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Our stopover in London on our return journey to Melbourne coincided with a conference for my spouse, and another opportunity for me to explore the city and see some fine art. London is a wonderful place to be if you are a museum hound. I was delighted to learn that there was a brand new exhibition of the work of Dale Chihuly on display at a gallery in Mayfair. I discovered Chihuly’s amazing glass work at the Victoria and Albert Museum during our stay in London last year. An astonishing chandelier hangs in the foyer of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is like a huge piece of jewelry, capturing and reflecting the colors of earth, sea and sky, rainbows and Northern light, of everything under our sun.

My walk from Green Park tube stop took me through the posh streets of Mayfair, where the rich and famous must do their shopping when they are all out of Italian baubles. None of the stores I passed looked at all affordable, but there were very nice cars. Just before reaching the gallery, I stumbled across Berkeley Square and spotted some large, stone sculptures decorating the green park in the Square. I wandered over and was struck dumb by the marble busts. This was the work of Emily Young, an amazing British sculptor of whose work I was completely ignorant.

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So here we are, integral parts of the natural world, acting as natures’ agents, infinitesimally tiny players in the vast cosmos. In my particular little corner, when I carve a face into the stone, I seem to be acting out my self consciousness onto the stone, a stone that holds some of the history of the globe, formed of the very same original kind of material that I am formed of – a process begun billions and billions of years ago in the origins of our universe. I put a little modern consciousness back onto nature, who made both me and the stone. I carve the stone into familiar forms, carrying with them an emotional charge; the forms are beautiful, the stone broken. The expressions of sadness, of reflection, are easy to read – I like to think that anyone who ever lived on Earth, anywhere, any-when, would recognise these forms, and the expressions.

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The Earth is and has been so powerful, so wild, so completely the source and the surrounding of all that we are and are capable of – a long view of it shows it to be utterly beautiful and utterly rare. But our primitive respect and our physical sense of her honour is crumbling. And somehow we have become the gun that we shoot into the hearts of the innocent. We destroy, and as we destroy, we watch ourselves dancing and weeping on their graves.

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And so I protest, in stone; I want people to imagine what we will look like to posterity, how we would judge ourselves if we had such vision, and what we would do differently now: I want to speak down the years and tell the future of that bit of it’s past that was us – about what happens in our hearts now – about our surprise, our fear and sorrow, and shame – our apology. These pieces can be seen as memorials to a lost future, to lost wildernesses, to lost innocence; to the pointlessly, needlessly dead.

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I was delighted to have stumbled across one of Emily’s exhibitions– “The Metaphysics of Stone,” six large stone heads emerging from the earth, speaking to us eloquently with long syllables of silence. Chihuly, the American glass blower, seems like her human antipode. With a pirate patch over one eye, his manic work habits and powerful palette of colours, he offers up an exuberant vision that combines Las Vegas with Venice, the country fairground and the cathedral.

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To this day I have never gotten over the excitement of molten glass. All the forms we’ve invented and developed are based on the ability of molten glass to be blown and manipulated in a very natural manner. We use as few tools as possible, and most of them are like the original tools invented two thousand years ago. The process is so wonderfully simple, yet so mystifying. I’ve watched thousands of forms blown and I’m still amazed to see the first breath of air enter the hot gather of glass on the end of a blowpipe. The piece is always moving while it’s in progress and one has to make decisions very quickly. I like the work to reflect these quick decisions, the end result being a frozen fluid thought – as direct as a drawing.

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I’ve been such a nomad all my life, I don’t think I’ll ever lose the desire to travel to beautiful places – one more archipelago, another ring of standing stones, another glassblowing session in some exotic spot, or just one more trip to Venice to see the full moon over the Grand Canal.

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To me, the two artists are alchemists, turning the elements of the earth into magical form. I suspect they have more in common than is apparent from the contrasting nature of the work itself. I took a lot of pictures in the Halycon Gallery on Bond Street. Click on any pic running alongside this post and you can see the rest at Flickr. Unfortunately, the artworks themselves are no longer at these venues. Enjoy this show.


Most tourists flock to County Clare for one of three reasons– the Burren, the cliffs, or to hear traditional Celtic music in the world-famous Doolin or one of the other villages. We had time for only one attraction, and if I hadn’t booked us into a fancy hotel in Clare for the weekend, I would have bailed and stayed in Connemara. A steep cancellation penalty dissuaded me from doing so.

Gregan’s Castle Hotel is featured in the Lonely Planet guidebook in glowing terms. It offers seriously chic cuisine, the kind that has to be described in long paragraphs so you can appreciate exactly what it is you are placing into your mouth. Each plate seems to have been designed by a culinary artist as interested in the overall visual effect as in the actual taste. This is not comfort food. It is like being offered a ride in a Lamborghini when you just want to go for a spin. That said, the hotel is elegant and lovely, looking out over the strangely mesmerizing Burren landscape, a geological bare plate.

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How do you describe the Burren? It is a bizarre, rock-strewn, limestone landscape, scraped bare by glaciers, yet criss-crossed with cracks known as “grykes.” The region supports arctic, Mediterranean and alpine plants side-by-side, due to the unusual environment. The limestones formed as sediments in a tropical sea approximately 350 million years ago. The strata contain fossil corals, crinoids, sea urchins and ammonites.

The Burren is rich with historical and archaeological sites. There are more than 90 megalithic tombs in the area, including portal dolmens as well as a number of ring forts. The grykes (crevices) provide moist shelter, supporting a wide range of plants including dwarf shrubs. Where the surface of the pavement is shattered into gravel, many of the hardier Arctic or Alpine plants can be found. Where the limestone pavement is covered by a thin layer of soil, patches of grass are seen, interspersed with plants like the gentian and orchids.

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Edmund Ludlow, a commander of British forces in Ireland in the 1650’s had this to say about the region: “(Burren) is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him…… and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.

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While my wife devoted her morning to polishing a paper for a conference in London, I signed up for a boat ride below the magnificent Cliffs of Moher. The cliffs are Ireland’s number one tourist attaction; they receive more than a million tourists a year. They rise 120 metres (390 ft) above the Atlantic Ocean at Hag’s Head, and reach their maximum height of 214 metres (702 ft) just north of O’Brien’s Tower, eight kilometres (five miles) to the north. The cliffs consist mainly of beds of shale and sandstone; the oldest rocks are at the bottom of the cliffs.

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The government saw fit to invest 32 million pounds (nearly fifty million dollars) in a visitors’ centre which purports to explain the “experience,” but for my money, the boat trip below the towering cliffs is far more impressive. Just like our dinner in the bar on the Sunday after all the people who mattered had left Gregans’ Castle. The food was simple, delicious, and needed no explanation at all.

The best things never do.

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