A Most Pecular Tree

MonkeyPuzzleTree

I stood just outside the mossy rock wall of the churchyard.  We were in a tiny English village with a name I would have to look up in my notebook.  I was making it a point to stop and look inside these old Saxon and Norman churches whenever we passed one (and where there was room to pull the rent car safely off the narrow road).

I stood and looked at the strange tree that grew many feet above my head.  I inched closer, careful to not brush against the nettles that, with a touch that lasted a nano-second, would punish your hand for the rest of the day.  It looked like a conifer with its oddly shaped needles.  Yet, there was something…

After snapping a picture, I continued to move around in the churchyard in search of unusual tombstones, interesting names, the best angle for a photo and heartfelt epitaphs that could barely be read under ages of lichen and moss.  I kept looking back at the tree.

Then I remembered.

I was shown this strange plant in 1975, on my first trip to England.  I was with a friend and he pointed out this awesome tree.

“Wager you don’t have many of these in the States,” he said.

“You win, Malcolm.  I’ve never seen anything like this before,” I replied.

“It’s a Monkey Puzzle tree,” he said.  “You don’t see many of them around.”

A Monkey Puzzle tree.  What an interesting name, I thought.

Over the years, I forgot about this strange tree that is native to Chile (it’s the National Tree of Chile).  Just a few weeks ago, I saw another one.  And now, I’m seeing my third.  I googled the tree and found that its population is declining.  It’s on the Endangered Species List of the IUCN (whatever that is).

Then little bits of my memory fed me snippets of the tree being mentioned in popular culture.  One of my favorite movies is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  Mrs. Muir had a Monkey Puzzle tree cut down and replaced by roses.  This made the spirit of the sea-captain quite angry…he had planted the tree years earlier (when he was alive) by his own hands.

Wikipedia mentions a novel Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer.  The female character, Emily, manages to climb the tree.  This is no small feat, since the tree is called “Monkey’s Despair” in France.  It’s not easy to climb.  Emily learns that a young boy who once lived in her house had climbed the tree…but was too afraid to climb down.  He later died in WWI.

I get a certain odd and creepy feeling when I stand and gaze at this tree.  Strangely, I often find them near graveyards.

They’ve been called “Living Fossils” because of the age of the species.

I found one an hour ago on eBay.  Perhaps I will buy one and have the only Monkey Puzzle in the Adirondacks (most likely).

But, then again, I don’t think I will.  I might be tempted to climb it.  I might be afraid to climb back down.  I might discover what it was that drove the monkeys to despair while they pawed their way through the odd and spooky branches.

1024px-Araucaria_araucana-branch

Reflections in a Sad Eye

NightPub

The last bus stopped running an hour ago.  The publican has rung the bell in the nearby pub, calling out “Time gentlemen, please.” The night‘s action is most definitely over out here in the ‘burbs of London. The streets may be quiet and the locals are at home…but it’s still light out!

It’s only a bit after 10:00 pm.  In truth, the nearest pub will be remain open until midnight so it’s not entirely an empty neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the late flights from Capetown, Rio, New York and Paris are approaching touchdown…their wheels are lowered and they are slowly approaching the runway about 255 feet above my head.

Yes, my head that has been hit with a massive case of hay fever or some sort of allergy since I walked through customs a few hours.  I can’t use my handkerchief any more; it needs to hang out to dry.  I’m down to using a roll of toilet paper to stifle my sneezes.  Even the woman tending bar at the pub noticed my agony and offered her own personal pills she claimed worked for her hay fever.

I tend not to take pills from people I never me before.

The flight from Shannon was only about an hour.  The “food” was a box of crackers, some cheese, a small chocolate bar, some vegetable pate, small can of tonic, and a glass of water.  All for €7.50.  Aer Lingus must be in financial trouble.

We’re in the very B&B we used in 2012. It was cheap, near the airport and provided a free shuttle to the terminals.

I doubt we’ll travel this cheap again.

The room’s light was dingy, quite brothel-like.  There was no shower curtain and only one towel each.

