After the fire – Beauty

We burned our prairie this spring, and the fire my husband lit spread rapidly through the dried residue of the previous year’s grasses and flowers. Within minutes, we were left with nothing but a bare, black expanse.

The prairie was bare, but not barren. Within a few weeks, green began to show and now, only two month’s later, all evidence of the fire has disappeared. In its place are a multitude of flowers and grasses. After a burn, flowers are actually more plentiful. and we may see flowers we haven’t seen before. Here are a few prairie bright spots since the burn.

Fire moves rapidly through prairie residue.

Fire moves rapidly through prairie residue.

Spiderwort is one of the earliest flowers.

Spiderwort is one of the earliest flowers.

Butterfly milkweed is the only orange flower we see, and it's stunning.

Butterfly milkweed is the only orange flower we see, and it’s stunning.

This is the first year I've spotted whorled milkweed in our prairie.

This is the first year I’ve spotted whorled milkweed in our prairie.

A pale purple coneflower also made its first appearance.

A pale purple coneflower also made its first appearance.

Wild bergamot, butterfly milkweed, and common sunflower - beautiful in combination.

Wild bergamot, butterfly milkweed, and common sunflower – beautiful in combination.

A common milkweed blossom.

A common milkweed blossom.

Fire is a necessary element of a healthy prairie, and we burn ours every four years.

Have you walked in a prairie? If so, what was your experience? If you have not been yet, I encourage you to do so.  The prairie offers infinite beauty.

Language barrier? Don’t the Irish speak English?

International travel can be a challenge, especially if you don’t speak the local language or do so minimally. One of the advantages to traveling to Ireland is that they speak English, right? Yes and no. My recent visit to Ireland revealed a range of word play that gave new depth to the language I use every day.

Road signs in Ireland provide directions and a lesson in Irish.

Road signs in Ireland provide directions and a lesson in Irish.

Road signs are the first indication you’ve entered another world. The signs were easy enough to understand, but the words describing what a sign means the driver to do might be different. We say “Yield;” the Irish say “Make way.” “Entrance” becomes “Way In.” “Exit” becomes “Way Out.” Spotting these was a delight. All Irish road signs also come with a lesson in Gaelic. Just don’t ask me to pronounce it.

Then, there’s the accent. Early in presentations, each guide asked, “Can you understand me?” Most were easy. However, one man – a farmer who also served as tour guide in the other-worldly, sandstone landscape of The Burren – was more of a challenge.

Can you imagine farming on this landscape? Our tour guide raises cattle on The Burren.

Can you imagine farming on this landscape? Our tour guide (in the CIA cap) raises cattle on The Burren.

Shane Connolly spoke so rapidly and with such a strong dialect that I’m sure I caught little more than half of what he said. Yet he was one of my favorite guides. A wealth of knowledge on history, geology, botany, and agriculture, Shane caught us off guard, surprising and delighting as he sprinkled American history and political and cultural references throughout his talk. The consensus of our group was that Shane knew more about American history and culture than many of us. And we got his message, even through the accent.

Undertakers, Plantations, and Craic

However, the real mind-bending challenge was how words that mean something to me as an American mean something entirely different to the Irish. Two of those words are “undertaker” and “plantation,” which came into play as guides related the centuries-long English/Irish, Catholic/Protestant conflict.

For many years, the English government and Church of England, were intent on removing Catholics from any power. During the “Plantation period,” Catholics were removed from the land they owned and farmed and Protestants were “planted” on that same land as the new owners. These new owners “undertook” to farm the land they’d been given and in so doing became “undertakers.”

The injustices described came uncomfortably close to America’s own treatment of Native Americans and Blacks. My head swam each time the words plantation and undertaker were spoken as I worked to re-direct my brain away from the American South and death.

On a lighter note was the word “Craic,” pronounced “Crack.” In Gaelic, craic means fun or a good time. So our guide might say, “That was craic,” or “Ye’ll have great craic.” We found the use of “ye” instead of “you” charming, while this word craic always caused laughter since seekers of American crack are looking for a whole different kind of fun.

"Welcome"

“Welcome”

All this play with language caused me as a writer, to think about the authors who write about countries other than their own. Getting a story factually right is challenging under any circumstances. To add in the possibility that words do not mean the same thing at all adds a whole new level of difficulty.

We did encounter one sign that was always, only, in Irish. That was Fáilte. Fáilte means “Welcome.” Even without the translation, we all knew that word because we felt it so clearly from every person we met. No language barrier there.

