05th January 2018

I love driftwood. I love finding the bleached white bones of trees above the tide line, scattered on shingle or wrapped like a present in black, bladdery seaweed. I especially love pieces of root systems washed ashore, the woven wood like a sculptor’s piece once the earth between the limbs is gone and the sea has smoothened the splinters. Of course rivers and lakes can do the same, but since I spend most days near the sea I can only talk about marine driftwood really. Maybe the freshwater stuff is different.

If I find a particularly pretty piece I’ll usually keep it, to gather dust on a windowsill at home, sat among interesting stones stolen from some shore, a little shoreline replica in the lightboxes of the house. Some pieces I hang on a wall or a rafter. But much of what I gather I burn. I love fire too, and driftwood fires out in the open tend to be the best. That's more of a summer thing to do. During the winter I go and gather driftwood for home and it’s one of my favourite ways to spend my time.

Driftwood fire on Illauntannig, one of the Maharee Islands. I kayaked out here alone one May evening and spent the last of the daylight gathering driftwood from its shores. A perfect early summer adventure.

I look at a shingly bay with prospector’s eyes. Mostly it’s nothing more than kindling that you find, which is easy to carry and great to start a fire. Hardwoods tend to stay hard but softer timber soaks up water and goes spongy. It’s not much good for burning but when properly dry the crumbly splinters are good to get a fire going. There’s no smoke without fire and there’s no fire without something thin and dry to get it started. I’ve become a bit of a snob about firelighters – I swap quick convenience for the slower struggle to get a fire going with old receipts, toilet roll inserts and smaller sticks and kindling. It’s all about the process you see, not just the well-stoked fire towards the end of the evening. From the beach to the couch I like to have been involved in every step. I still rely on matches, but give me time and I may well become even more contrived, frustratedly striking a flint while kneeling awkwardly at the stove, every modern convenience other than a lighter surrounding me.

Bigger beach finds are a bonus, but require more work. Last winter two sizeable trees came in close to home. One was a silver birch, the other I couldn’t ID. I must have spent three or four days cutting up those trees with a hatchet and a handsaw, one morning with a friend but otherwise on my own. I probably looked strange, alone on a beach on December days sweating with handtools when cheap firewood is available at every other petrol station in the country. But when I go out to the woodstack at the gable end to restock the wood baskets and I see a block with that shiny birch bark I feel a stupid satisfaction you don’t get from handing over money. Plus, I had to split the bigger pieces with a maul, and getting firewood is worth it just for the joy of splitting blocks that are too big for the stove. And the whole experience is layered with yet more self-satisfaction – my splitting maul (as opposed to a felling axe) I put together myself, from an old head that was gifted to me and a new hickory shaft I bought at the farm co-op. Yes, it would have been better to hone the handle myself from a branch I sourced personally, but it’s a start for someone who considers himself a poor handyman.

Sometimes you needn’t walk long before you’ve collected a decent haul. I have old lengths of climbing rope in the boot of the car at all times in case I find a good driftwood beach. Sticks are laid out across two strands of rope and when there's enough to make carrying them a struggle the whole bundle is tied up and carted back to the car. It feels like a primitive thing, a simply wrapped bale of firewood, and it feels fantastic to stroll along a beach with one in each arm or maybe a bigger one on your head (it’s more comfortable with a woolly hat or a hood on). I fancy it looks like that classic scene of an African bringing water back from the well, except I always have to use a hand for balance and I’m not really doing it out of necessity.

A good morning's work.

Of course the sea throws up all sorts of other interesting things too, some rubbish, some useful. Recently I went beachcombing and found a perfectly good fish box, all the way from Mersea Island on the Essex Coast. Usually they’re cracked and broken but this was intact, perfect to plant some herbs in. And to haul wood with. I placed the few pieces under my arm into the box and strung it to myself like a polar explorer, delighted at how easily it glided over the sand, even floating it across a stream with ease. When I got back to my main stash I wrapped up one parcel of thinner branches and filled the fish box with the heavier pieces. Properly weighed down the box dug into the sand and hauling it the final few hundred metres to the car wasn’t so easy anymore. An extended family were out walking with their kids, who seemed not to want to walk very far, so they remained close by during the whole heavy process, making me terribly self-conscious. Still, I was enjoying myself and basically doing some kind of thing you might do in a gym but with different equipment (that was going to be my excuse if they asked), so I struggled on regardless of the mild embarrassment.

When the haul is really good you could be all day ferrying it back and forth. If I won the lottery I’d love to set myself up within a stone’s throw of the sea and I swear to god I’d get a donkey and cart and walk him up and down some quiet bay, feeding him apples from the garden and loading the cart with drift to bring home and to admire and to burn. Most men my age would probably buy a Lamborghini if they won the lotto but you’d get shag all driftwood into one of them and you’d only feel bad about getting sand all over the interior anyway.

When I was younger and visiting my grandparents, who lived beside a wood, I was always told to bring back some cipíní when I went out to play. A cipín is a small stick, perfect for getting a fire going in the range. It’s also what you beat a bodhrán with. Apart from that I can’t recall seeing much wood collecting going on in most places I’ve been in Ireland. In Connemara, and other areas, people who lived on the shore had rights to what came in with the tide between the boundaries of their land. Fights were fought and people killed over who owned what arrived in on the sea. In 1990 a sea kayaker named Brian Wilson was paddling around Ireland and stopped for a night on the shore of Connemara. He slept in a ruined building and when he came out in the morning his kayak was gone. The tide had nothing to do with it. After calling to the nearest house he discovered one of the occupants had found it and assumed ownership. The local man tried to sell the boat back to Wilson, but eventually gave up.

People living on islands long ago were very dependent on what the sea brought in, especially timber. Ireland’s landscape has been mostly devoid of trees since humans arrived and the islands particularly so. With little in the way of local fuel driftwood would have been very important to keep fires going – you couldn’t cook without a fire back then. Boats were more common in the past, and they were all made of wood, and often wrecked, so driftwood was probably more plentiful two hundred years ago than it is now. A friend of mine in Clare says in his locality people would gather wood from the shore and place some heavy rocks on top of the pile to signify possession to passers by. Not everybody played by the rules but I don’t think many play at all now. There are two bays either side of his house that are magnets for driftwood. Pure donkey and cart territory. I’ve seen obvious piles stashed before and have always left them alone. I know the joy of gathering this forgotten resource – it’d be bad form to ruin it for someone else. I’m just surprised more people don’t seem to do it. That said, I’m happy that there’s plenty left for me.

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