Research done. Connections made with family currently living in Ireland and with ancestors. This will all come into play when I get to the residency and start making art.
I arrive at the residency on one of the coldest days in March. It is pouring rain, the wind is howling and I've just driven on some of the scariest roads known to mankind. Think driving south on the PCH, with all the dysfunction of driving on the wrong side of the road. It's hard enough to avoid the fringes of the road, imagine when the fringe is a giant cliff with only a stone wall between you and certain death.
On my way to the residency, I was told to make sure I stop in the forest just outside of Kenmare by Rosari Kingston, the herbalist I mentioned earlier on in this blog. There aren't many forests in Ireland. The landscape is shaped almost entirely by sheep. It is thought that they were domesticated as early as 11,000 BC. They keep the grass short and prevent forests from forming. The landscape consists of uniform groves of planted pine trees - for wood stoves and building - along side grass and the thorny shrubbery that sheep don't eat.
Watch this video to see what introducing one animal to the landscape can do.
Rosari said I would find myself connected to the otherworld in the woods. I spot a sign for a forest and make a sharp turn into the parking lot a few miles outside of Kenmare. A rushing stream divides the lot from the woods. The streams are always rushing around these parts because it rains every day. The wooden bridge is slippery. Never having an opportunity to dry out, it has a thin coat of plant life. There's a gravel path leading in and as I walk on, the trees seem to move in a bit closer, surrounding me. Birds are calling back and forth but I can't spot them, despite there being no foliage yet.
Everything is covered in moss. The tree trunks, the branches, the rocks, the ground, fallen trees... and it grows in large mounds, clustered together like the taste buds on your tongue - but a foot-wide each ... and green. This plush cover-all creates a hush, I can only hear the birds. No cars, no people. As I go in deeper, it starts to drizzle. The humidity in Ireland has done wonders for my skin and my hair is liking it too. Anywhere else, dampness can lead to me rocking the full-on Bozo. (Sorry millennials if you don't know this clown). In Ireland, my hair folds into gentle waves. More reason to love this place.
I'm determined to not be spooked. "I've got a black belt. I can handle anyone or anything I come upon." When I was in Cork and mentioned I was heading to the residency to my Airbnb host she said, "It's pretty wild there." I thought she meant animals, like bear, cougar, angry squirrels. Apparently none of those animals have existed for hundreds of years. "No," she said, "The only thing you need to fear are hairy men. Hairy Kerry men." And she laughed. I had told this story to the men at the fort in Cork City when I visited. They thought it was pretty funny too. I mentioned it again to some folks who stopped by while driving through the residency later on and they said it had to do with the Gaelic Football rivalry between Kerry and Cork. Gaelic Football is a cross between soccer and rugby. Like the Red Sox and Yankees, fans align themselves. I'm a MA native, currently residing in NYC. Never liked those Yankees, especially after Roger Clemens defected.
By wild, my Airbnb host meant the weather. To add to the list of "coincidences" that happened on this trip, as if there hadn't been enough already, my Airbnb host's husband use to work at the residency I was traveling to. Yes, they keep coming.
About 15 minutes into the woods, the remnants of a home protrudes from the weighty green mass. A fireplace still stands but not much else. Now the rain is really coming down, the wind has picked up and I hear thunder. I still have a ways to go before I reach the residency so I start walking back to the car. The thunder is getting louder, so I pick up the pace and then jog out. It's midday and bright despite the rain and trees. I can see how this setting might be terrifying and encourage the mind, when darker. The trees aren't tree shaped anymore. They have lumps and bumps of moss that transform them. Glad I timed the visit well so my imagination is not given an opportunity.
I noticed Usnea all over the forest floor on my walk in. It's a hairy lichen that thrives in this type of environment. The wind has knocked a steady supply of its light grey tangles onto the sides of the path. I've collected enough to fill the pouch on my belt and a big pile in my purse. Usnea is used as an antibiotic and can bind open wounds when used as a poultice.
Once I reach Kenmare, I end up driving behind a 40 foot tractor trailer. Let me remind you about the streets in Ireland. They are barely wide enough for one car in most places and on this two-way street, I'm in awe. We slow to a crawl as it navigates a hairpin turn - I promise you, this is no exaggeration. It is a single-lane bridge, a > 90° turn and a 40 foot truck. Magic. Something about this makes me want to pull out my phone and video tape the ride. No sooner do I make it over the bridge, the car is hugging a steep cliff with a half a mile drop down to white-capped water below. I must have lost my marbles between all the "coincidences", my romps through the landscape and this insane truck driver. I posted the video to FB and then watched it later. I felt nauseous. As I said on FB, it wasn't my best move. I will resist in the future.
Somehow I made it along the coast, hugging the steep cliff for another hour. I don't remember stopping again, I was running on adrenaline... it's all foggy. I eventually see signs for the town where the residency is located and then a thatched roofed building on the left. Part of the residency. Mary has told me to stop in but no one is there. I search for the cafe that had signage on the road but I can't find that either.
Thankfully google has been a brilliant guide and after a few wrong turns, I hear it say, "...up ahead".
