Friday, October 22, 2010

Pinup for Mojo

She is older now. Her black fur has faded in places, revealing its underlying red. She has a few notches in her ears that she didn't have four years ago. Her trust is not so simple as it was, and not so surrounding as before.

But trust of a kind is still there, if changed, and her sweetness remains unbittered, and her inclination to show her secret places in the hedges to people she trusts has not changed.

She is White Socks. She is Bothy Cat.

(I'll let Mojo himself explain the "Mojo" in the title of this post... if he wishes.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Astronomer Visits Impressive, But Not Famous, Park in a Foreign Land

The Muniment Room of the Birr Castle Archives, August, 2010. This was my "office" while researching connections between the 19th Century Parsons family and America. (90-degree panorama of several handheld vertical frames -- should be clicked on and viewed large.)

The astronomer of this post's title isn't me, who traveled from Santa Cruz County, California, to County Offaly in Ireland in 2010. The astronomer in question is one who traveled exactly the other way, from County Offaly, Ireland, to Santa Cruz County, California, in 1891.

Laurence Parsons, Fourth Earl of Rosse, as a Young Man (photo from the Birr Castle Archives)

The Fourth Earl of Rosse

Had he not been surrounded by superluminous immediate family members, Laurence Parsons, the Fourth Earl of Rosse, probably would be considered among the top tier of Irish scientists and engineers of the 19th Century. He directed the great astronomical observatory in Parsonstown (now Birr) Ireland, including the largest telescope in the world, for more than 30 years. He pioneered the use of infrared sensing techniques to measure the temperature of the surface of the Moon. He was an officer of the Royal Society (and delivered its supremely prestigious Bakerian Lecture on Physical Science in 1873) and was Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin, for more than two decades.

The Fourth Earl inspects a 36-inch telescope at his observatory, late 1800s. This particular telescope no longer exists, but the walls in the background -- support structure for the giant "Leviathan of Parsonstown" -- still do. Between them now is a reconstruction of that revolutionary instrument, designed and built by the Fourth Earl's father. (Photo from Ireland's Historic Science Centre, Birr Castle Demesne.)

And yet, in his own living room, he was overshadowed from a number of directions: his father, William, the Third Earl, essentially invented the single most important tool of extragalactic astronomy (the giant reflecting telescope) before we even knew there was such a thing as "extragalactic astronomy." His mother, Mary, was a pioneer in the infant technology of photography. His youngest brother, Charles, was a prolific inventor who revolutionized transportation technology by inventing the steam turbine -- and demonstrated it in daring fashion to the British Admiralty by bringing his turbine-powered yacht, the Turbinia, uninvited, to Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897 and outrunning the finest ships of the Queen's Navy that tried to catch the gate crasher. (There is a great action photo of the Turbinia running the Royal Navy silly here.) His cousin, Mary, was a pioneering microscopist, and one of only three women on the mailing list of the Royal Astronomical Society at the time. The other two were Mary Somerville (after whom Somerville College at Oxford University is named) and Queen Victoria herself.

One of the Fourth Earl's travel diaries in the Birr Castle Archives, 2010.

Unlike his revered father and mother, though, Laurence became a world traveler (presaging the globetrotting ways of his grandson and great-grandson in their pursuit of botanical specimens and, in the case of the current Earl, service to humanity through the United Nations). His two long tours of North America, one in 1884 and the other in 1891, are the first instances I can find of his family's venturing into the Western Hemisphere.

Sherwood peruses the archives, Birr Castle, 2010. The white cotton gloves are to protect the old paper from skin oils and acids.

I came across his handwritten travel diaries for those two trips in the Birr Castle Archives in August, 2010. His notes on his second trip, the one in 1891, contained one thing that made the hairs on my forearms stand up in eerie astonishment, and another that is deeply puzzling. Both concern events in places less than 50 miles from my home in Boulder Creek, California -- one of them very, very much less than 50 miles -- almost half way 'round the world from his home in the Irish midlands.

A pair of pages from the Fourth Earl of Rosse's travel diary, 1891.

