Trees under snow

A surprising quantity of snow fell at October’s end this year thanks to a cold snap produced by a blast of polar air..and even though there was really no accumulation in excess of 20-30cm on the ground – and that accumulation was quickly diminished by rain – there were certain days when trees above snowline appeared spectacularly caked in the cold white stuff.

Unfortunately the clouds of November’s first week have brought more rain than snow, so hopes of an early start to the Winter-sports* season are on hold. Even though there is still some snow resisting on the ground, the trees have been washed thoroughly clean several times by now. Intermittent snowfall whitens them up again for a few hours..and then down comes the drizzle again.

Well, at least the sun’s not beating down like other years in the middle of Autumn..some small consolation.

 

* By ‘Winter-sports’ i mean the typical Guadarrama early Winter-sports, such as bush-whacking, shark-fishing, rock-polishing, and so on..;-)!

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On logging..

In a moment when there seems to be more urgency than ever to the issue of planting trees and reforestation, i recently found myself reflecting on the antithesis..deforestation and logging.

During the Spring ski season of last year i gaily disregarded on several occasions temporary signs and barriers warning of the dangers of heavy machinery at work logging trees in the Upper Lozoya/Rascafría Valley, an area with several popular hiking trails and a frequently used option to access some of the best mountain skiing available in the Sierra de Guadarrama, namely the North facing slopes of Cabezas de Hierro.

Heading for the 'Ironheads'..Cabezas de Hierro, Lozoya valley.

Heading for the ‘Ironheads’..Cabezas de Hierro, Lozoya valley.

Loggers don’t usually work on weekends and in any case i was just skimming across the Upper Valley barely below the treeline on my way to the higher terrain above the forest..unlikely to bump into any mechanical monsters. In the event even on the odd weekday i saw neither machines nor men at work, but the signs were always there. A tad annoying, i felt..on the one hand this is the so-called Parque Nacional de la Sierra de Guadarrama, why are hikers and skiers being warned not to proceed? And on the other hand the shabbiness, the sheer laziness of it – no work underway in the area of the upper valley, yet the signs were not removed, or moved further down the valley – for me, heading upwards it was no big deal, but others who might have wished to hike down the valley were being needlessly denied access.

Logging evidently underway, though no machinery around..

Logging evidently underway, though no machinery around..

What i did see however on the wooded slopes below Cabezas de Hierro was the evidence of logging operations carried out with the said heavy machinery..while the logging is selective and relatively few trees are removed, the tracks cut thru the forest by skidders or harvesters leave wide swathes of mangled vegetation and traumatized topsoil.

But the harvesters leave their mark, undeniably..

But the harvesters leave their mark, undeniably..

The least you could say about it is that it’s not beautiful. And what about erosion?..you can understand mountain bikers’ indignation when they are accused of causing hillside deterioration.

Skid-marks left by downhill bikers?

Skid-marks left by downhill bikers?

 

Earlier this Summer out walking in the Upper Valsaín Valley we came across extensive logging operations..this time heavy machinery included. There were warning signs too, in this case less rudely worded and more specific to the area where work was underway.

A felled trunk by the roadside makes for a convenient seat..

A felled trunk by the roadside makes for a convenient seat..

Logging has been so important historically to the Valsaín area that the upper valley has been deliberately omitted from the Parque Nacional territorial designation, despite being right in the heart of the Sierra de Guadarrama. Over the last decade the local economy has suffered considerably in the context of recession and a sharp drop in construction industry demand for wood, several forestry businesses have closed and there has been little or no logging carried out. In the last two years however a mild economic recovery in Spain has seen the resumption of logging operations with significant quantities of wood being harvested.

Voilà!..the heavy machinery.

Voilà..the heavy machinery!

