Northern Island: Natural Beauty

Northern Ireland is stunning. I was incredibly lucky to have very nice weather on the days we were exploring the country and the coast, but I can’t imagine it is any less stunning when it’s cloudy and ominous than when it’s sunny and blue and you can see Scotland from the cliffs. This isn’t only wild, untamed scenery. It includes some ruins which have begun to merge with the landscape and some cultivated gardens that show the lovely flowers to their best advantage. In the tradition of saving the best for last, you have to wait till the end to see the Giant’s Causeway.


In Between

There are places in Ireland that everyone wants to go to, me too, but driving from one of those to the next could mean endless hours of highways OR it could mean tiny back roads and mini stop offs to lesser known, but still beautiful sights. Guess which one I chose? Here are a few of the in between places that were added to the itinerary purely because we wanted somewhere to stop between points A and B.

Grianan of Aileach

I almost forgot about this stop. For shame. It was a bit of an afterthought on the day  we visited as well. On the road between the Belleek Pottery factory and the city of Derry, we drove up a little side road to find this ring fort. The view from the top is breathtaking, and it’s just my type of mountain top that you can drive up and park on top! There were not too many other people out, but there was a small cafe style food truck hoping to sell some refreshments. There’s no toilet facilities however, so we declined.

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The fort was built in the late 700s-early 800s, raided by Vikings in the early 900s, and finally destroyed around 1100. The restoration project started in 1870 and is protected and maintained by the Office of Public Works today. It’s one of many tiny little treasures that make driving a much more appealing option to bus tours. We only spent about 15 minutes at the fort, just long enough to gasp at the view and enjoy the archaeology.

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Glenarm & Glenarife

These two stops were along the west coast of Northern Ireland, after we finished the Causeway and before we arrived in Belfast. Glenarm is a beautiful castle estate (not a ruin) with cultivated walled gardens. Genarife is a beautiful forest hike with a waterfall.

Glenarm Castle is related to Dunluce Castle, a ruin located on the Causeway Coast which I’ll get to that later in the post. The story goes that in 1639 as the McDonnell family were waiting for dinner one evening at Dunluce, the kitchen – along with kitchen staff – fell into the sea. After that, the family commissioned a new castle to be built on their land at Glenarm which was finally completed some 80 years later. Viscount and Viscountess Dunluce and their family still live there today. Tours are offered of the public portions of the castle, usually between 12-4pm (although the website gives a lot of COVID closure warnings these days).

While I’m sure the inside of the castle is stunning, we were much more interested in the walled garden on our visit and so I can’t tell you anything else about the home. The garden is well worth the visit, however. It is one of Ireland’s oldest walled gardens and it is impeccably maintained. There are dozens and dozens of beautiful examples of flowers, fruits and vegetables, a lovely miniature maze, a small “mountain”, and multiple lovely statues placed throughout.

The afternoon we visited was quite gray and rainy. We were forced to wear our outer shoe rain booties and carry around umbrellas, but I personally think that raindrops on flowers make for beautiful scenery (and photos) so I wasn’t too upset.

Sidenote: We lost MS Video Maker, then YouTube Video Editor and now Google Photos has decided to make the photo slide shows vertical for some unholy reason, I had to go find a quick and dirty way to make a slideshow. I’m sorry that the quality is a little rough. If one of the hip people could clue me in on what we’re all using these days, I’d really appreciate it.

Glenarife was a bit of a back track for us on the road trip, but we had made the decision to go there second so we could have dinner at the restaurant inside the park. I plan to write a separate post about the food in Ireland, but I want to stress that planning meals on any vacation is really important, but especially on a road trip through the countryside. If you’re staying in a city, it can be easy to just head down any major street and walk into any restaurant that looks interesting. If you’re driving (or busing) around, then taking time to find where there are restaurants and WHEN THEY ARE OPEN can save you a lot of heartache and petrol station snack meals.

There is not a lot in the way of eateries on this particular stretch of the Irish coastline, so when I found the Laragh Lodge attached to a waterfall I was excited to get two birds with one parking lot, so to speak. We arrived at the Lodge around dinner time and were quite surprised to find the place very full. They had a wedding party in. Thankfully, there was a dining room off to the side for the general public, so we could still eat there. Because the day was drawing to a close, we decided to go on our waterfall walk before dinner. Same gray rainy day, still, but the raindrops had mostly stopped.

The trail leads a over a little creek which looked like it was made of Guinness, and up a slight hill. It’s a short walk from the parking lot to the falls. There are longer hikes around the enormous forest park for those who want to spend more time in the great outdoors. I personally was there for the waterfall and the food.

When you look up the Glenarife falls online or go to their website, you see pictures of a pretty little fall with usually 2-3 streams down the broad rock face. When I was there, it had been raining. A lot. No cute trickle of water, not even a stout fall, no — that day, the torrent could be used to power a whole hydroelectric station. Waterfalls release negative ions, which reduce depression and stimulate the brain and body. I know sounds kind of like pseudo-science bunk, but it’s been tested I swear! #waterfallinlove

One Day on the Causeway Coast

The Giant’s Causeway may be the most popular thing on the north coast, but it’s far from the only one. We spent an entire day from dawn to dusk travelling the Causeway Road, visiting both it’s famous and less well known attractions. Technically the Coastal Route extends from Derry to Belfast and would therefore include my stops at Downhill Demesne, Bushmills, and Glenarm, but I am focusing on those parts most immediately surrounding the Giant’s Causeway itself.

Carrick a Rede

The rope bride of Carrick a Rede is often included on a tour of the Giant’s Causeway. After my initial research about things like parking and ticket times, we decided that the best way to do the bridge was very first thing in the morning. There is a parking lot near (1km) from the bridge access, but it’s small and fills up fast. Alternate parking is, of course, farther away. In addition, you must buy tickets in advance and reserve a ticket time. If you miss your window, then you don’t get to go. The bridge can only accommodate so many people at once, so the staff on site work hard to make sure everyone can have a good and safe experience. Weather is also important. As you may have seen in my Aran Islands post, the Irish weather on the coast is extremely fickle, and tourists aren’t able to enter the bridge if the weather makes conditions unsafe.

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I was so happy that our weather was clear and blue. We showed up to the parking lot with plenty of time to walk. We had no trouble parking since we were in the first group. There was a little confusion at the ticket booth, a little bottle neck where we all clustered together waiting for them to let us in already! The other advantage to early morning tickets is that the tour buses almost never show up that early, so those of us who had made this effort really wanted to get the jump.

