390,000 to 275,000 as famine and mass emigration emptied the
countryside. That trend would continue unabated for another
150 years. Today, Mayo’s population stands at a mere 130,000.
In the open spaces of the west of Ireland, every parcel of
the waterlogged landscape feels lived on, altered, haunted. I
thought of the US’s own deracinated national parks and wilderness areas, once the homelands of native peoples who, for
centuries, were violently and systematically uprooted from the
land. Several years ago, in a copse of wind-blasted pines at a
high lake in Yosemite, I stumbled across a midden of obsidian flecks. The shards were not naturally deposited but had
been carried there —probably from the shores of Mono Lake or
Obsidian Dome, a glittering volcanic mound on the eastern side
of the Sierra Nevada—by Miwok or Paiute hunters who used
the Sierra high country as a summer hunting ground. I imagined an ancient hunter taking refuge, just as I had, in the small
stand of trees by the windblown lake, working the stone into a
tool that might help bring sustenance to a waiting family. Some
of the fragments of volcanic glass were still sharp, remnants
of a shattered culture. At around the same time Irish peasants
were being starved out of these rolling valleys, the Ahwanechee
Indians were being forcefully removed from Yosemite Valley.
Indeed, conservation e=orts in both the Nephin Range and
Yosemite were preceded by a long history of dislocation and
loss. The di=erence, of course, is in the way we remember
each. The Irish have not forgotten the mass de-peopling of the
countryside in the wake of the famine. It is part of their collective identity. But we in the US have become accustomed to the
idea that our wild lands are “untrammeled”; the corollary to
that line of thinking, of course, is that we forget the plight of
the people who once called that land home.
After an hour or so, the sky shifted from deep azure to black
as the late-winter stars blinked on one by one. Soon the white
smudge of the Milky Way appeared. In all my years traveling
in Ireland I had never seen a sky as dark or more shot through
with starlight. As I went to bed, the wind picked up, clattering
the loose boards of the shelter.
WHEN I AWOKE, intermittent rainsqualls tapped an indecipherable code on my rain fly. For a moment, the weather broke and I
crawled from my tent, retrieved my stove, and prepared breakfast.
Suddenly, a dark rain cloud rapidly passed overhead, obscuring
the sun and spraying my face with mist, and right then a rainbow arced across the valley. The good weather pattern I had been
blessed with the day before was breaking down. I quickly packed
up my camp and within minutes had my feet back on the trail.
The path climbed gently, contouring the western shoulder of
Nephin Beg. To my right, small streams and cascades poured
from steep heather-studded corries. To my left, the land rolled
away into a brown boggy valley cut through with the slate-blue
meanders of the Scardaun River. I paused on the trail near a
gnarled oak tree, the only one visible for miles in the otherwise
treeless valley. I retrieved my topo map as the rain rapped at the
hood of my coat. According to the map, the summit of Nephin
Beg was no more than a mile distant and about fifteen hundred
feet above where I stood.
With more serious rain threatening, I stepped o= the trail
and made an ascending traverse along the steep hillside, each
step squelchy and spongy. Several small pinnacles and bands of
quartzite loomed ahead. Under them I found rockier and more
stable footing. After about twenty minutes of steep climbing
I gained the ridge and the sun returned through a gap in the
clouds. Perhaps ten or fifteen miles in the distance, in full sunlight, squatted the bulky triangular mass of Slievemore, one of
the highest sea cli=s in Europe. In between, light glinted from
hundreds of bog ponds and the arcing inlets of Tullaghan Bay.
The scene, with its play of shadow and light, gave the unmistakable impression of isolation, of vastness — of wilderness.
The angle of the slope soon relented but the route was now
cut through with muddy defiles, where grassy slopes plunged
abruptly into large murky pools. Some of these small chasms
could be crossed with a leap. Others had to be carefully circumnavigated. With a full pack, the going in the mountain blanket
bog was slow as I prodded at each piece of ground with my
trekking pole to ensure there was no bottomless hole waiting to
make a Clonycavan Man of me.
Within a half hour, the summit was close. Or so it seemed. I
had crossed into a layer of cloud and mist that had been massing along the hilltops all morning. This was a darkened zone, a
place sapped of color and dimension. The fog was not only disorienting but bitterly cold. I’d forgotten a compass, so I decided
to use the digital compass on my cellphone to make sure I was
maintaining a northward bearing toward the summit. But when
I turned it on, the screen blinked, returning a flashing battery
icon. Drained. On instinct, without a clear sense of up, I plodded
deeper into the cloud bank. After what seemed like an hour of
blind navigation (but that was closer to fifteen minutes), I saw a
dark outline that resembled the head of a giant protruding from
the ground. I proceeded toward it and the rough edges of individual stones could be made out. The head was, in fact, a four-foot-high cairn at the summit of Nephin Beg.
Nephin may translate to “sanctuary,” but on this day it was
certainly no place to linger. I paused for a sip of water and
continued on at rapid pace toward the mountain’s northern
slopes, where, I hoped, I could find a safe route to descend to
the lakes and the tree farms of the Nephin Wilderness beyond.