September 23, 2011

Off to Wales today where I will meet up with bloggers from around the world to write about the country. We had to choose different tracks — adventure, culture, or food — and because I figured we’d probably eat well regardless, I chose culture. Adventure trips often tend to focus on things like zip-lining and gee-whiz danger-boy things. That doesn’t interest me. It looks like the culture itinerary takes us to a couple of UNESCO World Heritage sites — including a coal mine — and an area where we’re likely to see the reintroduced red kite. I’ll upload photos and post stories every night.  I will also be posting on Facebook and Twitter. Stay tuned.

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Biking Around Potsdam

On a cool, misty Fourth of July my daughter and I took the train from Braunschweig to Potsdam to meet Kevin Kennedy our guide for a four-hour bike ride through the city. Although I was yearning for a picnic with hotdogs and burgers, we settled for a break from typical German fare of meat and potatoes prepared every way possible, by eating at an Asian café in the train station.

We were to meet Kevin Kennedy at a bike rental shop by the station. He’s a local guide and a cultural historian — a student of Prussian history — which was apropos for our ride through Potsdam’s parks. We were riding bikes because Potsdam’s green spaces sprawl through the city center and two wheels allowed us to cover some territory and talk at the same time.

Kennedy was late so we practiced riding our big heavy metal frame bikes with foot brakes in circles around the parking lot. Because of his name, I expected Kennedy to be an Irishman or at least from Boston but he turned out to be a ruddy-faced ginger-haired man with a GI father from New Hampshire and a mother from Berlin. (Read the rest of this post on Huffington Post)

statue at sans soucci

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balancing rocks

For months now I’ve been seeing rocks stacked three or four high on my way to the gym, which is located in a suburban mall. The first time I saw the rocks I was with my daughter and I brought the car to a screeching halt and said, “Would you look at that!” There were about five or six little rock towers on the rocky verge of the road where the mall had dumped tons of rounded and semi-angular rocks about the size of my head.  

As we drove on to the gym I posited my theory on who created them. I was sure it was either someone who worked at the Borders bookstore coming in early or perhaps an Asian student who lived in an adjacent apartment complex. My daughter thought the Asian comment was not politically correct and then we got into a long discussion about language and dropped the mystery of the rock towers.

Since then, every time I drove to the gym I took the long way round the mall just so I could pass the rock towers. Sometimes there were none and I was surprised at how disappointed I was when that was the case. Often there were just one or two standing and I made it a habit to carry my camera so I could take pictures of them. I tried to go early enough so that I wouldn’t have to contend with much traffic on the mall road because I wanted to take close-ups that faked you out and made you believe that these towers were set on the edge of a field or somewhere in nature. That meant squatting in the middle of the road and shooting them at a low angle and getting close enough so that the road, the culvert, and the highway beyond the little stand of trees wouldn’t be visible in the photograph.

They were so perfect. So balanced. Sometimes point to point. Sometimes smaller stones were nestled into larger ones.  Sometimes a larger stone was impossibly perched atop a smaller one. I loved both the predictability and the uncertainty of the exercise. If they balanced, they balanced. If they didn’t, they didn’t. And the ephemeral quality of the perched rocks was somehow thrilling. On the way to the gym I might see four towers, and on the way back, I’d see none.

Ultimately it was the weird dichotomy of the rock towers and the implicit serenity set on the edge of a mall parking lot that really spoke to me. You’d expect to find something like this on a beach or maybe a river bed but a mall parking lot? And it made me think the builder had quite a sense of humor. (click here to read the rest of this piece on YourLifeIsATrip)

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green burial piece of mine on salon.com

Looking for a Greener Kind of  Death:

As Americans get savvier about environmental consequences, why aren’t they embracing natural burial?

There was a naked body wrapped in yards and yards of unbleached muslin perched over an open grave, and Mary Woodsen was speeding to get there. An early spring snowfall had dumped 2 feet of wet snow on Irish Hill making the going tough, but as founder of the cemetery Mary had been there many times before. The car swerved all over the road. She knew it was a fine line between spinning out and reaching the summit.

Tiffani Jones (name changed) was being buried today. A 43-year-old woman with brain, kidney, liver and spinal cancer. Her body finally gave out, and her mother wanted her buried up on the hill. Mary was glad Tiffani was local — from the hardscrabble village at the base of the hill — because after five years, she was a little tired of Greensprings being seen as a groovy, hippie alternative to traditional burial. From all accounts Tiffani was a hard-drinking, hard-partying woman and many of her mourners were cut from that same cloth. They stood shivering in thin leather jackets pulled tight around their bodies while the wind blew, making it seem colder than 28 degrees.