Finally, our e-tickets were scanned and we started the hike from the gate to the bridge. It’s not a hard hike, but there is an upward incline and many stairs. The great news is that the whole path walks along the cliffs and so you spend the hike up with the view to your left, and the hike down with the view to your right. Almost all the photos I took were on the way back down since we were in a hurry going up.

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The bridge was built by salmon fishermen way back in the day because the little volcanic island had much better fishing than the mainland. The bridge today is purely a tourist attraction, but you can see the remains of the small fishing “village” on the island after you cross. There is a gate at the point where the trail meets the bridge manned by park staff who ensure that the safety measures are followed and to help people who may be nervous. The narrow (one person wide) rope and plank bridge is 100 ft above the sea and sways and wobbles as you walk on it. It is recommended that you and your travel buddies take pictures with the camera holder on solid ground while the other poses on the bridge. There’s no time for perfect Instagram poses, though, because while the staff will let you take a couple snaps, they urge everyone to keep going. Being so narrow, the bridge cannot accommodate cross traffic, and so a small group goes to the island, then when the bridge is clear a small group returns.

I could have spent the whole day on the beautiful little island. It was just such perfect weather and the grass was soft and fresh. I took a small infinity of photos of the sea and the sky, as well as the little flowers and volcanic rocks. It was only with great reluctance that I finally left to get to the next stops on the day’s itinerary.

I found a slightly alternate route back that took me up a little farther and gave some spectacular views down onto the path and island, and I positively delighted in the tiny flowers and busy bees along the cliff-side path on the way back down.

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Dunseverick Castle & Falls

Along the Causeway Road are a large number of small sights. The rope bridge and the Giant’s Causeway are the main stops on every tourist bus tour, and in order to avoid those crowds, we decided to spend the prime tourism hours going to the smaller locales. The first one of these as we drove westward was Dunseverick Castle and Falls. What? Castle ruins and waterfalls? in one place? Twist my arm.

Dunseverick has been a seat of power in Ireland from the 400s! It was a ring fort for a bit, and supposedly visited by St. Patrick himself. Invaded by Vikings, and contested by clans, it was owned by the O’Cahan (anglicized as McCain or O’Kane) family until it was destroyed by CROMWELL (ugh, that guy again) in 1642. All that remains of the castle is the ruins of the gate lodge.

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There’s a long walking trail that also runs alongside the cliffs which some people choose to hike, and you can access the ruins this way. I was not particularly interested in the route from parking spot to ruin, but the falls looked decently close, so I hopped a stile and headed off through the nettles to find a waterfall. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Stiles are meant to be hopped, they’re just ways to step over fences that humans can do but animals can’t. Also, nettles only hurt you if you grab them (which I didn’t) or fall on them (which I did, ouch).

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Nonetheless, the day persisted in being superb and I found the low and wide falls amid the dark brown and black volcanic rock. I don’t think I’ve ever seen falls along the seaside, so while they were a bit short, they made up for that by being unique.

Bushfoot Beach

There are a few “beaches” along the coast as well, but not especially the kind you think of for sandcastles or bathing. We looked for Runkerry Beach, but I wasn’t able to figure out how to get the car there. Bushfoot Beach was adjacent to a golf club so we parked there and meandered down to have a look. It was small, and cute, with a nice bench to sit on and rest. Locals were out walking dogs along the path, and there was a river that came down and flowed into the sea right where we were. It wasn’t a highlight, but it was a beautiful and quiet place to have a little rest before the next stop.

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Dunluce Castle

Sound familiar? Yeah! This is the same Dunluce castle that dropped it’s kitchen and staff into the sea, prompting the McDonnells to move to Glenarm. The McDonnells are not actually Irish, they’re Scottish originally.

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In case it wasn’t abundantly clear by now, I am an absolute sucker for ruins. Literally, if I could take a vacation that was made of waterfalls and ruins with a few good restaurants, I would be in heaven. I try to look up the history and learn things about the ruins I visit. They often have fascinating secrets or at least interesting stories. In the case of Dunluce, the kitchen staff falling into the sea might be the most interesting thing that ever happened to it until it was used by Led Zeplin as album art.

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There were some very informative signs on site, showing artist renditions of what the house and grounds may have looked like when it was alive, and there’s a very dry Wikipedia article about the Earls and the invasions. I could recite that for you, but why? A far more amusing resource is this Belfast Telegraph article. Otherwise, please enjoy the photos!

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Giants Causeway

This is what we’re here for right? If you’ve come all the way to the tippy top of Northern Ireland you are here for THIS and everything else is pretty much frosting and sprinkles. Don’t get me wrong, everything else was wonderful, and I’m extremely grateful that I had the chance to drive myself around to the variety of stops. If you can’t rent a car or don’t want to drive on the left, there are tour buses that go to Carrick-a-Rede, Dunluce, and the Giant’s Causeway in a day, but after having done a driving tour and a bus tour (later) I have to say that driving in Ireland is (mostly) very easy and pleasant and having the freedom is well worth it.

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The Giant’s Causeway is a totally unique geographical formation of honeycomb-like stones reaching from the base of high grassy cliffs out into the sea. These formations are called basalt columns, and are made by lava cooling. As a not-geologist, I can’t really understand, let alone explain why some lava makes pumice, and some makes lava tubes, and some makes these cool hexagonal shapes, but I trust that there are geologists who can. The short and easy version is that something in the molecular makeup of basalt causes it to form cracks in these shapes when it cools rapidly. Probably why these formations are almost always found near water.

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Although the Giant’s Causeway is by far the most famous, there are many other examples of basalt columns around the world, so you can still see them even if you don’t make it here. I was most fascinated to see there’s one here in Korea, on Jeju Island, that looks like a tiny version of the one in Ireland. It’s not a popular tourist attraction yet, so my tour didn’t go there when I visited Jeju several years ago. I’ll look for it if I ever go back.

