When I was four or five we visited my uncle’s sprawling cattle ranch in Nevada just in time to see the branding of the herd. I remember it being very hot, dusty, and noisy, with the cowboys whooping and hollering as they rounded up the bellowing steer and crowded them into a metal corral for the sizzling brand. I vaguely remember the ranch hands snickering under their breath about the snip that came next, though I was too young to understand castration. The two greatest thrills of the trip for me were poking around the barn and finding puppies, newly birthed, living inside an abandoned couch beneath the hayloft. The other thrill was when I wandered across a narrow bridge where the horses were tied up on one side, and stopping to gape at their impossibly beautiful tails. A sharp word by one of the cowboys sent my mother flying across to scoop me up, as apparently I was standing square in the kick zone amongst the agitated horses. There is a hazy memory of the men berating my mother for leaving a child in harm’s way, and I still remember feeling bad that in my daydreaming, I had been the cause of her rebuke.
The rest of my childhood and adolescence can be described as nature heavy and animal light, which is to say I roamed the oak and granite hillsides of the Cleveland National Forest of my grandparent’s house, and the beaches and valleys of California’s landscape. Yosemite and Big Sur were wonderlands of pine sap and needle duff, and my weekly run to the beach to surf infused my nostrils with seaweed and salt spray. But animals… not so much. The extent of my interaction with beasts was a gaggle of hamsters and guinea pigs, my insistence on keeping every feral cat in the neighborhood, the two cocker spaniels my parents kept (not allowed in the house, thank you very much!), and the loveable Sinbad the Sailorbird, a yellow cockatiel of my father’s. Sinbad used to nibble on my gold hoop earrings as he perched on my shoulder, and sit with us at the kitchen table and eat popcorn out of the bowl as we strung garlands for Christmas.
So imagine my glee when we bought Reavilleen and found that our landscape is dominated by our neighbor John Helen’s 100 head herd of market cattle, and another neighbor’s (Mike Donovan) small herd of sucklers watched over by a wary donkey and magnificently large bull. Those two herds are literally in our front and back yards every day. Our other neighbor, Peter Daly, who lives in Castle Salem down the hill from us is a veteran horseman, and he keeps a colorful crew of family pets and also beautiful show horses on the fields directly down-valley from us, so we can hear them whinny in the breeze. He uses the field at the head of our berm road to keep a few horses at a time as he watches them to see if they are in foal, so the cast and crew always changes in our daily drama. Clare’s biggest thrill of last summer was getting to know Brownie, Lia, and the ever-aloof Chico, who is nearing 40 years old and has an impressive sway back. She learned that horses are big, naughty dogs, and once that was established, she gained confidence in calling them over and offering apples and carrots.
But this winter when we arrived in Ireland, most of the livestock had been put to sheds. When the weather threatens to be too wet or miserable for too long, the farmers shut in their animals to keep them from the wind and rain. The hillsides were largely barren and brilliantly green, with the gorse blooming buttery yellow in great swathes. It felt empty. We asked John where the cattle were, thinking they had gone to market, but he said they were in the shed to protect them from the chilly mist that had been blanketing the slopes. It occurred to me that I had no idea what that meant for John as a farmer, so I asked him if Clare and I could watch him feed them one morning.
When that morning came, John texted us to come to the shed at the appointed hour, and Clare and I put on our muck boots to walk toward the sound of many engines running. John began by showing us the silo where the mixture of maize, soybeans, and grain was kept, explaining that he goes through its entire contents every ten days. He pulled the red feed trailer up to it, and released the correct amount into the hopper. He then used another tractor to retrieve two large bales of silage wrapped in plastic and did a delicate dance with the scoop to tip over the round bales and dump them into the hopper too. The smell of the wet, fermenting silage grass was overwhelming, like spilled beer mixed with a scent not unlike when you leave a bouquet of flowers too long in the vase and the stems get slimy.
The feed trailer mixed the concoction with large blades that chopped and distributed the contents, along with a vitamin powder John mixed in. The great machine was working hard to slice through the damp grass, and Clare and I marveled at how much feed was going in when John turned on ANOTHER tractor to power a large chopper bin. He drove to a huge pile of what I found out later were fodder beets, and took a large scoop and dropped them into the chopper with a magnificent noise. Then he took a second scoop and dropped it in too. Clare and I looked at each other with wide eyes at the sheer scale of the feed when we noticed we were standing in the river of rotting beet juices snaking across the road. I watched with amusement as her eyes grew wide and she gingerly lifted up each boot and wrinkled her nose at the miasma rising from the soles.
At this point John was dancing from tractor to tractor in a precise tango of machine, measurements, and clean-up, all with the practiced hand of someone who has executed this series of steps countless times. Finally, the feed bin was full and he let its 3000kgs of fodder churn with the large blades for some time before pulling the tractor around the shed and delivering the feed first to one side of the waiting cattle and then turning around to dump the other as a hundred hungry, snuffling faces moved to the trough in a series of moos and bleats. From the time he started mixing the grain to the feed almost an hour had elapsed.