An Astonishing Personal Co-Incidence

A new generation of research astronomical observatories had barely begun in 1891, incorporating a revolution in location rather than technology. Lick Observatory of the University of California was the first mountaintop research observatory in the world, having gone into operation only three years before in 1888. (Before then, the benefits of good "seeing" afforded by certain mountains' steady airflow, diminishing the wavering scintillation or "twinkling" of starlight, had not been widely recognized.) Lick is located atop Mt. Hamilton, just East of San Jose, California, and is a place dear to my heart. It is also only about an hour's drive from my office at DeAnza College.

Lick Observatory at the summit of Mt. Hamilton, California, September 2008. The great 36" refractor still occupies the big dome; the Ft. Harrington pickup truck squats near the entrance.

Clearly, Lick Observatory would be a necessary stop for the Director of the famous Leviathan of Parsonstown on his tour of North America in 1891, and it was. Laurence Parsons, Fourth Earl of Rosse, arrived in Northern California (by train via Mexico and Los Angeles) in March, 1891. His diary entries concerning his trip to the mountaintop are full of technical detail, but short on context -- and short on something else that I'll get into later. The real immediate surprise to me was about something closer to home. Literally, closer to home.

Shortly after his visit to the top of Mt. Hamilton, he wrote these entries in his diary concerning an excursion to another Northern California attraction:

Sunday (Easter) [March 29, 1891]
Sorry I was taken out by 10-30 train to Mr. Doyles (Menlo Park, a residential spot on the way to Sn Jose) so I missed Church. Holden [Edward Singleton Holden, first Director of Lick Observatory, founder of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and all-around hard guy to get along with --SH] & I lunched & dined with the Ds (Mr & Mrs two daughters & 2 sons) & between drove to the new "Stanford University" which as yet consists of buildings only, unfinished, in imitation of the old Spanish Mexican style. Went on to San Jose and stayed night at the new hotel.

Monday Mar. 30
Started at about 10 for "Big Trees" station on the narrow guage line. The "big trees" are close to the station. They are said to be not far short of 300 ft high but only half the girth of the Yosemite groves. I found it took 7 of my stretches to reach round one say 7 x 5 3/5 feet, 40 1/4 feet = say 12 3/4 diam at 4 feet from ground. [I love the way he "talks" himself through the arithmetic! --SH] In the inside of a hollow one my outstretched arms could not reach across the cavity. The branches are short & poor. The whole forest has contained many similar trees but they furnish the "red wood" which is used for all building construction in these parts (Sequoia Sempervirens: bot name). The wood is soft & not resinous yet very durable. Among other things it is used instead of stone or brick in the linings of the railway tunnels.

From there we drove on to Santa Cruz, a sea side resort with hotel & thence by rail to Monterey also on the sea coast...


It is clear that on March 30, 1891, the Fourth Earl of Rosse visited the San Lorenzo Valley, the short notch in the Santa Cruz Mountains in which Boulder Creek and Ft. Harrington are located. The "Big Trees" and the narrow-guage railroad are the first clues -- the private park he refers to still exists as the "Big Trees and Roaring Camp Railroad" complex just outside the little town of Felton, California, just down the valley from Ft. Harrington, and directly adjacent to Henry Cowell State Park.

"Big Trees and Roaring Camp Railroad," 2005. My late son, Doug Harrington, holds his daughter, Grace, on his shoulder in front of a narrow-guage locomotive that may well have been operating when Laurence Parsons, Fourth Earl of Rosse, visited this place in 1891.

Henry Cowell State Park is where I walk my dog. It's Kelsey's favorite place in the whole world.

Kelsey in heaven. Or Henry Cowell State Park. To him, there's no difference.

After discovering this, and having talked to Lady Rosse about the great co-incidence, she searched through the family's photo albums and found one that included the Fourth Earl's visual souvenirs of his second trip to America. In those photos was this one:

In what is now Henry Cowell State Park, California, 1891.

... a place in Henry Cowell State Park that I walk Kelsey past every time we go, near the park's headquarters. The tilted trunk isn't there any more, nor are the people in their formal dress, but the grove is there. It wouldn't be so astonishing if this were a photo of a major tourist attraction, like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon -- but this is a little local park, a dog-walking place, that somehow is shared across the thousands of miles and the century between, and that thrills me. Maybe that's silly. I don't think so.

