Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"Woody's Island"

View from the Island, March 2015
It feels strange to write about Ireland now, as I sit in the peaceful sanctuary of my in-laws' garden near (but not too near) Napoli. Ireland seems a world away, as the sun shines here and birds chirp, and I'm enveloped by the scent of the jasmine that grows on the patio trellis. Diego's tomato plants are already tall, as are the garlic and the herbs. There are beautiful orange flowers on the pomegranate trees, and figs working hard to reach maturity later this summer. I'm sorry I'll miss them.

So, as I said, it feels strange in this environment to think back upon the wind and rain and hail and clouds and wallabies while I was in Ireland.

Yes, that's right. Wallabies.

One of Woody's Wallabies watches from the hilltop.

Light pierces the nearly ever-present clouds.

I'll be a little bit coy in this post, a little secretive. That's because the last “farm” I went to in Ireland was on a private island, and it wasn't a farm, though it had extensive “kitchen gardens” in need of restoration. It's a private island that will, in the not-so-distant future, become a vacation spot for a select few of the very rich. They want to maintain some anonymity and a sense of exclusivity, so I'll respect that and not use the name here—though, let's get real, who's reading this bloody blog, anyway? [Hi Mom!]

Let's call it “The Cold Island Where I Washed My Hair Victorian Style”.
No, that's too long.
How about “The Island That Felt A Little Like Jurassic Park When Swarms of Wallabies Jumped Out Of The Gorse.”
Well, ok, no. That's even longer than the first one.

How about “Woody's Island”. Because my host, a Brit and a Baron, did an entirely unexpected and stellar impersonation of Woody Allen at the dinner table one night.
I can still hear him in my head, seemlessly switching from a somewhat posh-sounding British accent (to my American ears, anyway), to a nasal, New York Jewish twang, saying “I shot a moose . . .”

The "castle", inside its protective wall-within-a-wall.

A walkway through the gardens near the "castle".

Woody's Island was a tough invitation to refuse (so I didn't). Who can say no to an island with a castle in beautiful, unspoiled nature, with deer and sheep and cows and pheasants and sea birds and seals and . . . wallabies.
Apparently an ancestor had some brought over, and they've thrived here. So much so, that every once in a while the population must be culled, and you might find wallaby on the menu in some Dublin restauarants. Or so I'm told. But more about that in a minute.

The Shamrock brings supplies, and us, to Woody's Island.

Me and the boys leave the harbour for the island.

Moving supplies into the boat's hold.

I arrived at the marina with my ridiculously large suitcase, and found the 50-year-old green trawler waiting with a shipment of supplies for the island, and workers heading over for the week. I was the only woman among eleven men on the boat. Once on the island that ratio switched to 18:1. It felt a little weird at first, but not for long. Everyone was kind and helpful, and I even felt like some took it upon themselves to look out for me, make sure I had what I needed and was comfortable. . . noteworthy, because most were 'guests' on the island, themselves.

I tell my mother about this, and she says in her matter-of-fact way, “You were the only woman on the island, among 18 men, and you're surprised they appreciated your presence?” [unspoken: “Dimwit.”]

Perhaps she has a point. I begin to consider the possibility that I'm a little “slow” about some things.

Anyway, on the way over, the scenery is lovely. It's a rare sunny day, too, and the seas are relatively calm. Our captain is a very young man with an air of authority and competence far beyond his years. I immediately feel like I'm in good hands. His . . mate? Is that what you call the guy who assists the captain? I'm woefully ignorant of such things for someone who, herself, grew up on an island. Anyway, this “mate”, Joe, is a character. He tells me about loading the cows and the sheep onto the boat when it's time to bring them to shore and to market.
“They go below deck. The cows are tough, stubborn. But the sheep will follow each other. The hard part is getting the life jackets on them . . .”

I laugh, after a perhaps embarassingly long pause. Joe seems a font of little gems like this. He is also the one who “warns” me about the bull on the island (though, at the moment, there is no bull on the island except right here in this conversation).

“If the bull charges you . . . don't pay more than one euro.”

This time there's no pause before I laugh, heartily. I'm feeling more comfortable after this, even as the token female on the island.

Seals gather near shore, curious about the humans.

