Dear Miss Alcott . . .

These dressses are from the Beth and Amy dolls that my mother made for me, long ago. The hope chest was made by my aunt.

My mother made these dresses, intricately trimmed with pintucks and lace, along with two “Little Women” rag dolls. I am grateful that she steered me in the direction of Louisa May Alcott’s books, even before I could read.  The hope chest, made by my aunt, brings to mind the four chests described in Jo’s poem, “In the Garret”: “Four little names, one on each lid . . .”

Dear Miss Alcott,

After years of admiration, I am writing to tell you how much I have enjoyed your books–especially Little Women (like so many of your fans) and its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys.  On first reading Little Women at the age of eight, I was delighted with the frills and trappings of the nineteenth century: I longed to live in the time of petticoats and gloves, calling cards and carriages. But I was even more pleased to make the acquaintance of the four March sisters, who were bickering (as sisters are wont to do) about how to celebrate Christmas when you introduced them to me.

As a child, I loved all things "Little Women"--paper dolls, dolls, movies. Here are Madame Alexander's doll versions of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.

As a child, I loved all things “Little Women”–paper dolls, movies, and my precious Madame Alexander dolls.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy–they were as different from one another as four sisters could be, in both appearance and personality. Many nuances were beyond my understanding on that first reading. For years, I did not realize that the book given by Marmee to each daughter at Christmas was Pilgrim’s Progress, and I failed to appreciate how cleverly you used Christian’s journey as a parallel for the lessons that each of the March girls was learning.  Later, I grasped that the war taking Mr. March away from his family was the Civil War that I had learned about in school. My ignorance notwithstanding, the ambitions of the four sisters nourished my own ambitions: was I going to be a great writer, a great pianist, or a great artist, I wondered, as I built my castle in the clouds along with the March girls.

In 2011, I paid a visit to Orchard House, which is a National Historic Site.

In 2011, my family and I visited Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Bronson and Abigail May Alcott moved to Orchard House with daughters Anna, Louisa, and May in 1858. Another daughter, Elizabeth, the model for “Beth,” died shortly before they moved to the home that would be the final residence for Bronson, Abigail, and Louisa.

Miss Alcott, as I read and re-read your books, the disappointments of the March girls became my disappointments. I watched with horror as Amy was punished for bringing limes to class and, later, burned Jo’s manuscript in a fit of pique; I sympathized with Meg’s longing for finery, Jo’s disappointment when Aunt March chose Amy for her European traveling companion, Beth’s fear of Mr. Laurence, and Amy’s realization that her talent was not genius. Their joys were also my joys, as Meg gave birth to twins, Amy and Laurie comforted one another after Beth’s death, and Jo finally found romance with the impoverished but lovable Professor Bhaer. Even after the three surviving sisters became women–strong, compassionate women, who coped with single parenthood, founded schools, and helped struggling artists–I loved to read about them. Again, layers of meaning escaped me, such as references to Goethe and Schiller or to Greek mythologybut it is a tribute to the richness of your books that I gleaned something new with every reading.P1010235

Like you, Miss Alcott, I am one of four sisters. Longing to be pretty and artistic, I initially identified with Amy, whose character was loosely based on your sister May. In time, I came to prefer Jo, your fictional counterpart, who poured herself into her writing, who put her interests aside to help her family, who could not perceive her own beauty, who struggled to rejoice when good things happened to her sisters.

Unlike you, I have never been called upon to sacrifice and toil for my family, as you did from your teen years. Indeed, without your tireless writing or the kindness of family friends such as Mr. Emerson, your family might have fared poorly.  When I read the book Marmee and Louisa,  a gift from my youngest sister, it seemed to me that your parents held you to a very high standard indeed and chided you for your failings less gently than they might have. But, rather than complaining, you used your talents to improve your family’s fortunes, and you endeavored to apply your parents’ criticisms.

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Orchard House is a museum today, open for guided tours. Louisa wrote most of her books here, often wearing a “scribbling suit” like Jo’s.

