basic methodology of the naturalist’s trade: walking. He hiked on foot across the countryside looking for hidden marvels.

Our hiking this summer along Praeger’s routes culminated in a trailless hike in the western park of Killarney National Park, a 102.9-square-kilometre reserve of wooded and boggy mountainside. Accompanied by park educator Chris Barron we took boats across the famous Lakes of Killarney and commenced our walk by leaping from the vessels as far as we could across the ooze where the bogland met the water. Only one one of the students lost footwear, and as we retrieved the boots from the slime she hopped onto only slightly more secure ground.

The walk wound up along a valley adjacent to the peak of the Eagle’s Nest Mountain. No eagles existed there for over one hundred years until white-tailed eagles were re-introduced to the park in 2007. This day we were greeted by a peregrine falcon who bolted out from the peak and into a stone-gray sky. We walked on through the lovely, though rarely visited, Eamonn’s Woods. Here oaks hunker down like resting giants surveying lonely terrain. We broke for lunch in a small landscape called Glaisín na Marbh, a name that translates, somewhat terrifyingly, as "little stream of the dead." It is so called because the few families that lived at the base of the stream died off during the Great Famine (1845-49). There is an unmarked famine grave in the vicinity, which may now be covered in a pavement of scree that tumbled down when the stream was in winter riot the year before. It says something about the remoteness of the region that the ground was not consecrated until more recent times when a priest made the hike into this part of the National Park.

Read on here