Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How Irish Peat Bogs Created Mythology

With the wonderful weather we have had lately in Ireland, folks are taking advantage with hay making, painting, and turf cutting.

Folks ask me a lot of questions about turf cutters, why turf cutting is being banned and ask about the conservation issues.

Being the Lughnasadh month some folks are revelling in the Tailtiu clearing the forests for farming legends. There is, perhaps, some confusion about reverence for farms and farmland balanced with forestry and wetland conservation.

It is interesting to look into the creation, development and use of turf bogs to understand how the stories of mythology have evolved and possibly why the 1000s of megalithic structure dating from 4000 BC to about 1000 BC exist in Ireland.

There are two very different types of Turf Bog in Ireland, so I will attempt to present their differences in relation to the mythology of the times of their creation

Blanket Bogs

These are the most common turf bog in Ireland, and through Scotland too. From a distance these boglands appear to hug the landscape like a blanket, especially over rolling hills and some mountains. Surprising to many people is that blanket bogs are there due to an extreme environmental reaction caused by intense human intrusion.

Where Blanket Bogs are today is where broadleaved and pine mixed forests once flourished. Broadleaved trees would have included birch, rowan, hazel, willow, alder, hawthorns, blackthorns and maybe some crab apples, plus pine too.

The first farming tradition humans appeared to have arrived in Erin about 4000 BC, with a surge arriving about 2500 BC. This is also around the time it is said the hill and mountain top megalithic passage cairns were starting to be created.

To me, this suggests that these cairn structures had a huge link
to these earliest farming and farmers.

This is a vast subject that I will leave for another blog post or two.

Also intriguing is how the first farms were on terraces on upland levels of hills and mountains rather than on lush flat plains below. Some say this is because the lower land was too waterlogged or contained huge hardwood trees that were too hard to fell with the ancient stone tools.

Farming? What farming?

It appears that the top peaks of hills were used for cattle and sheep pasture while the upper sides of hills were for grain cultivation and maybe early vegetables like leeks and beans. There were no carrots, parsnips, cabbage and broccoli in ancient times as these were genetically created by monks from about 600 AD onwards.. The sheep seem to be more for wool and cattle for milk. Slaughtering was rare as these animals were also for currency and status.

This food was supplemented by food eaten by the neolithic nomads such as wild apples, nuts, berries and seaweeds.

After the trees were cleared on top of these hills and top side for the crop terraces, farming became more intensive. The soil, the organic matter, left behind after clearing the trees soon became vulnerable to leaching. Valuable growing nutrients were washed away by rain.

The remaining soil became acidic, and this ruined the pH balance and other conditions needed for good yield grain growing. Crop yields and milk yields reduced over the generations since virgin farms were created from the woodlands.
There was bound to be some eventual serious starvation when this happened.

Before the crop failure problems seriously happened, but when it was recognized that something was happening to reduce food yields, this is when it seems like megalithic structures were created. It is assumed by many people of thought and discovery that these structures were first built  to call upon a divinity, such as the goddess, to rescue and protect them from more farming deterioration.

There are also stories of these structures having practical purposes such as seeds being specially germinated within the cairns due to a discovery that seeds germinated in round cairns increased yield.

Some of these stone cairns also covered previous water sources, that today we may call sacred wells. Sometimes they covered spring wells, water pools of pure fresh water, sometimes richly mineral chelated, that was pushed from the earth.

When starvation eventually came to these early farming communities this is when I believe these megalithic structures took on their later use of becoming tombs

Its also strange that these soils that turned acidic sat upon alkaline limestone. Growers today burn and crush limestone to add to soil to improve soil towards a balanced pH.

The new invaders, about 500 BC, commonly called The Milesians in story, an Iron age tribe, attempted to farm at lower levels. They cleared trees in the valleys and drained treeless plains. There is some suggestion that these new people had conservation policies towards forestry possibly due to lessons learned from lands they had come from.

There are signs these new people had strong reverence for trees and water. Some folks say they had descended from a former nomad race that had taken to the sea and eventually came ashore and merged with a farming race. This would indicate mixed values and diet needs. I think this makes more sense of the mythology stories of the Milesians calling on the spirits of the De Dannan within the Sidhe mounds and hills to merge with them in peace.

Where the earlier stone age to bronze age farmers were, on the higher land levels, by 500 BC heathers and rushes were now established on this acidic landscape. Because these acid loving plants did not decompose, layers of peat, now called Blanket Bog, began to build up.