I feel, Miss Alcott, that your personal striving towards humility, selflessness, industry, and compassion communicates itself to your readers. I do not mean to imply that your primary purpose in writing Little Women was didactic: as I understand it, your publisher wanted you to write a book for girls because he thought it would sell well. (He was right.)  In writing about a way of life that you knew intimately and about the family that you loved, however, you created a world that has attracted and influenced generations of young girls. Even as your readers delight in the comic adventures and heartbreaking tragedies of the March girls, they are seeing examples of kindness, courage, and–dare I say it, in the age of the selfie?–modesty.

No matter how old I grow, Miss Alcott, I never tire of reading Little Women.  As recently as 2007, your best-selling classic inspired The Mother-Daughter Book Club, a novel for young adults set in modern-day Concord, Massachusetts.  An Old-Fashioned Girl–which contrasts the life of the hardworking poor girl with the frivolous rich girl–was also one of my childhood favorites, and I enjoyed your books about the orphan, Rose, and her cousins (Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom).

Although your own life, sadly, was filled with hardship, loss, poor health, and personal disappointment, it may be some small consolation to know that you have brought a great deal of joy to a little girl growing up in the late twentieth century.

With the deepest respect,

A Devoted Reader

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From 1845 to 1848, the Alcotts lived in this Concord home, Hillside, where Louisa had her own room and wrote her first book. Later, they purchased and renovated the home on adjoining property, which they christened Orchard House.  In 1849, Nathaniel Hawthorne purchased Hillside and renamed it The Wayside.

This plaque at the Wayside (originally named Hillside by Bronson Alcott) tells about the house's history as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

This plaque at The Wayside (called Hillside by the Alcotts) tells about the house’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Two fugitive slaves stayed here in the winter of 1846-1847. Today, The Wayside is part of Minute Man National Historical Park.

The Dream Reader: For Whom Do I Write?

(Photo by David Fleming)

(Photo by David Fleming)

It is rare for me to sit blankly at a keyboard. Usually, my fingers are flying before my brain knows where it is going, but the fourth assignment of Blogging 101 is difficult: who is the person I most want to read my work? That is a highly personal question, which is daunting for this newbie blogger.

Before I can determine for whom I am writing, I should review why I’m writing:

1)  Without an audience, I won’t edit.

2) Interaction with other bloggers is stimulating.

3) The journalist in me enjoys chronicling my experiences.

Candor forces me to own up to a fourth reason for writing: the cringe-worthy goal of wanting to impress my readers–with my eloquence, my insight, my wit, my relevance.  Despicable but true. Who are the people I’m trying to impress most–my would-be “dream readers”?  Beloved authors, respected teachers, and my parents and siblings come to mind. (My sweet husband needs no impressing.) Old friends aren’t far down the list. I want new acquaintances to think well of me, too (that means you, fellow bloggers).  What about my children: surely I covet their good opinion?

At my sister’s wedding, I accompanied my other sisters on the 2nd movement of J. S. Bach’s “Concerto for Two Violins”  (David Bibeault Photography)

Initially, I enjoy the rush of pleasure that comes with a compliment about my writing. The pleasure is very fleeting, though, and is usually followed by awkwardness, particularly if the compliment is paid in person.  During my college days, I felt the same sense of strained happiness after a solo performance on the piano: I wanted people to applaud my efforts, but, oh, how uncomfortable it was to accept the longed-for praise. I remember well that slightly intoxicated feeling of standing at the reception after a recital, feeling pleased and embarrassed and guilty all at the same time.

Typically, my own impressions of my performance were so blurred that the compliments (or lack thereof) were useful as a way of gauging how the performance had gone. Back then, after the recital hour was over, my piano solos lived only in memory. (Here you can read a poem I wrote in college about the ephemeral nature of music.) Today, the student musician’s experience is vastly different: thanks to camcorders and iPhones, virtually every performance is not only recorded these days but also shared via social media. Two of my performances were recorded on audiocassette; despite my limitations as a pianist, I am glad to have those recordings.  But, in the days before video recording was de rigueur, the audience’s reception of a performance was the sole critique. Audience feedback matters tremendously with writing, too, but an essay–ah, an essay can be re-read and edited endlessly. It can live on indefinitely.

