Sunday, 29 March 2015

New article in Grit magazine

Good news! My latest piece on fruit tree grafting has been published in Grit Magazine; check it out here.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

All hands on deck



































Note: we've had some technical difficulties so far this year, so I haven't been able to write or post as much as usual -- sorry.

No matter when it officially begins, spring really starts for us the day the sky cracks open, the ashen clouds dissipate and a warm sun – sometimes the first we’ve seen in weeks or months – warms the damp ground below. Friday we saw nothing of that day’s solar eclipse; the clouds were so thick that the sky was already dark, and we could not tell when the eclipse was passing. Today winter returned, with sleet pelting me as I rode my bicycle to the bus stop. In between, though, was the weekend, when the gray parted and spring shone through.   

For us it was none too soon; we have much to do in our garden. For us the most pernicious problems are elder trees, which shoot up unnoticed until they have begun to choke out the saplings we want. Merely cutting them is not enough; they must be uprooted, and if they are disturbed they emit a foul odour. They can’t even be burned, as the smoke is said to be toxic.

Nonetheless, I have been burning all the other plants whose roots I’m excavating from the garden; long brambles with thorns thick as nails that creep in from the neighbouring fields, or ash saplings that spring up on our forest floor like bamboo. In a more natural wilderness they might fight for space and kill each other off, but I don’t have time to wait for that, and I don’t want them to choke out the shade-loving flowers at their feet.

I grow frustrated sometimes at the language of environmental activists, who treat the natural world like a fragile ornament that shatters at our touch. There are relatively untouched regions of wilderness in the world that should stay that way, of course, but the urban and suburban lands most of us see every day have been clear-cut, bulldozed, built upon and bulldozed again many times over. It would take them hundreds of years to return to an old-growth forest, if we disappeared tomorrow, and even then, invasive species and changing weather patterns would ensure that the forest that grew back would not resemble the old.

Rather than avoid nature like a contagion, we prefer to know it intimately. My daughter and I wander through our woodland together, along with the bog-lands around us, and she knows the trees by personal names – Susan, George, Olive – that she gave them long ago. She has helped me chop down the willows that border our property, and we have watched the new willow shoots emerge from the stump the next year. We have wandered through swamp-fields in our wellies (boots), searching for the fox that killed our chickens, keeping clear of cows. She knows which mushrooms to pick on our walks, and the tracks of the animals we see. And now that spring has appeared, we need to make sure our woodlands are not overrun.

We also spent the afternoon replacing boards in our garden beds; a fungus has eaten the wood and we are plugging the soil-leaks where we can. My mother-in-law does most of the work in our garden while my wife and I are working at our jobs in Dublin, and she was busy weeding while I repaired the beds. The Girl raked up the winter’s leaves and I created a leaf-mould compost bin, and then I mowed the lawn for the first time this year. I pile the clippings into the chicken run; they have been laying less lately, and I suspect they need the vitamins after the long winter.

We will be planting potatoes and chicory and uproot our berry bushes – the bushes were useless to everyone but the birds. If they had only attracted more songbirds we could have had entertainment and fertiliser, but the hedge-rows here have many blackberries already, and the birds only stay to eat our cabbages.

By the way, a big tip of the hat to Ronald Langereis, who showed me a web site to order scorzonera seeds – thank you, Ronald.

Next weekend we have trees to trim, beds to build and new crops to plant – and The Girl and I still haven’t buried our butter in the bog. For the next few weeks it will be all hands on deck, every day we have. 

Photo: Our garden last summer.

Monday, 23 March 2015

The leaning pub of Kildare

























We used to pass it every day going to horse riding, The Girl and I. It sits in the Bog of Allen, where the ground swells and falls with the rain. Thankfully, you can order a pint and it doesn't roll away down the bar.

The people inside are used to it.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Nettles

Every place has its own kind of spring. In my native Midwest it comes fitfully -- apple blossoms open warmly only to freeze over in a late frost, like flies in amber, and greenery strains in stages over a vacillating land. Here in rural Ireland the winter is a different kind of harsh – rarely snowy or below freezing, but always chilly, damp and dark. We live at the same latitude where polar bears are native in the Western Hemisphere, and while the Gulf Stream keeps us temperate, the light changes are still subarctic and the winter landscape bleak and gothic.