I’m writing this with my iMac Air and using it like it’s supposed to be used…on my lap.  But I have a bad back and I’m leaning against a pillow that is, if I’m lucky, two inches thick.

I’m a hugger.  I don’t know, maybe my mother took my teddy away too soon, but I need something to wrap my arms around.  I’m going to be forced to use my neck cushion.  The kind of thing that looks good in the W.H. Smith store but is difficult to pack…like a football.  People  sleep with them on planes and trains.  Mine’s blue in case you’re interested.

I’m not very happy right now.

This was meant to be a reflection of a wonderful trip.  But, as usual with me, it’s bittersweet.

We said good-bye to Brian on Sunday.  Ireland seemed to be a little emptier without his companionship, wit, charm and sense of amazement at what he saw and what we shared.  I’m quite proud of myself for planning a trip that included a medieval banquet, being on his own in a few pubs in Cashel, and climbing to the battlements of our ancestral castle in County Tipperary.

Thinking back on the entire trip, I can recall some awesome sights and some frustrating moments.  I’ve looked down haunted wells where a violated youth was thrown.  I’ve seen the withered hand of a saint who founded the Abbey that later became Ely Cathedral.  We’ve rubbed fingers with mummies in a crypt in Dublin, threw a pence into the Liffey from Ha’Penny Bridge.

Up in County Sligo, at a cemetery in Enniscrone, I stood at the grave of Tom and Kate Egan who once served me tea from water that had been boiling all day over a peat fire.

That was over thirty years ago.

I’ve looked out over the fields my people plowed and had their cattle graze for decades.

Stone walls don’t change much in human life times. The hedges grow for centuries. The rains fall and the people keep smiling.

In England, our friends edge toward retirement and think thoughts about where it would be a nice place to live.

To me, I couldn’t think of any place more in tune with the beats of my heart and yearnings of my soul than England or the west of Ireland.

Being of Irish background, I thought of what it would be like to live there.  My body is pulled two ways.  My blood says to go back to the soil that first made you who you are…melancholy and love of the written word are my genetic markers.

But, I’m happiest when I’m walking.  And, there is no place with footpaths that lead to all my dreamscapes than England.

If you drive six miles through Wiltshire, Somerset or Dorset and not pass a dozen “public footpath” signs, then you have a bad case of tunnel vision.

My adventure is over and I’m a sadder man because of it.  In the coming weeks, I will sit and tell funny stories of our trip, but deep within me, I’ll long for the footpath.  I’ll long for the place when the biggest decision I need to make is which direction to walk.

Yes, the Adirondacks have hundreds of miles of trails and I live in the center of it all, but somehow it lacks the ancient history and mythic lore that stirs my soul as I stand inside a stone circle that was constructed before the Great Pyramids.

I am cursed with restlessness.

But the posts will go on. I’ve not shown you things or told you stories of many things.  Some will keep you awake at night. Some will make you smile and some will make you cry.

If I can do all these things…I’ve succeeded in what a writer most wants.  Getting people to read.

Right now? I’m going to shut the dingy overhead light off and switch on my Barnes & Nobel reading lamp.  I’m working my way through Dickens at the moment.

Its title is very appropriate:

“Great Expectations”.

GardenHeathrow

 

[This post is written in England but it will be posted from Penn Station when we get back. This hotel wants £4.00 for Wi-Fi. I have never paid for that service before and I’m not going to start now.]

 

The Swans Of The Shannon River: Limerick On A Warm Afternoon

KingJohnsCastleLimerick

I dropped Mariam at our hotel and drove off to find the parking lot.  I made two lefts and passed two pubs, one of which was called The Sin Bin.  I took note of the name.  Maybe this pub had something more than pints of Guinness.  I walked back to the hotel and we decided to walk along O’Connell Street.  In two blocks it turned into Patrick Street.  Limerick wasn’t fine and healthy in this part of town.  There were a fair number of boarded up storefronts and more than the usual number of Asian restaurants.  Only a few old-fashioned pubs hugged the sidewalk…and they looked nearly closed.  They had none of the classic “Irish Pub” look so many places in London, Dublin and even New York sported.