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Today we understand the science behind these fascinating formations, but when humans first came into the area, they incorporated the stones into the mythology of Ireland. I talked briefly about the pre-history mythology in my Two Irelands post. The beginning of Ireland was fraught with many races of monsters, giants, gods, and fairies, each one supplanted by the next. The 5th race was the Tuatha Dé Danann (from which almost all modern fairies seem to be descended), and the 6th and final were the humans. The stories of Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill) seem to be set toward the beginning of the humans arrival into Ireland since he fights with giants and at least one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

The myth, like all myths, is tricky, and not every source agrees on the details. Most of us are more familiar with the Arthurian legends, and as anyone who has tried to sort out the details knows, it’s not possible. So, I’m presenting a vague and “best guess” version of Finn McCool here.

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He was born into if not actual royalty, then the next best thing. His father’s clan was said to be descendants of the Fir Bolg (the 4th race) and his mother was recorded as a granddaughter of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Finn himself became the leader of the Fianna, a kind of warrior band, and had all kinds of fantastic feats attributed to him. You can’t go anywhere in Ireland without finding some piece of local Finn legend. According to the most popular stories, he (like Arthur) is not dead, but merely sleeping in a secret cave and will return in Ireland’s greatest hour of need.

When it comes to the Giant’s Causeway, there are still a few versions of the tale, but the most common involves a Giant named Benadonner. Benadonner was a fierce Scottish warrior and a giant (one of the races previously driven from Ireland). One day Finn challenged him to a fight, but the giant didn’t want to cross from Scotland and made excuses about the sea as an obstacle.

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Finn then built a bridge between Ireland and Scotland. This is one of the closest points between Ireland and Scotland, only about 28 miles to the nearest Scottish peninsula. When the bridge was complete, Finn sent a message to Benadonner that he had no more excuses, so come along and fight me!

20190808_185238However, when Finn saw Benadonner crossing, he realized the giant was much bigger than he previously thought. He fled the coast, retreating into his home. His wife Sadhbh (omg Gaelic, amirite?, that’s probably pronounced “Saive”, maybe?) heard what he’d done and quickly dressed her husband up as a baby.

When Benadonner came to find him, he saw the disguised Finn alone in the house and thought to himself, “If this is the infant, what must the father be like?”, and quickly fled back to Scotland, tearing up the bridge in his haste, leaving only the remnants at either end: The Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, and Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish Isle of Staffa, named for Finn himself. (Although the nearest point is only  28 miles from the Causeway in Ireland, Fingal’s Cave is 82.5 miles as the giant flees).

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Whether you are drawn to the science or the more whimsical heroic tale, there’s no doubt that the natural beauty of the Causeway is breathtaking. We scheduled 4 hours for it and that was barely enough. It’s a hard choice to make as far as what to see in a single day. If I had it to do over, I might have scheduled one day for just the Causeway, and a second day for all the other stops. We planned to arrive around 3pm so that we would be walking in about the time that most of the tour buses were walking out.

I found some shuttle bus information online, but it turned out not to be as accurate as I’d hoped and in the end, we decided that paying for parking at the visitors center was going to be better for us convenience-wise than trying to take the shuttle bus from Bushmills, and honestly only slightly more expensive. If you happen to have a National Trust membership or possibly even a tourist pass, you can get steep discounts on things like the shuttles, the parking and the entry tickets (many are free included), and I also looked into buying that, but since only Northern Ireland is run by the UK National Trust, we just weren’t going to go to enough places to make pass worthwhile. If I were to plan a trip that included even one more day in the UK, I think it would have been.

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The parking lot is enormous and the walkways funnel tourists to the Visitor’s Center. You don’t have to go there. The outdoor parts of the park are FREE (after you pay for parking or the shuttle bus) and the visitor’s center is like 13£. I opted to spend my time and money seeing the sights in person, but I can see if you perhaps had bad weather, the visitor’s center might be appealing.

Another travel blogger advised me to take the red trail from the Visitor’s Center to the Causeway. There is a main road (paved wide road) that goes very directly. People who are in a hurry may use this, and there is another shuttle bus that runs between the Causeway and the Visitor’s center which I think is very nice for those with limited walking ability. However, the red trail leads up along the cliff tops before descending to the sea, and it has some really stunning views. It’s much easier to walk it going down than going up, so starting on the red trail and then using the wide seaside road to return seemed the way to go.

The main trail starts by going through a tunnel near the visitor’s center, while the red trail starts before the tunnel and off to one side. There are signs. It is marked as a more demanding route, but that is only in comparison to the smooth wide paved main path. It’s about a mile (UK, back to imperial not metric!) and there are maybe 100 stairs going down. I thought we could take the shuttle bus back up, but that stops running when the visitor’s center closes at 4pm, so if you are mobility limited, make sure you plan your visit earlier in the day that I did.

The red trail is not for those afraid of heights. It goes along the edge and has some harrowing narrow paths and steep steps on the climb down. I thoroughly enjoyed the walk which included yet more stunning cliff-side views, a million tiny flowers and the little bugs that live in them (one of my favorite subject for photography), and a chance to see the organ pipes formation and the giant’s boot on the way down (something those who take the main path would have to climb up to see).


It was charming to see the tourists delighting in hopping from rock to rock like a childhood game of hopscotch. I climbed as far out to the edge as I could, marveling at the geometrical patterns and the tiny lichens and barnacles living there.

Finally, as dusk loomed, we headed back up the road, enjoying the tide pools and sunset over the water. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Giant’s Causeway is the jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland’s natural beauty and I’m grateful that I was able to experience it on such a beautiful day.

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Northern Ireland: Cultural Legacy

Going into Northern Ireland I was not really sure what to expect. When I was growing up, the North was known for it’s hard life and angry militant (terrorist?) political movements: The Troubles. There are three great reasons to visit the North: the stunning natural beauty, the unique and historical culture, and Game of Thrones. That last one seems a lot less important after the series finale aired disappointing literally every fan, but dragons are always cool. Today’s post focuses on the culture and more recent history. I wrote a much more detailed account of the two Irelands what seems like an eon ago (before the Plague), and while I prefer to focus on my experiences while traveling, sometimes those experiences include some painful history and deep thinking. 


Belleek Pottery

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The first stop on my road trip after crossing the unimposing border (marked mainly by the sudden change from Euros to Pounds at the petrol stations) was the Belleek Pottery factory. I didn’t know anything about Belleek Pottery. I know we had some in the house growing up, but I guess it went with my stepfather when he did.

Founded in 1857, it is the oldest pottery factory in Ireland (either of them), and was initially started because of the availability of special mineral ingredients locally. Eventually, it became more common to source materials from Cornwall or Norway, but the unique Belleek style has continued to make the pottery famous and sought after.