Sherwood photographing a photograph album from a trip by an astronomer of bygone days to his own present home. The multiple layers of self-referencing in this image make me dizzy.

A Deeply Puzzling Four Blank Pages

In addition to my astonishment on finding that the Fourth Earl of Rosse, all the way from the middle of Ireland, had visited my dog's park, I was intrigued by a curious set of four completely blank pages in his diary, between his arrival at Lick Observatory and his departure. Wasting paper like that was utterly unlike the Fourth Earl (not a single line of paper is blank elsewhere in his diary, and often he wrote things in the margins or gutter), but here were four empty vessels at the most crucial point in his tour (from an astronomer's perspective.)

The mystery will be the topic of a future post here in SherWords, once I have researched the matter in more depth -- which I can do, since the Lick Observatory Archives and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific both have their headquarters just a few miles away!

Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Erin go Thud, Part Three and Last

(Click the following links to see:
Part 1, or
Part 2.)

View northward from the Seaview B&B, Friday, 13 August, 2010.
This was the only photo I took that day -- a shame, really, since it was a spectacularly-clear day -- since we had a lot of other things to think about.

The morning of Friday the 13th was abysmal. Diane was in pain, since the prescription painkillers she had finally been given the night before had worn off, we each had virtually no sleep at all, we were afraid that we wouldn't be able to even go home (let alone follow our month's itinerary) as planned -- but, most of all, we were in a major medical situation in a country (the UK) that was foreign to the foreign country (the Republic of Ireland) in which our home base was.

We hadn't a clue as to what to do. So we cast about for information, and the best, quickest help we received was from our friend Lady Rosse back in Birr. She immediately contacted her own health-care providers with our questions, and kept us up-to-the minute with frequent e-mail messages and telephone calls. By mid-morning she had determined what we should do: as soon as we could, return to the Republic and go to the nearest Regional Hospital to Birr, one in Tullamore (only about half an hour by car north of Birr -- but about five hours away from where we were in Northern Ireland.) We shouldn't wait for a "fracture clinic," we shouldn't apply for an appointment with an orthopedist -- we should just get to Tullamore.

Just that information alone put us so much more at ease that it is hard to describe -- the pain and the anxiety were still there, but the feeling of being lost and totally ignorant was gone. And we have Lady Rosse to thank for that.

The remainder of the day was more or less adrenaline-free. We had to wait until the following day to try to drive south, since Diane's cast was still curing and travel was not advisable. She spent the day resting in Mabel Dunlop's spare bedroom, and I spent it driving around gathering various medical supplies.

Primary among the supplies I needed to get was a bottle of the pain medication that had been prescribed at the hospital in Coleraine the night before. I found a little pharmacy ("chemist's shop") in nearby Bushmills. The young lady to whom I passed my slip of paper looked at it, then at me, and asked a question in a language that had only a passing similarity to any English I am used to. Turns out that the Ulster brogue is far more like Scottish than it is like most Irish dialects, and I was baffled. We actually needed an interpreter (a very amused stock clerk) to communicate. We got our business done, but the poor young lady was irritated and I was embarrassed to my toes.

Given all of that, it wasn't until I got out to the rental car with my little bag that I realized: I hadn't paid for the pills! I went back in to pay... and was rewarded by a warm smile from my linguistic antagonist. It was a prescription. There is no charge for that.

Heading out of Antrim: serene farmland on a Saturday morning.

The following morning was clear and bright and augured well (and truly, as it turns out.) After our fourth great Ulster fry breakfast from Mabel, we set out southward for the Republic and for Tullamore.

At the Bernish viewpoint, just north of the border along the A1 motorway. Why the crutches are not attached to a human, and why the human is not in the picture in this isolated spot, will be left to the speculation of the viewer.

The drive south was very easy, facilitated by long stretches of brand-new "motorways" -- multi-lane divided highways -- in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Our route took us through Belfast, around Dublin, and then rapidly into County Offaly in the heart of the island.

Suspension bridge over the Boyne on the Republic's M1 motorway.