It was an unusually warm day for the west of Ireland.  Temperatures must have been in the low 80’s F.  We walked down to the quay that ran along the Shannon River.  I looked across the water and was surprised to get a fine view of King John’s Castle.  I had driven past the place many decades ago and the place still gave me the chills…even in the June warmth.

Yes, this is the same King John who signed the Magna Carta in 1215 in a field near Windsor, England.  He was the youngest of five sons of Henry II and Elenore of Aquitaine.  (That would be Katherine Hepburn in the movie.)  He was given lands in France and England and Ireland.  He became known as the Lord of Ireland and ordered this castle built in 1200.

Before the English arrived, the Vikings had a walled town here on or about 922.

But today I was watching a bevy of swans fighting for food that some guy was throwing down from the walkway.  A feeding frenzy of swans is quite a sight to see since swans seem to me anyway, a symbol of calmness and grace.

This city of Limerick showed signs of a past glory.  That past is coming slowly back to live through various civic projects.  It’s a beautiful Georgian town, like Bath in England, but without the funds to fully restore the townhouses and old cemeteries.  But things are happening.  I hope the progress continues.  After all, the city got a bad reputation as a result of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.  Many of the locals were angry, so I’ve read, at McCourt at presenting a depressing and dismal part of the city’s history.

But, the swans looked happy and uncaring.  What more could they want?  It was warm and it wasn’t raining.

I’ll settle in to read now.  My son will be at Shannon Airport at 11:00 am in the morning.

He’ll see the landscape of the Burrens and Connemara for the first time, just like I did thirty-one years ago.

SwansAtShannonLimerick

Dublin On A Sunday Afternoon

PatOnO'ConnellBridge

It was a brief flight.  Heathrow to Dublin airport in a little over an hour.  No time for a movie.  No time for any real food.  I looked across Mariam’s lap and watched the fields of Wales slide under us at several hundred miles per hour.  Still, when we landed and took the taxi to our hotel, we felt the need to take a walk.

I hadn’t been in this curious city in thirty years.  I wonder why it took so long to return.  Was I avoiding something?  Like memories that were so pleasant that I didn’t want to shatter them with fresh images? I wanted to keep thinking of this place as a cracked photo yellowed with time and not a memory made of pixels.  We walked to O’Connell Street and took a left.  A block and a half and we were standing in front of the General Post Office, still showing bullet holes from the Rising of 1916 when the English shelled it from a gunboat on the River Liffey.

We walked to the famous Abbey Theater where the cream of the English thespians trod the boards.

Then we crossed the O’Connell Street Bridge.  In my mind, nearly as famous and important as the Tower Bridge in London.  There is a legend that states that you will always see a white horse when you cross the bridge.  Another legend says you will see an Irish prostitute if there is no horse.

We saw neither (as far as I knew…I know a white horse when I see one).  One wonders what will become of your day if you saw both.  Or, even more ideal, a prostitute riding a white horse.  But I’ll save that story for another day and another blog.

We went a block into the section called Temple Bar.  It’s just opposite our hotel.  There were more pubs that one could easily count.  But the Garda (police), in their yellow vests, vastly out numbered the pubs.  It seemed like there had just been an upgrade in the terrorist rating…but it was more to do with the rowdiness of the drinkers than any bombs.  One Garda was riding a white horse.  I stopped to consider this.

TempleBarMusicPub

I found a pub to rest in.  They were playing some traditional Irish music.  We sat for a bit and listened.  I took a photo of a pretty bar maid.  She seemed pleased someone noticed her behind the stack of empty pint glasses she carried.

bargirltemplebar

The Irish are an attractive people.

Doubling back to the Liffey, we crossed the Ha’penny Bridge.  Small pad locks were beginning to collect on the metal bars of the railings.

Paris just recently dealt with the thousands of locks on the Ponts over the Seine…they simply cut them off.  Would this be the destiny of the Ha’penny locks?  Who placed the very first lock?  I wondered about this and lost myself in thoughts about whether they were still together or had they separated and left only a small chunk of metal or brass to rattle in the winter wind and signify nothing.

