A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: A brief summer sojourn in Ireland

DUBLIN, Ireland (MindaNews/4 August) – For a few summers now, the Columban Ecological Institute, headed by Fr. Sean McDonagh and based in their office at Dalgan Park, has conducted a two-week seminar workshop on Ecology, Faith and Theology. I was invited to be a participant for the summer course beginning on 17 July to 29, 2011.

The first part of the seminar-workshop was spent in The Burren (Gaelic for rock) in Co. Clare. We stayed in a hostel right at the very heart of the Burren, a few kilometers from the town of Ennis. For seven days, we explored the different worlds of various species found only in what seemed like a desolate and barren landscape of The Burren. However, beneath what seemed like a landscape with little signs of life – as one sees only limestones and rocks that surfaced after the Ice Age, some 54 million years ago – we discovered bountiful manifestations of living species as well as ruins of the pre-Christian and medieval age in this part of Ireland.

We had a fantastic teacher in John Feehan, an imminent Irish scholar who is geologist, botanist, zoologist, agriculturist, archaeologist, philosopher and theologian. Introducing to us a new methodology of studying ecology, he led us through the landscapes of The Burren to study its geological origins that go back to the Carboniferous period (of the Paleozoic era which is within the Phanerozoic eon), the different species of the habitat as well as the signs of human existence in these parts of Ireland. This week truly allowed us to revisit our lessons in the hard science of biology and zoology and updated our knowledge in these various natural sciences. Rather than going immediately into the economic, political and cultural elements constituting ecological realities of the world today, we were first made to see the beauty of nature and the aesthetics of the entire creation. From a sensory appreciation of the environment, we were led into an intellectual understanding of how these worlds evolve and continue to do so until today.

With the use of high-tech microscope, the participants (there were almost 40 of us from Chile, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Korea, the Philippines and Ireland) were introduced to the beauty of the structures of wildflowers that bloom in The Burren during the spring-summer seasons. Some of these grow only in this part of Ireland, like small white and purple orchids. We also studied moths and insects under the microscope which were gathered from the fields; many of their eggs retrieved from the rivers. As we walked through the valleys and hills of The Burren, John Feehan also explained to us how the Ice Age melted that gave rise to the rocks and limestones as well as some arable land that also ultimately got dissipated.

Tracing the link between the inland territory towards the coastal area – near the famed Cliffs of Moher – we saw how the elements of water interfaced with that of limestones and rocks. Given the reality of a landscape made up of limestones, one sees various cracks that can go very deep as well as various types of caves through which water flows towards the sea. One is made to realize the inevitability of these limestones being eroded by acidic rain which will lead to various physical transformations in the centuries still to come and which could change the formation of the whole island of Ireland.

As John Feehan also has Irish archaeology, history and mythology at the tip of his fingers, he showed us the marks of human habitation in these parts of Ireland at a time when arable land was still available to support life for communities, including monasteries that arose during the early years of the introduction of Christianity. The formation of the rocks made into fences alone can yield interesting insights into human habitation from the pre-Christian to the medieval and to contemporary times as these fences interface with each other.

We visited various archaeological sites that have attracted both pilgrims and tourists in the recent past. There are the tombs and sacred sites of the pre-Christian communities where rituals and festivities would have been conducted. There are also the ruins of monasteries of the monks through the early Christian period stretching to the medieval age. These thriving communities farmed whatever arable land was available as well as domesticated and raised animals. With artifacts still left intact right in these sites (which are further supplemented if one is able to visit the National Archaeological Museum in Dublin), one is able to see how human beings interfaced with their surroundings. In time, however, with the arable land depleted by forces of nature, the communities and monasteries moved elsewhere. However, native flora and fauna remained and have been sustained through centuries.

The one-week was not just a study week for me but it was like a retreat. Literally, we retreated to millions of years ago to be able to understand how the world evolved through centuries and to see how closely human beings are inter-related to limestones and rocks, wildflowers and insects. To fully grasp the idea that we human beings share genes with what we consider are “the lowliest of creation,” namely, wildflowers and insects, allow one to move away from a rigid anthropocentric view of creation. There is, indeed, a web of life out there and we can only present ourselves as one species among others. And that each of these species have worlds unto themselves, have life beyond compare and truly share a significant aspect of the integrity of creation.

After The Burren, the participants transferred to the Columbans’ house at Dalgan Park. For the second week, Fr. Sean McDonagh led us into deepening our learnings of the previous week and from there to do more study related to the current state of ecological realities in the world today and how these interface with the theology of creation. We viewed films and PowerPoint presentations giving us recent updates on the reality of climate change, the state of biodiversity and specific issues on mining and the depletion of water. We shared how these realities are present in our own countries today. Interfaced with these updates are new insights into the theology of creation provided by Fr. McDonagh, who is one of the most recognized theologians in this field today given the books he has published and talks conducted all over the world. Again we also shared how this theology arises in our own contexts. This week ended on 29 July.

As Mindanao today faces urgent and dramatic ecological problems, there is need to consolidate on educating Mindanawons on the state of the environment. An advocate for the defense of our delicate eco-systems hopes that all of us – from grassroots BEC communities to government officials, NGO workers to professors in the academe – could understand better how our world evolved and to do this by looking at our very own local geological and natural habitat.

One hopes that the kind of ecological seminar-workshop conducted by the Columban Ecological Institute could be appropriated to the Mindanao setting!

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, is author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” “The Masses are Messiah: Contemplating the Filipino Soul,” and the recently-launched “Manobo Dreams in Arakan.” He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)