Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Blossom

Unfold the blossom
That is your hand
And let the World
Inhale its fragrance

Open your mouth
And let flow the river
That all hearts shall bathe
And be renewed

If fire comes from you
Let it be the hearth fire
Let it be the forge fire
That tempers the steel
Let your fire smelt the ore
Let it burn away the dross

You are all of Nature
And all of Spirit
The tide of Time
And the stillness of Eternity
You are the Dream
And the Awakening

In You, All are Blessed
So Mote It Be

July 4, 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Our eyes cannot open wide enough 
to see the whole of the truth.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Tour of Ireland: Day Two

The mezzanine bar at Gallaghers Hotel in Letterkenny could not be confused with a real Irish pub.  On the other hand, the day had been a long one, and, begod, I had a thirst.  My first sip of Guinness in Ireland was heaven.

* * *
September 10, 2011

After (another) solid Irish breakfast (see "Day One"), we boarded the bus for the day's adventures.  Since a great deal of our time in Ireland would be spent on said bus, it's worthwhile to take a moment to appreciate the qualities of this vehicle.  As mentioned earlier, it had a capacity of 20 passengers (no standees) and featured luggage space for 350 kg in the back.  On each side toward the middle were tables that could be used, for, example, to pile books on various aspects of Ireland (good until you hit a turn) or to rest your head when the burden of travel became too great.  Both the driver's side and the 'shotgun' seat had microphones hooked into a PA system.  This can be a good or bad thing.

In our case, it turned out to be a good thing.  Our driver, John Byrne -- called Sean O'Brin when speaking Irish -- was a treasure trove of information on a range of topics related to the Irish experience.  We'd hear the crackle of the PA and John would come on to tell about, say, the Irish roots of the name of the town we were approaching, which would lead to a story about the town's role the an ancient or modern battle and thence to a dissertation on the uniforms of various brigades of Irish fighters, right down to the buttons.  Then we'd hear how the county we were passing through was faring in wildly popular amateur sports of hurling and Gaelic football, followed by a discussion of the rules and tactics of the games.  It was never dull and was greatly enhanced by the soft Dublin accent.

* * *

The Cliffs at Sliabh Liag

Sliabh Liag
A hurricane was approaching.  Katia had been growing in strength over the past two weeks since first spotted off the west coast of Africa and she was now getting ready to slam into Ireland.  This day, we were seeing the wind and rains of the storm's leading edge as we wound up the hills of the Sliabh Liag (Slieve League) Peninsula.  On the southern coast of that peninsula are the highest cliffs in Ireland -- topping 1,900 ft (600 m).  We stopped at a cafe/gift shop to change buses and were joined by a wiry old gent by the name of Paddy ("not Patty -- there are no Patties in Ireland").  Paddy was a entertainer in the finest Irish style, so we learned our history, geography and natural sciences with a good dollop of humor.

You might expect tall cliffs over the ocean to be stark and forbidding.  Not always so.  Sliabh Liag is covered in lush grass and heather -- the latter in glorious bloom -- and well populated with Ireland's ubiquitous sheep.  We learned that these hillsides were a blanket bog ecology, characterized by a deep peat layer that supports heather and other acid-loving plants.  Bogs, which cover about 1/6 of the land area of Ireland, are essentially a man-made phenomenon.  6,000 years ago, the whole of Ireland was thickly forested with both deciduous and evergreen trees.  As the agrarian wave spread across Europe and then to the western islands, more and more trees were cleared for farming, so that by 500 B.C.E or so, much of the land had be denuded.  Without a network of tree roots to bind the soil, the constant rains leached out the nutrients, making it suitable only for hardier plants like heather and rushes.  When these plants die, they don't readily decompose (due largely to the acidity), so that layer upon layer of their detritus builds up as the years go by.  Today, a bog can be up to 5 meters (16 feet) deep, depending on age and moisture content.  Wet bogs have amazing preservative qualities; trees, animals and quite a few humans have been found remarkably intact -- though turned as black as coal -- after thousands of years.

The wind was tearing at our jackets and fitful bursts of rain foretold of the coming storms.  As we walked along the cliff road, Paddy told us of the interesting role these cliffs played in the allied efforts during World War II, although Ireland was neutral in that fight.  Planes coming in from the Atlantic were not allowed to land in Ireland, needing to fly onward to the coast of England.  To provide some measure of aid, however, the denizens of Sliabh Liag carved huge numerals into the face of the bog so that the navigators could verify their coordinates.  More than 60 years later, these are still faintly visible.