After dinner and a show of Irish dancing (think Riverdance with four dancers) we went back to the O’Connell Street bridge.

NightOnLiffey

One would never guess it was a Sunday night.

I stood on the bridge and read a small plaque about a man whose carriage plunged into the Liffey at that spot.  I thought of ghosts.  Was the bridge haunted?

Was the bridge haunted by this poor drowned soul, or a thousand prostitutes…or a hundred white horses?

 

May The Sun Rise To Meet Him

 IrishStuff

On Wednesday, my son, Brian will step off the red-eye flight from JFK and the sun will rise to meet him.  I will have my son, my boy, my only boy with me while we tour our ancestral island with my wife (on her first visit, too).

It’s been thirty years since I’ve been to Ireland.  I can hardly wait to see how it’s changed, fear how it’s changed and hope that some things are not changed at all.

I will take Brian to see some Irish Egans.  I will meet a distant cousin I haven’t seen since 1984.  Together   we will visit the graves of my other relatives who have passed on in those past three decades.  As homework, I asked him to watch The Quiet Man, something I’m sure he didn’t have the time to do.  That’s okay.  He has me as his guide.

I will be the Seanchai, and tell him stories of Irish history…the glorious tales of heroic myths like Cúchulainn and Tir Na Nog and Brian Boru.

I will also tell him of the days of the famine, when the British landowners shipped beef and potatoes back to England, leaving the Irish to eat dirt.

He will hear of the Uprisings.  He will hear of Kevin Barry, a man younger than my son, who was executed by the English in 1920.  He will know of Bobby Sands and the hunger strike that took his life six years before my son was born.

[I love England, as my readers know, but I also understand what some English did to my people.]

I will show him the Cliffs of Moher, and the towns of Galway and Sligo.

I will read Yeats to him under bare Ben Bulben.  I will make every attempt to get him a sip of Potcheen.  Like a true Irishman, I will talk his ear off while he is cornered in a pub in Culleens.

Cashel

We will walk among the ruins of Cashel and rub our hands against the ancient rock.  The lichen and the moss will scratch our palms.  It’s likely to rain Irish water from Irish clouds on his shoulders.  The fog may slow our driving through the narrow lanes.  But, in the few days he has to be with us, I will touch the highlights that will dirty his fingers with the soil of his homeland.

 

If Hand-Hewn Beams Could Talk: A Proper English Pub

PubBeams

I’ll repeat what I said in a previous post:

“If you want to know what is happening in an English village, just sit in the pub for an hour or two.”  I am convinced that this is true.  Pubs and not bars in the way we know bars in the States.  If the village is small enough, nearly everyone who lives nearby will stop in for a pint, a dinner or a quick chat.  It’s the way the social network works in this little country.

I’ve been in quite a few pubs during my time here.  As many of you know, I lived in Dorset for a year and have returned to see old friends and visit old haunts in 2012, 2014 and this year.  I seem to gravitate to Dorset because there is something about the ancient footpaths, hedgerows and pubs that have made their way into the core of my being.  In my second book, “An American in Dorset”, I try to explain my feelings.  I’m not sure I can fully describe how the wind blowing through a field of rape or an ancient copse of oaks hides secrets or how an ancient tumuli holds the bones of someone who walked the fields and tended sheep while the Egyptians were building the pyramids.

As I’ve tried to give you, my faithful reader, a look at a small English church, I will take you into a typical pub and make a humble attempt to give you the feel and the experience.

My photo gallery:

MinsterTavernSign

[Most pub signs are decorative, clever, artistic and usually relate to something local…though not always. Common themes are Kings, Queens, Harts, Arms, it goes on and on.  My personal favorite is the pub I spent a great deal (in the year I lived in Dorset, 1984-85), of time having dinner and sipping my Best Bitter is the Barley Mow]

PubFireplace

[There is usually a cozy place to sit beside the fireplace.]

pubTV

[I would say that it’s a rare pub that does not have at least one TV so you can keep up with the Leeds football game with Liverpool.]