We reach shore, and I think John, a contractor and builder, might instantly regret his chivalry as he tries to pass my 50 lb suitcase to the guys on the dock. The tide isn't fully in, so he has to lift it pretty high to pass it upward. His face turns a bit red and he says “This is definitely a woman's suitcase!”

“Hey, hey, hey,” I feign indignation. “It's a woman who's travelling for a year, so gimmie a break!” [And a woman who packed perhaps too many books for foreign language study. Ok, and tango shoes. But those are a necessity.]

On shore there are a few brief introductions, then Marcus, a member of the family that owns the island, gives me a tour, filling me in a little on the history of the place, and their plans for its future, the early struggles to move forward with plans, etc. He assures me that the best possible person emerged victorious in that struggle, and he's hopeful that their plans will succeed and the island will remain a part of their family and a sought-after destination. After my time there and many dinner conversations where ideas and plans were put forth with an enviable (and sometimes exhausting) degree of energy and enthusiasm, I suspect Marcus is spot-on in his assessment.

A wall and windbreak surrounds the castle.

One of the barns.

Old and new sections of the Castle. New, designed by Lutyens.

Small courtyard behind the kitchen.

He brings me to the “castle”. I think of it as more of a manor house, but what do I know? If someone can explain the difference to me, I'm all ears. Is it a matter of fortifications and function? Size? I don't know. But he shows me my room, which is a bit of a surprise to me. I had anticipated staying in the old coast guard cottages near shore. But there are so many workers here this week, that the plans changed.

I know what you're thinking—oh, cool, you get to stay in the castle.
Yeah, but no.

I mean, I'm staying there, but the castle is pretty torn-up with renovations and efforts to bring it into the 21st century. In fact, one fellow on the boat said to me, with a voice and accent just like Liam Neeson, “Oh, the castle is really torn asunder.” Indeed.
The island has to be self-sufficient, so it relies on solar and wind power, as well as heating with wood and coal. But if they want to be host to wealthy guests in the future, they have to increase their energy capacity. [Becuase, really, who wants to tell Beyonce' she has to wait 20 minutes for the hot water if she wants to wash her hair? You couldn't pay me enough for that job.] 

This is a major undertaking on an island, in a house made of stone at the beginning of the last century (with parts that are much older than that).

Yes, this bathroom is in need of an upgrade.

Probably elegant and comfortable when not "torn asunder".

Running pipes and wires outside behind the "old" castle.

Don't complain to me about remodeling your 1950's ranch-style home,
unless it's made of stone.

Delft tile overshadowed by renovations.

Oldest section of the "castle".
[As an aside, my little niece Sofia has just approached me here on the patio where I'm writing. She asks what I'm doing, and when I tell her, she points to the screen and asks me to translate it into Italian. I tell her yes, of course. We can do that in about 5 years, depending on how much time I devote to studying all those books I brought with me. But by then, her English will probably be perfect and she can read it herself.]

Partial view of kitchen, pre-renovation. 

The one warm-ish room, near coal stove and kitchen. We break for tea here.

There's no heat in the castle, and this is March. The nights are still cold. The only warm spot is by the coal stove near the kitchen. As we cook in the evenings, I can sometimes see water vapor when I breathe, even though we're indoors. The coal stove also heats the water for the whole place right now. So, we ration baths (there is no shower in the castle).

Do you want your bath tonight, or tomorrow? Tough call some days, after sanding and scraping and painting, and for my “roomate”, The Baron Woody, crawling into holes in walls to run electrical wire or pipe. And if you didn't stoke the fire early in the evening, you might not have enough hot water for even one bath, unless you wait until very late. You'll settle for lukewarm—which actually has a benefit.

Here's where I bitch about Irish plumbing, and not just in old castles. Modern homes, too.

Ireland, why the separate taps for cold and hot water? Why? I mean, you know that someone invented a single faucet where you can mix the two to an optimal temperature, right? You've heard of this? If you don't believe me, I can send you photos of every sink or tub in the developed world outside of Ireland and the UK.

Ok, that was perhaps unecessarily snarky. And maybe not even accurate, as I haven't been to every country in the developed world. But I've been to a few of them, and really, the plumbing was something to write home about. Just lovely.