Here the pro-logging argument is very clear: the people of small towns in mountain areas have to live off something, and tourism alone will not be enough to maintain local populations. Particularly in Spain where the demographic swing towards the big cities continues unabated, the abandonment of mountain villages and small towns is an inevitable consequence of the lack of employment opportunities for young people. This argument can be extended to defend ski resorts and suchlike. And it’s a strong argument..if you put yourself in the place of those defending their local economy.

Dude, sick forestry machine!

Dude, sick forestry machine!

Specifically the approach to the forestry business in the Valsaín area is often presented as an excellent model of forest husbandry. There is no clearcutting or blanket harvesting of trees across the hillside, trunks are felled selectively and removed. This has been the traditional practice and even though heavy machinery is now used – with the consequent damage to topsoil – contemporary Valsaín forestry is argued to be totally sustainable and respectful of habitats. Some would even call it ecoforestry.

Early morning on the Roman trail (Calzada Romana) above Valsaín.

Early morning on the Roman trail (Calzada Romana) above Valsaín.

Personally, from a non-professional and pro-conservation point of view, i can vouch that the Valsaín forests do seem to be very well managed..i have spent many of the most wonderful days of my life both in Summer and Winter in this area. Sure, it’s not always pretty when you run into tree harvesters on the job..logging operations – even if you dig the cool machines(!) – provoke a certain sense of conflicted fascination-repulsion. And then i like my wooden furniture too, and the wood has to come from somewhere. Surely better if it’s locally and sustainably sourced, right?

Selectively logged trunks - and branches - piled up for processing.

Selectively logged trunks – and branches – piled up for processing.

 

Then we flew to Ireland to spend a few weeks there this Summer..and we visited Glendalough, among other locations, where we got in a couple of days hiking. The main valley was its usual self..but as we climbed up towards An Spinc, the high ridge that forms the southern limit of the valley, what an unpleasant surprise awaited on the other side. The ancient oaks and sky-reaching larches that accompany you to where the boardwalk begins..gave way to a clearcut hillside sloping down abjectly into the adjacent valley.

The natural wonders of Ireland!

The natural wonders of Ireland!

The brutally felled, blanket-logged hillside provoked a sense of devastation and desolation akin to the aftermath of a major forest fire or multiple-day heavy artillery barrage. Nevertheless it was just normal logging operations, carried out by Coillte, the semi-state organization responsible for managing Ireland’s forests.

The desolate landscape resulting from clearcut logging.

The desolate landscape resulting from clearcut logging. Bloody ugly.

Now i knew that this type of harvesting occurred in Ireland, and i was vaguely aware that some quantity of forest in the Wicklow Mountains was commercial in nature..but i never imagined that this kind of logging would be carried out on the doorstep of one of the country’s most visited natural sites. Just from the purely mercenary point of view of marketing your big tourist attraction, it doesn’t seem to make much sense. Let alone if we consider the aspect of conservation of natural beauty just for the sake of it.

Piled up logs, below the stripped hillside, on the Wicklow Way.

Piled up logs, below the stripped hillside, on the Wicklow Way.

Marketing ugliness to tourists..some would say we do it all the time, maybe there’s nothing unusual about it. Hey, strip-logging is awesome! I am not the only one to have been surprised by it though.

As for conservation, the Coillte website is full of it..biodiversity, sustainability, ecotherapy, promotion of health and well-being, and so on. ”Many precious memories have been made walking magical forests trails with family and friends..” we are told. I fear that there will be few people who conserve precious memories of the boardwalk to An Spinc above Glendalough from the Summer of 2018.

 

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Summer in Éireann..agus in Árainn, part II

Bad weather is probably not often a good thing when you’re on holiday..but it has its advantages sometimes, at least with regard to outdoor tourism. If you don’t mind getting out when it’s grey or wet, then you’ll probably find a lot less other tourists around. Good for photography too! Mind you, we had some wonderful days on Árainn too and saw practically nobody.

