Back to Nature in Connemara

It was the time of the "back to the land" movement.  
"Living with less". 
The Whole Earth catalog era.

 I loved the idea of a "self-sufficient" lifestyle. 

So - back in the 1970's, I lived out in the West of Ireland, in Connemara. 

In a stone cottage on a hill. 

Overlooking Galway Bay. 
900 acres, with 2 lakes and plenty of bog. 

Cnoc-dhá-Locha, "Hill of Two Lakes". 

Or Knocka-Lough, as we called it.

I was joined by my boyfriend Wolfgang, who I later married. He loved it. 

The house had no electricity. 

There were gas mantles, like a Coleman lanteern, that ran off a propane bottle. 
One light in each room. 

The heat was from the big kitchen stove, which was fed with turf. 

Turf was dug out of the bogs around the house. 
Dug with a special tool, a sleán. 

It was heavy work. 

Laid out to dry. 
Then stacked, and dried some more.

Maírtín shows Wolfgang and Big Jim how the sleán works.

 Eventually, you have something that could be burned in the stove. 

Loading the dried turf onto the cart.

It burns beautifully, and gives off a lovely smell. 

Often these days, it's pressed into briquettes.
But back then, it was just rough-shaped turf clods.

There were 2 lakes, where you could catch trout.

But we weren't much good at fishing. 

There was no running water, but there was a well with a pump. 

Kind of like an outboard motor, and just as hard to start. 

It pumped water from the well into a tank on the roof. 
From there - "running" water. Heated by the turf stove.

With a cow that I milked every day. 

There were rabbits, which we occasionally scared to death, then skinned and ate. 
But we weren't much good at trapping, either. 

(Besides, they were awfully cute.)

We prised mussels off the rocks at the seashore near Spiddéal, (not easy!). 
I baked Irish soda bread daily, using the buttermilk from the cow. 

And made cheese. 

Planted potatoes, carrots, onions, and tomatoes.

We had 2 hens, Gisela and Gerturde. 

They laid eggs regularly - when we could find them. 
Wolfgang built a hen-house for them. 

Plus a cat, Wellington, and a dog, Cara. 

The winds roared across the bogs in winter. 

It was fierce - but also beautiful.

In fact, I've always thought Ireland has some of Europe's most beautiful beaches. 

When the postman had something for us, he came up on his bicycle. 

He would wait while I opened the post. 
In case there was "good news" or a "bit of money" in it. 

Otherwise, he'd be content with a cup of tea. 

We lived there until after we married.
We married in Ireland. 

Had a fine wedding party at Knocka-Lough with the neighbors, friends - and loads of music. 

In the warmest summer that Ireland had experienced in memory, 1976. 

Even a bit of dancing. 

The houses were simple, and the neighbors kind. 

(I once asked Sonny, "Why do you still ride the donkey?" 
His reply, "Ah, I never could learn the bicycle.")

These two neighbors were making poítín, homebrew liquor. 

-That's why they're looking a bit guilty.

Business - of all sorts - was conducted in the pubs. 

This was a very modern establishment. 

This one a bit more traditional. 

There was another pub, Hurney's - 
I remember a gang of us waking up in their hayloft. 

After a particularly memorable music session...

Those were different times. 

I'm glad we got to experience them. 

In 2019, I took the whole family to Ireland. 
The next generations.

Rented a castle. Walked the bogs. Drank Guinness.
Even - watched pigs racing.
That story, in Ireland recently - is - here. 

Grape Picking in the Corbières

 In 1974, I thought it would be a good experience to take part in the wine harvest in France.

Without overthinking it, I signed up.
Ferry to France from Ireland. 
Train down to the Corbières region of southern France. 

I didn't realize it was SO far. Or that the work would be SO hard. 


To the small town of St.Laurent de la Cabrerisse. Southwest of Narbonne.

Our 'patron' was a lively fellow a good 6 inches shorter than I was. 
His wife was even shorter. His daughter, who picked with us, was also small. 

I felt enormous in comparison.

Suddenly, their son Jean-Luc appeared. 
He towered in the doorway to the kitchen! Huge! 

I later discovered Jean-Luc and I were roughly the same size. 
No wonder they called me Monsieur Muscles. 

I shared a shack outside the patron's house with another student, Danielle from Toulouse. 

It had no running water.  The pump was in the street. 
The toilet facilities, basically a hole in the ground, were across the street. 

I was young and strong, but holy cow, the work was exhausting. 

Hot. Sticky. Hard. Long. My muscles ached. 
All we could do at the end of the day was fall off the truck and onto our cots. 

Danielle and I really struggled with the work. 
Other pickers in our group were members of the same family. 
Three generations. 

I was amazed at how the older women kept going, talking, telling jokes. 
They helped us finish our rows when we were slower than they were. 

We clipped the bunches of grapes with sharp secateurs, and filled our buckets. 
They were heavy. 

We hoisted the heavy buckets of grapes into the pannier. 
The pannier was then carried to the wagon, usually by Jean-Luc. 

I figured we hoisted over a ton of grapes EACH, every day. 

While we picked, we gathered the vineyard snails. 

 The little granddaughter ran about, crying excitedly, "Scargo! Scargo!" while 
"Mme Escargot", cooked them up in the evenings, using various recipes. 

We started very early, and took a break a couple hours later for breakfast. 

Breakfast was bread and wine with water. 

We stayed in the fields for lunch, trying to find a bit of shade.  
Also with wine. 


For dinner, we ate with the patron's family in their kitchen. Maman cooked.  
Once or twice, we all dined with Mme Escargot, who lived nearby. 

"Ah, don't take a photo with my cap on!" 

All the farmers brought their grapes to the co-op at the end of the day. 
They were paid according to the weight and the sugar content of the grapes. 

Everything was done by hand.

I tried to explain where I lived, but Ireland meant nothing to them.  

"Where they have the wooden shoes?" No, that's Holland. 
"Where they have the glaciers?" No, that's Iceland. 
"Oh, where the men wear skirts!" No, that's Scotland. 

Finally, I just told them I came from north of Paris. 
They were terribly impressed. 

(I didn't actually drive the tractor.)

We worked about 3 weeks, and got paid in cash and in wine, which of course, was impossible to take back. It was the most physically demanding job I ever had. (And that includes working one summer in Bavaria as a lumberjack helper.)

I kept in touch with Therese, the patron's daughter, for years, until her marriage. 

Who'd have thought we'd wind up living - 50 years later - less than 50 km from where I picked grapes when I was a teenager? 

Visiting the town in 2014, I found it hadn't changed all that much. 
Better roads. Probably more plumbing.

Nowadays, they have machines that pick the grapes. 

They're huge, a true specialty vehicle. 
They sail down the narrow rows of vines with incredible precision. 

The wine is better these days, too. 
Dozens of new winemakers and wineries, with all sorts of variety. 

I'm glad I got to experience it back then.
I certainly wouldn't do it a second time. 
Holy s**t.