At the back of the house where I grew up there was a wet ditch, draining some good agricultural land.
As I child I would go there most days with my net and bucket. Down through the shoulder high wheat, the dog ahead of me, jumping occasionally to find his bearings. I can still feel the rough awn of the grain on my skin.
Beneath the overhanging gorse and amongst the rushes I’d sweep my net through shallow pools. Tadpoles and water insects were common, fish were rarer, but the occasional stickleback caused great excitement. The large ones would be seconded home to live out their days in my garden pond.
There was always something to be seen. Water boatmen, caddisfly cases, flag iris and the bulrush.
I didn’t know the names for them back then, but I knew what they were and I certainly knew where to find them.
One autumn the local forester asked the children in the area to help him plant some trees on the margins of the wetlands. He mentioned the trees we were planting love the damp ground and disperse their seeds by wind. Returning home at dusk he pointed out the bats foraging the treelines overhead.
Beyond the wet ditch, over a small mound is a beach. Well, a beach of sorts, a stony strand, part of a matrix of coves and estuaries which make up Cork Harbour.
On the low tide here, mudflats stretch all the way to Haulbowline.
Stepping on to the shell rich shingle, the crunch underfoot would lift the gulls, curlew and oyster catchers from their feeding positions. Even now call of the curlew transports me back to this spot, in the misty early morning, the shriek reverberating across the mud and echoing off the harbour walls.
At the edge of the flats were rocky reefs. Here I knew the best stones for lifting to find shrimp, crab and blennie. I knew the sand to find ragworm in, and the slightly different texture where the lugworm hide.
I remember August evenings, watching the mackerel, now deep in the harbour, erupt in feeding frenzy’s of the shore.
The mackerel are breaking! The mackerel are breaking!
Diving terns would hammer the water surface, emerging with streaks of silver. In the aftermath dead or damaged sprats would be thrown onto the shingle by ankle high waves. This event was always thrilling to me and felt like the climax of the summer. Years later, as a young adult and student of environmental science I was given new perspectives on these formative experiences. The green slime that would foul my net each summer now made sense and I learned how it and other pressures on our waterbodies threaten to destabilise the intricate webs of life upon which we all depend.
The ditch is still there, although the wheat and sugar beat in the field have since yielded to dairy. I see it now through adult eyes. A scarcely acknowledged waste ground.
A coincidence of geography, wind and tide. A habitat, sustaining itself against the odds. The trees we planted that day were alder and are thirty feet tall now. As promised, they have crept west and form a humble connecting corridor between Currabinny Woods and Lough Beg. Tall grass grows in their dappled shade.
Last year I sat at their feet for hours observing sand martins feasting on insects overhead.