After our time in the wild weather, it was good to get back to the safety of the cafe and the warmth of scones and coffee.  Thus fortified, we straggled back to the bus for the next leg.

Ardara, Co. Donegal

Loom at Triona Design
If it's tweed you'd be wanting, Donegal is the place.  The one thing I really wanted to obtain while in Ireland was a good quality 'ivy' or driving cap.  There was some discussion, and it was decided that our next stop would be at a shop in Ardara, half-an-hour or so up the road.

The Mulhern family, owners of Triona Design on the main street in Ardara, have been in the tweed business for five generations.  Anne Mulhern greeted us warmly, then shuttled us to the back of the shop, a space dominated by a massive wooden loom.  During the week, weavers work this loom all day long, turning out dozens of yards of cloth.  Much of it is then assembled into garments in their basement tailor shop.  Half way through Anne's talk, a man appeared with a tray of Irish coffees, compliments of the house.  Our shopping experience suddenly became more joyous!

Within a short time, I found the perfect hat -- a burly Harris tweed in warm gray that was made from Triona's cloth by The Hatman of Ireland, based in Galway.  Leanne had an enjoyable time trying on jackets, and selected one in a beautiful deep brown.  Nearly everyone walked out of there with something (or several somethings) grand and I'm certain that the folks at Triona Design were happy to have seen us!

The Dolmen at Kilclooney
Kilclooney Dolmen and himself with the hat.
All over Ireland, one may find stone structures called dolmens, also known as "portal tombs".  The typical Irish dolmen consists of three or more base stones topped by a larger table-like slab.  In fact, the word "dolmen" derives from the Breton (French Celtic) words taol maen, meaning "stone table".  Our last stop of the day was at one of the larger examples -- the Kilclooney Dolmen -- not far from Ardara.  As you can tell from the photo (using my 5' 10" self for comparison), these are massive stones.  They were placed here for purposes largely unknown by Irelanders of the Neolithic Period (the "New Stone Age"), which makes them somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 years old.  This one, as many are, was set in the middle of privately owned bog land and accessible by a sheep gate that opened to a raised path.  The sky was alternating between overcast and patches of blue but would close in completely by the time we were ready to leave.  

Lunch at Leo's

Shopping and dolmen-inspecting is hungry work and, by the time we were done in mid afternoon, we were well ready for lunch.  Our promised land was a pub called Leo's Tavern in the the town of Meenaleck, West Donegal.  It was another hour up the road but we were assured that it'd be worth the wait.  Leo, the owner, has the distinction of being the father of the famed Irish singer Enya.  The walls of the place were festooned with Enya memorabilia -- gold and platinum records and the like -- and a big screen in the corner played Enya videos on continuous rotation.  Pints were ordered up and sandwiches provided and soon, all was right with the world again.

Day's End

Back to the bus then, and a final hour's ride back to Letterkenny.  In contrast to the upstairs bar, the drinking establishment off the lobby of Gallagher's bears a great resemblance to a real pub.  We stopped in for a drap o' th' Tullamore Dew and to while away the time until dinner.  Life could be a lot worse.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Tour of Ireland: Day One

The last I saw of Ireland was through the small rectangle of window, eclipsed by a slice of wing.  The tarmac flashed by with gathering speed.  Way off in the distance, the green hills wavered and faded beneath the clouds.

* * *
September 8, 2011

View from Knocknarea
Getting there was not easy.  Hurricane Lee had unleashed its fury on the Mid-Atlantic and was flinging buckets of rain against the windows as we pulled the last of our stuff together and packed it into the car.  The radio warned of flash floods and road closures.   Fortunately, we had plenty of time to drop the dog at the kennel and get to BWI for our flight to Newark.

Halfway to the airport, Monica, our friend and the director of our tour, called to say that Continental Airlines was "canceling flights left and right" due to the weather.  We gave her our flight number and learned that it was an hour behind but still scheduled to go.  So far.  Since this could change at any minute and we could not miss our plane to Ireland, she suggested Amtrak as an alternative.   Leanne phoned Continental to try to salvage our investment in the fare while I called Amtrak to reserve two tickets.  New destination: Penn Station, Baltimore.