Clare marveled at the fact that he did this routine every day they were in the shed, and we realized that the cold months were the hardest on the farmers, because even in the harshest of weather the animals still needed to be fed. So John gets up for work in the morning and either takes the hour before work (cold! wet! dark!) or the hour after work (cold! wet! dark!) because like most hard-working Irish folks, he has more than one job. As the cattle snuffled around in their feed and jostled for position, we walked up to them and observed their large, dark eyes, wet noses, and marveled at the small horns on the few that had missed the removal process. One black and white boy licked my hand and kept licking all the way up my sleeve, covering my coat in slime and tickling my palm with what felt like a cross between a cat’s and giraffe’s tongue. (Yes, I have touched a giraffe’s tongue before.)
Now here comes the sticky bit. On our walk home Clare and I marveled at how much intensive effort goes into the production of beef, as these six month cattle we had just visited were headed to slaughter before they got out of the shed in the spring. All that feed for one day’s worth of growing. All that diesel running all those tractors. All the hours spent caring for the beasts. It really put the price of beef into perspective, and the considerable use of resources that goes into their care became all too real. It’s one thing to read about how eating meat affects the planet with intensive production methods, but it’s quite another thing to see it in action. About ten years ago we decided to eat less red meat in our family, reserving it for a treat a few times a month. We buy mostly grass fed, grass finished beef. We aim for organic chickens. We avoid farmed fish. But is it enough?
I am grateful that John let us in on his process, as it awakened me to the practices behind Irish food production. I can only shake my head at how differently the CAFOs in America treat their animals, and hope that my choice to eat more organically and locally counters the unsustainability of those practices. I would like us to eat far less meat than we do, but I have an Irishman on my hands, and meat and potatoes are king in our house (for him). Clare and I favor fish and vegetables, but I hope that now when she has the occasionally treat of beef she understands the people, faces, and animals behind the plate.
I’m not so sure that immigration officers aren’t the equivalent of mall cops. They always look bored, annoyed, and slightly embarrassed at their stations. They can’t carry guns, and have no real authority other than to put you aside in a roped-off area if you are causing their computers a little circuit board malfunction when you don’t fit nicely into their checkboxes of VISITOR or RESIDENT. God forbid you lightly say you’re in town to do a little business and have a little pleasure. They will bark: ARE YOU HERE ON BUSINESS?! To which you can reply meekly: Is meeting with a lawyer and buying a house business or PLEASURE!?? This will not amuse them. You will be forever marked as a problem. Just. Like. Me.
It may stem from the fact that I have verbal diarrhea when I am exhausted from 14 hours of travel and a bit dizzy and dehydrated. Ever since my first tussle with immigration in Italy 20 years ago (I wasn’t SMUGGLING plants, I was TRANSPORTING seed packets bought in a garden shop to my garden, of course) I have had a checkered past with these humorless folks. Now each time I approach the desk I begin to sweat and mutter. What will it be THIS time.
Part of my problem is that I don’t fit. Tom has Irish citizenship and a passport and flies through the EU side of passport control with nary a bat of an eyelash. Clare and I have US passports because we are trying to establish residency in Ireland and apparently need to collect a certain amount of time residing here through a series of stamps. Now, WHICH stamps we need are a point of some debate. The official website says one thing. Dublin headquarters keeps sending back our emails saying it’s not this jurisdiction, it’s THAT one. So we though the best thing to do was to go directly to the source and visit our local HQ in Bandon and begin the process there. Officer X was very kind. She took our passports, listened impassively to our story, and scanned our information. BUT, she said, I need to check in with Dublin to see if I can start giving you these stamps. Can you write to this office? She gave us a slip of paper. Sigh. We are back at square one.
She told me next time I came to say when at passport control: “I’m here to join my husband, who is an EU citizen.” She thought this would kick in some process of a different stamp at their end of the counter. Needless to say, this did not go down well. After a snag of being in a dead line for 20 minutes and Clare and I jumping the ropes to avoid further delay, the new officer eyed me levelly and began the barrage: “Is he an Irish Citizen?” “Here to visit or here to live?” “How long are you here?” “When was the last time you were here?” “Why have you been here so may times in the past few years?” OY! At this point I’ve given up hope of gaining residency. If Ireland doesn’t want me, an independently financially sustainable human with a house on Irish soil, paying Irish taxes, and contributing to her economy…. well, so be it. I understand the the world is full of borders and ridiculous walls, and apparently there’s some magic words I need to find before they let me through this one.