View from the overlook at the small college I attended

View from the overlook at the small college I attended

It can be gratifying to stumble upon something that I wrote years ago and to realize that it was good work. But there is a far better reason for writing than to impress others or even to achieve a sense of satisfaction: to give concrete form to an idea–to give birth to a brainchild, as it were.  When I’m writing something, I become like Jo March of Little Women, scribbling in her garret as “genius” burns. After my thoughts have been transferred lucidly to my laptop,  I feel relief.  Yes, I want to connect with others. Yes, writing has the power to change policy, to change ideas, to change people. But, in the final analysis, the person for whom I truly write is myself. I am my own dream reader.

 

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A side-view of Orchard House and its garret, photographed by my son Samuel

Although Miss Alcott did write her most famous book at Orchard House, she, unlike Jo, did not do her writing in the attic.

Although Miss Alcott wrote her most famous book at Orchard House, she–unlike the fictional Jo–did not confine herself to the attic when writing.

What a cop-out, huh? Back in the nineties, I used to watch “Beverly Hills 90210,” surprising though that may seem. I am reminded of an episode in the fifth season in which Kelly has to choose between traveling with Dylan or marrying Brandon. Kelly chooses–drum roll, please–herself. It was the typical TV resolution-that-is-not-a-resolution-at-all. After nearly a season of dramatic tension, she chose herself? (At least I get to be Jenny Garth in this scenario: I’ve always wondered how it felt to be a blonde.) Fear not: I shall force myself to choose someone–or some group of people–from the categories laid out in my third paragraph and write a post to that person.  A famous writer? a teacher? parents? siblings? Who will it be? Stay tuned.

 

Shrouded in Fog: September Days and Blogging 101

Taken at Graveyard Fields last September, this picture reflects my current feelings about Blogging 101.

Taken at Graveyard Fields last September, this picture reflects my current feelings about Blogging 101.

After a day spent tweaking my blog’s title, theme, and previous posts, I am beginning to think that perhaps I ought not to have taken up the gauntlet.  (Don’t ask how well I supervised my fourth grader’s schoolwork today.) Glancing at the posts in the Blogging 101 Commons, I would guess that the theme troubles are just beginning: as soon as one area is improved, another goes downhill. In my case, I am not enamored of “Big Brother”‘s font, but my title is showing up better.

Even Blogging 101’s third assignment–saying “Hi” to other bloggers–wasn’t easy for this introvert. NONE of my Facebook friends are blogging on wordpress.com, or else they avoided connecting their Facebook accounts. Now I can’t find a way to disconnect my Facebook account from wordpress.com: I avoid giving access to my Facebook profile and list of friends, but, in my quest for like-minded bloggers, I agreed to the connection–from which no divorce now seems possible. Making new connections is the obvious solution, but that means stepping out into uncharted territory: “Beyond here, there be dragons.”

Ah, well, this photograph from last September reminds me that beauty may be hiding beneath the fog, just out of sight. As so often happens when we set out on a family hike–the “we” is reduced these days, down from seven to three or four–the weather was not ideal on that September afternoon.  It didn’t rain, but Graveyard Fields, a flat mountain valley in the Pisgah National Forest, was shrouded in fog. Hiking in fog is a surreal experience: you are surrounded by trees, shrubs, and mountains, yet you can see only a few feet ahead. Even on a sunny day, it is easy to get lost at Graveyard Fields, which has several trails that intersect with back-country camping sites; on a foggy day, I would not recommend going it alone.

On the other hand, there is a forced solitude, a necessary quiet, that descends with the fog. Cloudy weather typically reduces the number of hikers, which is a welcome change at a spot as busy as Graveyard Fields. On this particular day, taking the trail off to the left, we hiked quietly and carefully over the muddy ground and then on to the Upper Falls, which you can just glimpse in the top photograph.