C'mon, Ireland, treat yourself! You've suffered through civil unrest and famine and the world's crappiest weather . . . you deserve it! Splurge a little on some perfectly regulated bath water! God will forgive you for opting out of suffering for 10 minutes a day. I promise.

I never thought I'd see the day when washing my hair would become an event. As in, cause for fanfare with trumpets and elaborate preparations. Mind you, my hair is quite long now. Showers make washing it fairly easy, but tubs . . . not so much. And tubs with two separate faucets where you either scald or freeze yourself, well, there was much un-ladlylike swearing under my breath.
Luckily, I had my handy magic ceramic pitcher in which I could, like a sorcerer, mix cold and hot water and turn it into something that wouldn't cause suffering as I dumped it over my head over and over and over and [lots of soap in this long hair] over and over and over.

Meanwhile, to conserve hot water, I've only filled the tub part way, so the rest of my body is freezing in the unheated castle bathroom. Maybe you could do me a small favor here, and not try to picture this. Thanks.

My host was in the military for more than 20 years, so were he to read this I think I know what he'd say:
“Spoiled American git.”
He'd be right, at least in this instance.
I'm not afriad of hard work or dirt. In fact I rather like it.
But I hate to be cold down to my bones. I wither. I become brittle in every way. Moody and temperamental. Fragile, it's true.
I need warmth.
So sue me (also a very American thing to do).

I enjoyed my time at the castle, in spite of this particular discomfort. I enjoyed the work, making an old cottage on the island seem more shiny and new. And I especially enjoyed the evening conversations over dinner, with anywhere from two to four of us. This ranged from food to politics to chem trail conspiracy theories, to the aforesaid Woody Allen skit to Fork Handles and Four Candles (bonus points if you get that obscure reference), to life in the British military and life working in the United States healthcare system.

One conversation, after a few glasses of wine, went something like this (it was a while ago, so I'm paraphrasing):

Landscape Designer: “You have to get approvals for the work, and put in little walls and paths to save the rare geckos. It's a nightmare.”

Me: “You're kidding?”

LD: “I wish I was. It's this rare species that isn't breeding fast enough.”

Me: “Maybe instead of walls and pathways, you should install a stereo system that plays romantic music. You know, something to put the geckos in the mood. . . .what puts geckos in the mood?”

Someone Else At The Table: “I'm sure some pain-in-the-ass naturalist can tell you.”

Me: “I'll go out on a limb and say Marvin Gaye. He works for every species, doesn't he?”

[At this point, I can't remember how, but the subject turns to endagered bats]

LD: “Hard to milk bats, but I see Woody's Island Bat's Milk Cheese.”

Woody: [deadpan] “There's a branding opportunity for us here. . .”

Did I mention this was after a few glasses of wine?

Ok, bottles. When talk turns to milking bats, it was a few bottles of wine.

But seriously . . . it doesn't get more rarefied than that. “Ms. Winfrey, your bat-milk latte awaits you.” [This, spoken by a rare gecko in black tie, earning his keep]

View from the island's hills

Cow's graze on Woody's Island

But always, always there was talk about the island, the progress of the work, its future. I liked this, because it moves my brain along paths it naturally and easily wants to travel—planning, creative brainstorming, networking and marketing. They've done all this already, but it was new and fun for me.
A place with so much potential really gets the mental wheels turning.

We'd generally cook together (good food, too) and clean up together, sometimes listening to music or an old British radio comedy, sometimes talking, sometimes quietly lost in thought, no doubt generating more ideas or checking off lists of tasks for the next day. I told a friend it felt like I'd stepped into a 30 year marriage. He immediately understood what I meant and said, “All responsibility, then off to separate rooms.” Yep. Only, in this instance, it was considerably less sad. Like Goldilocks says, “just right.”

My first walk to explore the island was magical, I must say. This is where I get a chance to (sort of) talk about terroir. At first I had some unsettled feelings about one family being able to own such a large island. Maybe it's a strain of American revolutionary running through me after so many years having lived in New England, but I'm not always comfortable with the knowledge of what wealth and privilege can buy. Especially when it comes to land, and when ownership means that a wild and naturally beautiful place is off limits to most people. I've always found land ownership in some ways a difficult and troubling concept to wrap my head around.