So our Lenten fast brings a literal ray of sunshine and blue skies, when Ireland stops looking like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road and actually begins to look like those inspirational calendars of Ireland. The hedgerows flush with green again, wildflowers cover the fields and, best of all for me, it is nettle season.

The month or two of nettle shoots means I can take a short daily walk and gather massive bushels of extremely healthy food with little effort. Almost as numerous and well-known as grass or clover, they flourish in massive clusters on roadsides and riverbanks, lining field edges and sprouting through pavement cracks.

Brushing against them leaves painful welts, and every child here learns early to give nettles a wide berth – they are covered in hairs that are actually tiny hypodermic needles, which inject the same formic acid as in fire ants’ stings. The traditional remedy for the sting is dock-leaf, whose broad leaves always grow next to nettles and are its cure – my daughter knew when she was still a toddler to find it in the grass, crush it and rub it on stings. Perhaps its astringent nature cancels out the inflammation – I haven’t found any scientific research to “prove” that it helps – but it has worked for generations, and works for us.

 This may not make nettles sound very appetizing, but cooking them destroys the stingers, and the plants themselves are amazingly nutritious – a hundred grams of them are only 36 calories but carry six grams of protein and are high in Vitamins A, C, and K. Europeans used them as a tonic, an infusion of vitamins at the end of winter, as well as for arthritis, prostate problems, heart conditions and a multitude of other ailments. Crushing the stingers also eliminates the stingers, so you can seize them quickly and not get stung -- hence the expression “to grab the nettle.” I am told that some practiced souls even crush the leaves quickly and eat them raw with no ill effects to fingers or mouth. Me, I find gloves simpler.

 I would not try to eat them as a salad, but they can be made into tea, soup, sautéed as a vegetable side dish, mixed with scrambled eggs or pancakes, and I have heard of people making nettle lasagna, nettle pesto and nettle kim chi. The plant’s grassy and slightly fishy flavour goes well with seafood – say, nettle soup with prawns (or shrimp, if you live in America). I have juiced nettles into a drink very like wheatgrass – not my taste, but there are many wheatgrass fans out there.

 Farmers here used to soak the cooked plant with sourdough starter to make nettle beer, and I see no reason it could not be mixed into bread as herbs are. I know farmers in County Wicklow who make an excellent nettle cheese by mixing the plant into the curds before ageing, creating a green spiderweb latticework in every slice.

 They have other uses: Their fibrous stalks can be stripped of leaves, squeezed of juice and wound together to make a makeshift rope in the woods. The stalks can be soaked in water until the fleshy parts decay, as people soak flax to make linen, and combed into thread – I have seen whole dresses sewn of nettle fiber.

Ireland might be the ideal home for nettles, as they love moist, rich soil, cool conditions and cleared land. They exist but are less ubiquitous in Southern Europe and North America, and you can probably plant them in pots. If they don’t already grow around your home I don’t recommend planting them in the ground – in an Irish climate like Oregon they might run rampant, and in a drier one they might never grow – but they might thrive under control in a pot, as mint does. Some gardeners recommend them for attracting early aphids -- not because they like aphids, but because the pests draw early ladybirds (ladybugs to Americans) that, hopefully, stay to help through the summer.

When you collect nettles, of course, don’t take them from near a road, or from land you think might have been sprayed with pesticides. Most nettle-pickers select only the delicate shoots in early spring, and if you snap them off more shoots grow back – but the whole plant is edible, and I continue to pick leaves into late summer. Rinse them using a spoon or some other tool to stir them in the water, so as not to be stung or get your gloves wet. Once you have rinsed and drained them, cook them well – say, boiling for at least 10 minutes -- or the stingers won’t completely dissolve.