Where are all the people? Was the above shot taken at 7am? No, it was taken at 4 in the afternoon and barely half an hour from Kilronan, the main urban sprawl of the Aran Islands. It’s true..Dún Aonghasa surely didn’t look this lonely at that very moment, and maybe we were just a little lucky with the weather. The forecast for the afternoon certainly hadn’t promised it so good.

Of course we went back to Dún Aonghasa..the magnetic force of attraction it exercises is really irresistible, it’s unendurable, you can’t stay away. During the half-year i lived on Árainn, i probably visited it over twenty times, maybe thirty.  Here we are taking the fort by storm..more visiting family offered the perfect excuse, we had to go again, so that they could see it too. Despite arriving fairly late in the evening, it wasn’t late enough..we had to wrangle with the authorities as we launched a frontal assault rather than take the cliff-walk approach (i.e. we entered via the ‘Visitor Center’ where you have to pay, during business hours, to see the tourist attraction).

At least the lateness of the hour, likely combined with the greyness of the sky, was sufficient to allow us to penetrate the inner sanctum in solitude..and approach the cliff’s edge alone. The difference between this experience and visiting Dún Aonghasa in the middle of the day accompanied by fifty (or five hundred) others is, in my opinion, immense, incalculable..dare i say it, unfathomable.

Why? Because the opportunity for cosmic bridging across time afforded by such ancient sites as Dún Aonghasa, making a transcendent connection to the people who lived here on this same cliff’s edge a thousand years or three thousand years ago, maybe even getting an edge on eternity, is not exactly enhanced by the multilingual babbling and whooping of a crowd of tourists as vertigo-induced nerves are expressed and selfies are consumed.

Yes, some will dismiss this as all a bit hallucinatory, or simple fantasy at best..but then i might inquire why it is that people go on holiday or bother to travel at all – isn’t it all bound up with human fantasy?

Crude reality intervened, the mist was upon us, and we had to beat a retreat. A retreat that threatened to become a rout..as mist and rain set in for a few days. But again there were always dry spells between the showers..

..to further explore the much more mellow local shoreline..bringing back beachcombing memories from two decades ago on this same seaboard. On the road there were asinine friends to be made too..the only ones we saw, Aran is full of horses – the animals that pull the tourist traps and carriages – but donkeys are rare.

Quite the photo session..enthusiasm not provoked by seals, swans, wild geese and ducks, curlews or sandpipers! Of course there’s a big difference between seeing an animal fifty to one hundred meters away and having it within touching distance, being able to feed it with your hand even.

Our last few days on the island saw mixed weather and we made the best of it, getting around to as many places as possible. Starting with another fort, Dún Dúchathair or the Black Fort, this one built on a small promontory jutting out into the sea.

Despite the sheer drops all around, Dún Dúchathair induces more welcoming sensations than its cousin to the West. The sense of exposure at Dún Aonghasa is maximal, due to both the proximity of the precipice and the inevitable vulnerability to the elements. Even though you are obliged to pass close to the edge of the cliff to enter Dún Dúchathair, once inside you can relax in a way that would be unthinkable at Dún Aonghasa..and at least on the day we visited the Black Fort there was immediate shelter behind its walls from the blustery breeze that blew without. I would go so far as to say it almost felt cosy!

Another difference between the two clifftop forts is the phenomenon of the sea’s interminable working on the rock face. Whereas Dún Aonghasa is a pure elemental experience of physical and spiritual vertigo, the action of the sea far below the cliff’s straight edge being in a sense hidden – except for the intrepid who venture to peer over – making it almost abstract, all around Dún Dúchathair the inroads made by the ocean, slowly eroding the rock, undermining, breaking down the cliffs, are everywhere visible, palpable.

An additional factor which though maybe secondary is not negligible is the height of the respective cliffs. In the vicinity of Dún Dúchathair you are about 20-25m above the sea, high enough to be visually stunning and of course dangerous if you get close to the edge with the wind blowing..but nothing like the cliffs of Dún Aonghasa which drop a whopping 75m to the ocean breakers and are slightly overhanging where the fort is situated.