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The factory was in holiday mode during our tour so there were only a few employees on site. Perhaps this made for an emptier experience, but I thought it was nice to be able to focus on a single work table or look closely at the pottery without being rushed or in someone’s way. Our tour guide walked us through the process of making the beautiful and unique ceramics from the artistic conceptualization to the making of molds and refining of pieces. We had the chance to see workers attaching separate pieces and refining the details from the mold by hand. We were also offered the chance to break the rejects, since the factory will never allow “seconds” or flawed pieces out into the world.

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However lovely the molded pieces are, they are as nothing compared to the beautiful hand crafted flowers and lacy woven baskets that represent iconic Belleek. We had the chance to see some of the craftspeople at work on these fine details. The flowers and detailed add ons are simply stunning tiny craftsmanship, but the weaving was simply the most unique. The clay used for the basket strands is blended in such a way to make it slightly elastic and so less likely to break when manipulated over and over. Don’t try this with your regular clay in pottery class, kids.

The painting center was no less beautiful. Each finished piece is painted by hand to give a unique finish to every piece and to make sure that the little green shamrocks are just right. At the end of our tour we were let out into a small museum showcasing the evolution of Belleek styles over the years. The special pieces showed even more detail in the handmade flowers, but my absolute favorite was a pearl glaze that was only in fashion for a few brief years.

I doubt I would have chosen to tour Belleek on my own, but nonetheless, I did enjoy the trip. Non-solo trips can be a mix of “well, I wouldn’t have picked that myself, but cool”, and “yes, please!” kinds of stops. While Belleek was the former, Bushmills was definitely the later.

Bushmills

Bushmills has been in my family and house for as long as I can recall. It was my grandmother’s whisky of choice and hers was the immigrant family with some deep dies to the Irish diaspora culture in America. She passed when I was 17. It was a very sudden turn from being old and chronically ill, but lively – to hospitalized, comatose and gone. I know, morbid, but it was about a week of me sleeping on the hospital room floor and then it was over. Her children (my mom, aunt and uncles) and I shared out the remains of her last bottle of Bushmills while we told stories about our memories of her. Bushmills holds a place in my heart as well as my tastebuds.

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There is no photography allowed inside the distillery to protect their trade secrets, but we had a fun tour that took us from mash to cask. It was very interesting to me to do this after my lovely brewery tours in Belgium since the basic process to start both beer and whisky is very similar. The malting, mashing, and fermenting is more or less the same (a great deal more similar than to wine-making), the shiny and hot copper stills is where spirits take a hard (pun intended) left turn from beer.

The still room in Bushmills felt like walking into a sauna. The entire room was warmed and steamed as the low alcohol “wash” is heated and pressurized into boiling at about 78C (much less than the boiling point of water). This causes the alcohol to evaporate where it is caught in the tubes and condensed back into liquid form in a new reservoir while the water remains in liquid state below.

Amid the giant copper contraptions was a small and extremely climate controlled glass walled room where a further refinement process took place in small batches under intense supervision. Neither the large copper nor the smaller stills can be left unattended, so a highly trained employee has to spend hours a day in that hot and sweaty room just to make sure that the resultant distilled spirits are correctly balanced and purified.

The main method of distillation is well known and basic still kits can be assembled fairly easily (that’s where moonshine comes from after all), but each of the worlds best distilleries has a few proprietary methods and Bushmills is no exception. The tour guide did an excellent job answering all my questions about the science without giving away any trade secrets.

(The photo is an old copper still on display in the tasting room.)

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After the stills, it’s still not whiskey. The magic that turns white lighting into that dark amber ambrosia is cask ageing. This might be my favorite part of any alcohol tour (ok, except for the tasting) when we get to enter the cool and dark rooms filled floor to ceiling with dark barrels and simply redolent with the luxurious smells. Our guide explained the different types of casks used to flavor and age the whisky and showed us examples of the changes in color and volume over time. Not only does the wood of the cask color and flavor the alcohol, but the alcohol leaks out through the porous wood over the years. This loss is referred to as the Angel’s Share (I guess Irish Angels like a wee dram, too) and in areas like Ireland accounts to 2-3% loss per year. A 50 gallon barrel can be reduced to less than 15 gallons in a 25 year age! Those heavy price tags are not only taking into account the amount of time the whisky must be stored before sold, but also the sheer volume of alcohol lost to the angels.

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However, the longer it ages, the more the sharp and harsh flavors of the distilled moonshine soften and the more of the flavors of the wood become absorbed. Mostly 10-12 years is enough to get a good mellow flavor for the non-aficionado. Less if you’re planning to mix it with (shudder) coke. In addition, some of what evaporates is yet more water and the finished product of maturation can be between 115-150 proof. But wait, Kaine, I’ve had Bushmills and it’s only 80 proof, what gives? Well, the factory puts some lovely fresh Irish spring water (honestly I don’t know where the water comes from, but it sounds nice?) into the mix before bottling to create a consistent and ideal proofing. This is for two reasons: product consistency is super important to a brand, so they do need to be sure that all bottles are the same. Second, and to my mind more importantly, you simply cannot enjoy the taste of the whisky at 150 proof! Even 100 proof is pushing it.

The great debate about whether you should add water to your whisky is almost hilarious in this context, knowing that the distillery did it for you. However, 80 proof is simply their best guess where most people would be able to enjoy the flavors ideally, so if you wanna add a little water to enhance your own flavor experience, go for it. Bushmills itself served a small pitcher of water along side the whisky in the tasting room for just that purpose, so obviously they don’t mind.

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I really enjoyed the 12 year distillery reserve (lower right, sky blue label), a unique flavor profile and of course not sold anywhere but the distillery… literally, not even in the duty free shops. I heavily debated buying a bottle but there were no small sizes and I knew that without the duty free sealed bags, I’d have to try and lug it in the checked bag, not to mention lugging it around the rest of my Ireland trip (not even half over yet), and the fact that if you want to bring more than 1L of booze over borders you have to figure out how to pay them taxes (not a huge burden, but …). A smaller bottle would have meant easier packing or just enjoying it in Ireland, but alas. I did end up with a bottle of the fantastic Dingle Peninsula Gin from the duty free, which almost makes up for this loss.

