NATURE Mayo’s midsummer smorgasbord

Outdoor Living

Fragrant orchid
?The midsummer months offer a myriad of enchanting flora and fauna, including the wild Fragrant Orchid with its singular scent.

Mayo’s midsummer smorgasbord

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Midsummer is a constant reminder of my first visit to a Swedish Smorgasbord. Then, as now, I hadn’t known where to turn or what to try next. Flavours, scents and colours had vied for attention; rich seafood, cold meats never dreamed of, an artist’s palette of salad topped with basil and thyme and cold beers and wines in luxurious abundance, all attended by a casual drift of Versace- and Hugo-Boss bearing socialites, who picked at the banquet with something approaching disdain.
Not me. I pushed a grimy fist through a forest of lettuce and lemon to grab a lump of lobster from a large, oval tray, wondering why nobody else had touched it. Thin slivers of citrus-peppered steak followed, then smoked hams with dollops of puréed peas and a dash of something special. I recall becoming increasingly aware of a growing space about me. Everyone else appeared content to merely hold a plate and a glass while neither eating nor drinking. No wonder they were all so thin. Somebody was going to have to eat the stuff. I did my best, while the rest flashed white smiles and long limbs, and fluttered their eyelids.
Yes, midsummer. Where do I turn next? This week I took long drifts across the lake, allowing the boat to find its own way in and out of wind lanes and around the tip of a rocky island. I beached for a while to search for orchids and found them growing in thick clusters, a Lilliputian forest of colour, wafting sweet clove and sandalwood. These are the Fragrant Orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea), perhaps the most heavily scented of all wild Irish kinds, although the Butterfly Orchids that grow further around the shore must run them a close second.
Dry sticks made a small fire under the draping shade of holly and ash, and with a fork of hazel wood I blackened my sandwich over the flame. A trout had come into view, sipping insects with abandon. A careful cast gave him something else to chew on; for a few moments I envisioned him poached and cold on a platter but he found his freedom with a splashing leap and was gone.
I stopped to visit the badgers but it was still much too bright for them to be out. A dark, spreading ripple drew me across the bay, where an otter, a large male, bobbed in the twilight. He rolled as I approached, then dived and took himself as far as the reeds, leaving a stream of bubbles for me to follow. Although I sought to find him again he was shy: an old animal then, one experienced in the ways of man, for young otters are inquisitive by nature.
Then it was midnight and still bright enough to see when I finally found my way home.
At 5am it was bright again. Birds sang and a late cuckoo called from the back of the wood.
The garden called for help. Weeds grow fast in this part of the world. My pepper plants are swamped by some kind of wiry, creeping green thing that roots profusely wherever it comes into contact with the ground. It is nearly impossible to remove; the roots work deep into the soil and seem to have life within themselves, so that each broken piece becomes a new and ever more vigorous plant. I feel like the Sorcerer’s apprentice of the polytunnel world, with these things springing up around me at twice the rate I can pull them.
There is nothing that can be done but to look for the swans. Two weeks ago there were six cygnets in the family. A day or so after I first discovered them the weakest was obviously ailing. While its siblings were gobbling at an early morning hatch of flies it sat quietly on the back of its mother, tucked into her feathers with only its little head showing.
The next morning there were but five and now the entire family have moved out of the bay as far as the Cloondaver shore, where they will find rich feeding. If the weather turns on them they will return to the shelter of our bay – otherwise they will stay where they are.
The perplexing question is this: What shall I do next? There is a hill beyond Clonbur that I meant to climb last year and a pint to be poured on Inisturk. Who will go to see the dolphins off the Mullet, or greet the falcon up at Glenawough? There aren’t enough hours in the day, or days in the summer. Let’s get out there, for fat fistfuls of Mayo are there to be taken.