A spot of local politics last night called me into the metropolis of Graignamanagh, Co Kilkenny. Metropolis is a teeny bit ironic because 'Graig' has a population of 1500 including students away at college and the post-Tiger diaspora who are actually working in Canada and Western Australia. But the town has about 30 pubs and is one of several in Ireland that claims the highest ratio of bars to people in the country. Apart from the medieval Cistercian connexion (na managh = of the monks), Graig is principally interesting because of its association with the Barrow Line which from about 1780 contrived through locks and weirs to make the river navigable from the tide-head at St Mullins to a place deep in the midlands 90 km further North. Three generations of us walked along the tow-path in early June and made a wonderful day of it along 10-12 km of those 90km. I set off in totally unsuitable footwear and by the time we reached Graig for lunch, I was getting a bit of a blister. So I walked the second half to St Mullins bare-foot and a cool blessing and relief that was.
I was thus better placed than some to row in behind last night's meeting, which was called to put a stop to the gallop of certain shadowy interest groups who have a cunning plan to resurface the tow-path with compacted gravel. I couldn't walk 50 m on that sort of surface unless I was undertaking a penance. Perhaps more significantly joggers will destroy their knees if they have to run on a less forgiving surface than grass. The effect of resurfacing appears to privilege one section of the users of the tow path (cyclists) over the others (walkers, anglers, picnickers, lovers, naturalists). The Barrow can still be lonely and lovely despite having almost all the fish-stocks destroyed as a tragedy of the commons [explained for grown-ups, children]: a combination of pollution and over-exploitation that has radically changed the ecosystem in a single human generation. Local woman, broadcaster Olivia O'Leary turned up to lead the charge for maintaining the grassy surface. She quoted a feasibility study which neatly compared the rugged grandeur of the West of Ireland with the more lived-in landscape of the Sunny South East, whose beauty "was deduced not declared". One of the newly elected Carlow County councillors spoke up to say he'd take the matter to head office. Then two separate councillors from County Kilkenny on the other side of the river said they would see that stake and raise it in their head office. But perhaps the most affecting show of solidarity was the now elderly son of a lock-keeper from distant County Kildare "another county heard from!" who said that, like John Tyndall, he had walked to school along the tow path and cycled back from dances well after midnight and he always got home safe. He was against the gravel because he'd surely bark his knees on that stuff if he did fall off his bike [by implication taking his girl on the cross-bar back to her home while slightly the worse for drink?]. Inevitably, this being local politics in Ireland, the subject of pot-holes (in the to-be-gravelled surface after the first winter flood] came up. This image unaccountably but predictably drew loud cheers from everyone present.
Now today is International Indigenous People's Day and you might think that protecting the lives, livelihood and habitat of the Yanamomo in the Amazon, (or Christians in Syria or ethnic Russians in Crimea) is more important than a bit of new gravel. But today is also the 160th anniversary of the publication of Thoreau's Walden: one man's investigation of seeking psychic health through being embraced by the natural world. As I attempted to explain last year, enterprises that deliver jobs, or boost the economy or create value should not be privileged over the rights of the mass of men [who] lead lives of quiet desperation but keep their sanity by touching the Earth. As Thoreau's pal Emerson wrote in his review of the book "He chose to be rich by making his wants few, and supplying them himself." There are other values than monetary values.
People who never walk the tow-path think that gravelling the surface can accommodate all the existing users and generate a little more foot-fall that will translate in local jobs in B&Bs and pubs and cafes. They don't see how this will affect the damselflies in June or how it might drive off recreational walkers, boost obesity and cost millions in health-care. The Man is scheduled /obliged to carry out an Environmental Impact Study (est. cost €30,000) and a separate Flooding Study (est. cost €30,000) and the people from Save The Barrow Line think it might cost another €5 million to surface the entire 90 km. But that can hardly be true at more than €50/m. When our 300m of lane washed out during the big thaw in 2009, it cost us just over €2000 to resurface which is nearer €5 than €50. Neither of the two mandatory studies could be construed as a Holistic Survey of Costs and Benefits - the obesity/exercise issue could perhaps be monetised in QALYs but happiness is only indexed in Bhutan.
What do you think? Want to sign up, so my children can walk with their children beside a gentle Irish river and maybe glimpse the last kingfisher Alcedo atthis ?