We arrived at the Tullamore hospital at about three in the afternoon on this Saturday, steeled to endure yet another long, long wait in an understaffed emergency room. Ireland, like the UK, has "socialized medicine," after all, so we just figured we were in for a dose of the same medicine we endured up in Coleraine.

Not at all.

We were in and out in an hour, and considerably happier on the "out" than the "in." Inake ("triage") was quick, efficient, and friendly. The wait in a nearly-empty A&E waiting room was mere miniutes, and the physician who saw Diane was -- probably just by extraordinarily lucky chance -- a retired orthopedist who was just helping out on that Saturday afternoon.

Emergency department, Tullamore Regional Hospital, Co. Offaly, 14 August 2010.

After a quick study of the x-rays we had brought with us from Northern Ireland, he saw that the bone chips in Diane's ankle were very old, that there was no bone injury involved, and that the "box" (as he called her cast) was doing far more harm than good. He hacked off her cast in minutes (meanwhile carrying on a charming chatter about all manner of things), told Diane that the best thing she could do to facilitate healing of her sprain was to walk on it as much as she could tolerate, and sent us on our way.

It was as though a slab the size of the Clonfinlough Stone had been taken off the tops of our heads. We would be able to fly home when the time came. We would not be immobile for the remainder of our stay in Ireland.

There were still concerns and regrets, of course: concern primarily about Diane's pain. That would continue throughout the rest of the stay, helped a lot by some painkillers and by a lot of her own stubborn determination, but strong enough to eliminate a couple of major excursions we had planned (which were replaced by adventures we hadn't planned, so no net loss!) Derry was out on this trip, as was a return to the Connemara Pony Show, but that only reinforces our determination to make at least one more trip to the island, somehow, some way.

We were almost giddy when we finally rolled through the castle gates that evening, and up to the Bothy's door. Our plans had taken a major hit, but not our prospects.

"Home," inside the Bothy, 2010.

Coda: Trying to draw any conclusion about the benefits or ills of "socialized medicine" based on our experience with Diane's ankle injury would be silly. For one thing, each experience -- the negative one in Coleraine and the positive one in Tullamore -- was anecdotal and the product of a unique constellation of surrounding circumstances. Our feelings about the two hospitals could easily have been reversed. What if the major auto accident had taken place on Saturday afternoon in Tullamore instead of Thursday afternoon in Coleraine? What if the retired orthopedist had been helping out in the North instead of the South? Everything would have been different.

What is lastingly alien about both medical experiences, though, is that neither one of them included any financial stop along the way to treatment. We only recently received a small invoice from Tullamore (after a bit of fumbling on their part about where to send the bill), and have yet to hear anything from Coleraine. Our impression is that, in both countries, actually billing patients for medical care is so unusual that people "on the ground" in A&E facilities just don't think about it much, so bills can be very late in arriving, if ever.

We'll see. I still check my mailbox every day for a bill from Coleraine, but I'm not going to call them and ask them where it is.

Nymansay eucryphia near the Bothy on the Evening of Great Relief.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

To: Ronnie Peterson From: Ireland

Killeineagh denizen

Before Diane and I left for Ireland this summer, I offered to take photos for SherWords readers while we were there if the opportunity presented itself. Several took me up on the offer, and the results will be sprinkled out over on over the next few months.

The first installment goes to Ronnie Peterson, simply because her suggestions led to two places we otherwise never would have seen (and co-incidentally on two consecutive days, August 21st and 22nd) and which turned out to be highlights of our trip.

One was Killeinagh, a hamlet near Ennistymon, on the southwestern fringes of the Burren, where Ronnie's great-grandfather Patrick Shannon grew up -- and left for America in 1850 during the famine. The other was Clonfinlough, a tiny village on an esker near the Shannon, where her friend Bridget Kelly O.P. is from.

Church at Clonfinlough

Each is a part of Ireland's heart more surely than any Blarney Stone or "Leprechaun Crossing" or the like that we can find all along the fringes of the island, and neither will ever be seen by more than a tiny, very lucky, percentage of us tourists.

Thank you, Ronnie.

Please click here to be taken to the photos.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Erin go Thud, Part Two

(Continued from here.)

