Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Burren

Spring Gentian
Megalithic wedge tomb
At a first glance, the Burren, a hundred square miles of grey, rocky karst, appears to be no more than a desert of limestone pavement.   Once on the pavement this initial impression is soon belied.  The Burren is populous with an amazing variety of wild flowers.  On closer inspection the apparently uniform, grey landscape is seen to be liberally splattered with patches of soil supporting thick blankets of grasses, mosses, lichens and wildflowers which in turn provide fodder for herds of grazing sheep and cattle.  Over half of Ireland’s native flora grow in the Burren, none of them exclusively but often in greater abundance than elsewhere.  What is fascinating is that here, at sea level, exist extensive colonies of the alpine Spring Gentian and Mountain Avens growing happily among orchids more generally found in the Mediterranean; where thick patches of peat cover the underlying limestone, lime-hating heathers thrive.  This landscape has known the tread of mankind for a long, long time.  Hereabouts are the remains innumerable pre-historic sites bearing evidence of human occupation together with the ruins of many early christian communities and places of worship.  More recent ruins, those of peasant cottages some of which have only comparatively abandoned, also contribute to the history of the Burren written in the remains of mans attempts to provide himself with food and shelter.    Time 
Abandoned peasant farm
spent here also further belies an initial impression of the uniformity of the landscape.  In Ireland the weather, and with it the light, changes with considerable fluidity.  As it does so the appearance of the landscape, the contrasts of land to sky, the apparent colour of the rock, are all in a wonderfully constant state of flux.
Early Purple Orchid

Monday, May 7, 2012

Soliloquy on Solitude

Probably because I write my blog posts in the first person I have been more than once asked if I am travelling alone.  For most of this trip I shall not be.  Until we leave Ireland I shall be contentedly accompanied by Elisabeth, my companion for the past twenty years and more, thereafter she will make her customary trip north to Iceland while I return to Greece for the summer.  I shall see her again in November.   I justify my use of the first person when writing my posts by invoking my contention that practically all our lives, whether or not accompanied or amongst company, are passed alone.  My posts are reports of my experience and mine alone; to use ‘we’ and ‘our’ rather than ‘I’ and ‘my’ would, I believe, distort the truth.  How can I possibly know what sensations Elisabeth, or any other companion sharing an experience with me, is enjoying, or suffering, concerning that experience? 

We enter the world alone and leave it similarly.  Why then should we consider that through the time between those extremes we are anything other than alone.  Perhaps during moments of extreme passion between humans there may be flashes of something approaching meetings of minds but these moments, even for the most passionate, add up to an insignificant percentage of an existence and are memorably transient as might be a particular aroma or taste.
Far from worrying in any way, my ideas concerning aloneness help me to treat time spent unaccompanied as being no different to time spent accompanied.  By invoking a thesis that anything that can be rationalized can not be feared, these ideas foil, for me, the possibility of  ever experiencing emotions of self-destructive loneliness.  

Mona Best

Bridge House B&B, Skibbereen

Mona holding court in her lounge

Mona Best, mine hostess of ‘The Bridge House’, a Bed & Breakfast establishment in Skibbereen, Ireland is an extraordinary character who has transformed a generally nondescript  boarding house into what has been described in the ‘Irish Times’ as, ‘…...the most unusual B&B in Ireland’.  In my experience it is the most extraordinary in all of Europe.   Externally, the building although displaying signs of having been given more than a little thought,  belies all of which lies within; a fantastic collection of objects to which Mona has, over many years, gathered in and now has displayed in most unlikely juxtapositions on every surface, both vertical and horizontal, throughout her home. 
Everything in this museum of a place was, although occasionally shocking,  a charming surprise.   In my room I find, carefully arranged on the bed, a book, “Visitors from Hell”, or some such similar title.  On top of the book an artificial snake has been coiled!  A fully dressed mannequin stands guard over my door, another stands guard over a bath; beyond a half-landing window a huge imitation reptile snarls to be let in.

The breakfast table was a work of art.  Particularly attractive was the turned wood butter tray; a curl of rich yellow butter topped with the complimentary coloured deep purple flower of a pansy.

Mona herself is a warm open soul who has known adversity in many forms but who adamantly refuses to allow the past to stand in the way of a full present.  She is the kind of carelessly independent person that I feel better for, albeit briefly,  having known.

Somewhere under here there was a bed!
Room service?

Reality: reflections on the best laid schemes.*

Reflections in the lake, Sarnico, Italy 20th April 2012

I like to believe I travel to experience novelty in my life but know that novelty is neither the only nor the principal reason that I choose to leave home comforts to risk the unknown.  I travel to get away from the perceived pressures of being at home; to be free to do that which I want to be doing without the nagging pressures, perceived and real, of what I believe I ought to be doing.  The reality seems to be that the pressures are, in a society that expects us to be in continual contact, far from easy to escape.  The reality is also that it is impossible to be travelling, experiencing novelties, and to be recording them.  To create requires time settled.

Chalet de Pascaline; lounge, kitchen, breakfast room
The first week of my current trip to Ireland I spent driving here, most of which was very pleasant and rich with new experiences of which the highlight may have been  an overnight stop at a delightful bed and breakfast establishment, Chalet de Pascaline, near Les Houches in the French Alps.  Pascaline, the vivacious, loquacious proprietor, spread throughout her eclectic, artful, little Chalet a rather wonderful atmosphere of warmth and good cheer.  I was very comfortable there and as with most of my overnight stops wished I had allowed myself time to linger longer.

The ferry crossing from Cherbourg to Rosslare was, to say the least, lumpy and the ferry busy with several ‘groups’ of french schoolchildren and geriatric german coach tourists so, not particularly conducive to following my chosen pursuits, although I did essay to make a drawing in the privacy of my cabin.

Chalet de Pascaline; overnight snow!
Settled at last for a week in a cottage in an ideal out-of-town environment, matters yet conspired to distract me.  For many months past I have not been able to use the integral keyboard of my laptop but have managed well enough with a wireless external keyboard.  At Cork city, an hour or so away from the cottage, there is an Apple Store.  I did not let pass the opportunity to have my laptop fixed.  At the Apple Store I learnt that the problem could not be attended to immediately, I would have to leave the laptop with them and return later in the week.  This was all unplanned and unexpected business - distraction - as was the e-mail I had received from London requiring me to sign and have witnessed various documents and to return them as close to immediately as was possible.  To do this, to get the documents printed, it was necessary to join the County Cork library; a painless experience which cost me just two and a half euros.  I chatted there with the librarian who told me that, in Ireland, the library service is free of the difficulties being faced by  the public library service in the U.K.  Ireland, free of funding the likes of Trident is, I suppose, able to afford the luxury of a decent, comprehensive library service.
This week perhaps I shall be able get to it.  Or shall I?  Yesterday was fine and sunny, too good an opportunity to explore the Burren to miss.  Later in the week friends, motor-home ‘gypsies’ last seen in Greece, will be arriving nearby.  And so it goes on, and on.  Delicious amusement but distracting!  It is a manifestation of the chicken and egg question; distraction equals experience, no distractions - no experience - no inspiration.

*Part of title I acknowledge to Robert Burns and link:

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry man's dominion,
Has broken nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't!

Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell-
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men
Gang aft agley,
An'lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e'e.
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!