We arrived at the station with minutes to spare for the 11:03.  Out of the car at full tilt and off to the ticket counter.  I reached for my phone to retrieve the reservation number and -- no phone.  Stomach takes fast elevator to the ground floor.  I tell Leanne and she bursts out the doors to try to catch our neighbor Brent, who is now driving our car back home.  Brent has no cell phone.  I chew my finger nails.  Long minutes later, she's back, waving my phone.  I had knocked it off of my belt in my haste getting out of the car.  The man who maintains the taxi stand had spotted it on the sidewalk and was getting ready to report it when he saw Leanne run out to the street, then run back.  Putting two and two together, he stopped her and showed her the phone.  Our hero!

With tickets purchased we scuttled toward the platform, only to learn that the train was running late.  Good -- time enough for a bite of lunch.  Around the corner to the little cafe for some pre-packaged sandwiches -- just as it's being announced that the train is not arriving in half an hour, it's arriving now.

The ride to Newark International was uneventful.  This was good because, frankly, we'd had our fill of events.  Soon after arriving at the airport, we were greeting our friends: the dozen people with whom we'd spend the next 10 days.

* * *

It takes a bit more than six hours to fly the 3,200 miles from Newark to Dublin.  Most of this was in the dark.  I had an e-book to keep me company so the bulk of my time was spent in the glow of an iPad.  I slept a very little in the cramped seat, fidgeting to find the least-uncomfortable position.  Finally, as day was breaking, patches of ground appeared beneath the thinning clouds.  Several more minutes and we were touching down in a place further from home than I'd ever been; an island in an ocean I'd seen only from one side.

Fuzzy-headed and coffee-deficient, we gathered up our luggage and walked the long corridor to customs.  Our newly-minted passports got their first stamp.  After changing our money to Euros, we collected in the lobby to meet John Byrne, who would be our driver, guide, historian and Irish language tutor for the next several days.  First stop: breakfast.

* * *
September 9, 2011

The Man-O'-War Pub lies on the old road between Dublin and Belfast.  It has been there a long time. The earliest deed says 1595.  Much of it has been renovated (probably several times) so that what one sees is a cozy and well-kept wood and stone interior, housed in the typical white-washed building that can be found everywhere on the island.  You can still find a part of the original stone wall inside the thatch-roofed section of the rambling structure.  Breakfast was rich and meaty by American standards: link sausages and rashers (bacon), poached eggs, a patty of hash-browned potatoes and something called "black and white pudding".  You can look this up, if you like.  I thought that they were "putting on the dog" for the benefit of the American tourists but soon discovered that this is the archetypal Irish breakfast.  By the end of the trip, we were happy for a break from all that protein!

* * *
Stone of Destiny on the Hill of Tara

Though we love our pubs, the heart of our excursion to Eire was to listen to the echoes of the deep past -- specifically, those of our Celtic and Pagan roots.  Not far from Dublin, along the M3 road is the ancient Hill of Tara.  This is where the old Kings were crowned and it is one of the most sacred sites in Ireland.  Parts of it date back to the Neolithic Era -- perhaps as early as 3,400 years B.C.E.  We were greeted there by an engaging young woman name Agnes, who filled our ears with stories of Tara, stressing its significance from ancient into modern times.

Entrance to the Mound of the Hostages
The passage tomb called "The Mound of the Hostages" is the oldest place on Tara.  It consists of a circular structure of stones mounded over with earth.  From the outside, it simply looks like a low hill but there is a doorway in one side that opens to the interior passage.  Here have been found the cremated remains of a several dozen people -- probably people of prominence within their community.  Archeologists have also found one of the most curious and inexplicable set of human remains here: on top of the mound is the skeleton of a teenage boy, buried curled up on his side.  He wears necklace of amber and jet beads -- items that would have been rare and precious at the time of his death.  There's also evidence that these remains had been disinterred and carried to Tara from elsewhere.  Who was this boy and why was he so important to the ancients?

* * *

The next stop was the Brú na Bóinne (Palace of the Boyne) Visitor's Center, just a little up the road from the Hill of Tara.  They have an extensive exhibit of artifacts and dioramas that allowed us to gain a bit more information and context before marching across the River Boyne to the bus that would take us to Knowth.

Kerb Stone at Knowth
At Knowth, they did passage tombs with a vengeance.  While less famous than the nearby Newgrange site, it still features a number of tombs.  One -- the Great Mound -- measures nearly 70 meters in diameter and contains the longest passage (about 40 meters) yet found in Western Europe.  We were allowed into the mouth of the passage (duck your head!) and off into a side chamber fitted out as an exhibit space.  Because of the great age of the artifacts and the fact that the ancient Irish had no written language, little is known save through inference or speculation.