Now, don’t get me started on Irish driving laws and our inability to get car insurance. The infinity loop here is just as puzzling. Or health care...sigh. I popped into the local doctor's office in Ross to see if they could give me my allergy shots in the summertime so I wouldn't always be playing catch up each time I missed a few months of shots. The receptionist told me that their books were closed, and that they had to take care of the residents of Rosscarbery first and visitors second. When I tried to explain AGAIN that I owned a house in Ross and we are trying to live half the year there and half the year in the States her eyes narrowed. "Where in Rosscarbery?" she said. "Up the hill just above Castle Salem," I replied. "You live at Castle Salem?!" she responded. Now, I know I have bad hearing and so can forgive folks their misheard phrases but REALLY? In the end she said she would ask the doctors if they could add us to the books but she doubted it. I told Tom I felt, unwanted, unloved, and uncared for after all the sideye I got this trip. She called back later in the afternoon with a much different tone of voice and told me the doctors instructed her to say they would take us on. We just needed to fill out paperwork. I breathed a sigh of relief that for once a hurdle had been cleared toward settling in.
What I will focus on is the fact that I am enjoying the connections with the land and the people and the culture, and I must focus on the fact that the sun is always there behind the clouds. Nothing easily gained is cherished for long, and I think that will be the case with my residency status. I will keep asking, and hopefully before too long the clouds of misunderstanding will part and I will be allowed to breeze through that line and instead of the third degree I will have the honor of hearing: “Welcome Home.”
My best friend struck the right key when she wrote on my Facebook post featuring the muzzle of a scruffy pup: “It’s a Christmas miracle…. I’m trying not to ugly cry.” Let me explain: Thursday was a cold and misty day, a “fine Irish day” when the dew in the air swirls and never really drops into rain and the wind is nonexistent. We had just driven in from an overnight in Cork city and arrived at the gates of our Reavilleen to find them closed. This is odd. There is no way in if you’re not holding the clicker in the car, and we most assuredly were not.
I slipped out into the mist to try to squeeze between a tiny gap I shoved open when just as I was caught breast to bar on the center portion of the gate I saw a black and white dog tearing up the driveway of John and Kathy’s house. It looked exactly like Trixie. But it couldn’t be. I wrote a post on Aug 1, 2018 that said I hadn’t seen her for five days since turning her over to Alec with severe injuries, and she remained unseen and unaccounted for the entire remained of that month. So what was THIS? WHO was this? I leaned back to peer out, and as she raced up, I called out to Clare who had rolled down her car window: There’s a dog running up here that looks an awful lot like Trixie!The minute she got near me she dropped her hind end and waggled it just like Trixie. She nibbled my fingertips just like Trixie. She had spots on her belly just like Trixie.
I didn’t want Clare to get too excited so I said: Maybe Alec got a littermate of Trixie’s after she passed? How else could we explain not seeing her for an entire month? Even John and Kathy knew nothing about her fate as we left in August. For us that was a sure sign she was gone. And yet…. here was her doppelgänger. Here was the same submissive little waggle. Tom texted John to let him know we’d arrived and slipped in a question, “Were we just greeted by Trixie?” to which John replied, “Yep, that’s her alright!” We stared at the text with gaping mouths. Really?! To their credit, John and Kathy didn’t pop by on our first day back, and good thing because we were turning over the house and dealing with three cold and cough situations, and trying to fight jetlag, but that also meant we didn’t get the full story. There’s little else on our lips.
When Trixie disappeared last summer Clare stopped going outside as often to wander and poke around. The draw of that little waggle butt and panting face wasn’t there. It put a damper on our picnics on the lawn and walks around the property because the thrill of her scruffy face was absent. Seeing her race toward the house when she heard the sliding doors open up was like the sun smiling down each day. We found other pleasures after she was gone, but the sadness and shock of her loss permeated the days following. So it is with great pleasure that we find her once again roaming the slopes between Benduff and Reavilleen.
A few days later we got the rough scraps of the story from John. Apparently Alec took Trixie home to the barn to nurse wounds, her but she went missing after a while. They all presumed her dead when one day out of the blue she came running back. After that John and Kathy gave her a bed in their garage out of the elements and there to this day she lives happily, guarding the hill from foxes and crows alike. She is a most welcome addition to our view out over the bay, as her little black and white face smiles like the clouds parting. I hope she is here for our many returns to the house between land and sky.
I had to put my phone on night mode. Each night, as I lay sleeping under Irish stars, my friends at home would be just getting their days revved with a green juice and egg white omelet. Or, if truth be told, a second cup of coffee and an artisanal donut. No judgment here. But my phone would ding and ping and sometimes even ring at all hours of the dark as the world spun along and friends wanted to share a tidbit of their day. Finally, I learned about night mode and the phones all fell silent. Bliss. Night silence at Reavilleen is complete: no freeway traffic humming along like electricity on a wire, no airplanes low enough to leave a wake of jet noise, no police sirens, no pool pumps from the neighbor’s yard, no air conditioning units grumbling off and on. Nothing. There’s very few crickets to disturb the peace. You can quite literally hear your heartbeat.
