Saturday 15 June 2024

Singing Lessons

As my daughter and I travelled home over the Wicklow Mountains, our voices echoed between the cliffs, turning the heads of passing sheep as we rolled into the wooded hollows below. She knows these songs by heart from years of lullabies and sing-alongs since, but doesn’t yet realize that children like her might have sung the same songs on the same paths hundreds of years ago.

The water is wide, I cannot cross over . . .
Neither have I the wings to fly . . .

We would turn the heads of most humans, too, these days; most people never sing aloud anymore, except meekly in church, and snicker at those who do. Older people, though, can remember people whistling as they swept the streets, everyone singing at the pub, neighbours gathering at each other’s homes in the evenings to sing, or people gathering around a deathbed to caoin. * This constant singing of songs our ancestors knew let traditions thrive and wisdom accumulate through the generations.

Today we cannot choose to avoid the latest hits; even here they blast from loudspeakers in buses, restaurants, gas stations, and the earphones of the kid sitting next to you, cranked up so loudly you can recognize the song. The problem is that after many years of this, we have lost touch with what music is for. For thousands of years, in every part of the world that I know of, songs were made to be sung by ordinary voices in communion, and they told the basic stories of the human condition.

Families here had their own sets of carols for any number of seasons or tasks. They told us who their people were and why this day was different. They kept the rhythms of churns and scythes, of tanneries and looms, and grew and changed as they were passed on. They were sung secretly about the days when earthly kings would be overthrown, by farmers who feared a rapping at the winter door.

The summertime has come, and the trees are sweetly blooming, I hear my daughter sing idly to herself, And the wild mountain thyme grows around the purple heather. . . .

The older the song, though, the more questions my daughter has, and the more I’m reminded of why I teach them to her.

Tell her to buy me an acre of land between the salt water and the sea strand . . .
Tell her to harvest with a sickle of leather, and bind the crop with a rope of heather.
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt without any seams or needlework . . .
Tell her to wash it in yonder well, where water ne’er sprung nor rain ever fell . . .
. . . then she’ll be a true love of mine.

“Why are all those jobs impossible?” she asked. 

How do you know they’re impossible? I answered. 

“Well, you can’t really make a shirt without seams,” she said. 

You’re right, I said, and you can’t wash it in a dry well. You can get an acre of beach below the seaweed strand, but it disappears with the tide. The song is meant as a kind of joke, I explained—it’s a love spell, but it’s a sarcastic one.

“Is it a potion?” she asked, “and the herbs are the other ingredients?”

Yes, I said, but the potion will never work, because you can never do those impossible things, or if you can, they’re not worth it. And you can’t get someone to love you if she doesn’t, and if you can, you shouldn’t. Most dreams will be like that, I tell her; they’re not fun anymore up close.

That, I think, is what these songs were for—teaching lessons we abandoned when everything became cheap and fast and easily discarded. They do not tell us that we can accomplish anything if we believe in ourselves, or that we deserve to follow our hearts. They tell us our lives are brief and sad and funny, subject to injustice and bound by duty. They pass down, in a way spoken words cannot, our forbears’ grief and gratitude, their violence and remorse, their comfort and joy.

Sometimes I try to explain these things to her in common language, and her spirit is willing to learn, but her flesh is nine years old. So we go back to singing the old songs, whose lessons, I hope, she stores inside like seeds awaiting the spring.  


 * In Irish, a grieving wail. Pronounced keen.

Photo: Musicians celebrating Wren Day in our local woods.

Saturday 1 June 2024

The World Made By Hand

Apologies for not posting in a while; there's been a lot going on. I'll try to be more regular now. 

In the cellar of my parent’s house sit a series of tools that have served my father and grandfather and great-grandfather, for they were created before the throwaway world was conceived. They were created for a world of carpenters, like my great-grandfather, or like the saddlers, thatchers, farriers, smiths, cobblers and builders that I could still find in rural Ireland. They were made for a nation of craftsmen, of people who bore in themselves the power that all humans once had, to reshape wood and hide and stone into a human landscape. It was a world that humans had known and made and remade through the ages of the world, until less than a century ago.

