Tens of thousands of feet above the ground, I peered out the airplane window, feeling equal parts nervous and excited. I was moments away from reaching my home for the summer — Ireland, the Emerald Isle — and I was eager to take my first look.

From my sky-high vantage point, I could see that Ireland lives up to its nickname. Between its misshapen green paddocks and uneven mountains, the island really does look like an unfinished emerald with its rough facades clinging to the gem’s surface, making the most of every square inch of land.

The island was as verdant as I had expected, as lush and grassy as I’d pictured. As someone arriving from an American desert state that’s groomed to look greener than it actually is, I couldn’t help but rejoice when I saw the rich colors.

My brother, who was sitting beside me, felt the same way. He hadn’t spent much time outside the U.S., and he couldn’t wait to explore the Emerald Isle. It was shaping up to be an extraordinary summer. But something was off. Spellbound, I needed a day or two to figure out what that was.

Where were all the forests? Where were all the trees?

irish countryside whitney brown
Photo by Whitney Brown.

Ireland is one of the least-forested nations in Europe. It’s a bit of a paradox — the fact that there are barely any trees in a country that everyone associates with the color green. It’s the land of leprechauns and fairytales, but you’ll find few forests within its borders.

According to various sources, Ireland is currently about 11 percent forested, and although that’s a low number, it’s a huge increase from the centuries before. In the late 1920s, just 1.2 percent of the island enjoyed forest cover, leaving 98.8 percent of Ireland more or less treeless. But the country hasn’t always been bare. Its broadleaf forests grew thick and plentiful for thousands of years, thinning a little when ecological conditions changed, when diseases spread between trees, or when early farmers needed to clear land. But for the most part, the trees remained rooted in the Irish soil, and healthy forests sprawled across huge areas.

Eventually, beginning in the mid-16th century or so, the balance shifted. People wanted more timber, and they needed additional land for farming. It’s no surprise that deforestation occurred. Part of the blame goes to the English monarchs who confiscated and cleared large swaths of land, only to award plantations to newly arrived English and Scottish settlers. Part of the blame lies with the then-burgeoning industries of shipbuilding, barrel-making, iron production, and glassworks, all devouring trees greedily and hungrily.

Part of the blame rests with the Irish themselves, although their motives were more innocent. They just wanted to feed their children, and with the island’s population growing fourfold between 1700 and 1840, they had little choice but to topple trees and plant additional fields. No matter what really prompted the deforestation — colonialism, capitalism, desperation, or a combination of all three — the trees disappeared, cut down for near-sighted decisions that would change the face of the island for centuries. 

The people living in Ireland had colonies to create and fortunes to build. The poorest and hungriest among them had mouths to feed. Why would they care if their actions compromised the island’s future, catalyzed a climate crisis they couldn’t conceive of?

waterfall killarney national park whitney brown
Photo by Whitney Brown.

Not long after landing, Alec and I settled into a deserted student apartment in Limerick. On weekdays, we drove to an office building in nearby Shannon, where we were both had an internship. After work, we sometimes visited not-too-distant natural wonders (the Cliffs of Moher) or followed our coworkers to evening outings (a pitch-and-putt golf course, a go-kart track, a castle that hosted nightly dinners). But we did most of our exploring after finishing work on Fridays. 

One weekend, we set forth to see Newgrange, Ireland’s answer to Stonehenge. A 5,200-year-old remnant of the country’s Neolithic past, it’s an above-ground passage tomb that’s ringed by massive stones and covered with a grassy dome. It’s set a couple thousand feet from a curve in the River Boyne, and the river valley is an idyllic setting — but like much of Ireland, the spot boasts few trees today.

Even so, Newgrange is remarkable. For most of the year, its interior sits in complete darkness (or, during tours, in artificial lighting). But for 17 minutes on December 21, the sun shines through a narrow window above the entrance, illuminating the main passage all the way to the central chamber. That is where the Neolithic people tucked away their dead, where they placed cremated bodies and unburned bones in small basins aboveground.

It’s impressive to consider how well those Neolithic builders understood the natural world. They knew exactly when the winter solstice occurred, and they painstakingly built a monument to commemorate the occasion. 

That summer day at Newgrange, Alec and I learned that the builders sourced the kerbstones (the boulders making up the foundation) from mountains located miles and miles away. We heard the most prominent Newgrange archaeologist’s theory that it was extremely difficult for the builders to dredge up those rocks — which were hidden by scrub and forest — and transport them.