Derry

Also known as Londonderry, it is the second largest city in Northern Ireland and home of The Troubles. I am going to have to get political/historical again because almost all of the major landmarks in Derry are related to the Troubles in some way or another.

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The first big one we came upon was the Peace Bridge: a beautiful bridge that eases pedestrian traffic and makes for a lovely riverside view. It’s easy to think of the clashes in Ireland as being in the distant past, but they are not.  The Peace Bridge was only built in 2011 and it’s construction was an attempt to ease communication and interaction between the unionists (stay in the UK) ‘Waterside’ on the east bank and the nationalists (join Southern Ireland) ‘Cityside’ on the west bank.

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Mere steps from the riverside is the Guildhall. This is an iconic work of architecture built originally in 1890 to be a ceremonial government house / town hall. It’s been destroyed a couple times in fires or bombings, but the restoration project of 2012 has been very successful. To be honest, I thought it was a restructured church given it’s beautiful stained glass windows and enormous pipe organ, but I’m told it’s intention has always been secular in nature. There were several memorials inside dedicated to those who fought (and died) during various stages of revolution against the British occupation. Since at the moment of writing this, the unionists still outnumber the nationalists, that occupation is ongoing, and while the conflict hardly ever results in whole historic buildings being bombed these days, it is far from over.

However, even if you aren’t interested in Irish history or politics, the Guildhall is worth a visit for the exquisite stained glass in every available window.

Bogside Murals

From the Guildhall, we headed over to the Bogside neighborhood to see the murals. Bogside is … perhaps more politically relevant in 2020 (as I write this) than it was when I visited a year ago. The global Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality have highlighted clashes between state sponsored police and citizens who are tired of being treated as less than.

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I gave my own detailed account of the IRA in the Two Irelands post before, and then as now, I ask people to remember that any comparisons between the Troubles in Ireland and the BLM protests in America should only be examined as “shitty police state problems” and NOT used as a way to compare white (Irish) struggles to black (African American) struggles. Just. Don’t.

For those less familiar with American culture, it is a common white supremacist tactic to argue that white Irish immigrants in America had it just as bad or worse than black slaves (lol). Lots of really well meaning white people get caught up in this because at first blush it sounds very reasonable. It isn’t. (You can find more details here,here, and here as a starting place.)

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In this case, the discriminated against minority were the Catholics who had all manner of extremely bigoted laws passed to keep them down including limiting their employment, education, marriage and property access. It was only marginally a religious issue, as the lines of unionist and nationalist were also generally drawn along church lines. The nationalist Catholics were understandably pissed about it. When protest marches were banned, some marched anyway and were brutally attacked by the police. This was in 1968 so the actions of the police were filmed and shown on television, prompting demonstrations of solidarity at the Guildhall and elsewhere.

As the civil unrest went on, off duty police officers in plain clothes attacked protesters who were involved in marches or demonstrations. Uniformed on duty officers refused to protect the protesters from the assault. By January of 1969, police were breaking into protesters homes to assault them and the residents of Bogside erected barricades to keep the police out, declaring a “Free Derry”.

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Enter “The Apprentice Boys”. I cannot make this stuff up. No, they aren’t an obviously white nationalist group like the Proud Boys, but… come on. They are a Protestant fraternal (men only -read: patriarchal) order, however, and at the time in 1969, they enjoyed keeping those dirty Catholics “in their place”. Something something shoe fits.

The annual Apprentice Boys parade in August 1969 came so close to Free Derry that a fight erupted. Guess which side the police took. The police effectively dismantled the barricades, letting the Apprentice Boys into the neighborhood and leading the Catholic residents of Bogside to include the police in their targets.

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A three day riot ensued. The neighborhood was flooded with tear gas and well over 1,000 residents were injured in some way. Police from neighboring areas were brought in, but due to a severe lack of training, they only made it worse. On the third day, the British Army came in and basically separated the three sides: Apprentice Boys (Protestant), Bogside residents (Catholic) and police (Protestant) — while allowing the Bogside residents to maintain their barricades (probably the only reason it worked).

Free Derry was maintained for three years by armed IRA soldiers patrolling to keep British soldiers and  Irish police out. This was not a time of peace, but of intensified armed conflict between the British state and the IRA. Free Derry was eventually dismantled after the massacre of Bloody Sunday where 14 people (13 outright and one later from injuries) were shot down by British soldiers during a protest march against the practice of imprisonment without trial. The soldiers were exonerated on the basis that they claimed to be shooting at armed targets.

If I took out the names and dates, these details could be from any number of American cities in 2020. I will not apologize for the comparison, or for getting political in my blog. We are repeating historical mistakes by continuing to find those among us to “other” and diminish based on pseudo-science and hate-fueled religious arguments. Derry may be a lovely place to have a holiday now, covered with boutique shopping and delectable cafe eateries and pubs, but 50 years ago it was a bloodbath as those who strove for equal rights were murdered by those who valued the status quo.

Do I like the bombings, the riots, the violence employed by the IRA? No… but I understand it – why it happened and why it was necessary to achieve equality under the law. What you would do if your country made it so you and your family always have less, are always be behind or under someone “preferred”, and allowed to be beaten or murdered without consequence after decades of peaceful protests and political marches were systematically ignored or criminalized?

I hope that America listens to BLM before it gets any worse because the result of these kinds of clashes are decades of pain and destruction. There is no question that the history being remembered here is one of state sponsored oppression and violence. You cannot visit and be unaffected by the striking contrast between the now peaceful streets and the murals dedicated to the fallen.

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History kept alive in the neighborhoods affected serves to remind us what we are capable of as a species, best and worst. If you travel the world and you skip the hard parts, you’re missing out on a magical opportunity to open your mind and grow your heart. Thanks for coming with me. Stay safe, wear a mask, wash your hands, destroy systemic forms of oppression and end police brutality.

Doolin & The Aran Islands

The Aran Islands are another quintessential Irish bucket list. There are three, and you can take a boat out to any of them. If you are travelling via tour bus, then the most likely path is from Galway through Rossaveal, but we had a car and decided to go out of Doolin. Doolin itself is spoken of with a kind of reverential awe by those who visit regularly and now I know why. If you are lucky enough to plan your trip to the islands from Doolin instead of Galway, make sure you plan time for some trad music in the evening.


