Saturday, April 16, 2016

Diary of a World Traveler

Galway Day 13: "IS THAT A FOX?!"

Today was a very long, very grueling day. I have thorn scratches on my arms and pokes on my legs, a sore hip and ankle, and a lot of aching muscles. But it was great to see the product of so much work in the form of a beautiful rock wall that can help the National Park Service of Ireland to redevelop grazing lands in the Burren. And I can also better appreciate the amount of work it takes to cover Ireland with so many rock walls! It is not easy work, that’s for sure. But the end result is very fulfilling.

My day started at 6:45AM, when I woke up to get breakfast. The bus did not leave until 9AM, but I like to get up early when the breakfast area is not so full and bustling with people. Once the departure time came around, we all piled on the bus to head to the Burren. Our driver’s name today was also Joe, and would play a very important role in explaining the various cities as we made our way around Galway Bay to the Burren. This area of Co. Clare is what we saw from Nimmo’s Pier the other day—the bay separates Galway city from the lands of the Burren, which spans about ten different cities.

The area formed long ago as a glacial pathway and is know for a “lunar landscape” full of huge slabs of limestone. The rainwater and general fragility of the limestone made deep crevices in the stone, which now are filled with grass or water. Today, it is home to herds of cattle, sheep, and a variety of rare butterflies and flowers. There have been many archeological sites there, including cairns, dolmens, rubbish piles, and even ring forts. A private part of the land also has a tower house that would have guarded a very fertile valley pasture back in medieval times. Overall, the most important thing that we learned was that even if the landscape looks barren, it definitely is not. And it is important to consider this in terms of conservation, which is where we came in to help.

We worked with the Burrenbeo Trust organization, which has a subdivision called the Burrenbeo Conservation Volunteers. Today, we were part of that group. They brought us in to help rebuild stone walls that had been knocked down by tourists, cattle, or sheep over the years. Once these walls fall down, cattle can move to where there are better grasses. This then becomes a problem, because the fields need the help of the cattle to graze on the useless grasses covering the fields so there becomes room for other plants to grow. Biodiversity is always good, and our stone walls will help to finish closing in a National Parks field so that cattle can begin to repopulate the field with flowers, green grasses, and other plants. We also learned that the volunteers help with shrub clearing as part of a butterfly nursery project, monitor Lesser Horseshoe Bat maternity habitats, and work to clear plastic waste off of the Burren’s coastal areas. They also do a lot of invasive species removal, which I am always ready to help with. I really think this group is doing a lot for keeping this landscape as healthy as it can be, and I appreciate their careful efforts in trying to leave the Burren as naturally as it would have been without human or invasive interference.

The man who runs the organization, called Richard, was the one to go up and help us build the walls today. After a quick lunch in the small city of Corrofin, we piled back into our coach and drove up to the site of our work. The bus let us off at a short, rocky road covered up with grass over years of neglect. Richard told us that this was a famine road—one of many in the area. It was not built for any purpose, nor was it really even needed. It was simply a project used to give hungry families a job so that they could earn money for food.

We had to make a short climb up to the actual location of the fence, but it was really great to get back out into nature and see this amazing landscape in person. Pictures really cannot do it justice—the whole area really does look like another planet. It is hard to believe that everyone thinks only of lush, green lands in Ireland, when in reality, there is so much crazy diversity in both the look and feel of the landscapes. The Burren looks like a crazy sort of gray Arizonian mountain, but with more grassland in between. It was wild to climb through, as well, because the limestone is slippery and jagged and generally uneven. Plus, what wasn’t limestone was mud, which did not help the easiness of terrain.

But after about fifteen minutes, we arrived at our field. The terrain suddenly opened up into a wide space where cattle could graze if given the chance. We saw a couple up higher on the hill, but nothing serious. The wall up there is almost done—as Richard said, they only have about 100 more meters to go before they enclose the field totally and can start grazing. This is a winterage field, though, so they still have some time left to finish it. We did our best to help—almost two hours of rock finding, transporting, and assembling into the actual fence. We divided into three groups and started right off in collecting shapely stones. The skinnier, flatter stones work much better to stand upright and create “fence posts” that can then be filled in with smaller stones. I apparently have a knack for arranging the rocks for the fence, because every time someone would hand me a rock, I would just plop it down and then the whole thing would be stable. I’ll take it! I really enjoyed doing that part of the work. Finding the rocks was fun as well, but I feel like creating the fence and watching it become more and more solidified was a great comfort. I know that my work was doing something. It was incredibly satisfying. I am so thankful I got to do that.

“Service learning” projects often make me nervous, but this particular project will definitely help the park get the field back into order. We saw some Spring Gentions popping their little purple heads up just as we were about to leave, and that just makes the whole day worth it. There were also frogs, slow worms (snake-like lizards), mountain avens, blackthorn bushes just beginning to flower, and violets. We even saw a couple beautiful purple orchids, despite it being a little early for them! It started pouring as we began our decent down the mountain when we were finished, so we all made a mad dash back to the bus to find warmth and dry.

The bus then took us over to the famous Poulnabrone stone dolmen. Dolmens are called portal tombs and are present and prevalent all over Ireland. This one is probably the most notable because of the scenic background. It was still raining when we got to see it, but it didn’t make it any less impressive to see. The pictures turned out really well, I think. We saw one more wedge tomb as we were driving away toward Ballyvaughan, which is probably more famous because of its association with a house where a solid gold necklace was found. They share the same name: Gleninsheer.

Once we came up through Ballyvaughan, our driver Joe took us a different way than the professors had gone before to get back to Galway. We were making our way through the small towns on the coast when, quite suddenly, our professor sits up in his seat and says, “Is that a fox?!” He has never seen a fox in the wild before, so many of us joke with him about seeing foxes or make jokes about things that have foxes on them. He never laughs. He knows foxes are serious business, as do I. Foxes are known to live in the Burren, so I had told him earlier in the day that I would bring out my friends so they could say hello. He, like usual, was not amused. But it all paid off as we drove through this field in the middle of nowhere, Co. Clare, and saw a beautiful auburn fox with a perfectly bushy tail and a serious expression. He crossed through the open green grass and then turned to look when our entire bus erupted in cheers for Joe’s First Fox. It was truly a beautiful fox, and he accompanied an even more beautiful moment. I caught him in a picture as he was running away, so we will have that memory forever. Even despite that, I know I will never forget that moment. Joe named him Reynard. We like him.

The drive continued on as normal from then on, though with many of us in slight disbelief. The road opened up near Kinvarra to a hilltop ocean view of Galway Bay shortly after the Fox Sighting, and it was gorgeous. The sun had come out full force by then, even if it had been pouring only minutes ago. Ireland is like that. It was a beautiful way to end a very exciting, very fulfilling day. Nothing quite compares to making something with bare hands and sweat—especially something like a rock wall. We picked out each stone. We placed each one. We made that wall our own simply by agreeing to make it. There will forever be a little part of Augustana on that hillside, and I am so glad I got the opportunity to be a part of that. We might have been sore and a little weary for the rest of the night, but it was well worth it.

photo credit Diana Cleveland

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