Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Eagle Country - Sean Lysaght

I've spent the last week reading this book, occasionally following the diversions it's sent me on for hours at a time before coming back to it, and sometimes just stopping to think about. It was a good choice to follow 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge' with, it's centered on Mayo so there's a little bit of geographic overlap, and the first book had made me brush up a little on my Irish geography. It was also long past time I read this, as I'd bought it almost exactly 2 years ago.

It is a beautiful book, both physically and for it's contents. I really love the Little Toller monographs. They're a handy pocket size, the print is nice to read, the covers enticing - they feel special in an unfussy but very well made way. Contents wise it's a series of walks and climbs around the west coast of Ireland in search of places that eagles have been and might be, along with some of the meditations that walking and meeting people bring.

White Tailed Sea Eagles are the specific focus, with some space for Golden Eagles too. I've a long standing desire to see a living Sea Eagle* (which I hoped to achieve on Mull, but didn't) which is what attracted me to this book in the first place. Reintroduction programmes are having some success in Ireland (and here, where Sea Eagles particularly seem to be popping up all over the place) so Lysaght isn't only searching out the places that they have been, but sees them too.

It turns out there are two things eagles need to thrive - food, and not to be shot or poisoned. There is understandable, if probably unfounded, anxiety amongst farmers that eagles will take lambs, and gamekeepers worry about their own birds. I find it's always a shock to read about these deliberate killings, and it would be easy to be outraged about them, but Lysaght keeps the tone mater of fact which is important.

Blame and outrage don't get the doubtful onside, and the other side of the equation - the state of overgrazed uplands - is an even bigger issue. Improve the state of the land and the rest will start to fall into place. It was also on this point that I really began to understand that a lot of the issues around agri and aquaculture in Ireland are not quite the same as in Britain.

Eagles might be the focus of this book, but they're not everything. There's history and culture, pouring over maps to find eagle related place names, and then the people met along these walks. Hints towards different poets and writers, some of the stories, myths, and legends of the places visited, and a whole lot more.

A lot of the more is Lysaght's charm and perception. He's somebody you want to go for a walk with, even if it's just on the page, and that's partly because the pace doesn't feel punishing. There's something of Nan Shepherd's philosophy about getting to know a mountain here, rather than conquering it, which makes you feel like you could keep up. There's a self awareness which is disarming too, and the pencilled marks now in the margins of my copy are a testament to how many gently presented things there are to think about. It's a wonderful book.

*There were stuffed ones in the house that I grew up in, part of a grim collection that apparently represented every bird that had lived on the island - presumably when my great uncle bought it in the 1880's - had he and his like been content with quality bird books there might have been eagles left for his descendants to see.

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