Inis Oírr

We chose to go to Inis Oírr (pronounced roughly “inis sheer”), the closest and smallest of the islands. It seemed like a nice way to see them without being overloaded with tour groups which all go to Inis Mann or Inis Mor. When I was planning the day, I looked at a map of all the things to do and see, mostly ruins but you know I am a sucker for ruins, and I figured I could just rent a bike and ride around to see it all.

It’s also possible to get into the carriage and ride around, but I like to go at my own pace, and the island was neither large nor described as very hilly, so a bike seemed great. I was looking forward to seeing the ruins of the O’Brien castle, the sunken graveyard, and the wrecked battleship. In addition, I was planning to hunt down some Aran knitted wool products because, well, they’re famous. So much I did not know…

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On the day of our ferry tickets, we made it to the parking lot and drove aimlessly looking for a spot for longer than planned. It was with some relief that we made it with a few minutes to spare, or so I thought. I was informed at the ticket office that our ferry had already left! Of course, like every ticketed event, they advised us to arrive 10-15 minutes early and the parking dilemma set us back from that goal, but we were still at least 5 minutes early. I couldn’t believe that they would just leave!

I began to protest and ask about refunds since they left before the scheduled time, and they agreed to put us on another boat. The longer I watched the docks, the more it became obvious that there was almost no order to the ferries at all. It seems like a few boats make the trip, and a few companies sell tickets, but they are not connected. Both going out and returning, we were just put on whatever boat was most convenient and the staff collected a variety of colorful tickets. I suspect that they then use those to collect their passenger fees from the ticket selling companies later. It’s confusing and disorienting and more than a little frustrating, but I guess it works.

It was such a lovely day with clear skies and bright sunshine that my companion wanted to sit on the deck instead of in the covered portion of the boat. There is something to be said for this, as one is much less likely to get seasick on deck, however, one is also much less likely to stay dry. We were hardly out of the harbor when the wind picked up and the waves began to splash in, covering the floor.

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I pulled my shoes up to try and keep dry as the water swirled around. We were not allowed to move once the boat was in motion due to the extreme bouncing, so I was stuck. Then the waves began to come over the side. Small splashes at first, but soon large drenching waves. It began to rain. Sudden hard sheeting buckets of rain combined with waves splashing us in all directions. I did not have any waterproof clothing on whatsoever because the day was so lovely when we were on land. By the time we arrived to the island 30+ minutes later, I was entirely soaked: socks, underwear, everything.

This extreme damper on my mood was not tempered by the fact that the rain had once more evaporated as we pulled into the island harbor and beautiful sunny blue skies prevailed. If anything, it made me even more grumpy. If I’d just sat inside on the boat, I’d have gone from sunny dry land to sunny dry land. Instead I got soaked to the bone with no change of clothes ahead for hours. I declined the carriage and the bike rental shop and immediately set off in the opposite direction of all the other ferry passengers, hoping to find a quiet and empty place to soothe my emotional distress and dry my wet socks.

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I did find a quiet section of beach with no humans around and I traded out my layers of clothing, alternately wearing and sun/wind drying. I managed to go from totally soaking to slightly damp over the course of about an hour. I listened to some music and watched the ocean. I let go of my expectations and my plans, and was finally able/willing to head back toward the cluster of buildings and see what there was to see nearby. I didn’t really have the time or energy to bike around to all the sights, so I just walked. I got to see some of the homes, quaint little cottages all divided by stone walls. I found a sweater shop. I learned a lot more about Aran Knit.

The Aran knitting patterns are unique, especially when combined with a rougher, less treated (more waterproof) type of wool. They were made by fishermen’s wives to stave off the rain, seawater, and cold winds that I had gotten only a tiny taste of on my boat ride over. (I got drenched on a “sunny” day, imagine what it was like for the fishermen?) The tradition is maybe 100-150 years old, and the sheep aren’t from the Aran islands (anymore, not enough sheep). There’s a strong mythology about the types of stitch and patterns in the knit, but it’s mostly from a single source, which always makes me skeptical.

Whether or not the patterns link to certain clans or whether the original ladies who knitted them ascribed the mythological meaning to bring health, wealth and such to the wearer we can’t be sure. What is sure is that the distinctive patterns are unique and in high demand. Such high demand that there’s now factories churning out machine made versions of the traditional fisherman’s wear. You can order them online, you can buy them in any city in Ireland. I doubt any casual observer will know the difference. The machine made sweaters are lovely and affordable. I didn’t want one.

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I perused the shop’s offerings, observing tags and occasionally asking questions. The hand knitted sweaters were truly lovely, but they started around 100€ each. I thought a lot about how often I’d wear a really thick wool sweater in my life. It would be great for the 20 minutes I’m outside each day in the depths of winter, but then it would be too hot to wear inside. Plus, I’m already quite fluffy, and bulky clothes are not flattering on my figure. I looked longingly at the scarves, because I love scarves, but I also have too many already and am trying to figure out which ones to leave behind on my next major move. Finally, I settled on a hat. It is hard to keep my head warm in the cold winter winds and they’re meant to be taken off inside, plus don’t take up so much room in the luggage.

I chose a hand knitted hat in a lovely moss green with several different classic Aran stitches. The gentleman at the counter and I chatted for a while about the changes in Ireland and on the island specifically in his lifetime. He told me when he was younger, everyone went down to the lighthouse to watch the football (soccer) game on the only television on the whole island, and now they had stuff like WiFi! His wife was part of the group of ladies that knitted the in house goods, but he wasn’t sure if she had knitted the hat I chose or one of the other ladies had. The wool itself was from the Connemara area because there just weren’t enough sheep on the Aran Islands themselves to support the knitting, it being more a fishing (and lately tourism) economy than a sheep based one.

I actually wore the hat a lot during the rest of my trip in Ireland and it was a welcome addition to a wardrobe that was packed for a more summery climate than I ended up with.

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With my souvenir goal achieved, I continued to explore and came across a small meadow behind some abandoned buildings. Down among the grass and weeds was a zoo of tiny life. Little black winged and red spotted moths, fuzzy bumble bees, stripey caterpillars, and beautiful butterflies. I had a wonderful time crawling around on the ground and taking pictures.

The line for the ferries back was almost as chaotic as the ferries out, but I had more faith that we wouldn’t be left behind. The weather was getting squally again, and the ships captains were having chats about the best way to get back. They started out asking all the people subject to seasickness to get into certain boats which were less likely to be as impacted by the waves and which would take the most direct route back to Doolin. Our reservations included a trip past the Cliffs of Moher and would be about twice as long as the direct route.