The more I learned and the more I saw, the more I sensed how special this place was. Later, as I strolled around the ancient tomb, I felt a chill that might have meant that long-dead Irish ghosts were watching me. In those moments, time didn’t really seem to matter. Newgrange had stood on that spot for thousands of years, and the millennia hadn’t worn away its power or mysticism.

But when I gazed at the green landscape, when I thought about where the kerbstones had come from, I couldn’t help thinking of the trees I had expected to find in Ireland. I couldn’t help thinking of the forests that people had stripped off the land long ago. 

Today, if you look down the hills that slope away from Newgrange, you can see a few trees. They line the paddocks and the fields on the valley floor. They’re essentially property markers, distinguishing where one family’s land ends and another’s begins. Stone lasts longer than wood does. We all know that. But I wish that Ireland’s forests had endured the centuries as well as its prehistoric monuments have.

killarney national park whitney brown
Photo by Whitney Brown.

During my summer stint on the Emerald Isle, Alec and I learned that Dublin is both lively and laidback. Even though it’s just a collection of neighborhoods and zip codes, it somehow embodies qualities that you wouldn’t normally associate with a European capital: traits like candor, friendliness, openness. It’s not very difficult to get your finger on the city’s pulse, and with plenty of pubs, museums, shops, and historical sites, the city offers a lot to do. But best of all, its public parks are home to a fair amount of trees.

Partway through our summer, Alec and I spent a couple of days in Dublin on a work assignment. One night, we sought refuge in Merrion Square, a pretty park edged with foreign embassies and Georgian townhouses. It was a breezy day, but the lighting was soft and golden and beautiful. We wandered around the park’s entire perimeter, finally settling down in a shady spot near its center. I lay on my back and looked up, gazing at the sky through the gaps in the leaves. 

Alec and I stayed there until the trees were silhouetted by the setting sun, colored black against the limpid blue sky. We left the park and found a bus that took us back to our hotel. It was the end of an otherwise uneventful evening. But for reasons that I don’t know how to describe, it stuck with me.

trees in ireland whitney brown
Photo by Whitney Brown.

For many first-time visitors, Ireland has the uncanny knack of feeling like a dream they’ve forgotten, a childhood home they left when they were small. For me, Killarney National Park was one of the places where I felt most at home during my summer in Ireland. Located at the gateway to the world-famous Ring of Kerry, the national park is a gorgeous expanse of mountains, lakes, and forests. A gorgeous expanse of forests

As a matter of fact, this national park is one of the most extensive forested areas in all of Ireland, and on the day that Alec and I spent there, we explored as many trails and bike paths as we could, each one engulfed by colossal oaks, yews, and alders. It was invigorating to spend a few hours breathing fresh air in the cool shade of soaring trees. 

Our map led us to lakes, bridges, and waterfalls, but ultimately, my favorite stop was a crumbling stone abbey. Situated close to the park’s edge, Muckross Abbey dates back to 1448, and it still feels like it’s tucked inside another century. There, the bushes and shrubs grow tall and wild. The gravestones are hard to read. The roof is gone and the windows contain no glass. The abbey belongs in a fairytale, to an era when magic seeped out of the Earth like groundwater.

In its courtyard, enclosed by four stone corridors, a towering yew tree has grown and thrived for centuries, steadily getting taller and taller, inch by inch, foot by foot. Local legend states that the gnarled tree, planted by a monk long ago, is as old as the abbey itself.

As I crept into the courtyard, my breathing slowed down. I looked up at the yew, its trunk knotted, rough, and mossy, its branches crooked and uneven. It was absolutely captivating, and I had a hard time tearing myself away from it. My imagination was probably running away with me, but I still haven’t shaken that impression. Years later, I still feel humbled when I think about the tree growing, safe and protected, inside the abbey.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the effects of travel and tourism, and I believe that

travel has the power to build human connections, break down barriers, remind us how wonderful our planet really is. I also believe that irresponsible travel could be the final nail in our collective coffin.

But I’ll say this: my experiences abroad, along with the reflection that I’ve done at home, have changed the way that I look at the world around me. Thanks to the things I saw in Ireland, I’m more in tune with my planet than I was before I left. I want to look for ways to make my corner of the world a greener place — even if they’re as small as the newest sapling growing in the littlest forest in Ireland.

Where is a place you’ve been that has been affected by human involvement?

Header image by Whitney Brown.