The smell of home turf
The lower flanks of Cuilcagh mountain are now cosily blanketed in revived boglands rich in species who make up the ecology of this very special habitat. Incredibly, as recently as the nineties this elemental bog was endangered because of the commercial extraction of peat for fuel. It looked like a giant carpark (parking lot), a land with its skin peeled back. A lot of TLC later and these “badlands” are again home to a huge variety of wildlife.
We are not experts but the commercial rape of the land by the large turf industry seems like quite different thing from the traditional small scale harvesting of neighbourhood turf for winter fuel. This image shows the peat after it has been cut drying in the Marble Arch Caves Geopark breeze.
Funnily enough the drizzle doesn’t seem to affect the drying process too much.Turf has been burned here since the bronze age and in the Geopark, we noticed burnt mounds that look a lot like burnt peat. (The demands of blogging mean that I may not have time to check all this info so do feel free to comment and correct please.) And a turf fire, as it is called here, is surely the smell of home. Adan a young guy who farms his family homelands on Galloon Island could NOT believe we had NEVER smelled a turf fire, not ever. He simply rejected the idea, what total deprivation….
We vowed to light a real fire and found an opportunity at MacGrath’s cottage and lit one just for the craic. Our English, Valencian and New Mexican burning experiences have led us to burn mostly wood and never turf. The very idea of burning the earth itself seems strange to us. But it was the first fossil fuel.
I know that lots of you have no tradition of burning turf fuel. So here is a short explanation. Turf is peat and comes from the buildup of mosses and other vegetation where the accumulation of dead vegetation exceeds the decay. The reason this can happen is that in the wetland environment the mosses are not able to break down for lack of oxygen. The fungi and bacteria that recycle the dead mosses cannot live in this waterlogged environment and decay is halted. Gradually, gradually there is a buildup of vegetation which becomes compacted and swallows up the surface stones and features. Peat that forms in these conditions on the sides of mountains is called Blanket Bog. Lowland bogs are slightly different, but essentially the process is the same. Turf that is burnt in homes in Northern Europe have normally taken hundreds or even thousands of years to form.
Turf extraction, as we know, is not sustainable, (mostly) which is why lots of us now prefer to buy non-peat based composts.
In these Geopark lands, turf drying in the fields is still a relatively common sight; one that attracts our attention. And many families have a cut in a newly harvested field. They must go down and shift the peat once it has dried and stack it at home. Tur, as we found out, burns almost without flame and is red hot. It burns more like coal rather than wood. We stoked and blew under the turf all night trying to get some flame before we understood the error.