Queridos falantes de português: eu vou escrever uma versão portuguesa deste texto para seu entretenimento. Não possam perder desta oportunidade se rir da minha fala gringo!
As the last few days of my stay in Ireland swiftly came to a close, I found myself in shock from a certain stimulus you feel as you immerse yourself with new experiences, cultures, and people. It’s the body-mind’s gentle reaction to a new reality. It was blissful during that long time away to feel my life becoming enriched by the month. After 16 months abroad, I can safely say I feel more full and accomplished as a human being. That last sentence is roughly the limit of written language to convey the sensation of having felt one’s comprehension of the human universe broaden. It’s felt surreal, like a dream; my original reality (overcrowded with US flags, manipulative golden arches, religious fanaticism, etc) supplanted by a much smaller, fairy- and leprechaun-inhabited reality.
I want to tell you about the trip in stages, providing a summary of my experiences, including highlights of what I learned by the end of each segment.
The first segment of the trip took place in my Dad’s hometown of Castletownbere, in the Republic’s largest county of Cork. Castletownbere is home to one of Ireland’s principal white fishing ports, and one of the largest natural harbors in the world to boot. It’s located on one of the biggest peninsulas in the country’s southwest — an area of stunning natural beauty. A picture-perfect, quintessential Irish coastal town. here it is on a map:
My task was simple: work for an undetermined amount of time in my uncle’s Supervalu store, which is Ireland’s primary home-grown supermarket. In fact this entire trip to Ireland was motivated by my uncle, who invited me over to work after my graduation from the University of California. What came after was entirely spontaneous, but more on that later.
After the first few days in my uncle’s home I found myself faced with culture shock, and a jet lag that, aside from a 3 week sinus-related illness, didn’t affect me at all. The culture shock was complex and subtle. I was living in rural Ireland with my relatives, who aside from speaking a version of English quite different from my own, I hadn’t or had any contact with for for 7 years. The preferred style of humor was different — a brand of insulting sarcasm whose level of ferocity is proportional to your intimacy with the person. Well, need I say more? It’s no wonder one of my Irish ex-coworkers remarked that “We’re all a bit mad.” Island of crazies is RIGHT.
The two months passed with the festival season as the main highlight. The annual regatta passed and saw me chicken out on entering the swimming race. I saw an awesome Irish film (The Guard) in a travelling cinema bus. I heard traditional Celtic storytelling. I met lots of strangers who grew up with my Dad. Most importantly, I got inducted into Irish culture, which though not extremely different from US culture, is different enough to cause plenty of awkwardness for naive, unsuspecting and sheltered North Americans like my 2011 self.
After finishing up the two months in Castletownbere, I decided to take my savings and try out farm volunteering through the international network, World-wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). One article about wwoofing in Ireland mentioned a smallholding near the town of Bantry, nestled in the arguably New Agey and certainly blow-in-filled* Coomhola Valley.
Mill Little is its name. I sent an email to its owner Christine Brewer, who decided to take me on for 3 weeks (1-3 weeks is an average stay for wwoofers).
When I arrived you could sense the tranquility of the place immediately. And indeed, little did I know that I’d stumbled upon a mini-paradise. Next to the large blue house in which the other wwoofers and English students were held (I mean, lived) there is a beautiful duck pond with massive water-loving plants whose names I’ve forgotten. A hill on the western side contains some apple trees, and the hen / goose abodes. We enjoyed fresh eggs from them roughly everyday. I stayed in a smaller house nearby for about 3 weeks, and it was very well-decorated and -maintained. You could tell that effort was put into the running of the small farm slash English school.
From Day 1, I was put to work. Beyond tending to the garden and plastic greenhouses (polytunnels), which provided us with a great bounty of deep-red tomatoes, we (the other wwoofer and I) were responsible for herding the 11 female goats from one field to the other on about a weekly basis — something called rotational grazing. By rotating the goats’ pasture you ensure that no one field gets too degraded.
I seem to have jinxed Christine a bit because shortly after I arrived the chickens, truly ridiculous animals, in case you hadn’t noticed, found themselves getting eaten by foxes, possibly due to the formers’ ridiculousness. I think up to 3 or 4 were slain before Christine charged us with bolstering the defenses along the back wall. So, the other wwoofer (a girl from Colorado) and I scouted along the perimeter and patched up any holes – dug or otherwise. Then we cleared heaps of pesky thorned shrubbery – a common bush called gorse or simply the fuzz – and lined the entire perimeter of the hill fencing with it. Talk about DIY, eco-friendly fortification!
Several day trips later, I was invited to stay a week longer to tend the farm while the owner headed off on a trip. She had a friend of hers stay with me to take care of business together. He took care of milking the goats (not too tough once you wrap your fingers around it and pull properly to execute the stream of warm liquid without getting owned by the (arguably) violated goat’s leg), which need to be milked daily to prevent infection, and I let out the chickens, fed them, and herded the things back into their homes just before sundown. I also performed the rather intricate daily maneuver of feeding the goats. It was simple: you can’t feed them all at once because they’d swamp you. So essentially you chain up 3 of them, feed them all, and while they’re eating chain up the rest to the other goatshed, and proceed to feed them as well. The trick is catching the damn ruminants.
I learned loads of stuff at Mill Little, namely that owning a small farm by yourself doesn’t have to be extremely difficult. Although it can certainly be time-consuming, it can be super-rewarding. What I really liked about the place was that Christine had created a nature reserve along with the farm and school, having grown much of the forest surrounding the central school-farm complex; she had planted it 20 years prior and it flourished marvellously. And the river — with its cascades and climbable rock formations. It goes a long way in contributing to the land’s paradisiacal feel.
Another important thing I learned was that I could really see myself doing something very similar to what Christine had done — operate a small organic farm in the peaceful countryside, have a business to make ends meet, and enhance the natural setting. It’s no small task but hell, it sounds great!
That does it for Part I, folks. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the rest of my reflections. To finish off here’s a video tour of Mill Little Farm, just to give you a taste of the place:
*blow-in: a fairly poetic and typically gentle Irish term for an immigrant.