At the same time, I've seen what Joe Public can do to a beautiful place. . . . especially when he brings his styrofoam cooler full of Pabst Blue Ribbon and his own sound system.

As I walked this place, I realized this family has been a good steward of this island. I thought of so many other places I've known that have been spoiled, because no one—or everyone?—owned it. No one was emotionally or financially invested enough to really take care of it. If this island was not owned by this family over the last century, perhaps it might have been purchased by a fishing interest, and have a hideous processing plant right where there are now green pastures or yellow gorse flowers. Or maybe it would become a dumping ground of some other sort. Or maybe not. Who can say.


Wallabies scatter as I approach (sorry about audio. Was windy)


I come across a timid herd of fallow deer.

Love to watch those wallabies jump.

What I do know is that I felt fortunate to be there under a rare blue sky, walking green fields where in the distance a giant herd of fallow deer watched me carefully and moved in beautiful unison, like a single entity, whenever I'd get too close.
Where birds soared and cried out and tended their young in nests along unspoiled cliffs. 
Where seals gathered near shore and bobbed above and below the surface of the sea, curious about the human in their midst.
Where pheasants suddenly rose from the underbrush and sent me into cardiac arrest.
Where wallabies jumped and swarmed together, bounding along the hills at my approach, leaving me dumbfounded, open-mouthed and laughing at the sight of something so incongruous as this. Their power and grace, the ease and efficiency with which they moved, moved me. It was a thing of beauty, truly. 
And I had to finally be comfortable with privilege, as privileged as I clearly was at that moment.
I know he couldn't hear me down below at the castle, but a few times I had to say out loud, between bursts of joyful laughter at where I'd landed, “Thank you, [Woody].”

Herd of deer along the horizon

Pheasant, who maybe came over on the boat with me.
They stock them on the island.

Seabirds nest along the cliffs of Woody's Island

This road leads to wallaby territory.

The cliffs where seabirds nest.

I have probably a very stereotyped image of the kind of “exclusive” travelers this island will soon host. It's probably not fair, either. Believe me, I'm not a fan of stereotyping.

But for those who do fit the stereotype, and surely some will, I hope they'll venture out from the comforts of the castle and walk the paths on the island. I hope the place can speak to the deeper spirit of the person; a spirit perhaps suffocating under the weight of materialism, of acquisition and consumption (yes, that's the stereotype I'm talking about. It goes beyond hot showers).

The castle is a lovely place, but in my humble opinion, the true richness of the island is not to be found there. The real treasures are soaring above and swimming below its shores. Feathered and furred things without price, flitting and bouncing through the brush. Things of incalculable value that speak to that greater life that encircles, enfolds our own.

A holiday weekend came up, and one of the island's caretakers who noticed my increasing stress or the sound of my frozen bones cracking, suggested I go ashore to decompress. It was a grand idea, so I did just that. 

I brought all of my things, though, because I really wasn't sure what to do. I wanted very much to come back to the island for my final week. But I also wanted to acknowledge and respect my own limitations. I'm not 23 years old anymore.
I'm not going to tell you how old I am, but I can assure you it's not 23.
It's not even 33.
Perhaps back then I was tougher and used to being less comfortable. But now that I approach comfortable old-farthood, there are some things I'll avoid if I can.

When the blood in my veins starts to feel like a granita or a frappe, I know it's getting too cold for me. 
When I go to sit down in a comfy chair and make a sound like my grandfather—you know the sound—when, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is moss growing where my marrow used to be, I know I'm heading into dangerously irritable territory.
When I reach this territory, I'm no fun to be around.
When I reach this point, I'm pretty sure you don't want to be stuck on an island with me.

My weekend ashore involved the longest, hottest shower of my life, and a good couple of nights sleep in a very, deliciously climate-controlled bedroom.
And that was enough for me to remember just how much I like to be warm; enough to feel human again; and enough to decide to stay ashore.
Warm is good, People.
Very, very good.

Gratitude is also very, very good.

Me, with some wallabies and a rainbow, maniacally happy.

And I'm eternally grateful for having spent even a short time at Woody's Island.

Here's a link to a photo album from my time on the island, for those with an interest:  Woody's Island Photo Album

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