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Sadly, by the time we all bundled onto the boats, the captains had decreed the weather was too bad to go to the cliffs. I made sure to get a seat inside for the ride back, turned on my music and had a little nap. I have been known to get seasick when I’m below decks, but this ship was fairly wide and had big picture windows. It was not a real question of being wet and cold vs being a little nauseous.

Once more, I learned that no matter what the weather looks like on land, it is not related to the weather even 5 minutes out to sea and that whatever plans you make in Ireland that involve the ocean are subject to drastic change and cancellation without warning. I think the boat trips were worth it, and I’m glad I went to the island, even if it meant getting soaked, but if you only have a couple days in Ireland, maybe stick to mainland activities to avoid disappointment.

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Doolin Cave

When putting together the day plan, we had a few hours in the late afternoon free and the cave looked like a good “all weather” option. I booked the tickets for pretty much everything we did ahead of time online because summer is the high season in Ireland and popular sites sell out fast. Even though I wasn’t feeling great after my very wet morning, it seemed like a waste not to use the tickets that were already paid for, so we headed to the cave.

20190805_162628The cave is famous because it has the longest freestanding (or free hanging I suppose) stalactite in Europe. It is quite impressive. Tours go down in groups with hard hats and a guide. There’s a LOT of stairs, a fairly short walk, and a very dramatic presentation where you walk into the main cavern in the dark (flashlights pointed at the ground) so that when the lights come on, you get a stunning view of the star stalactite. Originally, there was meant to be a garden walk involved in this as well, but the rainy weather which had prevented us from seeing the Cliffs had caught up to the mainland and it was positively pouring down. On top of that, the cafe was closed by the time we came back up. I think the stalactite was stunning, but overall, I wish we’d been able to enjoy the other things at the location.

Doolin Music House

Whatever hardships the day threw at us, the evening plans made up for it all. I was able to change into dry clothes, which helped a lot, and our nighttime plans were for some trad music in a local house. I’d reached out to Christy and Sheila via email and arranged for a space in their house show. Trad (traditional) Irish music is a big draw both for locals and tourists in Ireland and while a lot of it is available in pubs, those can be loud and crowded – a challenge to anyone who’s feeling overwhelmed at the end of a long, hard, rainy day of touristing.

The idea of sitting in a nice quiet living room and listening to music and stories was far more appealing than the pub. Sheila welcomed us in and invited us to sit by the fire which was burning local peat and smelled amazing. Peat is harvested from the bogs of Ireland. It’s dead and decaying organic matter that’s been pressed into turf. It’s dug up in chunks and dried in the sun, then used for fuel. Ireland doesn’t have a lot of trees, which is why so much is build of stone and why the people burn peat for fire. Even with new gas and electric heating systems being installed around the island, a lot of folks still use peat in their fireplaces and stoves. I also had the chance to see some of the harvesting and drying in process when we drove through peat bogs later on.

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When we first came in, we entered Sheila’s painting studio where she creates and displays her artwork. In the living room, however, the walls are covered with charcoal sketches of some of Ireland’s most influential trad musicians of yore. Sheila brought us some wine and other guests filtered in. It was mostly people over 50, I may have been the youngest in the room, but they were lively and talkative (I think the Irish might be the only people who talk as much as the Americans). We were served a light meal of local salmon and local cheeses with fresh bread and we just ate and chatted for a while. It was very relaxing, like a dinner party at a friend’s house.

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When we had all finished eating, Kristy and James came out with a fiddle and an armload of flutes. James stuck to his fiddle the whole night and only very rarely spoke. Kristy was every inch the Irish story spinner and played a variety of flutes and even the spoons at one point. Between songs, Kristy would tell us all stories about the music and about growing up in Ireland. Although he never said his age directly, I gather he must at least be in his 70s if not older. He’s been performing professionally for more than 40 years, but the stories he told about his childhood experiences lead me to believe he’s been playing much much longer. 

I did not have the kind of memory capacity in my phone to record all those wonderful stories, but I was charmed by tales of the older way of life that had still been common when he was a boy. How all the men worked hard physical labor jobs, and almost no one had any money, but it barely mattered because they could go round to each others homes at night and play music and dance. He told us the history of the instruments and how the music grew up as something more to accompany dancers than as it’s own art. Dancers were the percussion and the main entertainment. A musician who couldn’t follow the dancer’s beat wouldn’t soon be invited to play again.

Sheila and her friend came out to show a small demonstration of the dancing, so focused on the movement of the feet and the stillness of the body. The whole world has seen Riverdance by now, the famous show that came from this traditional dance style. It has been heavily adapted to appeal to a broader audience with more movement and flash, but the original style is very subtle and very challenging to master.

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We listened to music and stories totally captivated. It is one of my best memories of the entire trip. My Airbnb host, Marcella, lives just up the road, and of course has known Sheila for years and was stunned to find they were asking so “high” a price as 25€ per person for the experience. I found it to be totally reasonable for such a wonderful evening. No public show could have compared to the warmth and personal touches of being in their home, and yet they were impeccable hosts with regard to our comfort and keeping our wine glasses full. Plus, while they may just be the neighbors to Marcella, Kristy is a world renowned and award winning musician with a lifetime of amazing stories to share.

Every night is different because different musicians and dancers show up to accompany Kristy. Plus, although the night I was there, none of us were brave enough, Kristy did say he likes it to feel more like a group event than a performance, and anyone is welcome to sing, play or dance as they like.

The main website is very classy, and doesn’t properly give the impression of the impish charm that Christy exudes. I took a single video for my own memories and to share with you all, but if you want to see more, their Facebook Page has a much wider selection than the primary website.

Letters From China (Spring Flowers & Holidays 2008)

When the vicious cold winter weather begins to fade, the world begins to fill with flowers and everyone is in a more festive mood. Sitting in my cold and empty classroom in Korea now, I’m looking forward to spring more than ever. but until it arrives, here are the stories of the celebrations and beautiful blossoms I encountered in early 2008 in Yanjiao and Beijing to tide us over.


Mar 18, 2008 at 4:47pm

This week is Ireland week. The Irish Embassy is holding a number of events to increase awareness of Irish culture in China, and one of them was a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Not only was this the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in China, I’m told it was the first “open” parade since 1989. There have been military parades, and a few dragon parades (which are actually street performances, not real parades). So, a big step toward openness for China and a real historic event.

