Ancient Forests and Stone Henges

Trip Start Jul 28, 2004
Trip End Sep 21, 2004

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Flag of Ireland  ,
Friday, August 20, 2004

After two weeks on the west coast, I wasn't quite ready to leave the water, so I compromised and headed to Kenmare, a small town about 30 miles inland on the Kenmare River. I had heard about a forest patch near the town that sounded intriguing. Uragh wood is one of the last remaining stands of the native oak forest that once blanketed Ireland. It's situated on the edge of three lakes, with a waterfall at one end and a stone circle nearby.

The cycle up to the lakes was pretty, and veeeeerrrry long. Much longer once I had pedaled almost an hour in the wrong direction. Then I took a "shortcut" that pushed me up an enormously steep hill, then shot me back down to the main road just barely past where I had turned off. Then I missed the signpost. In the midst of all this, I had a little argument with my bike chain that ended with me and my only fleece covered in black grease. After absentmindedly touching my face a few times with my blackened hands, I'm sure I looked quite attractive to passing motorists.

Anyway, I made it. The basin that holds the lakes and waterfall is stunning, and it's easy to see why the builders of the stone circle had chosen this spot. Uragh wood itself is tiny, barely even a forest. Everything in the wood is covered with several inches of wet, spongy moss, and the ferns that make up the understory are in some places taller than I am. Ireland has less native forest now than any other European country. The clearing of this lush ecosystem began 6000 years ago with the arrival of agriculture, but the forests survived across much of the landscape until medieval times. Now the country is almost wholly given over to agriculture, and these tiny patches are all that's left of Ireland's natural heritage.

But, what the hell, they've got good pubs. I took in some music and cider after my cycle and tried to put aside the sense of loss I felt for the deep woods that incubated Irish culture for so many thousands of years.

On Friday morning I visited another stone circle just outside of Kenmare. This one seemed powerful to me, perhaps because the stones, taller and broader than the ones at the lake, stood like the ghosts of the people who once worshipped there. I breathed deeply as I stepped through the invisible boundary. These stone circles date to around 2500BC, well before the time of the Druids, though the two have become linked in our minds. We know that the Druids performed ritual sacrifice, but we have no idea about the neolithic people of 4500 years ago. Nonetheless, it was disconcerting to see the large, flat boulder smack in the center of the circle. Maybe for sacrifice, maybe not, but it still gave me the chills.
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