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P1050163As you can see, the clinging mists subdued even my spirited son. But I don’t regret our hike that day, even if we did walk more slowly and uncertainly because it was difficult to see where we were going.  There were glimpses of light through the trees, hints of vistas beneath the layer of fog. As the day wore on, the mists dissipated, and we could see the solid forms of rock and stream. In the same way, moments of understanding will surely come as I become more familiar with the technical terms of blogging. These difficult days of blogging confusion–these, too, shall pass.

That September day, the beginnings of fall were evident in the changing color of the leaves, in the crisp coolness of the air. I, too, am experiencing a season of change in my life, as yet another son has left for college this fall. There is beauty in this new season of life as well–more time for some things, even as the time for other things slips away.

Meet the Author

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Here’s a selfie I took on the day that I wrote my first post. I’m not an avid biker, but there is a great bike trail at Huntington Beach State Park.

Adjectives swim as I reflect on the questions: who am I? why am I here? Graying. Overweight. Disorganized. Optimistic. Rueful. Although I could censor this self-description, I am using the first words that came to mind because they seem honest. But this isn’t how I should present myself to strangers–which raises another question: am I ready to be here, exposing the gritty workings of my mind? Is writing merely a brain dump for me, and, if so, is there a reason for me to be blogging?

This summer, I stumbled upon blogging.  Wanting to follow someone else’s blog, I ended up creating a blog for myself (it helped that we were on vacation at the time). But when the blogger I was following stopped writing, I didn’t stop.  Why not, I wondered?

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A couple of days after setting up my blog, I took this picture of the sun rising at Litchfield By-the-Sea. A metaphor for blogging? Time will tell!

I’ve been writing privately on another website for a couple of years. Despite my sporadic nature, I recently passed the milestone of 100,000 words. Private writing is inherently worthwhile, but is it time for me to put a toe into cyberspace? One drawback to my private posts is that I never edit them; sometimes I pursue a promising line of thought, but the words never leave my sanctum. Although I am continuing to journal privately, an occasional foray into the public eye might be good for me (and for my writing, which has become all too stream-of-consciousness lately).

I’d also like to think that something I have posted could improve or enlighten someone else’s day (in a very small way). During my grad school days, I began to feel that there wasn’t a reason for anyone to write anything, ever again: hasn’t it all been said, over and over? Yet along came J. K. Rowling, boldly presenting the world with a lovable and complex young hero, just when I had thought no one could come up with anything new. Aspects of the Harry Potter series are undoubtedly derivative, but the sum–the sum has touched thousands of readers, old and young alike.

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The last blueberries of last summer on a bush at Craggy Gardens, off the Blue Ridge Parkway

Unlike Rowling, I’m not a writer of fiction, and my pontificating days are mostly over; if I have any profound thoughts, I’ll post them elsewhere. Still, I love traveling, whether it’s a cross-country journey or a day trip to pick blueberries in the mountains. Although I am an uneducated amateur, I also enjoy taking pictures. Rather than cluttering up my Facebook page with another photo album that few will ever view (thanks, Dad!), I will try to chronicle the occasional outing here, to capture the experience for others besides myself.

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Flowers by a fountain at Fearrington House

I don’t plan to post regularly. For that reason, I am unlikely to continue with the Blogging 101 assignments: today I began to contemplate what a month of blogging assignments might do to my daily schedule. Besides managing a home, I am homeschooling a young lad (I should be giving him a piano lesson at this moment). But I’m here, and this first challenge has helped me figure out why.

Giants of the Appalachians

Given this blog’s homage to Joyce Kilmer, how could I not devote a post to the mighty trees of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest?  Born in New Jersey, Kilmer had no connection with North Carolina, but the 3,800-acre forest within the Nantahala National Forest was dedicated to him in 1936, as a memorial both to his poetry and to his service in World War I, where Kilmer paid the ultimate price for his patriotism.

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My oldest son and youngest son, ready for adventure!