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Though I must admit it was painfully obvious that China doesn’t know what to do with a parade. They limited the participants in number (if not in scope), so it was quite small. They didn’t put any rope/tape up to block the parade route, there were no musicians besides the bagpipe at the lead, and they only marched about 500 yards before doubling back to their starting point.

Quite a few people came from Ireland for this special event, and they are easily identified as the crazy people wearing huge green hats. I had no idea that the holiday was as big a deal there as in the states. Before I found the people from the school here to hang out with, I met a group of Irish tourists, decked out in green clothes, big green hats and carrying large Irish flags. They shepherded me until I found my own group, quite friendly, and magnanimously declared I was Irish for the day. Although I don’t have any photos of them, there is at least one of me in their trip album somewhere.

After the parade (which started 30 min late) there was a band, a real traditional folk music group, very enjoyable, and traditional Irish dancing.

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The Irish minister of something or other got up on stage with some Chinese officials to be all official and ceremonial.

There was then a “famous Chinese singer” who won the Chinese equivalent of the American idol show, no its not called Chinese idol.

Then there was a jazz band and it kind of tapered off.

We went to an Irish pub called Paddy O’Shea’s, had some drinks and chips. The irish band and the bagpiper came there too, and played for us throughout the evening, and we didn’t get back home until after midnight.

I think I celebrated this St. P’s day with more Irish people than I’d ever MET before in my life. It was fun.

Some amusing things:

1) St. Patrick having been at the ball the night before, claimed to have been drinking tequila till 7:30 that morning.

2) I ran into one of my students there, who had many questions about Irish culture, including why was the piper wearing “a dress”. That was a difficult explanation, mostly involving “shhh, don’t say that so loudly, it’s not a dress”.

Mar 24, 2008 at 5:58pm

I don’t think I have many photos of this one. We went to the Marriott hotel for Easter Sunday brunch. Super posh. I mean, I’ve been to Marriott in the states, and they’re nice and all, but I felt like I was in some weird rags to riches movie. I just couldn’t bring myself to be crass enough to snap photos in there, sorry. But take my word, it was beautiful.

The day was also lovely, mild and sunny. And we sat indoors, but near the patio’s open doors so we got to see outside and have a nice breeze without suffering the sun in our eyes or the smoke from the grill.

The buffet was HUGE (we’re seriously considering doing that once a month now). I ate so much seafood: sushi, sashimi, steamed mussels, scallops in the shell, smoked salmon… mmmm. So much seafood. And cheese, which is really hard to come by here, especially good cheese. There were American breakfast foods like sausage, bacon, and omelettes, but I didn’t have any. There was Chinese food; there were crepes; there was a fresh fruit smoothie station and a salad bar. There were 3 grill stations outside, ribs to die for, as well as other meat selections, a table of fine sliced meats like prosciutto etc. A desert selection of doom (though honestly there was not enough chocolate, the lemon tarts were awesome) and a fondue station. And while I believe that SOME of it was special for Easter, they do this every Sunday. it was about 300 kuai, so 40$, not cheap, but sooo good.

We puttered there till 5 pm (the buffet stopped at 3:30, we just lingered over last cups of coffee, champagne etc), then headed to a tiny little bar in a hutong some way away, where we wiled away the evening discussing politics (mainly American). They had flavored rums there, and I got one ginger and one orange clove… very smooth and very nice.

I had to duck out earlier than most, and got home rather later than I wanted to, but it was still a nice day out, and hopefully the next late night bar excursion will be on a Saturday.

 

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2017 Note: Oh the days before Instagram. I can hardly imagine being ashamed of taking photos of my food,or a restaurant, or a buffet table these days. The last time I went to a very posh buffet, I actually ran around with my camera to get pretty pictures of the tables before they were attacked by guests before I even got my first plate of food. I wrote more than 7,000 words about my food experiences in Bohol in 2017 and took pictures of nearly everything I ate there. And yet, back in 2008 in China, it seemed gauche to stop and take photos in that beautiful hotel. I wonder what photo trends we’ll get this decade.

Mar 26, 2008 at 7:58pm

Yuyuantan Park

IMG_0376.jpgThis is the gigantic park that has over 2000 cherry trees. I went today to check it out, since some of the cherries are blooming elsewhere. There weren’t a lot in bloom, and I walked around for about 3 hrs (it’s huge). I took over 100 pics (and this is without most stuff in bloom). I think these are the best of today’s. I’ll be going back in 10-14 days when I expect it to be really much fuller. A lot of the pics are closeups because the trees are still pretty bare, and most of the grass is brown, so the wider shots just don’t look very nice yet. This one is my favorite from the whole day. Unexpected bee!

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Enjoy the rest of the photos!

Apr 1, 2008 at 4:23pm

I think this very well may be the student’s favorite western holiday. I woke up sleepy, cold and cranky because the weather is cold and I can’t breathe. I got to class a couple minutes late and my classroom was empty. One of my students came up to me in the hall and said (as seriously as possible) “Oh! We thought that you wouldn’t make it to class today!” which was a vaguely reasonable assumption, because I’ve been sick.

Anyway, it was an April Fool’s trick and the whole class poured out of a neighboring classroom with choruses of “happy fool’s day!” It did make me smile.

Then during the next period a group of Kevin’s students asked me to switch classrooms with them so they could play a prank on him, and thus I became a participant in the shenanigans.

Certainly a good deal of enthusiasm for April Fool’s.

April Flowers

2017 Note: In April 2008, I took a lot of beautiful photos of flowers all over the campus as well as the snow-like drifts of cottonwood trees that almost certainly added to my health troubles. I somehow never wrote anything about these beautiful trees that brightened my day as I walked past them on campus, or even about the strange hummingbird moth that I saw for the first time that year and only learned the real name of recently. I don’t know if I was too consumed with my misery to think about writing more about the flowers, but it makes me glad that I’ve changed my focus.

I still write about the hard times on occasion, but I like to spend my words on beauty and joy whenever possible. In the end, that means that I experience the joy over and over. The first time, when I’m living it, again when I think about what I want to write, again when I write, edit and proofread it, and again when I choose which photos will accompany my story. The joy becomes larger and the pain becomes smaller as time passes, and I hope that the next 10 year retrospective of my life reflects that.