I wrote a few months ago about the lost world of craftsmen, and some responded that people back then had no choices in life, and that’s true if you, again, compare the richest today to the poorest then. Census records from the late 1800s, though, show not just the basic crafts I’ve mentioned, but around 1,500 job titles: ale tunners, archil makers, battures, bozzlers, camlets, clouters, arbalesters, brachygraphers, culvers, danters, and many others just in the first few letters of the alphabet. They represent a way of life so alien to most of us that even when we look up the definition we still don’t understand what they did. A modern person can read on their screen that a “garthman” was the proprietor of a weir, but they’d need to learn what a weir was, and why people depended on them, especially during Lent.

All the tasks we unthinkingly relegate to machines today were once done by people, so most people’s jobs had obvious value; everyone needed shoes, so everyone needed a cordwainer to make them and a cobbler to fix them. Everyone needed tailors for their clothes, haberdashers or milliners for their hats, butchers to cut their meat and grocers for their flour, masons and carpenters for their homes. Everyone needed publicans to serve the beer on Saturday night and priests to forgive them the next morning. When they died they needed carvers of headstones.

There was little chance for a carpenter to become a CEO, but there is little chance you will become a CEO either. If you were a carpenter, though, you had a status and an identity no outsourcing or artificial intelligence could take away. Even if you lost your physical ability with age or accident, you could mentor others, for each craftsman represented a distillation of centuries of experience, of lore and secrets.

“A man who was a carpenter was more than a man,”  Irish journalist John Waters wrote in his book Bring Back the Bad Roads. “A woman qualified as a dressmaker was someone from whom an opinon emanated in a new way, seen to be born of a depth of endeavour and application to reality that made her worth listening to.”

All the crafts disappeared in a generation or two – the coopers, wrights, milliners, cordwainers and thousands more. All the stories handed down through generations disappeared in a few generations, until we all know only the same few pop-culture stories. Almost all the apprenticeships, lodges, clubs, co-ops and guilds disappeared, in Ireland and elsewhere. We are the survivors wandering the ruins of a post-apocalyptic society, but it has been a cultural apocalypse, a mass forgetting, and it’s still going on.

When I walk around Dublin today, or any city that has buildings or churches built before the fossil-fuel window, I see breathtaking architecture that spans the ages, church sculptures that shape marble like silk, art that ennobles and inspires, all works that – if they are not demolished, as many have been – are likely to outlast all our fragile modern architecture. These buildings used to house clubs and unions and libraries and schools that taught philosophy, literature and democracy. They survived unimaginable hardship to overthrow an empire and create a free, healthy and safe society.

I realise that we could not build some of these churches now; the crafts to create them are forgotten, along with the conviction to devote a life to them, and the social organisation, and the families to support the craftsmen, and the relationships between men and women needed to start families to create successors to these trades and ... everything. The entire human infrastructure.

And I think: None of this world could have been built by the people now living in it.


Photo: My daughter making sure we stayed warm at night. 


Friday 19 April 2024


Some years ago, the UK government completed a study on the food people bought and ate, and came up with a sobering result: in a time when global hunger is increasing, one-third of food in the UK is thrown away uneaten. That is about three billion pounds a year wasted – a part of the estimated one metric tonne of waste per household per year.

Of course, everyone will have some kitchen waste – no one wants to eat the potato peelings or woody stems – but throwing it in with the rest of the rubbish isn’t the best solution either. There are different kinds of decay, and when organic material is trapped away from oxygen and insects it decomposes slowly and anaerobically, releasing methane – which smells foul and contributes to climate change.

Many people would like to grow their own food, but need help with the earth, which in many yards is builders’ waste covered in a thin veneer or topsoil and turf. To grow things properly, many people need to build up their soil with organic waste.

Fortunately, all three of these problems can solve each other, and there are already volunteers ready to help in your neighbourhood. They will work hard for you 24 hours a day without complaint, they are experts at turning kitchen waste into great soil and they work for free. They are worms.

We got a wormery for Christmas this year, and it came in an easy-to-assemble kit – the bin, a stand, an interior tray and – snug in a plastic bag with air holes – the worms. We lay them gently in the tray inside the bin, spread a bit of peaty earth, shredded newspaper and a bit of kitchen waste around them, and then let them settle in.

A medium-sized wormery can process several pounds of organic waste a day – that’s several pounds you don’t have to put in bins, wrap in plastic and put outside in the cold; that won’t take up space in the landfill; and that won’t worsen climate change.