In the summer of 2012, accompanied by my husband and two of my sons, I made the two-hour drive from my house to visit those Appalachian giants.  Alas, the June day was unseasonably warm, so the first part of our two-mile hike through the forest was less pleasant than anticipated–particularly after my oldest son was attacked by a stinging insect shortly after we started the figure-eight trail. (The cheerful photograph on the right was taken at the trailhead.)

Not only were the humidity and bugs an issue, but, on the lower portion of the loop, there was less shade than I would have expected in a famous forest. Later, I learned that in 2010 the United States Forest Service used dynamite to remove many dead hemlocks that had fallen victim to the invasive woolly adelgid and posed a safety hazard to visitors.

Eventually, we made our way through the blasted remnants of the dead hemlocks to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Plaque, which was a good place to take a short break from hiking. P1020716 P1020717

Now that we had entered the Poplar Cove section, I began to understand why this old-growth forest was worth a two-hour drive. While California’s coastal redwoods may be older–and the cool climate more pleasant to the perspiring hiker–nothing makes you realize your insignificance like standing next to a tree that is 20 feet around and 100 feet tall. How long had these trees been here? How many silent-footed inhabitants had they witnessed, before the settlers came?P1020721

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As we worked our way along the loop to the trailhead, something happened that accelerated the last portion of our hike: quite unexpectedly, my husband’s cell phone rang, followed by a call on my cell phone. Since we were out of the service P1020718area, the calls were lost almost immediately, but the number was not a familiar one. At the time, our three middle children were on an inner-city missions trip in another state. Little wonder that we both thought the worst and increased our pace for the last leg of the hike. While I retain a few memories of the enormous trees, of the amazing straightness of the tulip poplar trunks, of the leafy greenness of the woodland, what I mostly remember is intense anxiety as we rushed through the forest that we had invested so much time in coming to see. I did take a few photos of the memorial plaque as we passed it on the return trip; there were also two trees whose curiously intertwined roots had taken David’s fancy, so I spared a few seconds to photograph them.P1020726P1020729

But our enjoyment of the outing had ended with the ill-timed phone calls and their reminder that life was relentlessly being lived outside the boundaries of the forest. As it turned out, neither my husband nor I had cell service until we had driven well out of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, my husband pointing out the road signs in both Cherokee and English as we drove. Eventually, we were able to listen to our voicemails. Predictably, the calls had nothing to do with our children. I still am not sure whether or not we should have had our phones on silent: what if there had been an emergency? Yet our hike was–if not ruined, at least made hostage to the pressingcares of this world.

One day, I hope to return to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest–without a cell phone, with a water bottle, and with enough time to stop and go rafting in the cool, wild waters of the Nantahala River on the way home.
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Time Travel, Lincoln, and Goats

Last week I had the opportunity to do some time travelling, an occupation usually reserved for science fiction. My husband, youngest son, and I visited Connemara, Carl Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock, North Carolina, which was like walking back into the world of 1967, complete with calendars. IMG_2373When Sandburg died in 1967, his wife and daughter moved to Asheville, leaving almost everything in the house — even the cigarette butts, according to our docent.  My perspective on 1967 was that of a four-year-old, but mingled with my memories of mimosa trees and my omnipotent older brother are corded telephones, linoleum floors, a television set with legs, and Danish modern furniture.  These metal lawn chairs outside the bookstore reminded me so vividly of the long-gone green chairs on my parents’ concrete patio that I caught my breath.IMG_2396

The history of the house itself was more interesting than I had expected. Built in the 1830s by Christopher Memminger, a Charleston lawyer, the house — which he called Rock Hill — was used as a hide-out during the Civil War, when Memminger’s Charleston property was seized and he, as Secretary of the Treasury of the Confederate States of America, was a fugitive.  As pictured below, this long slit in the dining room wall was made by Memminger so that he could stick the barrel of a gun through it and frighten off would-be marauders; the dining room was downstairs, presumably so that it would be closer to the outdoor kitchen. Fortunately, no raiders ever appeared, but the intriguing hole remains — presumably, they found a way to block it in the winter. Our guide chuckled at the irony that Sandburg, Lincoln’s best-known biographer, bought a house that had been built by a slave-owner and officer in the CSA. There are even rumors that the seal of the CSA was once hidden atop Glassy Mountain!