A common approach to nettle soup is to saut̩ one large, white diced onion in butter over low heat for a few minutes, and as it turns golden stir in a clove of garlic, shredded through the fine holes in your grater. Peel and dice a medium potato Рabout a centimetre on a side Рand stir that in too. Then add about 100 grams of nettle shoots and pour stock over the whole thing. Let it boil, bring it down to a simmer and let it cook until the potatoes are soft. Then you can blitz the whole thing with a food processor, if you like, add a 100 ml or so of cream and serve.

 Sometimes I take the more direct route of dumping them into boiling stock – beef, vegetable, whatever – cooking them a few minutes, blitzing them and pouring them into a fine strainer over a bowl. The result is a drink -- savoury nettle broth -- and a thick soup that I can eat, mix or freeze for lunch.

 I’m not a purist – we grow much of our food or buy it from local farmers, but we also go to the supermarket or eat out once in a while, and I don’t ask the waitress to trace my food back to the Third World. I’m also not a survivalist or a bushcraft master – I work at a computer in an office, I’ve ever tried to eat exclusively off the land, and I doubt I know even a tenth of the local plants. But even my meager knowledge allows me to look at a field and see a cornucopia of resources.

Why is this important, you ask? Because most of us put food in our mouths at least a few times a day, and it is usually food that was created in ways that cannot and should not last. The corn may well have been sown, watered, and plucked from the earth without ever touching a human hand, using machines that run on liquefied dinosaur biomass. The vegetables may have been uprooted by a migrant worker who will die young. The chicken patty probably came from an animal that lived a short life mutilated in darkness.

Yet you are surrounded by food. You probably have nettles in your area, but even if you don’t, maybe you have daisies, dandelions, clover, sorrel, brambles, berries, goosefoot, cowslips and dozens of other plants. Maybe you have local hazels, cobnuts and walnuts – even acorns can be made edible. There are local animals to eat, local sources of water, ways to warm up or keep cool.

How do I know this? Because people lived for the first 99 percent of humanity’s history, almost everywhere on Earth – in deserts, on tundra, and certainly in the forests and fields that are now America and Europe -- when all food, all water, all shelter, was wild. That knowledge was passed through the generations, held not just by every Irish farmer, but perhaps by every Druid and Cro-Magnon before them.

Today, in a single lifetime, the chain has been broken – only older people tend to remember the uses of nettles, and in America such knowledge has often vanished altogether. If we get smacked down by a fuel shortage, a disease that keeps us home, a climate catastrophe that hits agribusiness, or some other crisis to our society’s bloodstream of tankers and trucks, the metric tones of healthy food all around us may not be recognized, and might lay unused even as families go hungry.

Photo from Geograph.ie. Originally published in April 2009.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Coppice chair

This photo was featured in Grit Magazine's special edition last year; we had to tear it out to build our house, but it's a great idea, a willow stump whose shoots formed the backing.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Walking across the bog

“Doctor Ceitinn and I walked right across the bog, with Poll na Cailli west of us and Poll na Chapaill to the east, as far as Mocklers where we had baker’s bread with butter and a strong drop of whiskey.

We walked over the bog collecting wild plants: water-mint, bog-cotton, common self-heal (a small coarse plant with a purple head or flower), common milfoil, which has a thousand petals and a brown stalk.

We saw a lovely girl kneading wet turf. She had slender feet, calves and knees white as bog-cotton. Her father was once a well-off farmer, but the difficulties of life caught up with him; he lost everything, and the landlord took his crops. The tithe-collector took away the table, the pot and bed with him, and they all drove him out to wander the roads – himself, his wife and his handsome young children. That is why he was in a small cabin at the foot of the mountain, and why his beautiful young daughter was kneading turf.

A thousand young boys and girls danced to music nearby, on top of Moinn Rua, a high platform in the middle of Poll na Chapaill. The reddish-brown hillock was shaking under their nimble feet. They are having a fine life here, if it doesn’t end in beggary.

I can see how turf grows. There is a kind of moss called susan, growing in bog-holes, which when it withers turns to pulp. The pulp fills the bog-holes in time, and thus builds new banks of turf. If the susan has not completely withered it is cut with a breast turf-spade, but if it has, is cut with a winged turf-spade. It is spread on the banks to dry. But this is not the best kind of turf. The best is that which, after it has been shovelled up out of the hole onto the bank, is kneaded by the hands of women.”