From here we hiked for about an hour to Teampall Bheanáin, braving windy and wet conditions thru the afternoon. It was worth it. ‘The smallest church in the world’ they call it, but Benan’s Temple, a tiny chapel built high on a hillside a thousand years ago, has an impact inversely proportional to its size.

Perhaps this incredibly consummate, efficient and austere stone structure lacks the raw, brutal, even barbaric energy of Aran’s forts – built as they were with violence in mind – but it exudes solidity, valor and spirit just as they do and more..and it is the epitome of peaceful resistance to adversity.

Aged and novice monks of the little-known contemporary Blue Order were to be seen inside the miniature chapel. With their blessing, and taking advantage of a sudden spell of sunshine, we picnicked just below the temple – once more all alone except for another pair of visitors – before heading back down the hill and homewards.

On our last full day on Árainn we started once again towards Kilmurvy Strand/Trá Cill Mhuirbigh, stopping for another friendly animal encounter on the way..which was also in its way an encounter with the enigma of Aran.

These were the only goats that we saw during our stay despite the fact that there is a functioning goat cheese factory on the island (i believe the goats are kept indoors for breeding during August). Really no surprises there, goat farming is not a traditional practice on Árainn, but what about sheep farming? Those world-famous Aran sweaters? Where does all that wool come from? We didn’t see a single sheep on the island.

We cross the strand at Kilmurvy once more on our way to the West of the island. A few lonely fishing boats bob on the water, an abandoned currach rots at the top of the shore where the sand meets the road..here once there might have been dozens of such boats hauled up on the beach ready to face the waves. But the Man of Aran has largely or totally abandoned fishing and sheep farming for hotel management or Hop-on-Hop-off minibus driving. Again there’s no surprise..subsistence living makes for a tough lifestyle choice.

The clochán at Sruthán is another small, some would say modest, monument to the human will to prevail in tough circumstances. This beehive dwelling, a dry-stone construction with an entirely stone corbelled roof, dates back perhaps 1500 years to early Christian times. It’s conjectured to have been an accommodation for spiritual travellers back in the day – ‘Aran’s original B+B’ claim the locals – and it gives shelter today as it did a millenium ago..who said the tourist business was a new thing on Árainn?!

Finally we paid a visit to the fourth of Aran’s ancient stone forts, this time another ring-fort, Dún Eoghanachta, the most westerly – and probably the least visited – of the four. The sun, which had played cat and mouse with us all morning, popped out for the duration of our short visit.

Once more i marvelled at the magnificence of archaic stone, timeworn, weatherbeaten, enduring. I think of the hands that here one day hauled and placed these stones..fitting them together in a way at once practical and artistic to create this defensive mosaic that would protect their children and mesmerize other children, some of them the children of their children, millenia later.

The mist drove in at us again, after half an hour’s respite, and we headed back towards the strand and home. Kilmurvy Strand, Trá Cill Mhuirbigh, more magical, enchanting, hypnotic than ever..

 

We weren’t finished with Éire yet, the next day we said hasta siempre to Árainn, crossed to Galway and spent the morning wandering around Ireland’s oldest Gaelic town. Modern Galway is a dynamic little city riding a wave of expansion, full of tourists of course, but everything fits..the genuinely old and the raucously new.

From the well conserved late-medieval Spanish Arch..to its hip city center mall, which contains – built in to the shopping center, roofed over, surrounded by cafés, fast food joints, health food stores, clothing outlets – another section of the equally late-medieval city wall, somewhat reconstructed and embellished. The epitome of kitsch, with an edge of grotesque, a hint of the absurd?

Then we found ourselves back East, another day in Glendalough with family..or was it another spacetime dimension?..sweltering heat, swarming with tourists, we felt like strangers from another planet. We spent an afternoon at an agricultural show in Carlow, a morning at the National Museum in Dublin..and finally shuttled back to mothership Hispania, i’m not sure if exhausted or energized by our total immersion in the ages of Árainn and Éireann.

