Monday, May 18, 2015

Better Looking At It Than From It

Ball Point at Sunset
Since my first visit to the Roe Valley in County Derry, I have been in love with its unique, beautiful view across the Lough Foyle - a saltwater inlet that separates this northwestern corner of Northern Ireland from the Inishowen Peninsula of the Republic's County Donegal. This view consists of a vast expanse of water, separated from an even vaster expanse of sky only by a thin strip of land - or, more accurately, by a strip of mountains. Their peaks irregularly shaped but similar in height, the mountains frame the water's edge like a string of freshwater pearls laid out on a piece of velvet for inspection.

On clear days, and particularly toward sunset, the mountains emit a multi-hued brilliance that makes the scene look more like an idealised illustration of what such a view could look like than any real place that might possibly exist. On hazy days, the mountains are rendered flat and lilac by the sea mist, losing their detail and turning into abstractions of themselves - at times resembling a paper cutout collage, at times a road sign communicating, with deliberate bluntness, the idea of "mountains on horizon."

This iconic scene is visible from nearly every point in the Roe Valley, if facing northwest. With only minor variations, it is the view I see when cycling along the main coastal road and along the myriad of tiny mountain backroads. It is the view from the local airfield and from all the farms along the banks of the Foyle. It is a view that I can glimpse at this very moment from the window of the back room which I have just finished turning into an office.

It amazed me at first that in this rambling seaside farmhouse where I stay, with rooms sprouting from rooms, only one tiny back bedroom faces the water - and even there the Foyle is half-obscured by trees and barns. But I understand it now: the farmers' eyes and psyches must have needed a rest from that ever-present lilac string of mountains slicing through water and sky.

It may be a while still before my own eyes require a rest from the glorious Foyle view. But one thing has changed since I first began admiring it: Nowadays, when I look at that distant strip of land, I no longer fantasise about cycling over its undulating ridges. Because I know that what I am seeing does not actually exist, as such.

My big childish disappointment upon visiting Inishowen for the first time had been learning that the "string of mountains" glimpsed from across the water is actually an illusion. Oh there are mountains there all right. But they are scattered all over the peninsula, rather than being aligned in a distinct, linear formation as the view from this side suggests. It is the vantage point from the Roe Valley that flattens them and strings them out, creating a mirage of a cohesive and picturesque mountain range.

Cycling along the main coastal road in Inishowen, the view across the water in the Roe Valley direction is less extraordinary than the other way around. The asymmetrical Binevenagh Mountain sits awkwardly, refusing to harmonise with the Sperrins mountain range behind it and distracting the eye. The scene lacks the rhythm and the symmetry of the Inishowen view, as well as - due to the direction of the light - its magical colouring. In contrast to the Roe Valley, the main stretch of the Foyleside road in Inishowen is quite busy with cars and dense with tourist establishments. Funny enough, nothing about cycling there hints at how magical, wild, and remote it looks from the Northern Ireland side.

Thinking of this as I saw those lilac hills again while cornering around a bend, I remembered an episode from childhood. It was shortly after my family moved to the US. We lived in New York City at first, then moved a couple of states north to a small New England town. While my parents looked for a house to buy, they rented a cramped in-law type of apartment, in the attic of what must have been the ugliest, shabbiest house on a street otherwise filled with impeccably maintained historical homes. This apartment had a balcony and I spent most of my time there sketching. I had just turned 11 and was entering my Architectural phase, so what I sketched was mostly other houses. I grew particularly enamoured of the house directly across the street - a neo-gothic concoction with gables jutting out in every direction, an overabundance of decorative latticework, and a tower suggestive of a lighthouse. Sketching this magnificent structure, I initially wished that my family lived in that pretty house instead of where we did. As I sketched, I enjoyed imagining that my bedroom was up in the lighthouse tower. But then one day I let that train of thought continue: Say we lived in that house instead of this one, and I had my own bedroom in that cute lighthouse tower, and there I was, at the window, sketching... It was then it occurred to me, that my view from the tower window would be of the nothing other than the ugly house I was living in right now. Suddenly, I felt quite happy where I was, having experienced the epiphany that a view of a thing could in some ways be more enjoyable than the thing itself.

The Roe Valley is far from an ugly house with a pretty view. The landscape here is in of itself gorgeous; the roads are quiet and serene. Cycling through the damp, steep, narrow, herb-scented mossiness that is its back roads, I have never been happier on a bicycle. That the view across the water suggests a landscape even dreamier elsewhere is but a trick of the eye. Because when it comes to mountain views and sea views and views of every other variety, that is exactly what they are - views, meant to be glimpsed from a distance. And ideally on two wheels.

23 comments:

  1. Both internal and external issues governing esthetic perspective. I would add the dimensions of time and knowledge too - which both add to appreciation.

    Someone explained to me that it was in our nature to be unsatisfied except with "more, bigger, different" - and this keeps us growing, expanding and striving. Perhaps an element of truth, but this is a path to being unsatisfied.

    There are universes within…everything - and sometimes we can see them, but we surely cannot see them if we do not try to look.

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  2. Awesome pic! Tweed Ride?

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    1. Every other ride is a "tweed ride" around here. Just back from an epic tweed ride to the supermarket.