The Ceide Fields, in county Mayo, is a wonderful example and illustration of how this happened. Below the blanket bog there, a network of walled fields have been discovered that stretch for many miles along and near the Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim coasts. Blanket bog is generally about 3 metres, 10 feet, thick, and it is below these that walls and field structures have been discovered.

Cutting this turf, this peat, for fuel on both Blanket Bogs and Raised Bogs began in the late17th century and continued at an increasing rate., especially after 1980 when demands on more fuel for power stations in Ireland increased rapidly.

From the 1980s there has also been an escalation of monoculture spruce tree plantations as corporations bought land cheaply. Potential profit margins on spruce timber at that time was high. Also spruce forestry planting became a tax haven during a time when high earning tax rates were at their highest ever.

Blanket bog forestry was suddenly the treasure trove of tax dodging rock stars, other celebrities and corporation directors. Of course. this attracted outcry by environmentalists, including myself, to return to planting pine and the broadleaved tree species that once grew on these lands in ancient times.

Monoculture farming of spruce trees increases the acidity of the land which leaches into the water table and increases the problem first set in motion by the ancient farmers. If native trees were grown instead of spruce then the ruined acidic land should slowly and stably return to its former fertile glory as nature intended.

During recent years considerable blanket bog land has been successfully drained, limed and fertilized and returned to pasture. This has been to increase space available for cattle farms. Irish beef is in greater world demand and is attracting much higher profits for farmers than spruce tree crops.

Cattle farming is currently the new gold rush in Erin after the property boom and financial services boom has crashed. I believe that cattle farming will now take over the lower blanket bog areas. Alas, this also escalates the acidity problems, especially in the water table.

This is partially why we are campaigning through our Bards In The Woods for more people to use and learn about forestry and include picnics from better earth compatible growing and rearing


Raised Bogs

These are the most common form of Bog around the Shannon basin and in midland counties like Laois, Offaly and especially Roscommon.

Unlike blanket bogs, these were initially formed naturally and not from a conservation disaster due to human naivity to farming methods. However, early farming methods did eventually escalate their creation.

About 10,000 years ago, when the ice age glaciers retreated from the Erin land, it left behind a barren plain with large potholes and poor drainage. These holes filled with water and created thousands of lakes across Erin

By around 7000BC, thick vegetation would have started to establish above the water levels providing organic matter that served food and conditions for birch trees to grow.

By mythology, it is said birch trees were the first life on earth. Birch trees were followed by new populations of rowan, hazel, hawthorn, blackthorn, alder, pines, crab apple trees, and maybe others, that grew and established woodlands.

The human species of nomadic hunter gatherers would have comfortably settled by these lakes and learned to sustain themselves with fishing from the lakes. They would have supplement fish with what food they could obtain from the forests such as nuts, berries, fungi, apples, other fruit and hunted animals.

Around the edges of these lakes, reeds and other vegetation, that enjoy shallow water, would have started growing and propagated rapidly. As water loving plants are slow to decompose their layers compressed to form what we call peat, or turf today.

Over a few thousand years, these peat layers built up and up, while also consuming and reducing the lake edges and reducing the size of the lakes. The increase of this vegetation converting to peat would have gradually made the waters in the lakes stagnant and acidic, probably seriously by 1500 BC.

These are conditions that could no longer support fish and marine life, an essential food of the nomadic human species. This would have forced the nomadic species of man to reside by the sea shores and live from shellfish, seaweeds and shoreline fish they could catch.

It is said that by the sea shores these nomadic people eventually learned the skills of woodcraft from the new incoming grain farmer species of man. From these boat building skills they built boats and took to the seas to fish and eventually live and explore other lands across the seas.

Their new culture at sea created an endless series of myth legend tales.

The vegetation, that had consumed the lakes these nomads lived beside, continued to grow rapidly and the bog layers continued to rise. This rising also elevated the water, once waters of lakes and now soaked into the upper peat bog layers. This wetness was, and still is, essential for feeding the new layers of vegetation that continue to raise these bogs..

By 1500 BC, the remaining lakes and water pools must have been 5% to 10% of what was around Erin in 7000 BC. As clear and flowing water was fast reducing, like the reducing yields on farmland, water was bound to have taken on a special spiritual significance.

There would surely be very active procedures and rituals to try and ensure the water available did not decline any more, just as there were procedures and rituals created to encourage waning farming yields to improve. These attempts to bring back food yields and clean water would have surely created the first druidic traditions and the first leadership positions that have evolved into chieftains, kings, queens ... and more recently, politicians.