SkittlesAlley

[Other than the ever-present dart board (failed to get a photo, sorry mate), there is often a Skittles game in the rear of the pub.  It’s a bowling sort of game.]

PubGirl

[A great selection of beers is found in most pubs…and sometimes a pretty barmaid to serve it to you.]

pubPoster1

[Many pubs have charming posters…here’s one.]

Pubposter2

[And another.]

PubDessertMenu

[Here is the desert menu.  Third from the bottom??? Don’t ask.]

PubUrinal

[Yes, I took a photo in the Gents room to illustrate the communal nature of the urinal.  These are not found as often as they once were.  But, at least you had someone to talk to while you went.  Remember: you don’t “buy” beer, you “rent” it.]

pub bell

[And, at the hour that all men dread…it used to be 11:00 pm for decades…the pub owner would ring a bell (at 10:50 pm) and say rather loudly: “last call!”.  Then at 11:00 pm sharp, the bell would ring again with the age old…”Time, gentlemen, please.”

I loved the culture and atmosphere of the English pub, from the Duke of Wellington in London to the Horned Ram in Puddletown.  There is a long and lovely history of uncountable lives that played out in the pubs of England.

This is my final post from England.  Tomorrow, we fly to Dublin, Ireland and spend eight days in the country where people walk and work and drink…that have my very own blood in their veins.

Tomorrow I’m going home.

I Never Met An English Country Church I Didn’t Like

ChurchPicture

[St. John the Baptist, Buckthorn Weston, Dorset]

It’s been said by many travelers that if one wants to know what’s happening in any small English village, just go to the pub and listen for an hour.  I think the same is true, to a degree, of social life provided by the Church in these towns and hamlets that appear on maps as small squares with crosses.

The village names themselves are worthy of a post for their own sake.  There’s Guy’s Marsh, Ebbesbourne Wake, Bowerchalke, Broad Chalke, Sutton Mandeville, Donhead St. Mary, Mellbury Abbas and (my favorite), Little Puddle Bottom.  And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when you consider the English penchant for descriptive and proper geographic place names.

Each of these towns, each of these dots and intersections on maps, nearly always contain a church.  The vast majority of these are Anglican or Church of England.  Americans know them as Episcopalians.  One drives by these small churches everyday when you’re motoring about from places like London to Stonehenge.  Stop in one of these small buildings, and time has stood still.  Each one is different yet each one is nearly a carbon-copy of the next.

You enter the church grounds (if you’re lucky) through a lychgate.  These are small entries into the churchyard that have a roof to protect the pall bearers from the frequent rains.  Here, the mourners and the coffin await the priest to emerge and begin the funeral service.

Once inside, you feel the chill.  I didn’t have my pocket thermometer with me, but the churches I visited today probably were all about 56 F.  If I were attending service, I would hope for a highly charged sermon full of fire and brimstone.

I’d feel warmer.

Here is a small photo gallery of the common sights one sees in so many of these lovely and ancient structures.  And, by ancient, I really mean ancient.  Most of the churches we visited on June 3, date back 800 to 1,000 years.  It staggers the mind to contemplate the fact that worshippers offered up their prayers and pleas to that many years.  These churches were ancient centuries before Columbus even thought of sailing to the edge of the known world.

Here are some photos:

LitchGate

 [Typical lychgate]

CommonPrayerBook

[The Book of Common Prayer for the congregation]

effegy1400's

[The effigy of Alexander Mowbray who died in 1410]

BaptismFont

[Baptismal font from the late 1300’s. I find it interesting to contemplate the tiny infant being baptized and then, 80+ years later, ending up in the ground outside the church under a stone encrusted with moss and lichen.]

Kneelers

[Cushions for kneeling. Sometimes made by the local ladies. Many are Regimental Insignias]

HeadstoneDorsetJune3

[From birth to death. The end of the story for the faithful worshippers]

The first stanza of one of my favorite poems:

“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

the shepherd, homeward, plods his weary way,

the lowing herd wanders slowly or’ the lea,

and leaves the world to darkness, and to me.”

     –Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.