-- From the diary of Tomas de Bhaldraithe, County Kilkenny, 12 July, 1827. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

St. Patrick's Day in Ireland

Growing up in an Irish family in Missouri, St. Patrick’s Day combined all the things I loved most about holidays, without any of the negatives. Big-league holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween only arrived after weeks of television commercials and yard decorations, until the day itself could be a serious anti-climax.

St. Patrick’s Day, though, meant gathering with cousins, marching in a parade, waving to crowds, eating great food and just socialising. It was a genuine family holiday.

Here, St. Patrick’s is the day for an annual town parade, and The Girl and I went to the same one we do every year. It's a lot of fun, and I'm pleased my soon-to-be teenager is not too old for a parade. The local girls’ Irish dancing club Riverdanced down the lane, the annual bagpipers marched behind them, the rugby and boxing clubs demonstrated their techniques before the Lord Mayor and other village dignitaries. A local girl sang a genuinely good version of a Taylor Swift song in a Bog-Irish accent, mumbling the less family-friendly words.

When you think about it, though, the global St. Patrick's Day celebrations feel a bit strange; people of many backgrounds, around the world, celebrate an ethnic group most don’t belong to, a foreign country most have never visited, and a Catholic saint who probably would be flummoxed by the whole shebang. Of course, many Americans are Irish, but a lot more are English, German or Mexican, and they don’t get such unanimous celebrations. And while most descendants of the Irish diaspora have embraced and laugh along with the stereotypes, it’s hard to imagine most ethnic minorities doing the same.

 Perhaps we Irish have that right balance: our past is sufficiently tragic to ground the celebrations in something substantial, while our Ireland has always been neutral enough that we don't have the historical baggage of, say, British or Germans. And the Irish -- both residents of this island and their cousins around the world -- are comfortable and mainstream enough to laugh along with once-malevolent stereotypes.

When I moved to Ireland ten years ago, I discovered that St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were new here; American parades had begun in the 1700s, while Ireland held its first in the 1970s. Like Halloween, it began as a Celtic festival, left with emigrants to North America, changed into a massive party, and has been recently re-imported to this country.

 The image of Ireland as a mystical Brigadoon of thatch roofs and village pubs holds a unique grip on the hearts of many Americans. The Irish even have a word for it --- "Oirish," which is to Irish as "Americana" is to American. The recent protests over water charges were Irish. The Quiet Man was Oirish.

Some modern Irish chafe at the leprechaun stereotypes, of course – we get the same internet and media here as many Americans, and young people's culture here is becoming as Hollywoodised as that of Americans. They feel about other countries’ St. Patrick’s Day celebrations as Americans might feel if Albanians honoured our country with an annual “America Day” procession of cowboy hats, machine guns and surfboards.

Seeing it from both sides, though, I can defend the American image of Ireland to my neighbours here; that sense of common heritage kept Irish-American families together through difficult times, and gave them an ideal of community to aspire to -- one that might be very useful to us in the years ahead

The bucolic image carried a lot of truth; as recently as the 1970s many areas here lacked electricity or central water, and people got about by horses and carts. Ireland has bits and pieces of the modern world stuck on to the old; modern trucks rolling over medieval stone bridges, a modern grocery next to a ruined medieval abbey, our neighbours drive horse-carts past our house, and a thatched-roof pub near our house with a sattelite dish.

That's the biggest difference: In my native USA, most of the people you see driving around and watching television have been doing it all their lives. Here, older people live in the modern world but grew up in a much more traditional and self-sufficient one, and some still carry that world around inside them. I'm slowly learning that way of life as an adult, and just like my forbears decades ago, when I leave this island, I'll carry a bit of that world around with me.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Dublin wall

I work across from the Guinness brewery in Dublin, a cluster of massive 19th-century brick buildings with a maze of narrow cobblestone streets, massive wooden gates, alleys -- and many horse-drawn carts for the tourists. It is perhaps not the cheeriest neighbourhood -- damp, pungent, with sunlight falling in thin shafts between the barrelhouses. It will, however, have for one week each March, a man in a giant leprechaun costume.

