Derrydonnel Forest, Derrybrien Wind Farm: County Galway, Republic of Ireland.
Dawn Chorus – Derrydonnel Forest
Zone 2: 05:35
I was staying in a guest house in the Castle Ellen area, north of Athenry and about a 30 minute drive to Derrydonnell forest. I woke in the dark and snuck out of the house (trying not to wake up my hosts baby on the way). I set off for Derrydonnell. I had prepared my recording pack the night before so I would be prepared to record as soon as I arrived at the site. Time was of the essence and I awoke at 04:30 to discover the chorus was already picking up outside.
The purpose of recording the chorus was to locate myself at the main location (Zone 2) of where the data centre will initially be constructed and to capture what exists now on an average morning in Athenry in May with the potential for this to become a longitudinal study of change to the sonic character of the area. This idea was inspired somewhat by the extensive research and work of Bernie Krause who has been carrying out such studies in forest environments for many years and is beginning to be able to demonstrate significant changes in what he calls the “biophony”; the acoustic footprint of nonhuman biological organisms to the soundscape of an area. My intention is to be not quite so rigorous in my scientific methodology as Krause has become but I would like to be inspired by this activity and add to it a number of other investigations/interventions into the space.
By 05:20 I was setting up at Zone 2, at a point where a small blue flag was attached to a stake. I wasn’t sure as to whether this might be a symbol of a proposed spotting mark for where the administration offices might be located in the build, whether those conducting surveys of the site had already begun to plot and earmark points for the construction project or not but it was a human symbol of notification regardless and it seemed like the ideal spot to base myself.
I set up the DPA4060 Stereo configuration and Sennheiser MKH416 Mono configuration inside a microphone blimp with deadcat windshield, based on a tripod at chest height. I also placed a geophone into the earth below. The bird chorus at this point had been going for a little while but the sun wasn’t quite up and there was plenty of avian activity. Even at 05:30, the swirling frequencies of the nearby M6 motorway could be heard, mostly from distant haulage vehicles; an unavoidable, swirling wash of sound that filled the crevices of the frequency spectrum that the microphones diaphragm responded to. In the distance I could hear the cows from the nearby farm and possibly the ringing of a bell from the farmer. Further into the distance, the horn of a speeding train heading towards Galway City, perhaps the first of the day.
Lost in the generous sonorosity of the birds, the constant cloud of small flies was a huge distraction. Attracted to the warmth of my body they tried to permeate my layers of clothing in any way they could. My constant flinching had become increasingly apparent in the headphones, as my jacket rustled every time I went to wipe my face from the flies, or sniffed due to the morning cold, so I decided to wander around the area and explore it further with another recorder and a camera and to try and not disturb the sound recording with my incessant itching.
An airplane slowly droned overhead, a train click clacked along the tracks, the birds called to one another and the Galway winds rustled throgh the controversial non-native pine trees planted in the forest over 150 years ago.
By 06:00 the sounds of birds remained intesive but were being increasingly replaced by an increased wash from the motorways and skies far above as motorised traffic took over. Deep below the soil, the geophone was picking up a steady hum of noise, almost impossible to determine it’s locale and character. Something for further analysis and investigation when back in the studio perhaps. Had the “geophony”, – what Krause refers to as the sounds of nonorganic origins in the environment – become swamped and overrun by “anthrophony”, Krause’s descriptor for human made sounds? What was the geophone picking up at frequencies that I couldn’t hear through headphones alone?
Zone 3: 06:45
I walked away from the spot within the woodlands. I had wandered around excitedly getting bitten and decided enough was enough and I would meander through the forest. I discovered a number of steel boreholes in place along the path. They must have been created to measure underground water levels at the site, which I had read was a concern for the planning applications, following a major flooding incident at the adjacent Athenry Golf Club course, following a period of logging early in 2015. It was a significant concern for the golf course in their letter of concern sent to Galway County Council Planning Office.
Near to a borehole in the area where the EU protected wood bitter vetch plant species was known to be growing in abundance – a strong environmentalist concern of the proposal – were two large bags of stones/gravel, presumably for laying onto the tracks that traversed the woodland.
By 07:30 the weather had begun to turn and concerned not to get caught in a rain storm, I headed back to my trusty hire car.
Derrybrien Wind Farm
Approximately 35Km South of Derrydonnell Forest are the Slieve Aughty Mountains and the tiny village of Derrybrien. Derrybrien is the nearest populous area to the Derrybrien Wind Farm, one of Ireland’s largest onshore wind farms boasting 70 turbines, owned by Hibernian Wind Power. It is no coincidence that the name of the company who just recently laid the first transatlantic fibre optic cable between the US and the UK (with a switchpoint in Cork) is also a subsidiary of Hibernian.
01:45 – 53°04’50.6″N 8°34’37.9″W
I drove around trying to find the site for some time before I saw turbines in the distance on a tiny single track roack. I was maybe half a kilometre away from the fourth largest wind farm in Ireland, high up in the cattle farming fields.