Last photo from Thursday, August 12 -- probably taken at just about the instant of the "thud" of the title.

I ran as quickly as I could from the clifftop back to the stile (slipping only once in a pile of sheep poop, Brian -- and I still have the stain on my MBTs as a souvenir). Diane, sitting on the ground between the two Germans, wasn't in tears but looked like she could bite through a shillelagh, so irritated with herself she was for falling. The German fellow and I lifted her so her arms supported her on our shoulders, and we hopped along after the German woman. She had found an old gate about 20 yards along the road from the stile, which we all managed to force open. After we got Diane in the back seat of the car, they took their leave.

We were only a few kilometers from our Bed and Breakfast, so we hurried back there so I could ask our hostess, Mabel Dunlop, where the nearest emergency clinic was. She directed us to the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine, about ten miles away.

We arrived at the "A&E" (for "accident and emergency" department) at around 4pm on a pretty, sunny afternoon. We left nine hours later, in the dark and the rain and a gloom punctuated only by the occasional weird feminine voice on our Garmin GPS device. The time in between isn't one I'd wish on anybody, especially not on the two of us by describing it in any great detail, so here it is in telegraphic fashion:

The emergency department was grossly understaffed and appallingly overloaded with clients. There was evidently just one physician on duty for the entire night, and, just before we arrived, several victims of a bad auto accident had been brought in. We sat in the waiting room with an increasingly large crowd of others seeking care for about six hours, but at no time saw or heard the kind of agitation one might expect. That resigned calm might have been due to the many large signs warning of "zero tolerance" for "harassment of staff" and the frequent appearance of PSNI walking swiftly through the place, belts a-bristle with all manner of police equipment. Shortly after we were called in to the rooms of the treatment area, we heard the triage nurse announce to the waiting room that anyone who could go home probably should do that and come back the next day -- and, again, we heard no grumbling, just the shuffling of feet as many left.

Once inside the A&E, Diane explained to the physician -- a very young, apparently calm fellow -- that in addition to extreme pain, she was concerned that she might have damaged her prosthetic knee joint in that leg as well. He immediately ordered x-rays of knee and ankle. Upon studying those about an hour later, he said that he saw no immediately obvious evidence of damage to the knee, but did see a number of bone chips in the ankle. Since he was not an orthopedist, he did the prudent thing: ordered a plaster cast on the leg from foot to just below the knee, and told us to consult an orthopedist as soon as we returned to the Republic.

While the cast was being put on, the head nurse gave us more bad news: if the cast stayed on, we might not be able to fly home. (It turns out that she may have been wrong about that, but it certainly would have made things a lot more complicated, and not just in the air.) She told us that we would have to find a "fracture clinic" near where we were staying in the Republic, and they would make decisions about when the cast could come off and arrange things with our airline. While we weren't due to fly back for almost another month, she thought the cast might still be necessary then and perhaps another couple of weeks beyond that.

Casting a pall on our prospects.

Meanwhile, poor Diane had been in a lot of pain for hours. While we were in the waiting room, not only could she not be given any medication, but they weren't even allowed to give us any ice to apply to the ankle. At one point, I drove into Coleraine and bought a sack of ice in a Tesco grocery store. Back in the emergency waiting room, after having rigged an ice pack for Diane, we passed the rest of the bag around.

At about 1am, she outfitted Diane with a pair of light metal crutches, helped us to our car, and sent us on our way into the night with the admonition that the cast shouldn't even touch a hard floor for 36 hours, until it was completely set.


Not only did the rest of the trip seem in wreckage, but we might not even be able to go home in time for school to start -- and to relieve Adam of an already too-long stewardship of Ft. Harrington.

And we hadn't a clue about what to do when we finally would be able to drive the four or five hours back to Birr. After an uncomfortable wee hours back at the Bed and Breakfast, we did two things. We arranged with Mabel to take a spare room in her house (our reservation was only through the night of the accident, and the three en-suite rooms of the B&B were already spoken for on the next night).

And we called Lady Rosse.

(To be continued.)

Friday, October 1, 2010


Douglas M. Harrington
October 1, 1966 - November 14, 2006