It does, however, have character -- and if I turn an unexpected corner, I come upon something like this picture. If you can't read it, it says, in giant letters four metres up the wall, "STONE UPON STONE UPON FALLEN STONE," and then in the Irish language, "CLOCH OS CLON CLOICHE OS CLON CLOICHE LEATHA."

I'm not certain what it means, but I like that such a thing exists for its own sake.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Preparing for spring

The unusual weather we’ve been having in Ireland – unexpectedly late snowfalls, accompanied by hail and sleet– cannot conceal the brightening of the days and the growth of spring, giving gardeners a lot of work to do in the coming weeks. Last weekend our family sat down together and made plans for the year, for now that we’ve had our garden on this land for five years, we’ve been able to take stock of what works and what doesn’t.

One thing that hasn’t worked for us are berry bushes; no matter how many nets we draped over our gooseberry, logan-berry and raspberry bushes, the birds get most of them, and the few remaining berries are not worth reaching among the thorns. All the hedgerows around here, down every bog-path and country lane, is lined with blackberry brambles anyway, and our bushes merely take up thorny space. A more discouraging development in our garden is that our wooden beds are disintegrating, eaten by mycelium. We hoped these beds would last 20 years; next time, we’ll line them with plastic on the inside to keep the moisture down.

We’ve also been evaluating what to plant; we will leave a bit of space for potatoes and carrots, but I advocated spending most of our time and space on crops that would be expensive or difficult to find elsewhere, like scorzonera.

On the other hand, my mother-in-law suggested, we should also have common crops to experiment with, in case we need to grow all of them ourselves someday. None of us knows what will happen in the coming years, personally or globally, but we want to be prepared as much as we can. Some crops I particularly want to grow, but are difficult to find; scorzonera, for example, was a favourite of Victorian gardeners, but fell out of favour in the last century, and now even the seeds are hard to come by.

Others take a lot of space, but are particularly good to have here in winter, when not much else is available, like chicory. Chicory is unusual in that you let it grow outside all summer, letting it build up a root underground, and then lop off the top and bring it inside in a pot. You then keep it in darkness – say, under an upside-down pot – and it will grow a head of nutritious and tasty white leaves, giving you fresh winter salad.

The blackthorn trees will soon be blossoming again this year, and The Girl and I will do what we did last year – we will mark all the trees around the bog-lands that bloom with blackthorn flowers. We need to do this because once the flowers disappear, the trees are inconspicuous and hard to find – but in the autumn they burst with sloes that we much desire for gin.

Spring means a lot of weeding, of course, but I don’t destroy everything people consider weeds. Indeed, many of them I look forward to, and want to collect while we can. Dandelion leaves are great in salad, their flower-heads make wine or – dipped in batter and fried – make fritters. Nettles taste great as a vegetable, can be made into wine or dried for tea. The blue-green leaves of Fat Hen make a great addition to a salad, as do the dark green leaves of the Jack-by-the-Hedge. Finally, cowslips and oxlips make the best wine I’ve ever tasted, and will be emerging soon.

I’ve been so busy with my day job – and the three-hour commute to Dublin and back – that I have had precious little time left, and most of that has been spent with The Girl. In the last month we’ve been to an archery event, to the cinema – the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup – and to an Irish music concert. She already seems a teenager, and I don’t want to let her childhood slip away.

Mostly, though, we’ve been getting work done around the land; weeding our garden and preparing for spring. Over the winter our hedgerows shoot out arcs of thorny brambles that tear at clothing, and every weekend I’ve been ripping a few more out. Under the trees in our patch of forest, crowds of elder saplings and thistles shoot up and choke out many plants we like. Thus, I’ve spent a few hours each weekend yanking them out one by one and burning them; all my clothes smell like campfire now.

Today The Girl raked leaves for a leaf mould pile, while I dug up the ground from the chicken run and deposited it in our garden beds. The soil was getting a bit low there, and this gives us a chance to mulch the chickens’ area and cut down on the mud and puddles. Her childhood concentration wanes, however, and eventually we stopped to play football while the weather allowed. Again, childhood doesn’t last forever.