Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Where Giants Roam

There is a place along the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland where the past and the future rush up to meet you. Giant’s Causeway makes you a child again as it sweeps you away into a landscape filled with extraordinary sights, both real and imagined. It brings to mind the endlessness of time, that these beautiful shores have been here a millennia and will continue on a millennia more.

Before one even glimpses the great outdoors, the modern visitor center  fills the eye with informative and interactive exhibits.  When the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center was recently completed in 2011, it was purposed to lay within its natural setting. The roof of the building is planted with local grasses grown from seeds collected from the surrounding area so that the center appears seamless with the landscape. The center calls your inner child out to play. The animated story of the giant is excellently produced.  All visitors are also supplied with a delightful and imaginative handheld audio tour of the Causeway.

As you walk down from the visitor center the cool ocean air leaps up and ruffles your hair, whipping wildly at your jacket .  All the while ,a soothing Irish accent whispers in your ear the folklore of this land’s forefathers. A view of the ocean entices you to the edge of the cliff. A bay meets you,  scattered with the evidence of centuries past, worn by the tides. There is a small ruined stone building nestled into the hillside; perhaps at one point it was a fisherman’s hovel.  Walking the pathway that curls downward around the bay, eventually your eye is directed toward a particular outcropping of rocks across the cove. This is the giant’s camel, the audio tour explains, named Humphrey. It’s really quite miraculous how much it does resemble a camel. As beautiful as this first sight is, the best is just around the corner.

The lilt of an Irish voice fills your ear as you round the bend and get your first glimpse of The Causeway. The legend about this magnificent wonder of nature lights the fire of imagination. A giant named Finn McCool lived on the Antrim coast with his wife Oonagh and the bane of his existence was his rival in Scotland known as Benandonner.  Finn was frequently taunted by Benandonner from afar and on one occasion Finn scooped up a clod of earth and hurled it across the sea at him, but missed.  The huge clod of earth landed in the middle of the Irish Sea making the Isle of Man and the depression formed from scooping up the earth filled up with water to become Lough Neagh. One day Finn finally challenged Benandonner to a proper fight and decided to build a causeway of enormous stepping stones across the sea to Scotland, so that he could walk across without getting his feet wet because, as our storyteller explains, giants hate water. As he approached and caught sight of the great bulk of Benandonner, Finn became afraid and fled back home, with Benandonner hot on his trail. In his haste , as he ran, Finn lost one of his great boots and today it can be seen sitting on the shore just beyond the Giant’s Gate where it fell to the ground. In a humorous turn of events, Finn asks his wife Oonagh to help him hide. Clever Oonagh disguised Finn as a baby and pushed him into a huge cradle, so when Benandonner saw the size of the sleeping ‘child’, he assumed the father must be gigantic. Benandonner fled home in terror, ripping up the Causeway as he went in case he was followed.The legend thus explains how Giant’s Causeway came to be in north Antrim, as well as the similar formation at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa.

 As you wander down the trail, the little Irish man in your ear tells you to look far along the coast to the horizon. There, he tells you, is the evidence of Finn’s home. Up out of the cliffside rise two or three columns of rock. Once upon a time, these must have been the giant’s chimney stacks. Soon you come to perhaps the most peculiar natural structure on this earth. Along the shore are many rocks, but as you walk along they make a smooth transition, taking form into great octagonal columns. The columns all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, but their heights greatly vary. They jut out from the shore in mini peninsulas. Some areas are flat, to create the image of honeycombs, while other’s uneven progression create stairs up to the next set of honeycombs. Your inner child will delight in this land of fantasy. It’s a fort to conquer or a futuristic spaceship from which to explore the galaxy.

If you prefer the scientific perspective, you may be interested to know that 65 million years ago there was a period of intense volcanic activity which lasted for several million years. The lava was more than 1000ºC and it spread over the chalk landscape, burning forests and filling river valleys. When it cooled and solidified it formed a dark grey rock - basalt. Basalt is a very common igneous rock. The Giant’s Causeway is composed of basalt, solidified lava from one of the flows that filled a river valley. As the lava cooled slowly, it cracked and shrank to develop regular patterns – much like mud when it dries up. However, unlike mud, which cracks only on the surface, the cracking in the lava went through the depth of the flow creating columns. As the cooling process continued over a long period of time, the evenly spaced cracks created a pavement like surface of thousands of regular shaped columns. Most have five and six sides, but some have four, seven or eight. Now these columns stand as a testament to time and to what can be achieved with a little patience.

The Giant’s Causeway soothes the soul. To know that there is such great beauty and wonder in this world gives me peace. Explore for a day or come back again and again, the Causeway is sure to offer a treasure trove of wonders waiting to be discovered.

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