 

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Summer in Éireann..agus in Árainn

Our trip to Ireland this Summer started in Gleann Dá Loch (anglicized as Glendalough), the Valley of the Two Lakes..and its monastic settlement and surrounding hills and mountains.

When we arrived the country was still recovering from one of the warmest Summers on record, complete with Mediterranean style swelter and water restrictions. We had just fled from close-to-record temperatures in Spain in the final days of July and the first week of August, so we were hoping for cooler temps in Éire. And we were not disappointed in the first days at Gleann Dá Loch, with a good deal of cloud in the skies and maximums around 20ºC.

At the same time there was hardly a drop of rain, so we really couldn’t complain. Although there was quite an assortment of international tourists out and about in the hills, off the beaten track we were often alone.

Back down at the level of the lakes it was possible to find peace and relative solitude late in the evening. Just right for a session of throwing sticks and stones into the crepuscular waters.

Even the monastic settlement, tho hardly deserted, was quiet at matins and vespers. Take my word, if you want to see Gleann Dá Loch as it should be seen – and you can only go in Summertime – go early in the morning or later in the evening.

 

Next we shuttled across the country, picking up Momma on the way, and spent a few days with family in the West. Then we headed out to the Aran Islands off the Clare coast to spend a week on Inis Mór, the largest of the three islands. Despite forbidding weather forecasts in the days previous to the crossing, the boat trip was pretty smooth and the sun was shining.

Árainn is a special place for many reasons, and tho the tourist scene in the Summer months can be pretty heavy – and the islanders’ survival mentality, bred thru centuries of struggle, in its latest avatar of ‘fleece the tourist’ heavier still – the Atlantic island experience remains a compelling one (..taking advantage of early morning and late evening doesn’t do any harm either).

That same first day, as the sun continued to shine, we headed out at midday stopping by Trá Cill Mhuirbigh/Kilmurvey Strand on our way to the the abrupt side of the island..the wild side some might say.

The Wild Atlantic Way often seems somewhat tamed in its 21st century tourist presentation, you have to look a bit harder to find the wild side..but it’s there.

Poll na bPéist/the Worm Hole is a deep, natural, perfectly rectangular pool lying below overhanging cliffs some 20m high. If the name seems strange, think that the Gaelic ‘Péist’ traditionally translated to English as ‘Worm’ can also mean something like ‘serpent’..and indeed Poll na bPéist is more recently rendered as the ‘Serpent’s Lair’. It has been used as a venue for international cliff diving competitions during the last decade.

Our young friend Énnae dropped in from 10 meters a couple of times, future Toro Rosso material! Fortunately the serpent did not make an appearance.

From Poll na bPéist we kept on along the cliffs, crossing the karstic slabs of limestone and the shallow earth fields, up towards Dún Aonghasa, the 3000-year-old fort that sits on the cliff’s edge and dominates a great part of the island of Árainn. In the past you could easily skirt the outer defensive walls – partially reconstructed in the 19th century – close to the edge of the cliff to gain access to the fort..but now they’ve added a tasteful metal fence right to the edge. You can still skirt it, just a tad more exposed to a 60 meter sheer drop to the ocean. The perils of international mass tourism, i suppose. (There’s room for little ones to crawl underneath.)

We paid only a fleeting visit to the central keep, anxious to keep the kids away from the now 75 meter drop straight to the Atlantic, before wearily heading home. (We would be back..) The long plod back to our accommodation was lightened by magnificent evening tonalities and the views across to the mountains of Conamara from Cill Mhuirbigh.

 

The following days were misty-drizzly..limiting but not precluding activity. Either snapping up the opportunities to get out in the dry spells..