So in the morning it was always a pleasure to pick up the phone and see all the red dots of texts, WhatsApps, and Facebook Messengers, Instagram DMs, and missed emails from friends popping in for a bit of connection. I’d sit there and open all the little dots like tiny Christmas presents and feel the distance between myself and the people who loved me shrink down to the flick of a fingertip. Frankly, being away from my friends was the hardest part of the summer. I hadn’t really noticed how much my life is a series of connections with women and men who are genuinely interested in sharing lovely moments. I like to think of myself as the type of person who really makes an effort to keep people in my loop who add depth and richness to my days, and it turns out that a little distance made me realize who is really invested in me for me, and not just what I could do for them at the moment.
Distance can be a relationship killer for friendship, and can fray the bonds even in a tight-knit family. We have friends that moved only 26 miles away a few years ago, but it is as if they fell off the face of the earth. Even given this, Tom would move to Ireland in a snap. He loves his grandkids and daughters more than anything, and his nieces and nephews are the little moons that make his tides rise and fall, but he’s always had a strong desire to return to his ancestral roots. Maybe his childhood spent fending for himself made him the monk he tends to be today. Or maybe the pull of the DNA really is that strong. I think he has a longing to belong to a family larger than his own, a people, a history that doesn’t include abandonment. In the Irish he has found friends who would drop anything for him and help him solve the smallest problem. He is content to split his time between Ireland and here only because he can’t imagine being away from Jessica and the girls while the girls are young. He doesn’t want to miss a minute but he’s willing to give up a summer or two.
I, however, have a strong connection to Southern California, perhaps in that same ancestral way Tom does with Ireland. My great grandfather was born here, and our family lived in the Los Angeles area when it was all citrus trees and fields. The landscapes of my childhood are dusty oak-covered mountains and industrial concrete contrasted with ocean waves and seaweed. California is a contradiction, an argument between nature and urban life, and I love that friction. Maybe when I get older and tire of hearing the police sirens at all hours I will consider a move to somewhere quieter, but I never want to be so far away from my sisters, nieces, and nephews that a dinner invitation would be out of the question. My sisters and their children are my lifelines, my roots, the ropes that moor me to the dock and make me steady.
For all the steady flow of electronic communication, I still felt detached from real life while at Reavilleen. Occasionally Jessica and the girls would FaceTime, and Tom would be floating on a cloud for the rest of the day. Or Laura and her girls would WhatsApp video, and I would walk them around the house and show them the trees, the wind, the sights. Carla and I would send instant pix to each other at all hours of the day and night as she undertook her road trip up the Western Coast of the US, and the immediacy would help me feel connected. Heidi and I FaceTimed from Barcelona to Ireland and planned our attack on how we could next meet up. (It turns out she’s flying into Los Angeles this week and we don’t have to do the Euro jumper-jets after all!) Long before I was aware that my time in Ireland was coming to an end, friends at home who had it marked on their calendars were clamoring for a lunch or meet up upon my return. To say that I was honored to be thought of is an understatement.
Now that I have returned to the crush of scheduling and juggling Clare’s school schedule, I am taking this time to bask in the beauty of friendship and reviewing what it means to be “home.” The moment the plane wheels touched down in L.A., my phone picked up the local cell tower and dinged. It was my younger sister via text: “You’re home! You’re home! Now we can play!” I laughed as I texted her back: “We aren’t even off the plane. How did you know I was home?” She said: “I’m tracking your flights, silly!” And then over the next four hours or so the texts poured in: “U home yet? Missed U.” or “When are we drinking bubbles, lady?” or “Do you smell like sheep? Let’s convo over coffee!” or “Welcome back. Call me when jetlag goes away.”
I bathed in the richness of the love, surprised at how quickly I was growing teary at the trite #blessedmoment I was having. Was it jetlag tugging at my tear ducts? Probably. Did I care? Not much. I was realizing that no matter how marvelous my new friends in Ireland are (and they ARE marvelous) my friend base here in So Cal is stuffed with people whom I could call on for advice in a disaster or for fashion help before a party. Tucked away in our Irish home this summer atop a hillside overlooking the sea, I wrote and cooked and read and gardened and painted and repaired little pieces of my soul that had been ripped over the past few years. That distance sharpened my awareness of the richness of my life on two continents. In Ireland I am excited to begin exploring new friendships over dinners and festivals and nights at the pub; In California I understand now how important it is to hold fast to the bonds that have withstood the test of time. There is a gratitude for things long established and things just begun. But just for silence’s sake, I’m going to keep my phone on night mode, and look forward to the morning’s happy burst of little red dots filling the screen.