“Here,” my friend Sylvia announced, tossing a copy of a slim tour guide on the table where we were meeting for coffee. “You’re going to Ireland; you can use this.” She had found the book at a second-hand store and thought immediately of me. After all, it’s no secret I’ve been preparing for this research trip to Ireland for months.
The book was the 1995 version of the Alfred A. Knopf travel guide, Ireland. Crammed full of more detail than you’d ever want to know about the country, as a used book, it was understandably outdated. But hey, Ireland’s been around a long time. Things couldn’t have changed that much. At least, not the old things.
The book was so full of details, in fact, that the print was hard for me to read without a stronger pair of glasses. I resolved to read it later, tucking it away amidst profuse expressions of gratitude.
And promptly forgot about it.
While my current course of preparation calls for my review of surname histories and meanings, along with delving into the history and details of each county in Ireland we’ll be visiting, my method inevitably had to hit a snag.
That snag came the other evening, when I was ambushed by this overwhelming sense of exhaustion. That inexplicable feeling didn’t go away with a fresh morning’s arrival. I was doomed to lose a day: sick. When my characteristic nervous energy collided with a rather dysfunctional malaise and I found myself doing uncharacteristic, mindless tasks like dusting individual slats of the venetian blinds, I knew it was time to surrender. I grabbed a few books and hit the sack.
In a fevered stupor, I flipped through the pages of the Ireland volume Sylvia had given me. Now, you have to understand, this is not your usual type of travel book. It is a small volume, yes, but it is crammed with everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-Ireland, and then some.
So, before I got to the cities—or even the requisite castles—I found myself flipping through pages on the flora and fauna of the countryside, the bountiful fish in the rivers and lakes, the prehistoric stage-setting of the ice age. This book really knew how to take you through it all, starting on the ground floor. Yep, the dirt.
I was reading about the dirt of Ireland.
It was the bogs the book was talking about: how the peat came to be, how it was ever changing, based on the wet-and-wetter climate shifts. The book delved into the details of the bogs, their preservative powers, their characteristics, their uses. Cutting the peat. Stacking the peat. Burning the peat. Even using the peat as a break for flood waters coming down those lush, picturesque hills.
Out of my stupor, I suddenly realized: wait! This sounds familiar!
You see, five thousand miles away from Ireland, we have peat, too. Lots of it. Just to the west of us, in northern California, we have a whole river system carved out of peat: the San Joaquin Delta region. It’s been cut and stacked for levees to protect from flooding. It’s been farmed. It’s even burned—a phenomenon described to me upon my arrival in California as a student, years ago. I've seen it, myself. Yes, this dirt can burn.
While it’s unlikely I’ll be touring any peat bogs in Ireland next month, I suddenly feel an affinity for this place so far from home. I can relate.
And when my Irish-archaeology-pursuing daughter, the college student away in Ireland, starts chattering about the latest discovery of ancient remains unearthed from the peat, it won’t feel quite so foreign any more.
While I’ll soon be up to getting back to my research—and my latest sequence of examining the local history of those Irish counties—after this feverish interlude, I won’t be looking at it with the same eyes. Somehow, that far away Ireland won’t be examined so much for what is different about it, but for what they and I hold in common.
There might be a lot more of that than I had supposed.
Above: Line drawing of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta from "Chart of the Sacramento River from Suisun City to the American River by Cadwalader Ringgold, 1850," originally captioned, "Mark for entering the second section of the Middle Fork of the Sacramento River;" courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.