..to the local strands within short walking distance at Port na Mainistreach, Port Chorrúch or Trá na mBuailte, which provided  multiple options to paddle in the shallow water, dig channels in the sand, pick shells, watch seabirds and seals, even sight a small shark(?!)..

Or braving the elements and getting out in the wet to visit another ancient fort, Dún Eochla this time, a ring fort more typical of Celtic defensive constructions and located at the highest point of the island.

Some would say the day was also more typical of Celtic weather configurations..and that may not be entirely untrue! Truth be told, the rain was always light, if fairly continuous thru the afternoon.

A day for Keltic kids to get out there and face the inclemencies of the Aran weather, and have fun doing it too!

(Disclaimer: no children were harmed in the making of this blog-post. Well, no more than just a little in any case..but more from hiking long distances than exposure to the elements.)

More in Part II..

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From Winter to Summer..

A thing that never ceases to amaze me is the transmogrification of landscapes by snow.

Walking on a Summer trail with brush over a meter high in furious yellow bloom all round, i find myself thinking.. but did i really ski down this slope, right about here by this dead tree, just a few months back? The photographic evidence suggests that indeed i did..that there was well over a meter of consolidated snow covering this slope in mid-April, corroborating my memory. Nevertheless, my brain, confronted by Summer’s blooming abundance, seems affected by some kind of inverse suspension of disbelief and i have a hard time convincing myself that it actually happened. This weird suspension of belief can make itself felt as a challenge to sequentiality, and even to what we might call sanity. One’s mental soundness, the reliability of memory, the perceived sequence of events that leads to ‘us’ or ‘me’ becomes dubious, challenged by an overwhelming sense of surreal. What memory presents as real events – concrete happenings occurring in the not too distant past – takes on an oneiric quality when confronted by the immediate in-your-face reality of the present. It’s not just a detail or individual element, a discrepancy, within the bigger picture..no, it’s the whole landscape which is discrepant.

A variant of cognitive estrangement? (Cosmic discrepancy, anyone?) You would think that experience of the cyclic, repetitive nature of the seasons would diminish this sense of estrangement or discrepancy, but then not all our Winters are so generous in snow..nor all our Summers so lush.

Thank God for mobile phones.. where would our mental health be without them?(!)

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Summer.. with water!

Water is often on the wane by July in the Sierra de Guadarrama, and in Central Spain generally. It’s weird to read of water restrictions in Ireland this Summer, while the liquid element continues to be relatively abundant locally..

The video is from the middle of June, when we visited the Cascada del Chorro, not far from La Granja in the province of Segovia, on a very wintry day barely a week before the Summer solstice. But even now, close to the end of July, we are still blessed by generously gushing streams and springs. Not to mention relatively cool temperatures. While Sweden burns. And Vietnam drowns. And Japan simultaneously roasts and drowns. And Greece burns. Und so weiter.. weird weather indeed.

Burbling brook in Fuenfría Valley

Burbling brook in Fuenfría Valley

Climate change, anyone? Some expert views: Why-is-Europe-going-through-a-heatwave? ‘Europe’ here, i guess, referring more to Northern Europe.. we’re cool in Spain! ..though things are not cool at all in Greece?

Welcome to extreme weather.

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End of cold Spring days for this memorable year

Summer’s heat is finally upon us.. i can hardly complain, it’s the middle of June. The skies have cleared at last and though a persistent North wind has kept things cool early in the morning and late evening..there is no disputing the reign of the sun at midday.

One last throwback to this memorable snow-season and its generous quotient of cold Spring days, a day in late April that we went to ski Cerro de Valdemartín:

Although the temperatures were very mild – causing the snow to retreat considerably in the second half of April – this day was overcast and had a wintry feel to it. Down in the valley the torrents of water swirling down in the streams, along with the obviously receding snow, made it clear that Winter was gone. Higher up however, things were different: no shortage of snow, albeit nieve of a kind that was hardly ideal for ski, and an unforgiving wind under grey skies that produced those so valued sensations..of cold Spring days.

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