Most of the larger tombs are completely ringed by massive "kerb stones", many of them decorated with carved designs.  There are spirals and serpentine (snake-like) shapes, as well as one that might have served as a sundial.

After a spot of lunch and shopping back at the visitor's center, we re-boarded the 20 passenger bus that would be our home-away-from-home for the duration of our travels.  Driver John filled us in on local lore and some political history on the long road to Letterkenny in County Donegal, and taught us our first phrase in Irish: Dia duit (pronounced "dee-ya gwit") the common way of saying "good day".   And with that, I bid you dia duit!

More to follow

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Possible Future: The United States Becomes Several Nations

Yesterday, I posted a Question on Facebook in the form of the following assertion:

America would benefit from being broken up into several autonomous countries whose political philosophies better match those of its citizens.

 -- and invited everyone on my friends list to weigh in.  In all, the question received 47 votes: 15 "Yes" and 32 "No".  Several people also responded with comments and I've printed them all below (without attribution).

I started thinking about this question many years ago, when my father-in-law brought the idea up in conversation.  It's possible that he was referring to an idea proposed by Joel Garreau in his book, "Nine Nations of North America" (1981, Houghton Mifflin, Boston).  You can find out more about the book here:

I was moved to ask the question yesterday after reading something a few days ago in the book "A Pattern Language" by Christopher Alexander, et. al. (1977, Oxford Univ. Press):

"There are natural limits to the size of groups that can govern themselves in a human way . . . It's not hard to see why the government of a region become less and less manageable with size. In a population of N persons, there are of the order of N-squared person-to-person links needed to keep the channels of communication open. Naturally, when N goes beyond a certain limit, the channels of communication needed for democracy and justice and information are simply too clogged, and too complex, and bureaucracy overwhelms human processes . . . We believe the limits are reached when the population of a region reaches some 2 to 10 million."
(Pattern 1 - "Independent Regions")

Let me be clear that I'm not suggesting that we scrap the United States in order to resolve the current cultural and class "wars" that have us all so uneasy.  There have been divisions before, some far worse than today's, and we've managed to get past them and emerge as a whole nation.  The factor that makes it more difficult to support a unified nation is this: 311,219,292.  This is was the U.S. Census Bureau's estimate of the total population just a few seconds ago.  If you go there now ( it'll be higher still.  

When we began as a nation the population was a bit more than 100th of today's (3,929,214 in 1790) and we had a land area of around 360,000 square miles (vs. the current 3.79million square miles).  Not only do we have 100-fold more people, each with their own concerns, challenges, virtues and vices, but we now have regions with wildly different geography, population density, natural resources, economic bases, etc.  Originally, these differences were addressed by a strong reliance on the Constitution's protection of states rights but, as time went on, more and more functions were ceded to the federal government.  As you can well imagine, developing a unified vision for the fate of this vast land and its people is well nigh impossible.  I suspect we'll continue to try, perhaps even for a long time, but I do think that eventually, it will become too unweildy for the whole of this nation to sail under one flag.

Your comments:
Absolutely! The US is too big to be a functioning democracy. I've advocated this breakup a la Soviet style for years! Let's do it!

That is what some of the prophecies have pointed too after a major earth change.

Well, this is basically a question of decentralization of governance. (Assuming that everyone who lives in each country agrees with each other.) If we have the big honkin' government we have now, obviously there is going to be differences of opinion, which leads to compromise. Which isn't necessarily such a bad thing. If we split everything off, then each country will move in its own direction more quickly, but there are a few problems with this.

First, there is overhead with regards to any enterprise, and when you have several smaller entities all operating parallel to each other, there is unnecessary waste, such as running their own governments, funding the military, maintaining an economy, etc. One country does it more efficiently.

The second problem is that we're talking about the welfare of the people, and obviously there are some diametrically opposed viewpoints floating around. If we had separate countries all sitting here next to each other, there would be conflict. Much of it would be economic, but even some armed, especially when you consider that there are only so many natural resources to go around, and they're going to become more scarce as the climate changes and our population continues to expand like a day-time TV viewer subsisting on peanut butter cups and peeps.