When it’s cold my daughter and I wrap insulation around the bin and placed cardboard over the top to keep them warm, and they keep going. According to worm experts, they slow down below eight degrees Centigrade (46 Fahrenheit) and stop altogether below five degrees (41 Fahrenheit). The outside temperature can go five or ten degrees below that, however, and they can still be all right if the wormery is sufficiently insulated. If you live where it regularly goes below freezing in the winter, you can bring it inside or into the shed – a well-maintained wormery should not smell foul.

A few things are not suitable for the worms. They don’t like high-protein dishes like meat, cheese or beans, acidic waste like citrus peels, too much grass, or pet poo. A little bit of these things can be okay, but not much. Most wormeries also come with an alkali powder of some kind in case the compost gets too acidic, and I'm told that seaweed, crushed eggshells or fireplace ash will also help. You can tell if it starts to smell or if you see tiny, threadlike worms. The worms – called potworms in Britain – are harmless themselves, but an indication of a problem.

One nice thing about a wormery bin is that most have a valve at the base for draining excess water. The liquid is called “worm tea,” and is about the colour of tea – dilute it and use it to water your plants.

Ordinary composting, however, has some disadvantages that every gardener knows well. One can’t simply add bones or meat – and some gardeners even avoid eggshells – for fear of attracting vermin. Also, plants that have gone to seed cannot be added, or the resulting soil will be peppered with the beginning of next year’s weeds. You can’t add diseased plants, or the diseases might remain in the resulting soil, ready to infect next year’s crops. Also, it takes a long time, and one loses much of the kitchen waste volume in the process of rotting down.

If you have enough waste, you might also try a different kind of composting, enough to heat all the hot water of your house. Called the “Berkeley Method,” it involves adding the right combination of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials, and flipping it occasionally to give it enough oxygen – which grows kinds of bacteria that generate heat. This “hot composting,” generates too much heat for worms. That’s for another column, but something you should look into.

Saturday 6 April 2024

Living with animals


Virtually all our ancestors had a working relationship with animals of some kind, in any era and culture, until historically yesterday. Before we began using machines for everything, animals were the literal horsepower that carried us, the teeth that guarded us, the wings and legs that helped us hunt and fish, the oldest and most faithful of companions, lovingly nursed to life and to health. They were also, without contradiction, meat and milk and eggs and blood and life for oursleves and our children.

Many modern people treat cats and dogs as the babies they will never have, and I see first-time riders try to control horses as they do dead machines. Animals, though, are beings with their own personalities and goals, if not the words to express them.

Animals will not be measured by us,” wrote Henry Beston in his memoir The  Outermost House. “They move through a world older and more complete than ours, as finished products, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or have never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren or underlings, they are other nations, caught with us in the net of life and time, fellow creations of God and bound to the exalted Earth.”

Farmers had to be midwives, to monitor when their lamb or calf was due, help deliver, coax milk from the mother and stay with her all night -- and until electricity came in, to do all this by touch in darkness. Boland remembers sitting with his pig all night helping it give birth – which he looked forward to, as he got to skip school. Farmers trusted a man who knew animals; when he was stringing electicity cables across Ireland, John Fitzpatrick got a farmer to agree to let them cross his land when Fitzpatrick rolled up his sleeves and helped deliver a calf.

Even in the middle of the city, people had their own farmyard animals. Christy Conville said that across Dublin many back gardens housed a pig, and many had cows and hens. “I wish to stress again the ‘farm’ atmosphere of our whole district,” wrote Paddy Crosbie. “The only unusual things about the farmyard which joined onto the house in which I was born are that it was in ... Dublin, and there was no farm to go with it,” wrote Patrick Boland. Cattle were driven to market in Dublin “by cowboys on bicycles, men with overcoats and hats, furiously pedalling this way and that, whacking the cattle with their sticks and shouting at them,” Gene Kerrigan said.

Backyard animals not only gave each household meat for the year and money for selling the extra meat, but also rid the community of rubbish; “float cars were a common sight in the streets as boys or young men went from house to house looking for slop for the pigs,” Crosbie said.