By 1000 BC, the majority of lakes in the midlands of Ireland would have been completely filled in by this growing and raising bog.

Scientific research has indicated that around 1000BC the climate on Erin, and around the world, was drier than today, Our hardest of woods, such as oak, ash and elm, would have first established themselves near the original lakes, but many of these first precious hard woods were cleared by those clearing lands for farms.

The dry time from about 1000 BC to 500 BC also drained the raised bog lands for awhile and provided ideal conditions for oaks, ashes and elms to seed themselves and grow healthily forests on the raised bog areas for awhile.

During this dry time from about 1000 BC until about 500 BC it is uncertain what happened to humans resident on Erin. Speculation by archaeologists and anthropologists claim that from about 1000 BC to 500 BC was a dark period for humans with a rapid population drop. Their speculations include major climate changes and dramatic natural disasters including asteroids crashing into our planet.

By 500 BC the rains returned and the bogs became wetlands again, and acidic again, but the populations of humans seem to suddenly rapidly grow again.

The hardwood trees could no longer live with these returning bogland conditions so they fell to be consumed by the bogs. Today, many of these bog trees have been uncovered and have provided valuable and sacred material for woodcarvers and sculptors.

When the rains returned, from about 500 BC onwards, the new vegetation cover was various species of bog-moss that, like the reeds, did not rot down but added to the layers of vegetation that became peat, became the rising bogs again.

A new development, from about 500 BC, was the water at the edges of these raised bogs being rich resources of iron rich ochre that seeped out of from these bogs. This was an essential ingredient to escalate the coming of the new Iron Age in Ireland.

As the bogs were now too wet to walk upon, wooden walkways were built over them to privide what may have been the first road network in Erin.

As I mentioned earlier, the late 17th century was the time when turf, peat, cutting commenced to provide fuel. Turf/Peat cutting for fuel escalated between the early 19th century. By 1946 more than half of the raised bed turf had been cut and burned.

The Irish government set up Bord na Móna to manage the remainder of the raised bed turf, but Bord na Mona actually ascelerated the cutting of turf bogs through the use of mechanical means.

By 1969 100,000 hectares of raised bog remained untouched in Ireland. 90% of the original raised peat bog had been now been consumed. Also, in 1969, Bord na Móna still owned half of the remaining raised bog and they continued to exploit this resource for power station fuel and highly profitable briquette fuel manufacturing.

Meanwhile,traditional hand cutters of turf discovered that new laws were preventing them from cutting new turf for personal and local use. This injustice is still being fought hard today.

There are mixed feelings about the control and preservation of raised bogs today. From my own personal experience raised bed turf is warmer burning and burns 3 to 4 times longer than blanket bog due to its density. Leaving raised bed turf untouched allows more understanding of it and an incredible diverse range of wildlife that has made raised turf wetland their home.

Turf Bog Land Today

Removal of turf bog, both raised and blanket, has revealed a new landscape of Erin that initially seems to have quickly become pasture that is ok for sheep grazing. There are attempts to make this land more fertile to create grazing and edible crops but it takes up to 500 years to create an inch of fertile soil from green manure growing such as red clover.

Less nutrition demanding crops such as hemp and turkish reed could make good crops on these turf stripped lands to provide sustainable materials for the construction industry, as well as hemp for the textile industry and willow for fuel too.

Overall, the majority of turf/peat bogs of Ireland came from environmental disasters caused by human decisions. Some humans took on the positions a priest leaders, eg, the myths of the druids, who attempted to resolve upcoming disasters through encouraging human created faiths and rituals.

Even the forming of raised bogs that was started by nature
was ascelerated by naive human farming intervention.

Now, we have more potential environmental problems from using and removing the turf but human choices made today could repair this damage.
It will need patience and time.

One resolve is to return to planting native woodland trees to the blanket bog areas as they will naturally rebuild the organic structure of the stripped land.

If this interest you, In Ireland, please join our activities at Bards In The Woods , 
or if you are in other countries start up similar movements.

Could we inspire the mythology that will be written and told in the future to be of us aiming to restore the earth to be like guests that try to leave the place as good as they found it when they arrived ... or better?

It seems the genes of our earlier nomadic ancestors are still within us.
People who's actions seem to be in total balance with nature.
What can we learn and be from these today?

Was picking the apple and commencing farming indeed the Fall Of Man.
The Bogs Of Erin seem to indicate it indeed was.


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