Everyone stood and stared at Tiffani’s body above the open grave. Mary stood back. Planting bodies in the ground made sense to Mary. She thought about how the body breaks down and feeds nutrients into the soil, and as she stood there, she could imagine Tiffani’s body one day feeding all of the meadow grasses that lay under the snow. This is death broken down to molecules; to carbon and nitrogen and calcium. Tiffani will feed the meadow. [click here to keep reading . . .]

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wanderlust

Okay. I suffer from this. As far as I can tell it’s incurable and the symptoms grow more pronounced as time passes. It comes from the German wandern (to hike) and lust (desire).  I think I fall in the camp that has morphed the wandern part to mean travel rather than specifically to hike.

Without wanderlust I couldn’t find scenes like the one above from the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, or the following one from the largest gannet colony in the world, which happens to be on St. Bonaventure Island off Perce, Quebec.

I think being curious about the world and what it has to offer is a common feeling. What’s a little more unusual is acting on that feeling and actually getting on the boat or train or plane and making the effort to see something beyond your tiny sphere of influence and comfort.

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being trapped beneath the volcanic ash cloud

Everything is fodder for a story. Here’s the beginning of one I wrote for perceptivetravel.com.

“When I was supposed to board a plane to go back home I was sitting in a five–star hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The view from my window was of Belfast Lough, a long, deep, narrow channel running from the Irish Sea to the city of Belfast. And if I sat there and squinted just a little and ignored the big ferries and occasional tanker that slowly moved past I could believe I was looking at one of the Finger Lakes, the region I’m from in New York State. And it made me instantly and intensely homesick. But I was trapped beneath the volcanic ash cloud.

I had been in Ireland for two weeks traveling around the country and blogging about my experiences. It was oddly grueling. I’d wake in the morning and eat a hearty Irish breakfast with a map spread out on the table beside my plate of sausage, bacon, eggs, blood pudding, fried bread, grilled tomatoes, and grilled mushrooms, and I’d plan the day’s drive.

I think nothing of jumping into the car and heading out when I’m home. But there’s something about driving on the left that required every bit of concentration. Could have been the roads as wide as my dining room table. Could have been the trucks and buses bearing down on me, or the sheep casually crossing in front of my Ford Focus. Could have been the scenic drives that hugged the cliffs on one side and the sheer drop to the sea on the other. Or maybe it was the roundabouts. Or the unfamiliar road signs. I don’t know. But driving did take almost all of my white–knuckle concentration, which is kind of a shame because although I did things like drive around part of the Ring of Kerry, I didn’t see any of the landscape. Whole swaths of Ireland remain a green blur to me.

Still, I was determined to find a story, whether it was talking to a rheumy–eyed drunk in a pub about Bob Dylan or the doorman at one of the hotels where I stayed. The doorman had just returned from a trip to New York City—his first—and was ga–ga over everything he had seen. At one point he asked a cop where he might find the Empire State Building and the cop grabbed his arm and pulled him into the street stopping traffic as he did. Then he pointed up to the top of the building in front of them. “How Irish of me,” the doorman said.

So everyone had a story. The drunk in the bar. The doorman. The maid from Lithuania. The taxi driver from West Belfast. And I spent my days in a kind of reporter–mode and it was goddamn exhausting. And at night I’d go into my room and try to craft a little story to post. And I’d drink from the bottle of Merlot purchased from the liquor store and eat bread and cheese for dinner bought at the grocery store and I’d begin to feel sorry for myself in this beautiful country of greenness and melodic voices. Then I’d crawl between the 800 thread–count sheets on my perfect bed hoping I’d sleep. I knew I couldn’t whine about it lest I get slapped. (click here to continue reading . . .)

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tongass national forest — alaska

At the end of May my husband Tim Gallagher and I took a trip to southeast Alaska where we explored a bit of the Inside Passage and the Tongass National Forest.  We were on a small boat run by The Boat Company — only 20 passengers and about 10 crew members — which meant we were able to get into little coves and natural harbors that were well off the beaten path. For a week our daily routine was to kayak in the deep, cool Alaskan water before breakfast, walk through the northern rainforest — some of it old growth — after the meal, and tour around the area in skiffs or fish for halibut, salmon, or trout before dinner. We saw humpback whales breach, brown and black bear foraging along the shoreline, and more bald eagles than you could shake a stick at.

The Tongass is the largest national forest in the United States with a huge section of it designated wilderness area. As Clinton was leaving the White House he enacted a ban on logging in wilderness areas. Two years later, an exception to this ban was made for the Tongass, which has enormous stands of Sitka spruce, hemlock, and red cedar. It’s hard to imagine full-scale logging in what looks like a pristine area (I did catch glimpses of a couple abandoned logging roads that were now bright green with the growth of alders) and just the idea of what would be involved in putting in roads to support a logging operation is mind-boggling. And for what? Pulp? Wood chips? Wood for Japan?

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