IMG_2395The next inhabitants, the Smyths, were also from Charleston, but they used the house as a year-round residence and named it Connemara to honor their Irish ancestry.  In 1945, Lilian Sandburg bought the house and its 264 acres because she was looking for a place where she could raise her growing herd of Chikaming goats and where Carl could write. And she found it!  At Connemara, Sandburg produced about a third of his total output, while Lilian’s herds went on to win numerous prizes. He also read a great deal, judging by the number of books in the house: apparently, the Sandburgs shipped an entire boxcar of books from Michigan to North Carolina when they moved. Bookshelves lined the walls of the two main floors of the house. (Workers regularly clean the books to minimize silverfish damage.)

In the first room, IMG_2363we saw a large piano (played primarily by the Sandburgs’ oldest daughter, Margaret) and a guitar, which Carl played. Andres Segovia was a fan of his and even wrote a piece in honor of Sandburg — which, if I heard correctly, was too challenging for Sandburg to play; Segovia’s sheet music was available for purchase in the bookstore.IMG_2365

Lilian Sandburg’s brother, Edward Steichen, was a well-known photographer in his time. His photos are hung throughout the Sandburg home, including this one in the front room: “Isadora Duncan in the Parthenon, Athens.”

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A life mask of Sandburg sits on the shelf in his office.

A bibliophile himself, even my husband was impressed with the number of books amassed by the Sandburgs, who left more than 11,000 books in the house.

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Living in an antebellum home, the Sandburgs were aware of the dangers of fire, given their extensive library, and had a professional-grade fire hose installed on the wall of the stairwell.

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IMG_2379Pictured on the left is one of the many television sets in the Sandburg house — another irony, since Sandburg felt that television was a thief of time. The president of Zenith was his admirer, however, and more than once bestowed televisions upon the Sandburg household. There were televisions in the bedrooms, too, along with furniture reminiscent of the twin beds in my childhood room and a treadle sewing machine that reminded my husband of his grandmother’s machine. To avoid distractions, Sandburg preferred to write in an attic room without a view.

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While the kitchen seems antiquated now, it, too, was representative of its time. My husband was forcefully reminded of his Aunt Rosabelle’s kitchen in South Carolina, which was probably updated around the same time as the Sandburgs’.

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Although my husband and I were fascinated by the house, my son was delighted when we finally emerged from its musty interior into the afternoon sunlight. After a quick stroll through the outbuildings near the house, we headed on to the Goat Barn, where David happily interacted with the young goats; the billy goats were sequestered on the other side of the road.

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Nowadays, the goats — which are descendants of the prize-winning herd that Lilian (or “Paula,” as Sandburg affectionately called her) developed — have a fairly carefree existence, tended by the National Park workers; back in the day, however, Lilian worked tirelessly to breed a goat that would produce the maximum amount of milk, finally resulting in Jennifer II. Amusingly, the Sandburgs became involved with goats when one of their daughters wanted a pet cow: they talked her into a goat instead.

Playing with the goats was David’s favorite part of the trip. I do think that I will read some of Sandburg’s poetry to him in the next couple of weeks, and perhaps we will embark on Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, which I vaguely remember from my childhood.

David was sad that we didn’t see water snakes by the dam as we crossed over the pond at the entrance to the Carl Sandburg Home — on our previous visit, several snakes had been sunning themselves — but he and his father enjoyed seeing some brim swim past (no fishing was allowed, however). Next summer, we’ll have to be on the watch for the free productions put on at the ampitheater!

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All photos in this post were taken by Sandra Fleming (on her iPhone, because she left her better camera at home). Click here for a virtual tour of Connemara, courtesy of the National Park Service.

Here are the snakes that we saw from the safety of the bridge on our first visit to Connemara:

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