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    2. As well it should be!

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  3. Someone is blocking my view in this photo :(

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    1. Hm that sucks.

      Here, try this.
      And this.

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    2. That's okay…I look at the sunset every night. Bicycle to the same spot but have yet to take a photograph. Like you, I'd rather bike there and experience the view.

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    3. Having met Veloria, I can assure you that the scenery lies entirely in the foreground.
      Mark, from Roslindale

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    4. Good to hear from you Mark : )

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  4. Re your office: The architect Christopher Alexander wrote a book called A Pattern Language, containing a set of architectural patterns. Pattern number 134 is called Zen View. Alexander says: "The archetypal zen view occurs in a famous Japanese house,which gives this pattern its name. A Buddhist monk lived high in the mountains, in a small stone house. Far, far in the distance was the ocean, visible and beautiful from the mountains. But it was not visible from the monk's house itself, nor from the approach road to the house. However, in front of the house there stood a courtyard surrounded by a thick stone wall. As one came to the house, one passed through a gate into this court, and then diagonally across the court to the front door of the house. On the far side of the courtyard there was a slit in the wall, narrow and diagonal, cut through the thickness of the wall. As a person walked across the court, at one spot, where his position lined up with the slit in the wall, for an instant, he could see the ocean. And then he was past it once again, and went into the house. . . . What is it that happens in this courtyard? The view of the distant sea is so restrained that it stays alive forever."

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    1. The farmer who originally built this house must have read the book. If I sit on a chair of just the right height and peer over my desk just so, the opening in the trees lines up with the gap between barn roofs to reveal a shimmery slate-gray sliver that is the Lough Foyle.

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    2. Loved that book! Thanks for bringing it back into my memory. Design and experience.

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  5. My husband and I will be traveling through Donegal in August, Bromptons in tow! Any recommendations for relatively short (half day or less) Brommie-friendly routes? Thanks in advance!

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    1. Actually yes. If you only do one ride in Donegal, I'd say head to Glenveagh National Park. You cycle along a relatively flat, car-free road around a lake with views of stunning mountainous scenery, arriving at a hidden castle where you can then explore the grounds and stop for lunch/tea. Otherwise, it's hard to say without knowing your hill tolerance and your bike's gearing. The coastal roads on the west have beautiful water and island views, but are very hilly (just barely manageable for me on a lower-geared Brompton); the Inishowen peninsula is hillier still! Hope this helps.

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  6. your epiphany reminds me of an episode of the show, "An Idiot Abroad" where Karl is visiting Petra and staying in a cave across from the main entrance. He comes to the same conclusion that he'd rather live in the cave and see the beautiful structure, then live in the beautiful structure and see a cave.

    I often find viewing the mountains much more relaxing then actually biking in them, although at the end of the day I have a completely different sense of accomplishment.

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  7. This is a classic "Would You Rather" quandary.

    We used to play "Would You Rather" for hours on car trips when my kids were little, back then it was always things like, "would you rather eat your favorite food until you couldn't stand it anymore or have to eat your most hated food until you learned to like it", or, "Lose your pinky finger or your pinky toe"... Now that they're older it's this sort of question.

    My Older Daughter would probably pick living with the beautiful view whereas my younger would likely pick living in the apparently gorgeous spot so all the poor wretches living across the water would be envious of her. I'm not sure which one of my children to invest more of my emotions in, the older one who will likely be a kinder, more empathetic person and maybe wipe my fevered brow occasionally when she walks past me in my wheelchair in a few years, or the more cut-throat one who might become a minor Oligarch and possibly be able to afford an attractive, nubile 50 year old nurse to wipe my brow once or twice a day. I'm not sure it's a helpful game in the end, really.

    Also, at some point in the game the question comes up about whether it's better to be a Hottie married to a Troll or a Troll married to a Hottie, and they both reply they would prefer to be the Troll married to the Hottie BECAUSE THEY DON"T WANT TO END UP LIKE MOM.

    So I say try to ignore the frikken scenery and just stare at your heart-rate monitor...

    Spindizzy

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    1. Wow. It sounds like you played an extremely sanitised version of the Would You Rather game I recall from my pre-teen years. I won't go into deals for fear of corrupting you.

      As you say, both your girls are potentially sound investments for the twilight years. Now what you do is tell each one she's your favourite, making sure she keeps this secret from her sister. To limit communication between them, perhaps send them to different boarding schools/ workhouses (why not one of each?). It's a plan you can hardly go wrong with, as it's worked for countless happy families of prior generations.

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    2. I like nothing better than a "No holds barred" game of "Would You Rather", you might be able to corrupt me but you should pack a lunch when you decide to give it a try.

      Perhaps I should write a grant proposal to set up some sort of Graduate level course on the subject.

      Spindizzy

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  8. To look outward or inward? Where is one located in the Meyers-Briggs scale? Is this a bicycle blog?

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  9. Personally I am type VECF (Velocipedian/ Exploratory/ Camera-wielding/ Fountain pen-toting).
    The worst kind.

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    1. My wife has determined I am an I.A.S.F. ("It's All Spindizzie's Fault").

      Spin

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  10. INFJ, just like a lot of bicyclists I know.

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