I'm at the bottom of a steep hill, in my stick shift, which I'm still getting use to. As I drive up, I run right into an oncoming car. Well not into it but there's not enough room to pass each other, so I back down the hill, pull into a grassy area at the bottom of the road and let the car pass.
Later in the week a group of cows congregated around this grassy pull off. I thought I would try to engage them by yanking up some long grass growing just out of reach on my side of the fence and offer it to them. They were standing ankle deep in mud with hardly a blade in sight, so I thought for sure they'd take me up. If I read them correctly, they were saying amongst themselves, "Grass is the best you can do? Have you been paying attention to what is growing everywhere around you?" The cows have attitude. They stood just out of reach, heads high, tails slowly swishing, no interest.
I've reached the end of a peninsula and there is a cliff on my left leading down to the Atlantic. A few islands frame the horizon. Driving up the hill a second time I have a better view of the residency - stone cottages neatly lined up along the road. The door of the cottage on the left is painted a viridian green, others are red, orange and blue. I pull over, unlock my phone and re-read the note with instructions, sent to me months ago. My cottage is second to last. I spin my wheels a little pulling into my adjacent parking space and let myself in. It's spacious - bigger than my NYC apartment. Maybe 500-600 sft. The back of the cottage has a ceiling made of glass. It's all sky-lights, with red supports. Looking out, I can see that the land for the cottage has been carved out of the cliff. It is feet from the back of the house, towering over the cottage, rising steeply out of view through the glass.
Not long after I arrive, I hear a knock at the door. I smiling man introduces himself. Michael. He's about my age and very friendly. I understand part of what he's saying but his accent is heavy - this is a Gaelic speaking part of Ireland and I have to ask him to repeat himself. He shows me how the place works. There's a big wood burning stove smack in the middle of the room, dividing the studio with the skylights from the seating area. A kitchen is in the front of the house, on the cliff side. A steep ladder staircase leads to a sleeping loft with a tiny square window that looks out onto the Atlantic. On the other side of the kitchen is the bathroom. The heat for the water has to be switched on for use and so does a switch for the stove and cooktop. It took me several days to figure it all out. Luckily, I was the only American, surrounded by Europeans who are familiar with these quirks.
Michael offers to drive with me to the neighboring town to fetch some turf and food. Turf is compacted plant material that has been compressed in a bog for hundreds, even thousands of years. If left alone it will eventually turn to coal but around here, it's dug up. Each elongated-brick-sized piece bares the curved shape of a spade. Once dug, it's made into little teepees so it can dry and then put in a pile outside the home, covered with a tarp and used throughout the winter for heat. One of the other artists at the residency told me he remembers engaging in this ritual every year when he was growing up. All in, it takes about a month, with the entire household digging into the black seam of rotted plant material.
I buy mine at the store. It comes in a recycled plastic bag once used for grain. It has been re-sealed with packing tape. Michael tells me to buy firestarters and matches. I grab a bunch of food as well and by the time I've gone through the line, he has loaded the trunk. Two bags of turf, a bundle of wood and a bundle of kindling.
We head back to the cottages. He talks. I ask him to repeat himself. We're on the same page politically. Neither can understand how Brexit and the US President happened.
Once back at the cottage, he asks if I know how to get the wood burning stove going. I tell him I've started fires in fireplaces but know nothing about these stoves. In his heavy accent, he explains but somehow, I have missed the key points. My fire is huge for the rest of the day but the room refuses to warm up. I go through a bag and a half of turf in 6 hours and sleep with a heavy sweater, wool socks and a hat on. My nose never warms up. It's icicle-like and the wind is blowing hard against the wall behind my bed. The cute little window whistles as the storm finds it's way in around its edges. It's a long, cold night and I wonder how I will hold up under these conditions. In Cork, I remember thinking that I had over packed and that the "thermals" I was told to bring were unnecessary. Now, I'm wondering why I didn't bring my ski pants and snow boots.
I've already made friends with the artist next door. He arrived within an hour of me. I heard the gravel grind under the wheels of his car. There are doors on both sides of the cottage so I open the inside door on his side. The outside door is one of those dutch doors, divided in half - a top and a bottom that swing open separately. The top is locked shut so I have to crouch and peer out the bottom. His name is Stijn (Stein,) from the Netherlands. I invite him over during the intro with Michael. Big smile. Nice guy. After Michael leaves, he goes off to do his shopping. When he returns, I invite him over for a beer. We talked about our lives, about being artists, both of us relieved to meet a friendly being, here on the edge. The other artists have not arrived yet. Just us guys and we're determined to stave off that feeling of isolation. The next morning I knock on his door to see how he has managed the frigid evening. He slept with his sweater and hat on too but by now his cottage has warmed and he invites me for tea. I bring my coffee over.
The cottages must have been empty for a while. The stones, furniture, cement floor have absorbed and held tight to the cold. He comes over and shows me how to regulate the vents so the heat flows out of the stove and not up the chimney. I had been exchanging urgent notes with my cousin in Cork the evening before, about the stove but I didn't know what a circle yoke was or what lashing in wood meant or skitting (she was laughing at me). :)
I'm grateful for my neighbor and heat.