From my view I could see the wind turbines, towering above a forest ahead. I imagined it would be very difficult to get anywhere near there. I had already tried two different routes to get up to the point, one point in case I had to sneak past a herd of cattle blocking a farm track and had come across men with high vis jackets that appeared to be workmen, perhaps security guards. Their presence made me nervous. Why would someone be walking around on their own with all that weird looking equipment? If I had a camera in hand rather than a wind blimp, it would probably make a lot more sense to a stranger. Sound recording equipment does tend to look quite odd.
What I do like about being in the remote mountain area is that there isn’t much in the way of road noise. I placed by handheld Tascam DR40 recorder to pick up the sound from where I parked the car whilst I took my small camera to try and get a better visual look at the towering wind farms on the crest of the hill in the distance.
I drove into the forest at an entrance with a gravel track. As had been the case with all of this particular trip, I felt nervous that I was doing something wrong the whole time. That someone would come and tell me off but nobody ever did. My paranoia constantly slowed me down. I didn’t have a map or any guidance to tell me where I was going. I wanted to feel instinctive, to follow the sounds and see if I could get closer to the farm. It often lead me on false trails.
03:00 – 53°05’08.1″N 8°35’46.5″W
I was certain I was practically underneath a wind turbine. I could hear it through the dense forest tree line. It made a steady hum that began to turn into a rotational wooshing sound. The trees, tightly packed to each other, provide insulation from external enquirers; from people like me. They creaked as they rub against each other in the wind, like a door being opened to a haunted house, a reminder to me that this is not a place I am meant to visit. I listened carefully and heard the gentle throb of the turbine but couldn’t get any closer to it. The ground has almost deliberately been made impenetrable by the forestry team who carved out the landmass for the farm. A deliberate attempt to close off free land to passers-by; it reminded me of how computer games with seemingly ‘open world’ designs often create large rock faces or dense natural tree lines or water barriers to control and prevent you from stepping outside the operational zone of the game… I felt like I was in a game… I felt that I absolutely had to make it to these turbines, to see them close, to touch them and record them and to understand their scale.
04:30 – 53°05’24.2″N 8°34’40.9″W
I had heard about Peat Bogs. I had never fallen into one before. I could smell the subtle wafts of Peat everywhere I walked. It was nothing like the fine peaty whiskeys of the scotland. I felt the change in air pressure around me and began to be quite concerned it might rain heavily at any moment. I began to walk back to where I had parked the car a few kilometres back along the track, taking cover under the tree line as it began to drizzle.
I was so keen to get close to the turbines, having travelled all that way. As I came up upon the hill entering the forest, I could see them maybe just a few hundred metres to my left over seemingly open ground. I decided to make one last attempt.
Making sure that I was efficiently equipped but tightly packed for the walk I set off only to immediately discover a stream following the side of the road. All along the route, I had noticed streams but suddenly it felt like it had been purposely placed there. I could hear whirr of the turbines and see them powering round and round and decided to push on. The terrain looked incredibly rugged. Unnaturally rugged. In the same way the forest in my previous location was so thick you couldn’t pass, the surface here was so rugged you couldn’t walk. I saw a gap in the mulch of trees scattered everywhere and aimed for it in the hope it would be a naturally occurring break in the terrain. It wasn’t. It was an irrigation channel for the peat bog that I suddenly realised I was standing in, all the way up to my sodden right knee. The shock of falling into a peat bog, on your own, many miles away from anywhere and anyone makes for one of the worst chapters from any Andy McNab book. Surely I would just carry on and power through to reach my goal… However, I am not former SAS and I decided enough was enough and conceded defeat to the semi-natural barriers constructed and tentatively walked back to my car.
The sound of the turbines even from here, even as I wrung out my soaked socks and trousers was quite powerful. A throbbing turbulence like no sound I’ve ever heard in a forest before, or even an urban environment. I began to think about how surely this would affect the ecosystem around it in some way, maybe in subtle ways, maybe less subtle ways (I had heard about the intensive and heavily criticised forestry process undertaken in developing this wind farm resulted in a major landslide and a hefty fine from EU regulators for poor management).
Apple had been incredibly vocal about how sustainable the design of their data centre would be. Estimates had suggested that the entire energy requirement to power the fully operational data centre complex would be in excess of what is required to power the whole of Dublin. This energy would be drawn from negotiated deals with the wind farm suppliers but there was no announcement of Apple pledging to invest into any new turbine infrastructure. Surely this would mean that this would result in an increase of around 8% of energy requirement but without any additional investment into increased capacity. Would this mean that ultimately energy bills would rise by a small amount across the board, to all public citizens of Ireland, but Apple wouldn’t pay a penny more. Their efforts to locate their power sources in sustainable conditions is commendable but ultimately, they will be buying off of the grid and have no real control of how they power their facilities. And what of these sites… how are wind farms impacting on the environment? How are they manufactured? Where do the components come from? What are the environmental repercussions? What sounds do they make within the spaces they occupy and how might this be representative of a wider narrative that stretches the focus of media infrastructures beyond that of the data centre but casts itself much wider into a global ecological and ethical investigation?
I slowly packed up my gear and drove back to Athenry. A huge storm hit on the way. I survived, just, but I feel terrible for coming into my hosts home, absolutely stinking of peat bog water.