With food waste, we have two sane choices; to pile it up in a compost bin and let micro-organisms decompose it naturally into soil, which we can then use to grow new crops in a garden. The even better option is to feed it to animals that will eat it and convert it into meat and animal waste; Britons did this in World War II as a national duty, and we could do so again. 

There is also one insane choice: We could transform precious sources of fuel like coal and oil into plastic, wrap the food waste in plastic to cut off all oxygen, and throw it into a pit. The chemicals in the plastic will break down over thousands of years, gradually poisoning the groundwater, and the food waste cannot decompose in the normal way, by oxygen-breathing micro-organisms. Instead, it will gradually be eaten by micro-organisms called methanogens, which release methane, one of the worst greenhouse gases. You won’t be surprised to find that this is exactly what our modern culture does; again, we split an elegant cycle into multiple problems.

Modern suburbanites might be alarmed at the idea of having livestock in their yards, but that’s what yards were for originally, when people expected to provide for themselves. As Ireland modernised, Conville said, new laws forced urban families to get rid of their animals, citing public hygiene. Yet when they had animals, Conville said, “they were getting organic meat, and you were getting it fresh. You knew the pig and where it came from; it wasn’t from Argentina or anything like that, it was from your own neighbourhood.”

Friday 29 March 2024

The Hidden Potential of Bicycles


In perhaps one of the great ironies of human civilisation, mechanical devices to truly magnify human power came along as soon as we didn’t need them.  Pedal-powered devices like bicycles only appeared after coal had already begun to transform the landscape, however – mass production was necessary for the standardised metal parts -- and around the same time that gasoline was first being introduced as a fuel for automobiles.

We tend to forget, then, three important things about the bicycle. First, it remains the most efficient method of using our bodies, allowing us to attain higher machine speeds for longer than we would on muscle power alone – and without using any more fuel or causing any more weather to go haywire.

The average modern person, by one calculation, spends more than 1,600 hours a year to pay for their cars, their insurance, fuel and repairs. We go to jobs partly to pay for the cars, and we need the cars mostly to get to jobs. We spend four of our sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering the resources for the car. Since the average modern American, by one estimate, travels 7,500 miles a year, and put in 1,600 hours a year to do that, they are travelling five miles per hour. Before people had cars, however, people managed to do the same – by walking.

By contrast, a person on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than a pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, a person outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well.

Bicycles have been used for so long as children’s toys and exercise equipment that we forget what useful technology they represent. They multiply our bodies’ speed and efficiency many times over, allowing us to travel miles without strain. Their widespread adoption in the late 19th century created a ripple of under-appreciated effects in society; for example, they allowed women to commute to jobs away from home and paved the way for the universal sufferage movement.  

Second, bicycles have seen many improvements in the last hundred years, most of which have escaped the notice of anyone but enthusiasts. Many of the bicycles we use today function mainly as toys, and racing bikes are built for speed; sturdier bicycles – often going under the name of “military bicycles” can still be ordered.

Most importantly, though, bicycles are only one of many possible pedal-powered machines that were not used for transportation. Beginning in the 19th century, factories began to make and stores to market treadles for manufacturing everything from cigars to brooms to hats. Farms used foot-powered harvesters, tractors, threshers, milking machines and vegetable bundlers, and machinists used pedal-powered drills.  

“…no matter how simple it seems to us today, pedal power could not have appeared earlier in history,” wrote Kris DeDecker in LowTech Magazine. “Pedals and cranks are products of the industrial revolution, made possible by the combination of cheap steel (itself a product of fossil fuels) and mass production techniques, resulting in strong yet compact sprockets, chains, ball bearings and other metal parts.”

Today, we have built a world that runs on fossil fuels, which won’t last forever;  eventually many of us will not be able to depend on familiar machines like cars and electronics - - either because we won’t be able to afford them, or to afford continually fixing them, or because fuel prices will be out of reach. One way or another, we will have to go back to muscle power, and the best way to do that is to revive the lost technologies of pedal-powered tools. The irony, though, is that we need to build them while we still have fossil fuels.

Perhaps more people around here will take to bicycles again, as I will now that there is enough light to get to the bus and back. Older people here remember when the bicycle was the most popular method for getting from one village to another, and the roads were safer then with so few cars. It’s possible that the schoolchildren of today will see those days again.