The real question is "if we were allowed to actualize on our ideals, would we be able to breathe life back into the spirit of the country, and become great again?" Some places would flourish - there are bound to just be better perspectives than others, but would the whole of the people considered benefit? I don't think so. My thoughts behind this stem from the thought that people are people no matter what the thought experiment. We're bound to foul up any system given enough time, and that just leaves us with many countries having a problem with zeitgeist instead of one. At least with things as they are, the few can still benefit the many.

I think we should stay we are, throw all the rascals out, start over and grow up!!!

I don't see it that way. Why turn diversity into division? E Pluribus Unum. That's one of the great strengths of this country. We are always going to have differences, sometimes acrimoniously so, but out of those growing pains we will continue to evolve and develop. You take away diversity, you take away the stimulus to do so. Does anybody want instead a bunch of boring monolithic countries, each marching in its own lockstep? Plus, let's be real, how long would they stay that way anyway? Diversity is increasingly becoming one of the most valued attributes of the evolving human condition. We are stronger growing together, and diverse.

Can you imagine the immigration mess? Once it settled down, there would then be chaos as each State tried to set up a government. Oh boy.

I think Mr. Lincoln and U S Grant already settled that question.

I agree with ____'s comment about the Articles and the CSA, but would add:

The EU, which is about halfway between our articles of confederation and our Constitution, is already showing major stresses;

If Lincoln had simply allowed the South to secede, it would have permitted the South's political philosophy of slavery - which better matched its citizens - to continue, possibly to this very day;

Arguments that take place in the Congress among holders of different philosophies would likely turn into actual shooting wars among the autonomous countries - and note that the greatest US loss of life in any war was the war between the USA and the CSA.

I'm voting no, not because I don't believe that the population isn't divided in opinion, but because we settled that shit in 1865! The knuckle draggers in every state are just going to have to come to the 21st century with the rest of us, and if we make education and tolerance our national policy, they will eventually. Right now we are watching the death thrashes of conservative throwback politics, the new demographic is on the rise.

Yeah the Tenn,. senate just approved a bill that would make it illegal to mention the existence of gay people to any student. Sorry i don't believ people have a right to be This ignorant.

I think it's the thinking that we can all be separated, is the basic problem in America. We are all of one fabric. What hurts one person, hurts us all. The idea of adding just another boundary, isolates us even further. Do you think it could ever be acceptable for one person to have healthcare, while another goes without? Country barriers don't shield the shame of such a condition, only make it more difficult to solve. A child could see it, we are all connected. This issue is how to teach the adults to reclaim the wisdom they were born with. 

Seems like the country tried that twice ... The Articles of Confederation - 1783-1787 and the Confederate States of America - 1861 to 1865. But maybe I'm being simplistic.

This is a very interesting question, but I come down on No along with ___.

Part of America's strength lies in our diversity. We are living out some giant experiment, in which the most rebellious, change-seeking people in the entire world have gathered here to quarrel amongst ourselves until we reach some sort of consensus on how to govern our country. The pendulum of political opinion swings between liberal and conservative, never pausing for long. Right now we have reached a place I find extremely uncomfortable, but change is the byword and this won't be permanent.

____  just walked by and in his opinion, that there is a larger division between urban and rural dwellers in the same state than there is between the different states. That's certainly an important factor also. Rural areas are always more conservative than urban melting pots of diversity.

Texas has been talking for years about succeeding. I wish them well, but think they are nuts. In some ways, the union would be better off without them: through (misguided and short sighted) legislation, they have ruined their own state for anyone but mega-wealthy people. If they leave the union, they would be hoist with their own petard soon enough.....Gail Collins in the NYT has been writing about how terrible the social indicators are in Texas for months, as a warning: Texas has actually implemented many of the legislative approaches recommended by the TeaBaggers, and the results are sad, shameful and discouraging to anyone with a net worth under 6 figures, and to anyone who cares what happens in the future.

Many of the people I hold most dear in life live in Indiana. I would never wish this upon them. And besides, this issue was already visited back in 1861-1865.

No way. You miniaturize the political structure and you give already too powerful multinationals an even smaller bill to buy off politicians. See old style representatives and the reforms that happened surrounding them as an example of exactly this...

I am undecided. There is a part of me that is in love with the idea we can all work together no matter our differences, towards a common goal of the greater good for everyone. But the realist in says that just is not possible with the way the world is moving.

That is a tough one...let me think about it!

Let the South rise again?