Have you traveled to another country and encountered words and phrases that caused you to think about language differently? What was your experience?

Clocks, stoves and life & death coincidences

As a child, I grew up singing a song about a clock that counted the seconds of a man’s life. “My Grandfather’s Clock” – Are you familiar with it? The refrain goes like this:

“Ninety years without slumbering
tick, tock, tick, tock
His life seconds numbering
tick, tock, tick, tock
It stopped, short, never to go again
When the old man died”

I recall this song, which I’d always considered a made-up story, because I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother. Her 100th birthday would have been this month. She lived a full, active life until she passed on nine years ago.

Mom's stove served her faithfully.

Mom’s stove served her faithfully.

On the weekend she died, my husband and I drove to Preston, the small eastern-Iowa town where she lived. We intended to spend the weekend, knock off the list of chores Mom invariably had for us, and return on Sunday afternoon. A typical weekend visit home.

When we walked into the kitchen on Friday afternoon, Mom (age 91) was standing at the stove canning tomatoes. That stove got a lot of use, every day for more than 30 years, since putting meals on the table three times a day was a task Mom thoroughly enjoyed. Because it was so well used, it’s no particular surprise that the stove was on its last legs. In fact, three of the four burners worked intermittently, if at all, and the fourth gave out that day.

Well, my mother couldn’t live without a stove, so we all trooped down to the local hardware store, which also sold major appliances, and picked out a new stove. They delivered it to her house on Saturday morning, in time for Mom to bake an apple crisp and cook lunch. Don’t you love small town Iowa?

That same morning, I convinced Mom to throw out the dish cloth she’d been using because it was worn to threads, held together mostly by the thread she used to sew each new hole closed. With a new stove and a new dish cloth, she was all set.

That afternoon, my husband I drove to a nearby town to finish off the list of chores. As we left, Mom lay down to listen to Rush Limbaugh and take a nap, as she did every afternoon.

When we returned, barely an hour and a half later, we learned from a neighbor that while we were gone, Mom got up to defrost the deep freeze. In the process, she had a stroke. Less than six hours later she was dead.

Past the shock of her sudden passing, I couldn’t help but think about Mom’s stove and her dishcloth. They gave out on the day she died. Just like the Grandfather Clock.

Cosmic coincidence? A mysterious link between animate and inanimate? The workings of my idle mind trying to make sense of life and death? I don’t know. But it was curious, and something I think about.

Have you ever experienced something like this?

Murals fuel & memorialize Irish conflict

Murals as a form of political, social, and cultural expression rose in importance during “The Troubles” – a 30-year conflict that began in 1968 and divided Northern Ireland. Though The Troubles more or less ended with the Belfast “Good Friday” agreement of 1998, murals continue to be a powerful method of communication. Often called the Belfast Murals, these graphic messages are also prominent in Derry where conflict was also heated.

Here are a few I saw on my recent visit to Northern Ireland.

A Protestant, King William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

Protestant, King William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

The republican prisoners commemorated in this mural sought prisoner of war status. Rather than wear prison garb, they opted for blankets; their action became known as "the blanket protest." The prisoners also initiated a hunger strike. Some died before the protest ended.

The republican prisoners commemorated in this mural sought prisoner of war status. Rather than wear prison garb, they opted for blankets; their action became known as “the blanket protest.” The prisoners also initiated a hunger strike, with some dying before the protest ended.

This mural commemorates a a young girl killed during The Troubles. The girl's father continues to visit the mural regularly.

A young girl was one of the thousands of civilians killed during The Troubles. The girl’s father  visits the mural regularly.

Some believe the British Army must be held accountable for the deaths they caused during The Troubles.

The campaign continues to hold the British Army accountable for the predominately Catholic deaths they perpetrated during The Troubles.

The fight for a united Ireland continues.

Arguing for a united Ireland.

Murals take on new causes as well as old.

Artists take on new causes as well as old.

An artist works on a new mural.

New murals are created, as artists take up current events and new causes.

The history of Northern Ireland is complicated. Loyalists – Unionists – Republicans – Nationalists – Catholics – Protestants. Even with repeated explanations by our guides, I am confident I don’t have it all straight.

What these murals did for me was convey the tremendous emotion surrounding all of the issues. More than words, these murals told me the issues remain, even though, thankfully, people aren’t still killing each other.

On Memorial Day, we remember those who fought and died for our country. With these visual reminders, every day is Memorial Day in Northern Ireland.

Readers: Have you seen murals used in a similar way in other parts of the world? If you have, please share.